When people come to me for “donor counseling,” I begin by asking them what would be helpful. Almost always, the response is the same, “We’re wondering what would be a good age to tell our future child about the donor?” This wording, their tone and accompanying facial expressions all tell me that these future parents are frightened. Much as they long for a successful pregnancy, they fear that it will be followed — at some point — by difficult and painful conversations with their child.
In an earlier DSR blog I tried to turn this fear on its head and suggest that conversations with donor-conceived children offer wonderful opportunities for proud storytelling. But when does that storytelling begin? And how do parents begin the conversation? My advice is pretty consistent and shared — I think — by others experienced with donor conception. Tell early. Tell naturally. Tell before your child can begin to understand.
There are several reasons why telling early makes sense. Here are a few “top liners”...
There will be no “moment of telling.” If you talk with your child openly and naturally from the time they are an infant, you avoid the burdens that come with a “moment of telling.” Your child will grow up with this knowledge and it will be woven into their identity from a young age. And if you speak joyfully and with pride, as I have suggested in my Storytelling blog, your child’s feelings about this information will mirror your happiness. I’d expect something like this to go through their little mind, “My parents look and sound so happy when they talk about how I was born. I can tell I made them happy.” Another reason for telling early relates to storytelling. If you subscribe to my “proud storytellers” outlook, then you will want to tell the story in its entirety from the start. The story begins long before your child was conceived, let alone born. It begins in your own family and if you have a partner, in their family and in your union. It is all one story and now you are weaving the donor into it. Children love to hear stories and they especially enjoy stories about themselves. You will be treating them to even more — stories about you and your families. Your early conversations will begin to root them in your families and shared history.
Next, let’s focus on your feelings: it’s simply easier and more comfortable to begin the conversation when your child is too young to understand. Many parents call it “practice time.” They appreciate being able to separate their own lingering feelings of loss and disappointment from their child’s experience, reminding themselves that for their child, donor conception is in no way associated with negative feelings. This practice time helps many parents rid themselves of their own negativity and move, more securely and authentically, to a place of confidence and pride.
Finally, telling early avoids any risks of procrastination. You might ask, ”Does it really matter whether we tell our child at 6 months or at 18 months?” If the goal is to have a child who “always knew,” you can — I think — safely tell them anytime up to 2 or 3 years of age. The problem, I’ve found, is that once a child is verbal, parents who have yet begun conversations, are prone to delay telling. Some rationalize it, saying to themselves, “This is not a good time.” Others simply avoid the subject. “We just keep forgetting,” they may say.
Telling early should not be confused with telling often. Just as there are parents who avoid, delay, deny, there are others who over-emphasize. Since one of the reasons for telling early is that you don’t want your child to feel different — at least not in a negative way — you don’t want to talk about it to the point of magnifying differences. Children will surely pick up on this. A parent who perseverates about donor conception can generate self-esteem issues as significant as one who waits until a child is much older to tell.
Babies babble. Parents can babble too. Babies gurgle and coo. Parents can gurgle and coo too. My best advice is to join your child when they are still a baby. Yes, it may sound at the start like foolish babbling but clear communication will take shape over time. Before it does, you will be building your self-confidence, rooting your child in their proud history and setting the stage for a lifetime of open, honest conversations about matters big and small.