Everyone has a right to privacy, and there is a difference between privacy and secrecy. How much truth do we owe our family, our children. How much do we share with strangers?
Privacy suggests that "until I know you better, and can feel a sense of trust with you, I will keep you at arm's length". Privacy is really a trust issue.
Secrecy says "don't tell anyone this, because I'm not comfortable with anyone else knowing this about me and my family". Secrecy like this, is really a shame issue.
Secrecy is about hiding something from the world, and it takes a lot of energy. It is the energy of keeping a secret that can be construed by children that the truth is somehow so bad that it needs to be kept hidden at all costs.
Often this can lead to children feeling that somehow they are flawed. Both Bernard and I grew up in a generation when families often limited their communications with each other to mostly utilitarian conversations such as "pass the bread and butter please." Both of our families often didn't confide in each others' fears or shared dreams. We were seldom asked "how do YOU feel about this or that"? We were pretty much told how we should feel, and what we should believe, because our parents' "authoritarian style of parenting" suggested that they knew best, and well, they did, until we started questioning them.
Then we began searching for more diverse answers on our own, which often didn't match with some of their beliefs. There's no blame, that's all part of growing up. However, because of their generation and the social norms of the times, many families thought that secrets were best kept to "protect" their children from any "unpleasant" truths.
Many years later, now we are the parents. We have a loving marriage, and we have three children all born from IVF with donor assistance. Because of the long road we had to take to become parents, we were able to think longer about what kinds of parents we wanted to be. We basically wanted to create a childhood for our own children that would be based on openness and free-flowing information. We wanted to have a family that would have strong communication skills. A place where we could share our feelings, fears and dreams equally – openly, as well as welcome our differences of opinions and beliefs with the support of each other. We want to convey that love and respect is the basis of a family, rather than just genetics.
So, we began conversing with our children about their origins from day 1, to make sure they knew just how loved and important they are, not just to us, but that the world is a better place because they are in it. It's easy to be a disconnected partner or parent and give reflexive answers to questions with responses such as "I'm fine" or "it's ok, it's not a big deal" or "because I said so."
We're all guilty of these replies, mostly because we are just too tired, or haven't explored other parenting techniques or learned better communication skills and automatically reiterate the way that we were brought up. We've only 3 children, but my parents had 6, and finding time to talk one on one is challenging for many families with more than one child. Bernard's family had 2 but he was adopted and not told until he was older because there was a cultural stigma with adoption.
Because of this, as most young children often do, he took on his parents' feelings that adoption was bad, and therefore he was a bad child, and he was at fault. We all do the best we can, as most often as we can no matter what generation we grow up. As adults, and partners, we've grown and realized that we can contribute to a conversation, because we are valued, and someone else actually wants to know what's going on with us inside our mind (which can be scary and even odd sometimes) and yet they will continue to love us and want to know more.
This can be exhilarating, and also terrifying. When a partner gently encourages the other to share all aspects of themselves, it will initially open up our vulnerable side, yet it becomes easier and easier the more we practice.
This is what we want to encourage and praise –openness and vulnerability within ourselves and within our children too. Being honest with ourselves can often be difficult, but we made it a conscious choice, and one that we constantly face as a daily practice.
When we were going through the whole infertility process, selecting a donor, IVF, pregnancy and birth, and being new parents after infertility, we saw how easily we could keep all of this to ourselves. We weren't a same-sex couple and didn't have to explain the obvious to the outside world as courageously as they do. People would just see us as a hetero couple with children and think nothing of it. But we knew in our heart of hearts that this would only be a superficial veneer of who we are, and dismiss and invalidate all we went through to have the family we always wanted.
There were scientists, doctors, nurses, technology, donor service providers and the incredible donors themselves. We all worked together, and we all worked hard to orchestrate and bring our beautiful children into this word. Our parents' generation didn't have the widespread options we have today in family building. They didn't have parenting advice and all kinds of information so easily available at their fingertips like we do now.
Once we made the decision to be honest and open with our children about their donor conceived origins from the beginning, it immediately got easier. Something significantly shifted. The more honest and transparent we got with the way we built our family, the bigger the sense of freedom we felt. There was a huge difference between privacy and secrecy, and a lesson we learned.
Sure, we could've kept it a secret, feeding any feelings of shame or inadequacy within ourselves, eating at us continually from the inside out. It would have been okay until our family or strangers would comment and say things like "do twins run in your family? or "who did they get their long eyelashes from, you or your husband?" over and over, year after year.
Then when your child gets to be age 12 and starts questioning their genetic makeup in their middle school biology class, and the "oh-why-didn't-you-tell-me-sooner-and-what-else-have-you-been-keeping-from-me-?" comes out of their mouths.
Keeping a secret is about hiding something from the world, separating yourself, and that takes a lot of energy. We had kept our infertility a secret for the first couple of years as we went through the initial diagnosis and various medical treatments while trying to conceive. It wasn't even a conscious "secret" but one of default because we didn't know how to talk about it. But as we became more honest in exploring our feelings about it, we both felt a sense of peace and acceptance. We realized that our bodies are capable and strong, reliant and our minds and hearts are flexible, reasonable, empathetic and compassionate. But our physical bodies isn't all that defines who we are. We are more than that, we are vulnerable, whole, intangible and perfectly imperfect.
It's perfectly okay to be private of course because you don't need to share or tell anyone anything more than you feel comfortable in doing. When it comes to talking with your child about their donor origins, you want to feel comfortable about it with yourself first. To be authentic with yourself, to be open sometimes takes courage, but when there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to fear.
It is important to acknowledge to yourself that you are not alone in this process. The use of IVF is widespread, and talking about it becoming more common and accepted. Becoming fearless can be the most liberating thing a parent can do for themselves and for their child.
We live from an openness that came from our relationship before we were parents. It has carried us through the toughest of parenting times, and we want to continue this with our children too. Is there any parent who does not ask their child to be honest and tell them everything that is on their mind? How can we ask of them what we are not willing to do ourself?
This is how we want to be, and it can only help to transfer this as loving and cherishing our time together. We also know that old habits can reappear and find ourselves keeping things inside, and so we ask ourselves the following:
What am I afraid of? We were afraid of what others would think about us. The biggie. We were afraid of being thought of as "less than" because we needed to get help to conceive. That we weren't a normal couple. Data shows that 1 out of 8 US couples, needs the help of medical assistance to achieve pregnancy. Because we also had to use an egg donor, I was afraid that others would think that I was less of a real woman because I couldn't produce healthy eggs. Or that people would think I planned my life poorly and chastise me for choosing my most fertile years (ages 18-28) happily living my life, going to college and building my career. How was I supposed to know that female fertility peaks at age 28, or that a women's ovarian reserves remained a mere 12% by the time they are 30? And that at age 35 is considered "advanced maternal age"? For couples who had to use a sperm donor, the loss of any kind of "male masculinity" is feared. Especially in a culture like ours where male aggression is thought of as something "respectful". What about thoughtfulness, patience, kindness, loving caring, nurturing and the ability to provide, all the traits a father really needs to raise a child, not a genetic code. So much of what we are taught about being a "true" man or a woman is based on our ability to procreate, rather than how to nurture and raise well-adjusted children.
What will we lose by being honest? We feared we might lose the respect of our family, since their religion doesn't approve of it. But they remained supportive. Once the babies arrived, their hearts opened up, and they figured out a way to make it work for them in their own minds. It was their issue to come to terms with their own beliefs, not ours. They did not withhold their love from our children or from us, and we are all happier because we were honest. While I was researching and gathering information for our new children's book "How We Became a Family" I talked with our embryologist about how people felt about telling their family that they were using IVF. He told me that many Catholics and Christians seek out the help of IVF, but are uneasy about it be cause it conflicts with their religious leaders. He respects their beliefs, and tells them that he doesn't know why he chooses one healthy egg or sperm over the other to unite and fertilize, and that perhaps this is the moment when "the hand of their God" is guiding him.
Can we retain our privacy without hurting others' feelings? If we didn't tell our parents, or our friends, we would have hurt them more by keeping something this important from them. They love us and support us and want to understand what's going on in our family. The more comfortable we became sharing this information with our family and close friends, we became eager to let others outside of our circle know. We wanted other people to understand why we chose to build our family the way that we did. As our confidence grew, the more people we told, we found out that strangers were not as cruel as we first imagined they might be. When someone would ask us "do twins run in our family?" we took it as an opportunity to inform them, to dispel any stigma associated with it. We would reply, "no, we had to get help from a fertility doctor and an egg donor, do you know anyone who had to do the same?". We've yet to meet any negative responses, but should we, we understand respectfully that it's their opinion or belief that they are entitled to, just as we are entitled to our own.
Is it detrimental to our children's well-being if we decide not to share? We have a history of secrecy among families who have adopted children in the past, and what it was like for them to live with the stigma of adoption. For anyone wondering about how to deal with the stigma of donor conception, we now have over 20 years of parents using IVF with donor assistance who can tell us their experiences. And we have donor conceived children who are now adults telling us what and how they felt about being told or not told from their perspective here. All this data points to early disclosure. As Dr. Madeline Licker Feingold, a reproductive family psychologist says "Speaking about third-party reproduction casually, early and often normalizes it. It makes the information simply a part of the family story." When we ask our own children, our boy/girl twins are now 8 and our singleton son is 9 years old "Do you guys find it uncomfortable when we tell people you were donor conceived?" They smirk their faces and say "no, why would we?" When we ask if they discuss their IVF and donor origins with their classmates, they respond "why would we?" By making it an early discussion, it is felt to be a natural part of your children's lives that has no negative connotation or an air of being unaccepted. If you find that for whatever reason, you haven't begun the conversation with your child and they are now older, know that it's never too late. Here is a blog post that helps parents begin the conversation with older kids.
Do we need to keep this a secret? If so, why? It's never healthy. Honesty with yourself will only set you free. Talking about your child's donor origins is a process, not a one time conversation, and one that you will tell in bits and pieces as they grow. You will add more detail as they grow and understand more. The sooner you lay the groundwork and the foundation of the conversation the better.
Practice talking with your child while they are infants and toddlers, children are very forgiving. Try it out casually and often in the very early years of their life. Talking through any apprehension you may have with your partner can rationalize and dispel any fears surrounding them. Nothing is as frightening as keeping it all inside. You are a team and together you can do this, and it will set the tone for future parenting challenges should they arise.
If you find yourself worrying, hiding, or feeling afraid to voice or talk about your family building decisions, ask yourself why. Living this way and encouraging our children to live this way has resulted in an amazing and consistent, relaxed atmosphere at home. There is no pent-up stress that can't be diffused when we ask ourselves questions like "why do I think like this?" "why do I feel like this?" Absolute honesty, in a gentle and respectful way, has created a totally safe environment for any family member to unburden themselves, if they choose to do so, without fear of blame or recriminations. Total trust has evolved into a love so pure and so beautiful, and knowing that the outside world will bring stress into our family world, we at least have built a foundation, a touchstone that we are always eager to get back to. We are happy we have found our voice as a family. Do you have yours?