Q: I would very much appreciate your advice. We have twins, four years old, conceived using an anonymous donor’s eggs. We have always felt that they should be told the truth about how they were conceived. I would be very grateful for any advice you would have for us. Is it still felt that it is best to tell the children how they were conceived, even though they will never be able to trace the donor? At what age is it best to begin to tell children? Are there any books/web resources available that would help in this process? While I appreciate that this situation may not be applicable to many of your readers, it would be great if you had the time to answer our question.
A: While it is of course a personal decision, generally the best advice is that children should be told about their origins and if they were conceived as the result of an egg or sperm donation. While historically many people recommended children not being told, perhaps in fear of the judgmental reactions from other people or a worry that such information might make the child feel insecure in the family, research into the experiences of adults conceived with donor assistance does not support this view.
In fact, many studies show the reverse – that children told positively about their origins feel well adjusted and secure about the fact. Indeed, most experts highlight the rights of children to know their genetic origin as they grow up and the problems of children finding out the “secret” later which can be more disruptive to them.
In addition, thankfully there has been a shift culturally and there is much more widespread acceptance and support for assisted means of conception.
Once you make the decision to tell your children, it is important to take time to prepare yourself to tell and the first step is to make sure you feel comfortable about doing this. For example, thinking about telling could bring up your own unresolved feelings about having children conceived by assisted means. If this is the case, make sure to seek counselling to think through these issues.
However, if you feel comfortable in your own mind and are happy to tell your children, then you are ready. The second step is to make sure that other key people in the child’s life also know. If you have not done so already, you may need to talk to children’s grandparents or other close family members who your children might talk to about it.
For some parents this can be the hardest part, as they might not feel comfortable about family members knowing these private details or fear that they might view their child differently. Usually this is not the case, and though some grandparents might be unsure about using non-traditional means of conception, usually this is temporary and they become supportive once they understand the issues.
In telling your twins, the general advice is to start as early as possible so it becomes a natural and normal conversation between you. There is a danger if you delay it that it might become a bigger issue to tell and thus harder to have the conversation. It is also important to match your information according to your children’s age and level of understanding.
The goal is to integrate this information into the normal way that any parent might tell a child about their birth story or their origins. For example, if a young child asks, how a baby is made a parent might first reply that “the baby grows in Mummy’s tummy” and then later explain how this “starts from an egg from Mummy and a seed from Daddy”.
In your situation, if your children ask, you might say “Mummy and Daddy needed help having a baby, so we went to a special clinic and got an egg from a kind lady which was mixed with Daddy’s seed and then placed in Mummy’s tummy by a doctor. Then you grew as a big bump in Mummy’s tummy before you were born and we were all very happy.”
The key in any explanation is your tone of voice – you want to communicate the information in a matter-of-fact positive way so your child feels comfortable and can ask questions as they need to. It is a good idea to rehearse what you might say and to think of different questions your twins might ask so you can think through your responses.
Of course, it is important to remember that this is an ongoing conversation with your children that you will revisit many times as they want more information as they grow older. It is also useful to check at different times that they have understood the information correctly, as young children can misunderstand what you say. For example. they may think you have met the donor, and you need to remind them that only the doctor at the clinic met her, but you know some details about her.
As well as responding to your children’s questions, there may be times that you want to bring up the subject yourself and check in with what they understand and what they are feeling.
There are also excellent child-centred books that you can read with young children about the whole subject such as Our Story published by the Donor Conception Network.
One of the anxieties parents have when they tell is about how the child might tell other children or adults about being conceived by a donor egg. As discussed, this is why it is important to let other people close to them know so they can respond appropriately. As they get older, you can discuss with your children how they might talk to other children and adults about their origins. Sometimes it is appropriate to tell teachers so they can understand how to help and sometimes teachers do whole class sessions on how families are different and how babies are born in lots of different ways.
Finally, do seek more support and information about the subject. There are some excellent resources and parent forums online including those at donor-conception-network.org, which publishes an excellent 25-page booklet on talking to children.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, March 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.