In 2000 when my son and I started the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) (initially as a Yahoo chat discussion group), the predominant conversation was about disclosure. Back then many, mostly straight, parents were invested in keeping the secret, and came from the point of view that as a parent, disclosure was their personal choice to make for their family. They did not like to hear about why not telling (lying) might be harmful to offspring and unhealthy for their family. They didn’t want to hear that secrecy implied shame.
“Secrets are like landmines you know. They can go off at any time, but until they go off you’re sort of treading around them.”- Donor Conceived Person, Barry Stevens
Some felt attacked and offended when offspring or other parents gave reasons as to why lying to their child was not right. They stuck to their guns, even when they heard from offspring who reported feeling like their world had been turned upside down, when they discovered the truth later on in life. These parents insisted that they were not telling their children because it would “hurt the child” to know the truth. They didn’t want to hear that non-disclosure was more about their own (or their partner’s) shame and fear and not at all about what was in the best interests of the child.
Why should a parent’s right to secrecy trump a child’s right to the truth? Healthy relationships are built on foundations of trust and honesty. We expect honesty from our children, shouldn’t they expect the same from us?
This conversation is not a new one. Honesty has long been an accepted practice within adoptive families, while at the same time, sperm banks and egg clinics were (hopefully no longer) advising parents to “keep the secret”. There was never any psychological research to back this up, so we know that the advice had no psychological foundation and no merit. It only served to keep the industry’s dirty secrets secret. It also served to protect the infertile non-bio mom or dad, and it perpetuated the shame of infertility. It created so many parents with shoulders heavy from carrying a deep dark secret for decades. This is why we strongly recommend infertility counseling (before pregnancy) for non-bio moms and dads. It’s important that they work through their own grief about being infertile so as not to pass along that grief, in the form of shame, to their children.
Many of the parents who chose to “keep the secret” left our group. Some have joined the DSR in secret, connecting with other families only to tell them that they have no intention of telling their children. I can’t help but wonder how these families have fared, if/when the secret came out, how the children reacted, and how long they all have before DNA reveals the truth to everyone.
Telling is just the beginning though. Just because a child knows that they were conceived with the help of a donor, doesn’t mean they will have peace with not knowing about one half of their identity, medical background and close relatives. The conversations on the heels of disclosure are extremely important. They should acknowledge, honor, and validate any curiosity that donor offspring have about their unknown first degree genetic relatives. They should support any desire that a donor offspring has to search for, and to connect with these relatives. The conversations should be ongoing and affirming. Telling is only the first step to creating healthy and happy donor families.
If you need help in supporting your donor conceived child, including deciding when and how to tell your child, read through our DSR Counseling Page. For more in depth advice (from all of the stakeholders: offspring, parents and donors), read Finding Our Families: A First-of-Its-Kind Book For Donor Conceived People and Their Families.
Some other issues addressed on our Counseling Page:
How to move forward in connecting with a donor or a half-sibling family (or many families).
Non-biological parents feeling uncomfortable about their children reaching out to biological relatives.
How to cope when you have a burning desire to know your genetic/ancestral history, both with and without parental support.