Should I tell my embryo-donated children about their unique origins, and if so, when??

If you are thinking about if, how, and when to communicate your child’s unique donated embryo origins, you are not alone! In fact, it’s the single biggest concern of intended recipient parents[i].  Questions around impact on the child and parent-child relationship weigh on many pursuing this new route to parenthood. 

In a recent survey[ii], 91% of embryo recipient families say that they definitely (86%) or will probably (5%) share their child’s unique donated embryo origins with them. The tide is definitely shifting, up from a small 2008 UK study[iii] that reported 42% of families intended to share with their young children.  As gamete and embryo donation – and all kinds of unique family structures - become more mainstream, we have a lot more knowledge than we did even 10 years ago.

  • Emotional Strength: Children have a healthier sense of self when they know their roots, and a better ability to cope with life’s challenges.  “Knowledge of family history is significantly correlated with a [sense of] control, higher self-esteem, better family functioning, greater family cohesiveness, lower levels of anxiety, and lower incidence of behavior problems,” according to an Emory University study[iv]. “Hearing these stories gave the children a sense of their history and a strong ‘intergenerational self’. Even if they were only nine, their identity stretched back 100 years, giving them connection, strength and resilience,” he said.

  • Learning The Right Way:  They’ll likely uncover their origins anyway, so they should find out from you.  Children can find out in so many ways – at a doctor’s office when talking about family history, at a family event, or through genetic history services when they’re older. At that point, a child may likely be shocked and very disturbed to discover that you’ve been hiding this secret. Best to tell them when they’re young enough to process their story as healthy and positive.  

  • Children’s 6th Sense: Children pick up more than we know!  They can sense secrets and can assume the worst.  They won’t necessarily tell you, because they feel responsible for the trouble, creating unhealthy doubt and anxiety.

  • Medical & Genetic Awareness: Family medical histories can be extremely valuable, perhaps not immediately, but definitely as they grow older, and have children of their own.  They can better manage health risks, and even avoid accidental mating by genetic relations… a real possibility in our shrinking world!

 Early, open, positive communication provides children with the best foundation to be grounded and comfortable in their own shoes, so we’ll provide some insight and ideas, and you can take it from here!  Start when they’re infants, if you can!  Carol Lieber Wilkins (a family therapist specializing in reproductive medicine and mother of one adopted and one gamete-donated child) and other recipient parents provide great perspective to encourage open communication early on:

  • You get to practice!  When kids are very young, you have an opportunity to test out, make it fun, and get out any awkwardness in the words, before they even understand what you’re saying.

  • Children are curious!  They ask all kinds of questions, and have an acute sense for when parents are uncomfortable or being secretive.  Questions are equally important – why is the sky blue? And Where did I come from? Why don’t I look like you? Your answer and comfort with the answer provide a framework for a child to feel at ease about their story.

  • They get to practice!  Kids will practice on friends and family when you’re present, or in their daycare environment, where you can control the outcomes by informing educators and guiding conversations among the children, when you are present.

If you haven’t yet, it’s never too late to start the conversation. 

Check out my next blog, “How do I tell my little ones where they came from?” for more information on sharing with your baby or toddler.

[i] Carol LieberWilkins (2009), How To Talk With Kids About Their Unique Conception

[ii] Embryo Connections (Nov 2018), Anonymous survey among 59 embryo recipient families in social media support groups

[iii] Maccallum, Fiona & Keeley, Sarah. (2009). Embryo Donation Families: A Follow-Up in Middle Childhood. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43). 22. 799-808. 10.1037/a0013197.

[iv] Duke, M. P., Lazarus, A., & Fivush, R. (2008). Knowledge of family history as a clinically useful index of psychological well-being and prognosis: A brief report. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45(2), 268-272.