Many parents know they want to tell their child but aren’t sure what to say or when to tell. Communicating with your child about the unique way you became a family happens over time. Discussing assisted conception is not a one-time event, it is an ongoing process. It happens in the context of a relationship that is evolving and growing stronger.
If your child is young, a natural beginning occurs in the context of sex education when preschoolers become aware of their bodies, gender differences, pregnancy, and birth. Or you can also start even earlier, in the form of bedtime stories when they are babies or toddlers (see TSBC Resource List and Recommended Reading for suggested children’s books).
An important advantage of early telling is that from the beginning it is a “normal” topic within the family. Secondly, it gives the parents a chance to begin to get comfortable with the topic; you have time to practice your conversations with your baby and toddler. If you want to change how you talk about it, you get another chance.
As a child’s understanding of family, reproduction and birth, and social relationships increases, so will their understanding of donor conception. Children, then, need to have the story repeated because they will focus on different aspects of it at different developmental stages.
But always, keep it simple, keep it honest. In the early years, the emphasis should be on “who our family is” of belonging and being loved. This is a story about love and connection.
‘We/I really wanted to have a baby. A man helped by giving us sperm/seeds, so we/I could have a baby. The man who helped is called a (sperm) donor.’
‘Babies grow when a sperm and egg come together. The baby grows in a parent’s tummy. Our donor gave their sperm so I could grow you.’
“Mama and I wanted to start a family. It takes an egg and a sperm to make a baby. We had eggs but we didn’t have any sperm. We got sperm from a helper/donor. You grew in Mama’s body and when you were born I held you.”
As children get older, their questions can become more specific:
What does my donor look like; do you have a picture? Do I look like the donor? Why did they give their sperm? Will I ever meet the donor?
This will give you natural opportunities to answer questions as they come up and add information as your child gains understanding.
During early childhood, children are working on understanding social relationships. This is the time that they will notice that there are different kinds of families. This is the time when they will probably ask, “Do I have a Daddy?” if your family does not include one. There’s no one answer on what to call the donor/gamete provider, but it can be helpful to use words that distinguish a person actively parenting (daddy, mama) from one who is not. Later you may want to take your child’s lead in using their preferred term, but ultimately using terms that describe the initial function of the person will help lower expectations the donor may not be able to meet.
Most important, throughout all discussions and all stages of the child’s development, is the need for parents to recognize and accept their children’s feelings. Your child will have their own feelings, that may not be the same as yours, and are likely to change over time.
There are some books available to help (see TSBC’s recommended reading). You might also want to make your own personal book for your child, using family photographs, pictures, and words. What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth is a gender neutral story of how babies are made that works for all family configurations and gender identities.
*This article is based on one written by Jean Benward, LCSW, past Co-chair of the TSBC Board of Directors, and therapist/educator for donor-conceived families and donors, and updated in 2022.
Donor Conception Network, UK. Non-judgmental space offering information, support, community and resources (including many child-age based books on how to talk to kids) to anyone involved in donor conception, whether personally or professionally. UK-based, but takes the same approach as us/TSBC. Has pointers on Why Tell? to help think through the benefits and costs of sharing donor-conception information with your child. Offers excellent workshops.
Are you (considering being) a DI dad? A Letter from Walter to Would-Be DI Dads can help you think through issues related to parenting through donor conception. Written by Walter Merricks, this letter is found among many of the excellent articles at the Donor Connection Network, UK.
Telling and Talking about Donor Conception: A Guide for Parents, by Olivia Montuschi, Donor Conception Network, UK (2006). Four booklets designed to help parents decide whether and how to tell their children about their donor origins. Each booklet is geared toward a different age group, from birth to adulthood.
Donor Insemination Guide COLAGE. A comprehensive resource written by and for donor-conceived individuals raised by one or more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) parents. Also a great resource for parents, teachers, and medical professionals. Covers many difficult topics including broaching the topic of the donor with your parents, approaching relationships with others who have the same sperm donor without excluding your own siblings, and more generally dealing with everyday challenges of answering the question ‘who’s your father?’ Beautifully written, easy to read.
Building a Family with the Assistance of Donor Insemination by K.R. Daniels, Dunmore Press, New Zealand (2004). Daniels is a social worker who has worked with intended parents, families, donors and donor-conceived people for the last 30 years. He is known not only for his compassion and insight, but also as one of the world’s leading academic authorities on this way of having a family, especially among heterosexual couples.
The Australian Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority, VARTA, is a great source of information for parents and donor-conceived families, that includes written forms, videos and podcasts. For example, VARTA offers an excellent discussion about talking to your child about your family’s donor origins. It also offers age-specific information including talking to teenagers and telling others. For the research oriented, see the review “Why, when and how to tell children about donor conception”.