I recently created a resource to support those using a donor to conceive in talking to family and friends, with advice for loved ones on what it means and how they can best offer emotional support. One the the topics covered was ‘why is there a need to talk to the child?‘
Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that being honest with our children is something I advocate for from an early age, a topic I share our own personal experiences of, as a way to give confidence and support to others.
I was honoured last year to have the opportunity to interview Dr Marilyn Crawshaw, a researcher into the outcomes of donor assisted conception treatments, in a Paths to Parenthub webinar all about talking to our children in the younger years. Marilyn has vast amounts of professional experience within this field, researching and speaking with many families through donor conception. She recently very kindly answered a few common questions about talking to our children for my family and friends Paths to Parenthub resource. Her responses were so succinct, important and powerful that I’ve decided to share them here as a DefiningMum blog post, one that is easy to share with others who may wish to understand more.
Times are changing, but some people may still wonder why there is a need to even tell a donor-conceived child how they were conceived, why it’s important if they already have a family who love them, and whether it might do more harm than good to know that they don’t share genes with one, or both, of their parents.
Whether these are questions you are asking yourself, discussing with your partner or are questions you’re facing when talking to others, hopefully this will provide some compelling answers, based on research into lived experiences, from Dr Marilyn Crawshaw.
Will it harm the child to know how they were conceived?
All the evidence so far suggests that children are not harmed by knowing how they were conceived. In fact it’s more likely to be harmful for them not to know, especially if they find out later in an unplanned way. Children can be very matter of fact about such information, especially if those around them feel comfortable about talking with them about it.
“Often it’s the deception, not the conception, that is problematic”
– Marilyn Crawshaw
Will the child reject their parents if they know about their origins?
No. Relationships between parents who have used a donor and their children are usually very strong if they are open about the facts. This is true even as the child grows up. If everything is out in the open, parents don’t have to worry about how to keep it a secret so can concentrate more freely on enjoying family relationships.
It’s worth knowing that some children can be very curious about the donor, but that doesn’t mean they’re wanting them as their Mum or Dad! And it may come as no surprise to hear that there may be turbulent patches, usually short-lived, when teenagers experiment with saying their parents are not their ‘real’ parents, especially when being asked to do something they don’t like! It’s all part of growing up.
If the decision was not to tell them, will they ever find out?
There’s always the risk that the secret will be uncovered at some point. Perhaps in an argument; through overhearing adults talking; by someone else telling them that the parent had told in confidence in and so on.
More recently there’s another way that children can find out. In the last few years there’s been a big rise in commercial DNA testing all over the world. That growth is expected to continue. Nowadays, anyone can buy a testing kit relatively cheaply and send it off. People are finding genetic ‘relatives’ or are being traced by genetic relatives, even if they haven’t themselves taken a test. So in the lifetime of anyone born today, the likelihood of them finding out that they were donor-conceived is growing rapidly and parents have little or no control over this.
So it’s much better to talk openly with children from the start so that they don’t find out another way.
When is a good age to tell children about being donor conceived?
Understandably, some parents assume they should wait until their child is older before talking with them, perhaps thinking they need to know at least the basics of how babies are made or about sex. That’s not the case.
Both research and what we know from child development suggest it’s much easier for the child in the long run if they grow up always knowing the story of their origins rather than having to get their heads round a new story later on. Of course the language used needs to be very simple in the beginning and added to bit by bit as they get older. There’s some really good story books to help with this.
As the child gets older, it will increasingly become their decision about who to tell or not and it’s important to respect that.
Sometimes it takes a while for children’s questions and feelings about their story to bubble to the surface. So it’s important to be ready for them, making clear that you’re happy to talk whenever they wish and that you don’t mind what they ask or say. It can be helpful too if other adults in your networks are ready to respond if children want to talk to them as well as their parents.
It’s also important to remember that ‘telling’ is not for one time only. There may be lots of occasions over the years when the child or family want to talk about donor conception. That’s what family is all about: parents being there for their children as and when they want to talk!
“I found out about my conception in later life, which only made me think that my parents were ashamed of my conception. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was about it, as I’m not upset or angry about being donor conceived. Not telling me or anyone else highlighted that there was something ‘wrong’ about it to them. If they were happy and proud of their journey then why hide it?”
– katie, UK, Egg Donor Conceived Individual
“I was told from a young age and my wider family were aware too, which was a relief to know that it wasn’t a secret. We didn’t talk about it much, but I knew I could talk about it if I wanted to.”
– Emma, Denmark, sperm Donor Conceived Individual
“Being donor conceived does not in any way mean that people are going to love their parents any less.”
– martha, UK, Egg Donor Conceived Individual
“Children don’t understand the reasons for a secret, but they do sense the weight of topics that are too painful or shameful to discuss. When parents educate their family and friends about donor conception, it helps create an environment where a developing child is free to explore their identity with natural curiosity. If they can safely discuss who they are, it means they can also trust their closest family and friends to tell them the truth about the world.”
– melissa, usa, sperm Donor Conceived Individual
If you would like to hear Dr Marilyn Crawshaw speak about this in more depth, alongside both myself and Julie Marie, a fellow recipient parent & author of Happy Together children’s book, there is a whole Paths to Parenthub webinar dedicated to both the why and how when it comes to these conversations. There are also many other recordings available to allow you to listen to both donor conceived adults and recipient parents of older children as they speak about their own experiences – all available to view for members of Paths to Parenthub – click here to find out how to join.
You can also read some of my previous blog posts on this topic about my own experience talking to my girls about their conception as well as a blog with tips and advice as to how to talk to your child.