When telling early about donor conception is not always the right path to take

The default position these days is to advise parents to start telling their children the story of their donor conception from a very young age so that they will never remember a time when they didn’t know.  I have done this myself over and over at conferences and workshops and of course with individual and couple recipients of donated gametes and embryos. And usually that is the appropriate advice.  DC Network now has a zillion books for a huge variety of family and donation types that encourage all parents to – Tell early, Tell young.  But what if someone wholeheartedly believes this message and wants to do the right thing by her child but has not taken into account the culture in which the child is to be raised.  I talked with such a woman the other day.  She herself is from a very open society but since having conceived her double donation child she has married someone from a very closed culture and finds herself living in a community where donor conception is unknown but all members of the family are likely to be stigmatised and discriminated against should the child’s beginnings become known.  The woman – I’ll call her Laura – has started talking to her son but at just five he has only minimal understanding as yet.

As I was talking with Laura, it was Diane Ehrensaft’s wise words that were running through my head.  She is clear that there are only three reasons for not starting to tell when a child is young.  I’ll write them here as they appear in the Telling and Talking 0-7 book –

  1. Issues to do with the child’s ability to understand: a child with a significant learning or developmental problem may well not be able to take in information about his or her origins.
  2. Issues for the bond between parent and child: for instance if a parent has been away from the child for a long time for any reason, re-building this relationship should come before ‘telling’.  Where parents are separating or divorcing, ‘telling’ should never be used as a threat to break a relationship between parent and child.  Unless children are at real risk of learning about their origins from someone other than a parent, telling should ideally only begin when both parents agree and the emotional climate has settled down.
  3. Issues for the child from outside the immediate family: if wider family members or those in the community are likely to reject a child conceived by donated sperm, eggs or embryos, then it may be difficult for a child to feel any sense of pride about their origins.  This situation can apply where a child is being brought up within a culture or faith that disapproves of donor conception.

Ehrensaft goes on to point out that parents need to be very honest with themselves when deciding to postpone telling their child.  Concerns that a child may be upset or confused by being ‘told’ can cover anxieties and fears that properly belong to the parent and are not really to do with the child at all.

But of course in Laura’s case she is enormously keen to be open with her son.  It is the culture and community in which he is being raised that is a threat to his potential ability to be proud of who he is and how he came to exist.

I talked with Laura about how she might respond to any questions her son raises given that she has already opened the issue of how he was made with him, helping to postpone the issue to a time when he is older but without giving him the impression that this is a subject that cannot be talked about.  We also spoke about child development and how children make a leap in brain development around the age of 8 that allows a much broader understanding of donor conception and many other things. This would be the time to really talk with her son as he would then be more able to grasp that some things are private to a family and not everybody needs to know or would understand.   How he receives the news at this time will depend partly on how Laura explains it to him but I have no doubt that she will do this well because she knows where to seek support and her central concern is her son’s well-being.

It is very pleasing that in the UK at least the message of Telling Early seems to be getting through, but there are problems with this position as it becomes seen as a rule that has to be followed without the context of a child’s (or the family’s) life being taken into account.  Also people worry that if they have missed that early window then ‘telling’ later may cause damage to the child.

I would like to say loudly and clearly that TELLING LATER CAN BE DONE WELL.  Even ‘telling’ when the child has become an adult can be done without lasting damage – although there will always be shock, issues of trust and a range of emotions to be negotiated with adults.

The worst time to ‘tell’ is probably teenage years, particularly 13 to 16, but even then it is better that a teenager learns of their origins from their parent(s) in a planned way rather than by accident or as a result of a row or family breakdown.

Sadly sometimes the Telling Early message is pushed too strongly with potential gamete or embryo recipients by well-meaning counsellors, possibly at a time when the whole idea of donor conception is new and strange.  It is certainly one of the implications of taking the decision to use donor conception that needs to be raised and discussed with potential recipients. However, subtlety and nuance are likely to achieve more in sowing the seeds of decision making that is in the interest of the child than pressured pep talks.  Luckily counsellors are listeners and are responding to the message to tone it down a bit when it comes to talking about ‘telling’ in implications counselling sessions.

Child development is always the key to sharing information with children, no matter what it is.  Where the child is in their development, rather than their age in years, taken together with the  context of the child’s life, will give parents the clues they need as to when to start telling and what language to use.  Also what they might expect from a child in terms of understanding and response.  Another variable is personality and level of curiosity.  Some children ask a lot of questions and others just do not.  Some live their life with face outward to the world and others turn inwards.  Tuning in to who your child really is, rather than what we as parents assume they are or want them to be, is always the right thing to do, whatever their age.

‘Laura’ has seen this blog and given her blessing to her session with me being written about.

Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Question and Building Strong Families by Diane Ehrensaft published by Guilford.

Telling and Talking 0-7, 8-11, 12up and 17+ by Olivia Montuschi and published by the Donor Conception Network dcnetwork.org

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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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