The Challenges of the Non-Bio Parent: How to Create Healthy Donor Families

By admin on November 08, 2021

Many people who are considering having a child face the possibility/probability of not being genetically related to that child. Whether you’re a man, woman, or couple dealing with infertility or a genetic abnormality that makes it impossible to have a biological child, or you’re an LGBTQ couple, and you choose to use donor eggs or sperm, someone in your family equation will be in the position of being the non-bio parent.

Over the years, here at the Donor Sibling Registry, we have learned that many non-biological moms and dads have not been adequately counseled or educated before using donor conception to create their families. It is vital that these parents deal with any grief and shame that they may have around their own infertility, work through any emotions they might be experiencing from this lack of biological connection, and educate themselves all about the needs and issues their future child might have. If this doesn’t happen, there’s a good chance that this parent will pass their discomfort and/or shame along to the child as the shame of being donor-conceived.

Historically, and even now, couples or individuals choose an anonymous donor as a way to try to ignore the fact that the donor is a real person. Choosing an anonymous donor can feel less fearful because they might think that the chances of their children being curious about, searching for, or finding their biological parent will not be as high. But since 2005, anonymity can't be promised or expected as anyone can be found via DNA testing.

Unfortunately, many parents still try to withhold the truth from their children. Family secrets are toxic, and these parents, expecting honesty from their children, owe their children the same. In these families, all too often the “secret” hovers just beneath the surface, creating distance between family members who don’t have a clue as to why and where this feeling of distance is coming from. It's only a matter of time before all donor-conceived people learn or figure out the truth. Learning this truth as an older child or as an adult can be devastating.

Parents who do disclose the truth can still pass along their insecurities and fears with regards to their child having any type of curiosity about, and wishing to connect with their unknown biological family. Never speaking about it again, or giving the child the clear message that it's an uncomfortable subject and not welcome to be discussed can have dire circumstances, for the child and for the whole family dynamic. Not making peace with your lack of biological connection may create discourse and guilt within your child, when any natural feelings of curiosity arise within them.

Sometimes donor-conceived people learn or figure out the truth, but they still shoulder the secret. Our research and anecdotal information give evidence that quite often, adult donor offspring have found out that they were donor-conceived, but we’re afraid to tell their non-bio moms or dads that they knew for fear of hurting them. In this case, families create a double secret, as the children themselves are also struggling to keep the “secret” that the parents have shouldered for so long. These donor-conceived people feel acutely aware that the methodology of their conception causes pain to their parent(s), and therefore willingly accept the weight of this pain to carry themselves. This only enforces the idea that the way they were created is somehow shameful and should be kept secret.

These issues come up for both straight couples and LGBT families. We hear all too often that the non-bio mom in an LGBTQ family, for example, is afraid of a child reaching out to half-siblings and/or their donor, saying, “biology doesn’t make a family.” Their unresolved discomfort or sadness is about not being able to have a genetic connection to their child can cause great instability and insecurity within their nuclear family. All too often this is expressed as disappointment or anger at a curious child, so that the child then feels a great sense of betrayal, even just thinking about the unknown people they are genetically related to. This can be paralyzing to the donor offspring who have a longing or desire to explore connections with their unknown relatives and actually make efforts to do so. 

In the beginning, we as parents make all the choices about how our child will come into the world. These are choices that will affect our children for their entire lives. At some point, it isn’t about us, or what makes us most comfortable. We need to be asking, “What is in the best interests of this child to be born?” Reading research and testimonials from donor-conceived people should be required before making any decisions.
What may be just a “donated cell” to the parent often means a lot more to a donor-conceived person. We as parents need to be very careful not to put our own fears and biases onto our children and allow them to process for themselves the meaning of “family” as they mature. This is not about our fears as parents. We brought these children into the world using a methodology that cut them off from one-half of their genetic background. We owe it to them to honor and respect any desires they have to seek out this unknown or “invisible” family and offer to walk by their sides as they make their donor family connections.

Sometimes, when connections are made between donor-conceived people and their half-siblings and/or donors, some non-biological parents (or their spouses) have responded with fear, by saying, “those people are NOT your family.” Although they are not your genetic family as the parent, they are indeed your child’s family. Fearing that, and insisting that it isn’t so, just won’t make the genetic connection invalid. Negating the importance of any genetic connection is absurd. Let’s think about the day that our children were born. As parents, we didn’t just go into the hospital nursery and choose any baby to take home. No, we wanted the baby that was biologically ours. Biology does indeed matter. And although it is not the only way to form a family, it has been throughout the ages, the most common way that humans have defined family.  Even if you don’t feel any connection to your child’s newfound relatives, it is your job to do your best to be open, warm, and accepting. Having your complete acceptance will allow your child to fully explore and define these new relationships.

In our published research of 244 non-biological parents, there was a difference between non-biological mothers and fathers over whether they were interested in meeting their child’s other biological parent, the donor.  73.1% of the women who utilized donor eggs indicated that they would like to meet the donor while only 45.2% of the men (who utilized donor sperm) indicated interest.  Adequate counseling and education and working through one’s own grief and fear as well as understanding our children’s desire to know about their ancestry, medical background, and roots before pregnancy would save a lot of donor families from heartache. Making peace with the concept of not being genetically related to your children is essential to creating an honest, respectful, and healthy family with strong bonds. Exploring what it means to be a parent and acknowledging that our children are a wonderful blend of nature and nurture - they are deeply influenced by the parents that love and raise them and also by the parents that contribute 50% of the DNA. Understanding and respecting the fact that knowing where and who one comes from is an essential ingredient in the formation of a donor-conceived child’s current and future identity is, therefore, a vital step toward having a healthy family.

At the Donor Sibling Registry, we celebrate all of these family connections! If you (or your partner) need some support, please contact me for a phone/video consult.