What should parents tell children about their origins?

We live in a new world that has made miracles possible through science. Without donor eggs and sperm and highly advanced assisted reproductive technology, many children today would never have been born. These advances in reproductive technology can raise questions for parents, however, on how and when to explain their origins to their children.

Parents in this situation should be given all the help they need to support their donor children when they are confused or troubled by their origins.  Thanks to the men and women who are willing to take some risks and donate their eggs and sperm, babies are being born to people who would not otherwise have been parents. These babies are growing up to be as ‘normal’ as any of us.

The overwhelming message from the latest research’s that parents should tell the truth to their children as early as possible – preferably from around 3 years of age. The only exceptions to this are when there are severe developmental delays, when there is a crisis or serious illness or when there is a real threat of harm to the child if the truth was told.

We have a responsibility towards donor children to help them to make sense of their history and the story of their conception. They often feel as though there is a piece of themselves missing – an essential part of their identity. They grow up with particular questions in their mind, such as

Am I different?

To whom do I belong?

Who am I and from where did I come?

Many donor children will never know who the person was that shared his or her genes to give them life. Their parents need to help them to grapple with that fact. Perhaps the child and her parents will need to grieve or to feel the loss and hopefully at some point make peace with it. But, all children – and adults too – from time to time have unanswerable questions of various kinds, as well as losses and hardships. Everyone faces challenges whilst growing up. The specific challenges facing donor children should be engaged with and related to with honesty, openness and thoughtfulness.

Guidelines for parents

  • Establish what and how much you feel comfortable saying to your child about her conception – as long as it is the truth
  • Make sure that the same message is being given by the other caregivers in your child’s life
  • Convey the information to your child in language she can understand that ‘we made you with the help of someone else’
  • Don’t reduce your child’s genetic history to an ‘egg’ or a ‘sperm’ without making it clear that there was a person to whom that egg/sperm belonged
  • Make sure the child understands that there was another human being involved in the conception – not just an egg or a seed that came out of nowhere
  • Explain how conception happens, keeping it age-appropriate
  • If the donor was anonymous, give the child some information about who the person was (if possible) so that she has some idea about the missing person in her life-story
  • Tell the story over and over during the years of childhood so that in the different stages of development your child is helped to think through and process the information about her identity
  • Listen to what your child says about her conception and try to ascertain figure out how she feels about it, how it is affecting her and how her feelings change over time
  • Try to understand her unique perspective on it and respond to her needs accordingly
  • Don’t deny to yourself or to your child that she was created with the help of someone who donated an egg or sperm – don’t pretend that it never happened
  • Don’t give false, idealised or magical explanations for how she was conceived
  • Make sure that your child hears about her conception from youbefore she hears about it from anyone else
  • Understand that your child will probably be curious and when she is older she may want to search for the person who donated the egg or sperm.

Diane Sandler, for more about ‘Babies in Mind’ visit www.babiesinmind.co.za, follow us on Facebook or sign up for our newsletter.