I recall exactly when we started telling our eldest DI conceived child about his conception. He was four years old and we were on holiday in France. He crept into our bed one morning and started asking about how babies grow and where they come from. I took a very deep breath and launched in on a semi-prepared speech about babies being made with a sperm from a daddy and an egg from a mummy, but that sometimes daddies needed to borrow sperm from another man. The term ‘borrow’ seems very odd today but we had taken this language from the only book available at that time to help parents with the task of sharing donor conception information, Robert Snowden’s The Gift of a Child, first published in 1984.
From that day on, regularly and when an appropriate ‘hook’ to hang information on occurred, we would repeat and elaborate on the story of how we added to our family (I already had a son from my first marriage). Will’s younger sister Zannah picked up the information by association and apparent osmosis, although she did need some clarifications as she clearly thought that I had met ‘the nice man’ Daddy had borrowed some sperm from. But it wasn’t really until the book My Story arrived in our house when the children were 8 and 5 that the penny dropped and Will started asking many more questions. When I later studied child development I understood that the brain makes a developmental leap at this sort of age, allowing a child to understand concepts and information in a more sophisticated way, so it was not surprising that donor conception had not been fully understood until this point. What was clearly true for both children, and we checked this out with them later, was that neither recalled ever having been ‘told’ about how they came into the family. They accepted the information as simply part of their story, and have continued to do so without problem.
When the five families who started DC Network (then DI Network) came together in 1992/3, it was clear from talking to the others that they had shared the instinct that starting to ‘tell’ early was going to be most helpful for their children. Subsequent exploration showed that this was supported by research with adoptive families. DC Network has never had any reason to doubt that telling as a process, started under age 5, by parents who are comfortable and confident with their decisions, is the way that children integrate the information most easily. But some parents get stuck. The reasons for this are rarely completely clear but can be rooted in some sense of shame and stigma from one parent or the other and/or a deep fear of rejection by an adored, often only child. Their intentions are often very good but years pass, the child becomes 7, 8 or 9 and parents, often full of anxiety and aware of the recommended starting age of under 5, wonder if they have now left it too late.
To my mind there is no such thing as too late. Starting under five is ideal. Parents get used to the language in stages and children don’t remember a time when they didn’t know. At seven, eight or above, particularly if they have never talked with anyone about DC, parents may be rusty and awkward in their style and language, BUT good preparation including practice with what they are going to say and strong motivation in knowing this is the right thing to do, can overcome a lot. DC Network is always happy to give personal support and guidance to parents who feel they could do with some help or to refer to counsellors or other well-informed support organisations.
Even telling for the first time in early teenage years can be done well if this is the time that parents have a strong incentive or motivation to do it, prepare themselves well and recognise that they may have to go through some rocky moments. Developmentally it’s not a great time. Young people are beginning to separate from parents, identify much more strongly with peers and generally question everything. Having what can feel like having the rug pulled from under their feet…because of course they need parents to be strong and solid to push against at this time…is not ideal. It can be done, but best before adolescence kicks in…or possibly leave till late teenage years, but this is more controversial.
And what about much later on? Over the last couple of years Walter and I have been having an increasing number of peer support sessions with couples who, in their middle age, have come to the conclusion that their DC children should be told about their beginnings. Without exception they are thoughtful people, often very successful in their own careers and with children between about 18 and 30 whom they love dearly. There are differences in each family’s story but what is true for them all is a realisation of how wrong secrecy about donor conception has been – they were all told by their clinics not to tell – and a wish to respect their children by being open with them now. The fear they all share is that of turmoil, change in the often extremely good relationships they have and ultimately rejection. Again, good preparation is the key. They cannot prepare their children for the revelation but they can prepare themselves. The principles of this preparation are given in the Telling and Talking booklet 17+ (available from DC Network as a download or printed booklet) but all the couples we have seen have enjoyed the reassurance and support of talking about their dilemma face to face with people who are also DC parents, albeit those who defied the advice and told early. Walter and I have admired their willingness to re-visit old losses and sorrows (an important part of the preparation) and put themselves through a deeply uncomfortable time for the benefit of their adult children. It takes courage to do this.
So the answer to the question in the title, ‘Does it matter when you tell’ is both yes and no. Starting early means less difficulty and discomfort for both parents and children. Getting the first words out, at whatever age, is rarely easy but once started there is always a hook to hang further information on and children don’t remember the early stuff anyway. Leaving it till later comes with some risks but, at the risk of boring you, preparation is definitely the way to go and that’s where all four of the Telling and Talking booklets come in. Not that just reading a book can make everything alright. It can’t…but they are designed to give confidence to parents and provide the structural bones and language to help parents do what feels right in their family. And for those in the UK there are Preparation for DC Parenthood and Telling and Talking workshops held regularly by DC Network.
Does Will remember that first conversation in France? I know he doesn’t but we certainly do!