After deciding to use donor eggs or donor sperm, the most pressing question parents-to-be have is, “Should we tell our child about his/her donor conception?” Those that are planning to tell wonder how their children will react and what is the best way to have the conversation.
Disclosing the use of donor egg or sperm is an intensely personal decision and one that only you can make for your family. While a few parents know with confidence that they are going to tell (or not tell) their child, most fall somewhere in the middle. It is highly recommended that parents planning to use donor eggs or donor sperm meet with a psychologist trained in third party reproduction to talk through their own personal and family circumstances and to come up with a plan about whether and how to talk with their child and others.
While family building through donor conception has a history of secrecy, most mental health professionals agree that the benefits to parents and children of being open about donor conception far outweighs any negatives.
Do most parents via donor conception tell their children?
There seems to be a shifting tide in the decision for parents to be open with their child about donor conception. Rates of disclosure are on the rise. While studies conducted in the 1990s and early 2000’s show the vast majority of parents planning not to disclose, more recent studies show a trend towards more openness with roughly half of parents planning to disclose.
The American Society of Reproductive Medicine supports disclosure, stating in 2013, “Because of each person’s fundamental interest in knowing their genetic heritage and the importance of their ability to make informed health care decisions in the future, the Ethics Committee supports disclosure about the fact of donation to children. “ – ASRM 2013
Why do some parents choose to disclose and others do not?
Parents who choose to disclose the truth about donor conception to their children do so for a number of reasons. Among the reasons given, parents state:
- They want to prevent their child from finding out accidentally. Parents want to be able to control how and when their child’s story is revealed, and not worry about the child finding out accidentally through technological advances or hearing it from someone else who knows (Lycett et al, 2005).
- They desire to have openness with their child. Parents reporting this reason note that they want to be open and truthful with their child, want to avoid secrets, and believe that a child has a right to know about their conception and genetics (Lycett et al, 2005).
Parents who choose not to disclose to their child the truth about donor conception cite two main reasons for secrecy.
- They feel that there is no need to disclose. They report that the information is irrelevant to the child, has more to do with the parent than the child, and they desire to feel like a “normal” family.
- They report a desire to protect either the child or the non-genetic parent. They worry that the child would be upset or feel alienated from other children, would not understand, or would be upset at not being able to know more about the donor (in anonymous donations) (Lycett et al., 2005).
Oftentimes, the decision not to disclose comes from a place of fear. Parents fear the reactions of the child, the non-genetic parent, and others who may find out. What will my child think? Will they feel differently about me? Will other people treat them differently? What if they want to know more about the donor and I have nothing to tell them?
What does the research say?
The good news is that research has started to be conducted on families built through donor conception and has shown promising results. Studies show secure, loving attachment between the parents and their children, the children are just as psychologically healthy as children conceived naturally.
While studies are limited in reporting the experiences of parents who choose to disclose, they show that the majority of parents who have told their children about donor conception report that the conversation went well and they did not regret telling their children (Lycett et al., 2005). Another, larger, study of 141 married couples found none of the parents regretted having told their child about his/her donor conception and most expressed relief that they had started the disclosure process (Mac Dougall et al., 2007).
By and large, children respond to this information with curiosity, indifference, and neutrality. It does not appear to rock their sense of themselves and their family.
When to tell?
Parents that plan to tell are mostly divided into two camps: those planning to tell early so that the child has “always known” and those that plan to wait until the child is old enough to understand (adolescence and adulthood). I recommend telling early. Very early. If you wait until your child is older, they will have to “undo” the assumption of genetic relatedness. Additionally, an older child will understand more about biology and genetics and will therefore have more information and implications to process all at once. When a child learns early, instead, they learn their story piece by piece and are not overwhelmed with everything at once. Additionally, if you start when your child is a baby, you’ll have more opportunities to practice your story and to become comfortable with your family story. Telling early also appears to assuage some of the anxiety for parents of having the disclosure talk.
There is reason to believe that it is emotionally easier for the child to adjust to the idea of donor conception at younger ages. Some people worry that their child will not understand at first. However, even very young children can understand and feel how wanted they were and that their parents got special help from a doctor and a donor.
Although there appear to be benefits to telling early, It is never too late to have the conversation. There is no right or wrong time.
How to tell
Parents who feel more comfortable with their story and are confident in their plans about how to talk to their children are more likely to follow through with their plans to be open with their children. I offer individual and group workshops to help parents think through how best to have these conversations with their children and to devise a plan for opening and continuing the conversation.
I offer recipient consults (either individually or in groups) where we cover these issues and more.
We cover the biggest questions most recipients have and address individual fears. We talk about how to have those conversations with your children and help you to plan for any bumps in the road. How will the story change over time as your child develops cognitively and emotionally? How do you handle information sharing with friends and family? What types of questions might your child have for you? I provide resources and help you to develop your story. This is a great resource for families in all stages of donor conception, from those considering donor conception, to those actively trying to conceive, to families whose children have already been born.
Individual sessions can be scheduled at any time. Workshops are offered monthly. There is also a special session of the workshop that is offered specifically for single women pursuing parenthood through donor conception.
Join us for the next Workshop or schedule an individual consult today! The next general recipient workshop is Wednesday, October 5th from 6pm-8pm. There is a special session scheduled for Choice Moms (single mothers by choice) scheduled for October 26th from 6pm-8pm. Visit my website for more information: www.RyanWBlazeiPhD.com
Dr. Ryan Blazei is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Cary, NC. She is a member of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and counsels on infertility and family building options. Dr. Blazei can be reached at [email protected], (919) 720-1452, or www.RyanWBlazeiPhD.com. She also facilitates a free drop-in support group on the second Wednesday of every month from 7pm-8pm in the lobby of Carolina Conceptions. All are welcome to attend.