Is it OK for others to know about donor conception before a child understands?

It’s been a frustrating week.  My beloved iMac had to have a hard drive transplant and as I don’t own any other platforms I was left high and dry for five days, only retrieving emails from Walter’s old lap-top, which I hate.  Maybe time to reconsider my tech options.

Anyway, the computer gap left me with a bit more reading time which I happily filled with the book of the research I have blogged about several times before, Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception.  The insights gained in the in-depth interviews with members of lesbian and heterosexual couple families who have used donor conception are beyond anything I have ever come across before and should be enormously helpful in re-assessing both the policy and practice of the range of support that needs to be in place at every stage of the donor conception family journey…particularly before treatment takes place.

I will undoubtedly be blogging about many aspects of this research over the next weeks and months but I just wanted to start with something that struck me forcibly, and that is the tremendously mixed feelings and ambivalence that almost all the parents (and even more so grandparents) had about ‘telling’ their children about being donor conceived.  And ALL the families interviewed had declared that they felt it was right to be open with their children!  Knowing that it is the right thing to do and actually feeling comfortable about ‘telling’ are clearly two different things.  Of course I have known this historically, and felt it personally, but it is important to be reminded by this research that these feelings remain so strong, even for parents who have had their children in what feels like a very different era of openness.

And if they find the idea of telling their children difficult, then sharing the information with others seems to be even harder.  As experienced by DC Network, these researchers often found that parents were reluctant to tell other family members or those outside the family about the use of donor conception until the child had understood the information for him or herself.  The reason given for this is usually that it is information that belongs to the child and that they should have a say in who knows about it.  This all sounds very child centred and respectful of that person’s autonomy, but I think it can also reflect a state of mind in the parent where they feel the information to be divulged is so potentially explosive that their child will need to be aware of it’s full potential before being happy to reveal it to others.  In other words, the parents really think the information is explosive/damaging/dangerous they want to find a way of postponing the outside world finding out about it.  It is more to do with the way parents are feeling about the meaning of using donor conception than it is about the child.  As a parent myself I have sympathy with this.  We all want to hang on to our ‘normality’ as a family and needing to use donor conception strays from the conventional path.  As Nordquist and Smart say, “Donor conception families are the most recent of the new families and they are facing issues about whether they can fit in and look just like other families or whether they should embrace their difference whilst still insisting that they are perfectly proper families.”  I think we can do both, acknowledge our difference whilst at the same time being part of what is a very proper family, just part of an ever-widening spectrum of what the modern family looks like.  But it can take some time to reach this position.  In the meantime parents who do not share information with others about how their family was achieved risk feeling more and more awkward and uncomfortable about it and ‘losing the moment’ when sharing is natural and support for the future of the family is achieved.  I have written about this in the new DCN Telling and Talking with Friends and Family booklet (to buy or down-load from and reproduce the section here.

Telling others before the child understands

‘Potential or actual parents of donor conceived children very often wonder about whether they should or should not share information with others before the child is told.  Many parents assume that the child should ‘know’ first and that the child should then be able to say who else should be told.  This position feels very respectful of the child’s privacy and right to own this information but there are a number of problems with it. The first is the difficulty of trying to pin down when a child actually ‘knows’.  The telling process may begin from infancy but a child rarely really understands what it means before the age of seven or so, although children of solo mums often grasp it earlier.  It is unlikely that any child would be in a position to give their permission for others to be told until that sort of age.  A child may, however, use some of the language that comes from one of the donor conception story books or has been used by parents, long before this time.  If significant others have not been given information about the child’s conception then there is a risk that they will either not believe the child, react negatively or feel upset that they had not been trusted by parents with the information.

There are two further problems with not telling others until the child understands.  The first is that leaving it to children to share information as and when they feel appropriate may feel very burdensome for a child.  They may be able to parrot the language but still only have a rough grasp of what it all means.  They could also get the impression that this information is somehow more important than it should be, wondering why it is that others, particularly family members, don’t know.  A conclusion they could come to if others don’t know or they have to give permission for others to know, is that there is something odd or wrong about donor conception and therefore about them.  Additionally, it is also harder for parents to ‘tell’ the longer they have refrained from doing so, partly because they may be rusty with the language but also because it means admitting to misleading family members and friends over a long period.

Helen, who spoke at a DCN national meeting said –

“Am I worried that other people know about the egg donation before we told our girls?  No – as I think that if we wait to tell them before we ‘share’ with anyone else that this might imply it is a secret rather than the story of their life…Don’t get me wrong, I don’t shout from the rooftops “I have undergone egg donation” and I would never share information with people unless the conversation was going in that direction but I am a very open person when it comes to the journey that we have taken to get our very special children.”

 It is just possible that the argument that children should know first is sometimes used when parents are uncomfortable or reluctant to share information with others because of unresolved feelings they have about donor conception. If, on thinking about it more, you feel this applies to you, then it may be helpful to seek some support and/or counselling.  DC Network can help with this.

“Two of the greatest fears I had about telling others were that I would be sharing information that wasn’t mine to tell and that I would be judged for having children this way”  Amanda, mother to two donor-conceived children

Although this topic has never been researched, anecdotally DC Network has no evidence that young children mind others knowing about donor conception.  For them it is just part of their story and, as indicated above, they might find it odd if others did not know.  It can also be protective of children for important people in their lives, like teachers, to have a good understanding so that they can support a child if s/he chooses to speak in school about donor conception.  This is particularly important for children in lesbian, gay or single mother families where absence of a father (or having two fathers or two mothers) is a difference that is noticed and commented on by other children.

Of course as children get older – and this can be anywhere between eight and twelve, depending on individual development and temperament, the challenge is to decide, with your child, when the information becomes theirs to share as they choose, rather than yours to share in their interest.  For my family, and for many others, this happened at the secondary school transfer (age 11 to 12), with perhaps a period of parallel responsibility with regard to things like requests from doctors for information about family history.’

I’ll be back another time with more from –

Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception by Petra Nordqvist and Carol Smart: published by Palgrave McMillan. It’s a ‘must read’ for anyone who wants to understand more about lesbian and heterosexual couple donor conception families and how they negotiate the meaning of using a donor for family creation.


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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4 Responses to Is it OK for others to know about donor conception before a child understands?

  1. Vincent says:

    Wow, I am very much on your page. My wife has suggested I am too loose-lipped about my son being conceived by donor sperm, and my response has always been, “It’s how it happened, it’s not embarrassing or questionable, we’ve always told him, and there’s no reason to hide or lie about it.” And as one of your interviewees said, I am not advertising it or looking for ways to bring it up, but if it comes up in natural conversation then it does. I once had a guy at a party go on about how the heck does he have blonde hair; the first time I said the mailman because that is what I would have said if my son were biologically mine — but when he persisted, I said we had used a donor. Because if he were biologically mine and the guy had persisted, I would probably have said, “We have some blondes in the family so there is apparently a recessive gene” — but that would be a lie, and to me that would suggest some sort of embarrassment or stigma associated with the truth. Feeling none, I chose the truth. My son, at almost 8, has always known about his story and is frankly rather uninterested in it. I don’t see my telling people he was conceived with donor sperm any more a violation of his privacy than a bio parent telling someone their kid was conceived the more common way. The one thing I think I will leave for my son is whether, when and how, when he is older, to approach the donor. I did some investigation and successfully found the donor so that he has that possibility one day, but I don’t want to take action now that may close doors or set parameters that I think should be his to open or close or set.

    • oliviasview says:

      That’s great Vincent. Just be aware that from about eight/ten onwards some children like to be just the same as their friends and can, for a while, be reluctant for others to know about donor conception as it might make them appear different. If this happens, and it doesn’t for all DC kids, they usually emerge from this thinking around mid-teens.

      • Vincent says:

        Thanks. I doubt any of his friends know (it doesn’t really come up much even in talking with adults, just like “we had sex to make our kid” doesn’t, and certainly not in talking to other kids). But we are coming up on 8 in a couple of months, so I am glad to be forewarned. I really want to be sensitive to any issues surrounding his conception should he ever care. So far he is much more interested in Percy Jackson stories though. And Legos of course.

    • marilynn says:

      Huh. Well I actually have to say that being forthright about it does mean that you are comfortable with who the kid is as a person and the fact that he has relatives that are not yours. Good for you.

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