What to tell donor-conceived children about their origins is an important issue, faced by many single women and same-sex couples like Lisa and Angie. The Donor Conception Network is a UK based organisation that acts as a support network for parents and their children who’ve been conceived through donor insemination. They say that openness about the child’s conception from as early an age as possible is vital to the wellbeing of the child. This supports a number of other recent studies that have found that the earlier the child is told, the better.
Many parents in same-sex relationships, for reasons of honesty as well as having no visible father, do resolve to tell their children how they were conceived. Still, this can feel like a daunting task. What’s the right age to tell? What exactly do we say? How do you answer your preschooler’s question, ‘Have I got a dad?’
It’s important to remember that telling children is not a once off task but a process that continues through the child’s development. It’s vital that parents create an atmosphere, right from the start, where the subject is an open one where children feel that questions can be asked and their knowledge around their conception gradually built.
You might consider telling the story of your child’s origins from as early as babyhood or when they are toddlers in the form of bedtime stories. The advantage of early telling is that from the beginning it is a ‘normal’ topic within the family. It also gives parents a chance to get comfortable with the topic: you have time to practise your conversations with your child.
The Sperm Bank of California is one of the leaders in research on the impact of donor insemination on families and children. Their advice is to always keep the information simple and honest. They say, ‘In the early years, the emphasis should be on “who our family is” of belonging and being loved.’ Something along the lines of: Mommy and mommy fell in love and really wanted to start a family. But we couldn’t have a baby on our own. You need a man and a woman to make a baby. So we went to a clinic where a kind man helped by giving us sperm or seeds so mommy could have a baby. The man who helped us is called a donor.
The older child
As a child’s understanding of family, reproduction and birth, and social relationships increases, so will their understanding of their donor conception. They’ll need to have their stories repeated because they will focus on different aspects of it at different developmental stages.
For example, when preschoolers become aware of their bodies, gender differences, pregnancy, and birth, how conception took place can be discussed in a bit more detail. Another important aspect of discussing your child’s beginnings needs to include a look at what it means to be a parent. It might be useful to stress that ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are relationships that are formed by the everyday caring for one another and creating a sense of belonging and protection. Defining family will be helpful to your child in understanding the difference between a sperm donor and a father. It might also be helpful for your child to know that there are thousands of other children in the world who are conceived in this way.
Research suggests that although it is tempting to refer to the donor as the child’s father or biological father, it is better to use the word ‘donor’. While the donor’s connection to your child can be important to you or your child, it should not be confused with someone who is an active parent in the family.
Your own feelings
As you embark on the journey of telling your child, deal with your feelings. Any secrecy or shame about the conception, or shame about your sexual orientation should ideally be worked through. Children will pick up on your cues of whether there is a side of you that feels there is something wrong about being conceived this way. It is vital to work through these issues to ensure that you truly create an openness and willingness to talk about your child’s conception.
Being brought up in a two-mom, or two-dad household will feel normal to your child, if there is no secrecy or shame around it. As your child grows up and comes across other children who don’t understand your family structure, your child needs to feel safe in the knowledge that his or her family is valid and respected. Be open to questions and discussions on the topic. Conversations around different family structures, love and belonging will be relevant here.
How do you explain to your child the ways in which your family is different from others?