So you are the parent of a terrific, wonderful, practically perfect in every way child brought to you by the wonders of third party reproduction. You had planned on telling your child about how she came to be, really you did, but somehow it just never happened. Or maybe you never planned on telling your child, but have now changed your mind. The problem is that your child is 8, or 12, or 16 and how in the world do you drop that bomb after having been silent for so long. Is it too late?
Nope, it’s not too late. Not sure this gives you much comfort, but you’re not alone. I thought it was interesting that all the questions we received for the Creating a Family show this week on telling children about their conception from donor egg, sperm, or embryo came from parents of tweens and teens who had not told when their children were younger, and now were wondering how to start the conversation. (You can read the highlights of the show here or listen/download it here.)
Some parents simply don’t think this information is relevant and never intend to tell. However, most folks don’t make the conscious decision to absolutely never tell their child that they were conceived with donor gametes or embryo. It just kind of happens. Maybe they told their child about the medical part (Mommy had something that wasn’t working right, and went to a wonderful doctor, who fixed it, and then we got you), but somehow never get around to the donor part. Or perhaps they want to wait until the right time—and by “right” they mean the time that they can sit down, tell it all with perfect clarity on their part and perfect understanding on their child’s part, and be done with it once and for all. I get it. (If I had my druthers that’s how all conversations that are remotely connected to sex would happen with my kids.) But then all of a sudden they notice that their precious innocent toddler is now sprouting facial hair and slamming doors. “Hummm, maybe I should have said something sooner.”
When our kids are young, this omission doesn’t feel like a lie, but that often changes as our kids get older. One person on yesterday’s show squirmed when her 13 year old learned about genetic traits in school and wondered why she couldn’t roll her tongue when both her parents could. Others start to get uncomfortable when they have to fill out a medical history form, and know full well that it isn’t the truth. Or maybe your sister asks about the donor after all these years, when you felt sure she had forgotten. Or you and your husband have a near miss car wreck, and after the initial wave of relief passes, you realize that the donor information in the lock box would be discovered by your family and child. Oh dear.
It’s never too late. Yes, it may be more complicated and uncomfortable, but it is most assuredly never too late, regardless if your little darling is neither little nor darling any more. Here are some suggestions for initiating “the talk” with older kids and adolescents.
- Telling at any age is a process, not a one (or even two) time event. Don’t dump everything you know in the first conversation. Add some detail and see if you get any questions.
- If you’ve told your child about the medical part (IVF) of his conception story, use that as a jumping off place. Add more detail of the type of help you needed. (Ex. We tried getting the typical help from the specialized doctors, but even that didn’t work for us. We really really wanted you, so we had to get even more help. Fortunately, we were able to find someone….)
- Don’t make this a “come into the den and sit down for this all important conversation” type of talk. Try to find an opportunity to fit it naturally into the conversation. If you still read to your child at night, check out some of the books we list on our Suggested Books for Talking With Children about Third Party Reproduction page. There are not many books geared for the older ages, so you may have to read a book written for a younger child. Acknowledge this by saying, “This seemed kind of babyish, but I still liked it and thought you might kind of enjoy it too.” Then leave the book in the child’s room for him to read on his own if he is curious.
- Language matters. The generous person who gave their egg, sperm, or embryo is the donor, not the mom or dad.
- Don’t overplay or underplay the importance of this information. Genes matter even if you wish they didn’t. Some traits and medical conditions are hereditary, true enough. However, many traits and medical conditions are also influenced by the environment. I can’t recommend enough two great Creating a Family shows we’ve done on Nature vs. Nurture. (Nature vs. Nurture/ Genetics vs. Environment and Is Genetics or the Environment Most Important in Determining Who Our Kids Will Be?) Genetics and environment are so beautifully intertwined that I am left in awe each time I listen to these shows.
- Look for opportunities to bring up this subject again. Yes, I said “again”, as in you will need to do this often enough to share all that you know and to give your child a chance to ask questions after she’s had time to process and mature into a greater understanding. If your eyes are open there are lots of possibilities. For example:
- You are so good at sports. I wonder if your donor was too and maybe that’s where you get that talent from.
- That TV show was about two half siblings through donor sperm meeting and dating. Is this something you’ve ever worry about?
- If your child is a teen or older tween, you may need to explain why you waited to share this information with them. It’s OK to say you wanted to wait until they were old enough to understand. If you regret having waited, share that as well.
- You can’t control the way your child will react. Part of not telling almost always involves lying—ether explicitly or by omission. Depending on your child’s temperament and developmental stage, they may be angry or hurt. You have to allow space for these emotions.
- You can’t control who your child tells. This is ultimately your child’s story. Yes, you played a starring role, but they are center stage. Be very careful when trying to strike the privacy vs. secrecy balance. It’s OK to encourage discussion of this topic inside the family, but if you over emphasize this point, you leave the impression that there is something wrong or shameful about how this precious being came to be. That is NOT what you want.
- Make sure you explicitly leave the door open for them to ask more questions. You may think it’s implied, but your kid has likely picked up on the fact that you are uncomfortable with this topic, so she needs to know that you expect more questions, and you can and will man-up (or woman-up) to the occasion.
I was so impressed with Patricia Mendell’s advice on the Creating a Family show this past week. She’s one wise lady. I also found out after the show that she has the most extensive book lists for children and adults that I have seen. She is going to share them with us, and we’ll incorporate them into our Suggested Children’s Books for Explaining Third Party Reproduction and Suggested Books for Adults to Read to Prepare for Telling pages. In the meantime, I recommend these articles she’s written.
You might enjoy our Top Ten Tips for Telling Children About Donor Egg, Sperm, and Embryo.