Does it matter when you tell?

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!


About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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7 Responses to Does it matter when you tell?

  1. Pingback: Telling In Context | Related Topics

  2. marilynn says:

    We have gone round about this before but I’ll try asking again: Being open about who a person is not related to leaves the remaining question of who they are related to. I’ve read on lots of fertility blogs where women decided not to tell because the child would not be able to locate their genetic parent or genetic parent’s relatives. It is sad those women are not at least willing to be open and honest about who the child is not related to genetically. They do have control over telling the children at least that much of the truth.

    Clearly not being able to tell the child who their relatives are at the same time puts the person telling in a bit of a pickle especially if they had a hand in sequestering the child from all those relatives. I’ve read women talking about it on Fertility Friends and if not being able to give them information about all their relatives is preventing them from disclosing the truth to the children, I’d think tackling that issue would be right up your alley. You said before your phamplets don’t deal with the fact that much information will remain hidden from them until 18 or maybe longer and its very likely that they will never be able to identify all of their genetic siblings even if they do meet their genetic parent and get to know all their genetic cousins, aunts uncles grandparents etc. I’d think it would be important to acknowledge to the person that of course knowing who those relatives are is important to their health and to their children not just for the sharing of medical information but in order not to date their immediate relatives unless they want to and of course hopefully to avoid them and their future children from inbreeding with relatives living nearby. Once you acknowledge that knowing those people is important to their health and the health of their relatives and all their future offspring then how do you respond to questions about why it was necessary to keep them from knowing one another?

    I get that all that is a furball so much so that many people just would rather not tell at all. I’d really look forward to seeing you work it into your guides on telling and talking its the elephant in the room and I think the real source of distress if there is any expressed. I know concern is not always expressed, but it seems when it is it has nothing to do with how well they were raised or their love for the people raising them but rather that giant group of relatives they are not allowed to know anything about. It should be a comfort to people raising donor offspring that the angst centers in my experience around the denial of rights to be part of their genetic families rather than feeling the social parents are not good enough. They all love them very much in my friend’s cases.

    • oliviasview says:

      Marilynn – I find it very difficult to take you seriously when you use provocative and unnecessarily dramatic language such as… “especially if they had a hand in sequestering the child from all those relatives”. This is NOT what parents by donor conception do. I’m not going to comment any further.

      • marilynn says:

        Show me how to make my same point with words that won’t offend you. Explain the roll commissioning parties play in keeping the child separate from all of their relatives in a way that is more to your liking. I want to write in a way that you feel is respectful otherwise You won’t answer my questions.

  3. This subject is an important discussion. I remember when I was considering getting pregnant, and the thoughts I had about how my child might feel about being conceived in such a way. I wrote a post about my son’s query about the donor, which occurred when he was eight. I’d given him opportunities to discuss it before that but he always refused. Sometimes things don’t have to be complicated. My son reminds me of this on a daily basis. My post is on my blog, and is entitled “That Guy”.

  4. oliviasview says:

    When a couple or a single woman find that they need the help of a donor to make their family, they are thinking about the creation of their own small family unit. There is no question whatsoever of deliberately keeping the donor’s family out of the picture or separating any child they have from their genetic relatives. These thoughts don’t really enter the picture and psychologically I don’t think they can at this point. It is just not possible to ask people who are desperate to have a child to think about the people their child isn’t going to be able to know when they can barely contemplate that they might be able to have the child they long for at all. At DC Network we often find it hard to help people keep the child in mind in any way…let alone thinking about all the donor’s relatives. DC Network supported the ending of anonymity in the UK because we believed it was right that donor conceived people should have a right to know more about or contact their donor from age 18 if they chose to do so. Primary emotional and social relationships are with their parents (both genetic and non-genetically connected) and their relatives on both sides of the family. So yes, I am saying that they are related to people they are not genetically connected to. It is up to DC people themselves to decide whether or not they consider their donor and his or her family to be their relatives. These are people they are genetically linked to but with whom they have no social connection or emotional relationship that has been established through knowing each other and living together. Of course in order to make the choice about whether their donor and his family are relatives or not, DC people have to know about their conception…hence DC Network’s focus on early telling (see original post). I think some of the problems you and I have in talking to each other is that you believe in the primacy of genetic connections and I believe in the primacy of social and emotional relationships. These can sometimes meet but are often different discourses.

  5. A donated child says:

    Thank you

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