Explaining Donor Conception to Your Child
Your child should know the story of how he joined your family. Experts advise on when and how to start explaining concepts.
Look at your beautiful curly hair!” the teacher said to Gillian’s six-year-old daughter, Molly. “It’s so pretty, just like your mommy’s!” “Thank you,” she said. “Before I was a baby, Mommy and Daddy had a helper, another mommy, called a donor, and the doctor put me in my mommy’s uterus to grow. And then I came out!”
Gillian had wondered whether her daughter really got her donor conception story. This moment proved that she did. Like Gillian, you should tell your child everything you know about her story. The goal is for the child not to remember being told, because she has always known how she came into your family. Details of sperm, egg, in vitro fertilization, embryos, and cryopreservation can be a lot for young children (and parents) to handle. Here’s how to begin talking:
Start early. The first conversations should begin during infancy, and can be as detailed or as basic as you’d like, because they’re really just practice. Use this time, before your baby can comprehend the meaning of the words, to develop the story that celebrates his beginnings: “Daddy’s or Mommy’s body was not able to make a baby. You came to us already made by your genetic parents.” Tell him how thrilled you are at the way things turned out: “We were meant to be your parents. We are so happy that we got help.”
Follow your child’s lead. If your daughter asks about her preschool teacher who is about to have a baby, answer her questions honestly, and then ask if she wants to hear her own story. Most preschoolers can understand a simple version of their story, such as, “When Mommy and Daddy wanted to have a baby, we couldn’t make one on our own, so we asked for help. We put our parts together and then the doctor put the embryo in another woman’s uterus. The embryo started to grow, and it was you! We were very happy when you were born.”
Use the correct words to tell the story. Inaccurate words and euphemisms are confusing. If your child asks how embryos are made, you might say, “It takes a part from a man, called a sperm, and a part from a woman, called an egg or an ovum, to make an embryo. The embryo grows in a uterus, or a womb.” A young child won’t fully grasp the words right away. He just needs to begin to understand that there are other people to whom he is connected in a significant way.
If you have a picture of the donor or genetic family, share it. You can point out the similarities that genetics create without going into an explanation of DNA. Ask your child if he has any questions about his genetic family. Answer truthfully, even if it means saying, “I wish I knew the answer to that, but I don’t. We can write it down, and maybe we’ll be able to find out someday.”
Read books that introduce the ways that kids join families. There are many great children’s books that can help you explain donor conception and then, on repeated readings, can help you remind your child that this is how he joined your family. See “Children’s Books About ART” (facing page) for suggestions.
Record your child’s story yourself in a lifebook, and read it often. Sections should include the following: wanting a baby, thoughts on your decision-making, the family or donors who gave their genetics (include any pictures you have), the woman who carried your baby, the clinic where you received assistance, waiting for a positive pregnancy test, pictures taken throughout the pregnancy and birth, and pictures of your child coming home. The message is clear: We wanted to have children in our family, we worked hard for our children to arrive, and we accepted and celebrated the help of the many people involved.
As your child realizes the genetic connection or birth story he shares with someone else, and not with you, there may be a time of sadness for both of you. Be there for him. Continue to reassure him that you love him, and let him know that it’s OK to be sad. Tell him that you are sad, too, that he is not genetically related to you. Clarify his permanence in your family: “Family is family because they choose to love each other forever. Some families are genetically related and others aren’t.”
The middle school years and beyond will bring new questions, as our kids shift from gathering facts to forming their identity. An honest and trusting relationship, forged in early childhood, will help your child find his roots as he enters adulthood.