Articles / parenting after infertility
Parenting Donor Conceived Children; Telling Early Leads to Unexpected Benefits
by Teresa and Bernard Villegas MD
Benefit Number One: The Telling. As parents, we stand in front of our children and we experience first hand reflections of ourselves at our best and at our worst. Our children are teachers, our mirrors to how we feel about our own identity and authenticity. Their beautiful little faces, looking up at us with their innate predisposition of pure-nonjudgemental-joy-filled-hearts. They have the super powers to reflect anything we give them; our love, attention and appreciation as well as anything we are not giving them. They also have the ability to reflect and/or absorb, anything that we are feeling uncomfortable about within ourselves.
Bringing up the topic of when and how to tell your child about their donor conceived origins, may be one of those uncomfortable feelings facing you now. Going through the demands of IVF and pregnancy, and now being a new parent (some of us to twins like we were) are already exhausted both physically and mentally. This topic could easily be classified as one of those "we'll cross that bridge when we get to it" kind of topics. Well, realistically, once your baby is born, that bridge is already here, but you don't have to cross it quite yet. Just knowing that it's there, and that it's really much easier to cross than you think, will put your mind at ease.
In our opinion, (as well as professional psychologists) parenting a donor conceived child has the added responsibility of sharing their birth (and genetic) origins in a way that they can understand at every age level of their development. Sharing the fact that we have children because someone else, outside of our partnership (– or ourselves, if you are a single parent by choice) and outside of our genetic makeup, helped us to create our family has led us to many thoughtful and bonding conversations we could never have imagined. It wasn't an easy topic to broach but discovered that telling them early on was much easier than we thought.
Telling your child can best be thought of as a process. An ongoing open conversation throughout the life of your child as they grow and mature in their thinking and feeling. Most of the time, now and in the future, donor conception issues will not be in the forefront of your daily lives. However, it's a really good idea to begin looking for casual opportunities to begin the conversation while your child is young, about 1-2 years old.
You will find opportunities that offer openings into the conversation. Such as when you are holding them or cuddling with them. Tell them about how much you love them, and how much you wanted them. Making positive emotional connections they can feel and relate to at such a young age. An example might be to say "We are so happy to finally have you, we have been waiting and loving you forever! We are so fortunate and grateful to the kind man (or woman) who helped us to have you."
At this early age, telling is really more for you than for your child. By practicing to say the words, and hearing yourself saying the words in different ways will allow you to begin to feel more comfortable and at ease. Reading children's books specifically written for donor conceived children at an early age are great ways to introduce the subject in an easy and casual way.
Other opportunities as they grow from 2-3 years old, can include your experiences nonchalantly into your conversations. Such as when you are making a visit to the pediatrician for a check up. You could say something like "I remember when we were having a hard time getting pregnant, and had to visit many different doctors' offices before you were born. We were so fortunate that we got such good care and help from others so that you could be born."
Other situations where they need the help of another person to accomplish something are great conversation lead ins such as ”I’d be happy to help tie your shoes, I know what it's like to need someone's help. The best help we ever received was from your egg donor." As our children got older from 4-8 in addition to all the children's books about nature and baby animals, we included videos about the natural world, as teaching moments to open conversations about making babies and families.
When we take road trips, or in the car for extended periods of time, we like to leverage our captive audience; and keep ourselves sane too since we have to listen to it by playing "teacher movies" as our children affectionately call them. Some of our family's favorites include the fabulous BBC Earth video series "Life" that are brilliantly and soothingly narrated by naturalist David Attenborough. His other videos "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life" when they were in k-2nd grade. Recently we've exposed them to Novas "The Elegant Universe" and "Cracking The Code of Life" now that they are in 3rd-4th grade. These shows, along with the information we have been telling them about their own genetic beginnings, have already informed them immensely about the natural world, mating, and how their birth story relates. And this leads us to our next benefit for being parents of a donor conceived child.
Benefit Number 2: Early Sex Education. Because we are parenting donor conceived children, perhaps our kids have gotten a head start in their education when it comes to physiology and biology. From everything we have shared with them starting early on, and in open dialogue with them over the years, we discovered something else that they were getting that we never anticipated: basic sex education awareness.
With their understanding of what it takes to make a baby, weather it be an animal baby or a human baby, the same three parts are needed; an egg, a sperm and a gestational carrier or a safe gestational place -typically a female (tho not so with seahorses!) They have learned that when animals are "mating" they are making offspring aka “babies.”
"Yes kids, mating is "having sex" but there's more to it, and we can talk about it whenever you want."
Our children attend public school and have been coming home with many questions about what they hear on the school playground. At age six, they asked "What does 'sexy' mean?" because of a pop song kids were singing at school. Now that our children are 8 years old (boy/girl twins) and 9yr old boy, we talk frequently about about "sex" and how it's used in derogatory slang words, cussing, and sexual innuendos they hear more often as they get older.
This is the perfect age to tell them the specifics because of the "yuck" factor.
Answering their question "exactly how does the sperm get to the egg, mom?" I simply told them the truth in the nonchalant-matter-of-fact, medical terminology way like we have been doing for the last 8 years; "Well, basically, it's similar to animals mating -we humans are animals after all. The male puts his erect penis inside the female's vagina." I didn't need to go any further, and just paused. What we heard were their shrieks of "oh, that's so gross, yuck!" Exactly. We looked at each other and smiled. Laughter, humor, giggles, and fun; an honest and satisfied answer to their question for now.
Of course, we've talked more with them about sex and we again turned to books to read with them. These are the ones we've really liked and you might too:
- "It's Perfectly Normal" by Harris and Emberly
- "Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (but were afraid they'd ask)" by Richardson and Schuster
- For our daughter "The Care and Keeping of You 2: The Body Book for Older Girls
- For our sons "My Body, My Self for Boys: Revised Edition (What's Happening to My Body?) " by Lynda Madaras and Area Madaras.
Us parents in the Unites States have much to learn about teaching sex education. There has been a huge effort in countries like the Netherlands and Switzerland addressing the topic of sexuality and sex education classes beginning in kindergarten. Statistics back up the benefits with the lowest teen pregnancy, birth and abortion rates in-the-world: about 6 per 1,000 women.
These are some examples of how we have approached the process of telling our children so far. Stay tuned for more posts. We welcome you to our parenting community and trust that together we will grow. Any comments or examples for telling are welcome, feel free to contribute below.