What can I expect in talking with my child about building our family through egg donation? You can expect years and years of the most inspiring conversations you’ll ever have with your children. You will instill in your kids the ability to trust you to tell them the truth and they will respond in kind. They will know how beloved they are. They will understand that life sometimes means struggle and pain, but that “out of chaos sometimes comes a dancing star.” (Nietzche)
What if I choose not to tell my child they were created by a donor egg? No family secret is ever kept forever. Eventually the truth will be known. It is not an “if”, but “when”. In addition, most people who initially decide not to share the truth with their children change their minds at some point in the future. Feelings change over time. An early start is always easier than later.
High school students are now routinely doing cheek swab DNA tests on themselves and family. One can only imagine how easy determining genetics, accidentally or on purpose, will be by the year 2020 and beyond.
Do I have to tell my family, or my friends? This is a personal choice and there is no right or wrong decision. Generally speaking, it is a good idea to tell primary family members because they are directly impacted by the loss of genetics. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles presume a child is from its mother’s ovum and father’s sperm, so omitting this information is really lying to them. In addition, there will be a myriad of comments from family as your children grow that will be difficult to dodge. It is often easier to have the truth known as it then becomes a non-issue. Many people choose to tell those with whom they are most intimate in the same way one might share any private information. The decision of whom to tell when may change over time. One day you might just blurt the information to a new friend and the next day choose to say nothing.
Do I have to tell my pediatrician? Yes. Your child’s accurate medical history is crucial to appropriate medical care. Your medical history is not your child’s inheritance. Whatever you know of the donor’s history is important for a pediatrician to know. When you don’t know a piece of information, say so.
How do I start the conversations with my child? Start practicing your family building story when you are pregnant or as soon as your child is born. If you already have children, start now. Read recommended books to help guide you through the process (see bibliography), and purchase the many wonderful books now available for families conceived through donor conception and surrogacy. If you haven’t already done so, consult a mental health professional to help you resolve feelings of loss and grief. This will better prepare you to feel comfortable having conversations with and answering questions from your children.
What is age appropriate for my five year old, six, seven, or eight-year-old? What becomes appropriate and so on until they get to the age where they understand fully (I'm not sure what age children begin to understand the birds and the bees)? A few books in the bibliography will help you to understand children’s developmental phases and what they are able to understand at various stages. The Telling and Talking Series from the Donor Conception Network in the UK offers books for parents of children ages 0-7, 8-11, 12-16, and 17 and older.
The preschool years up to about age seven are years of very concrete thinking. Therefore, the story should be short and sweet and concrete. The focus should be on the fact that the family needed a helper or helpers in order to have the child/children. It took a village to create the family. The helpers are very important people in the life of the family, even if you don’t know them personally. Much of the story will be fleshed out as you continue your dialogue and answer your children’s questions as they grow. The beginning of the story (and children’s books are so helpful here) is that it takes a part from a woman and a part from a man to create the beginnings of a baby. Then there must also be a uterus (or tummy or…) for a baby to grow in. Sometimes mommies or daddies have to be given a part that wasn’t working before they could grow a baby.
Children do not generally understand the concept of genetics/chromosomes/inheritance until approximately age 11-14. But they will understand in stages that the person(s) who helped to create them is an important part of who they are becoming and that they may have a particular characteristic in common with a donor.
This is not a story of the birds and the bees. There is sex, there is reproduction and there is family building. For some of us, these stories are intertwined; but for many of us, sex is a very separate discussion until we need to start talking about birth control for our adolescents!
How do kids perceive the difference between privacy and secrecy? Would the fact that our family is honest with our children and immediate family and some close friends, but prefer not to share with the world the details of their conception, be confusing to a child and make them feel we are hiding something because we are ashamed?
There are certainly exceptions, but usually children do not distinguish between privacy and secrecy. That is a higher form of abstract thinking. However, if you are honest with important people in your life, it will not be weird to be vague when answering the questions of strangers in the supermarket, especially if you then chat with your kids about the interactions that occurred in their presence.
How do I tell my child that they are from donor eggs, that we are so proud of who they are and how they came to be, but in the same conversation explain that they might want to keep it private? Isn't that sending a mixed message? Yes, it is a mixed message. Once you empower your children with their story, you cannot control with whom they share it. Some will blurt it out indiscriminately to people who have no idea what your children are talking about; some will share it with a best friend, who also will have no idea what they are talking about. But once the information is theirs, it’s theirs.
At what age is it appropriate to start talking to your child about DE even in the simplest terms? Start practicing very early. By the time your child is five years old, it is best if you have begun to tell the story of needing a helper to create your family. Children’s books are extremely helpful in beginning the process. If your child is already older than five, don’t panic! Buy the books, consult, and get ready! It’s never too late and now is always a great time. It’s fun to have these chat with your kids.
Is it best for parents just to read age appropriate books on DE for very young children and then when they can understand more, tell them that this is their story? No. The books are intended to give you a “template” for telling your family story. The illustrations and language in the books are the “entrée” for telling the unique aspects of your own family’s coming together.
At what age are children capable of comprehending what “donor egg vs. own egg” means? At a very young age, children may understand that it takes an ovum (or egg) and a sperm to create the beginnings of a baby; but it is not until late grammar school that they will truly understand that inside of the ovum and the sperm are the DNA/chromosomes that make up the building blocks of who a person will become. So, in this regard, it is not until then that a child may understand that a child created from your “own” egg may look or be like you and a child from “donor egg” may not.
How often should I bring it up? I want my child to be comfortable asking questions, etc. but I don't want to make it a continual theme in his life. Each day there are a zillion opportunities to talk about similarities and differences; families who look alike and those who don’t; families with no dad, two dads; a dad and a grama; two moms; different races; same races, and so much more. Each time we have these conversations with our kids, we have the chance to talk again about how we built our family. It is all part of a piece. These are conversations (plural) that will morph and evolve over time throughout our lifetimes. Organically, you will find your own family rhythm with these conversations. At times, they will be frequent. At times, you will suddenly realize the subject hasn’t come up for months. It’s all okay.
How do you explain that the donor may not have any interest in meeting them, even if your child really wants to meet the donor? You don’t, because you don’t know what the future holds. If your child asks if they can meet the helper/donor, you might answer by saying, “If that is important to you, then at some point, we will talk about that as a family and decide what to do. We don’t know what her needs will be, but we will always try to help you get the information you need or want.” The most important part of the equation here is that you are not withholding important pieces of your child’s history from them. Your willingness to give them what they need, as you determine what is appropriate for them at different stages, is more important than your exact answers.
It is also very important to determine what your child is exactly asking. Sometimes the question “Can I meet her?” is really the question “Does she live nearby?” or “Maybe she could come to dinner some night and then go home again?” These questions don’t necessarily put her in the special category to which we place a donor, but rather a person about whom we speak, but is invisible to our children. It would be normal to want to meet someone in the same vein that our kids might want to meet old family friends or distant cousins, until such time that they fully understand what it means to have been conceived with a donor’s help, which comes much later.
How do we handle issues such as, when our child is a bit older and studying ancestry and genetics and the teacher just assumes that the plain vanilla family building applies to everyone in the class? How should our kids handle this? One benefit to all the family building conversations is that we model for our children self-advocacy. We will be teaching our children to advocate for families of all kinds, even when our kids are in the stages of not wanting to be different. Teachers are definitely now more sensitive to various family constellations, as well as the many different genetic and non-genetic ways families come together. Donor conception is really not that new or strange. You can help your child be her own advocate by asking if she would like to include a different branch on that family tree, or if he would like to volunteer that the model presented in class does not apply to him. And if she would like to keep that private and mold to “vanilla”, that’s okay, too.
I would love to hear from some teenage or adult age individuals conceived via DE and how they feel about it.
From Daniel, age 16:
“Parents: Although you may be staying up late talking to each other about when to tell or whether to tell, going to counseling and all that stuff, you have to realize something. No matter what, sometimes kids just don't care. And you build up all your confidence; you're going to tell your kid. You've got your serious face on. You're all ready. And you tell your kid. And you get, like, ‘Hey, why do I care?’ Don't take it too hard. Sometimes it's not that big of a deal to kids.” http://www.artparenting.org/talking/transcripts_kids.html
From Margaret (mom):
First, my seven-year-old daughter asked me for her "history papers." I was a bit confused by this and after some additional questioning realized what she wanted to look at was the donor profile. She likes to look at both hers and her brother's donor profile as the two women were very different and she finds this amusing.
This same week, my three-year-old son, who has been reading some basic books about having babies and the "nice donor lady", appears to be making some connections. He entered the kitchen this evening with two stuffed animals under his shirt and announced that he had some eggs inside of his belly. I asked him whether they were good eggs or the kind that were broken. He told me they were good and that he was going to be a good "mommy".
From Nick, age 10:
“Don’t worry just be honest.” (Sigh). “Okay. It doesn’t matter how you’re born, it just matters that you’re born”.
While most donor offspring do not refer to themselves as an “egg donor child”, Allegra reminds us that children and adolescence will use different language to refer to themselves and the means of conception. Allegra is proud and comfortable of herself, her family, and her means of conception.
Carole LieberWilkins, M.A., M.F.T. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles.
A specialist in the field of reproductive medicine, adoption and family building options, Ms. LieberWilkins became a founding member of Resolve of Greater Los Angeles and served on the Resolve Board of Directors in various positions for the next 14 years. Currently, she is a mental health advisor on the Board of Directors of Parents via Egg Donation.
Having created her own family through adoption and ovum donation, Carole approaches her work with personal insights, as well as professional experience. She provides individual, couples and group counseling, as well as donor and gestational carrier psychological evaluations, and psycho?educational consultations for intended parents.?
She is well known for her work regarding talking to children about family building, having helped hundreds of patients feel comfortable about talking with their kids about how they built their families. Her article on Talking with Children about Their Conception is highly respected and widely distributed to clients and patients. She has lectured on the topic of family building at important educational venues such as Resolve symposia, and meetings of the American Psychological Association and the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. Ms. LieberWilkins has also been an invited speaker for Kaiser Hospitals, as well as for industry?sponsored nurses’ symposia.?