Mommy, why am I different?
February 5, 2007 5:45 PM   Subscribe

IVF + donor eggs = very cute child., but worried about the day he starts asking questions.

We have a child (currently toddler age) through IVF that is the product of the father's sperm and a donor egg. There are features of this child like hair color that is slight different than daddy and mommy. And a careful eye may show that none of mom's prominent features are present. Perhaps when he is much older, our child might notice these things, or hear it from his peers. Then again, he may not even notice.

Right now, besides our pediatrician, only 2 close relatives know that we used donor eggs, and we have their assurance that this information will never spread, unless we say so.

For parents who are in a similar situation as us, or for those who are in a situation similar to our child, what advice would you have in terms of (1) whether or not we reveal the donor egg background to the child and (2) if we tell the child, when is an appropriate age to do it?

Bonus thanks for pointers to any forums, articles or books that discuss this type of decision.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (37 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I come from a family of many, many adoptees, and my family's opinion is that the truth is always the best policy. Of course your situation is a bit different, but it is not fair to your child to keep this a secret, and the truth often has a way of rearing it's ugly head in the least opportune times.
posted by Brittanie at 5:55 PM on February 5, 2007

This is a hard question, and obviously there is the matter of stigma, which I don't really know how to counsel you about.

From my perspective, it appears to me that the family history has implications in some medical situations, and as our knowledge of the genome grows the importance of this information in making medical decisions will only grow. Even nowadays, family studies in medical genetics occasionally uncover people whose biological parentage is not what was stated; the percentage is surprisingly high, probably more than 1% of the general population but probably not as high as 10%.

Docs are used to dealing with uncertainty in cases like this, especially in the cases of orphans and such. But since you have at least some information about his genetic background, it appears ethical to me to provide that information to him, not withhold it. If you decide to do so, there's a case for waiting until his adolescence was over and his feeling of personal identity is fairly well established; this makes it less likely that the information will precipitate some kind of emotional crisis.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:02 PM on February 5, 2007

I just finished The Genius Factory, by David Plotz, deputy editor of It's the true story of the "Nobel Prize" sperm bank operating in California in the 1980's and 90's, where donors were recruited for their intellect and supposedly superior genes.

It's a quick fascinating read, and there's a lot of history of donor insemination and Eugenics 101, but there's a strong element of emotional insight, as Plotz befriends several of the AI children. He is close to their situation but not too close, ergo seemingly objective, so the families trust him and share a lot of their feelings about the situation.

The kids themselves open up about their "social" parent versus their biological one, and analyze how their familial relationships changed after they learned about the donor.

Most of the kids were interviewed in the last few years, so this is a really fresh perspective. Maybe it will help you mull things over.

Good luck with what I can only imagine to be a difficult decision!
posted by pineapple at 6:08 PM on February 5, 2007

I don't know why you would be reluctant to tell him the circumstances of his conception... It's certainly not a stigma... He is obviously a very wanted child...

As Brittanie said above, the truth has a way of coming out regardless of how carefully you try to hide it... But, in your case, it's not an "ugly" secret, nor is it something to be ashamed of...

I don't think it's something you need to present to him as if it were a bombshell, just make it something that's openly talked about throughout his childhood (explaining things using words that he will understand, and offering more detail as he gets older)...

I did a cursory search of Amazon and found this children's book about in vitro fertilization, and I'm sure there must be others.
posted by amyms at 6:17 PM on February 5, 2007

No, don't wait until he's a teenager. He'll feel lied-to by the people he needs to trust most in the world. Very much a bombshell.

If you explain it at the same time you're going over sex and conception anyway, he'll be fine. For little kids "normal" is whatever they and their families do. He'll deal with it just fine.

Because you kept the conditions of conception a secret from everyone else, though, your friends and family are the ones going to be hit with the bombshell. You'll have to rehearse being casual about it.
posted by kika at 6:29 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

Who are you protecting by keeping this a secret?

If you tell him now, as he asks questions, answering him in age-appropriate ways, you can have the joy of an honest relationship with your son. Making this a *secret* gives it a lot more power than it needs to have- why create a ticking time bomb over this? He will find out sooner or later (these things always come out) and if it is later rather than sooner he will be left wondering why you lied to him about this *and* what else you have been lying about to him.
posted by ambrosia at 6:32 PM on February 5, 2007

I don't mean to be snarky here, but I'm kind of amazed that you're considering keeping this a secret, and that you haven't already been open about this.

There's nothing to be embarrassed about. The sooner you casually start dropping it in to conversations (in an age-appropriate way) the sooner your kid will consider this to be absolutely ordinary. (As, indeed, it is.)

Keeping it secret is a terrible, terrible, terrible idea. He will find out. He will be both stunned by the reveal and feel betrayed by the people he trusted most. That's not a happy family situation to be in, and I know this from personal experience.

Most children adore hearing their birth stories. Why not just weave this one aspect into it?

"Well, when Mommy and Daddy decided that they wanted a baby, they needed a little bit of help..."
posted by thehmsbeagle at 6:45 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I was lied to about my parentage as a child. It sucks. I found out by "accident" when I was 12 and I was devastated. I felt very betrayed and like no one in my life was trustworthy obviously, since no one had bothered to tell me the truth. I'm positive that this experience would have been much different if I had known from the beginning. I have to side with the tell the child the truth from the start people, it's a much better way to go I think.
posted by yodelingisfun at 6:52 PM on February 5, 2007

Perhaps when he is much older, our child might notice these things, or hear it from his peers. Then again, he may not

I would doubt it. I have a seemingly random redhead sister, as far as I know nobody ever asked her, "Are you sure you weren't adopted or something?" Except us when we were being mean :-P
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:56 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

I am the parent of an adopted child and the adoption agency gave us great advice about telling him that he's adopted (admittedly, a different situation, but similar).

They said we should start telling him about his adoption the day we took him home (he was 3 days old) and to keep telling him on a regular basis. The reasoning, which I find compelling, was that a) if you wait until you think he's "ready" you will inevitably be too late and b) the longer you wait, the harder it will be to find the words. So, telling the story before he can understand you let's you find a way to tell the story comfortably. Plus, there's no shock for him, it's just always been part of his existence.

I would strongly advise against waiting. There will no doubt be some sense of betrayal if you keep such a fundamental truth from him.
posted by qldaddy at 7:07 PM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

A+ to the responses so far. No IVF experience myself, but I come from an adoptive family, I work in the adoption industry, and this is the party line on telling your child about your non-traditional family:

Start young. Start now. Get a few books, leave them around the house, make it a not-a-big-deal part of every day life. This is part of your child's identity and ultimately he's the one who gets to decide how significant it is. If, in the meantime, you shy away from it or are uncomfortable discussing it, he's going to pick up on that. If you decide to keep it from him, for any amount of time, you're sending the message that this is something shameful or weird. It's not. It's just one more way to make a family.

If you think it would be helpful to read through some of the literature on discussing adoption with children, let me know. I suspect it'll be relevant to your situation. I can recommend a whole stack of articles from the adoption publications I've worked with. The adoption community has been dealing with this for years, there's a ton of good literature on how to deal with these questions, how to prep your child for the questions they might face, and so on.
posted by sonofslim at 7:10 PM on February 5, 2007

I'm going to Nth the recommendation not to make it a secret, not to make it a big deal. My SO's biological father is an anonymous sperm donor; she's known about this since a young age, and it's never been a trauma or problem for her. (She doesn't remember when she found out, but her parents say they put off telling her until she was 10. Clearly it wasn't a big deal for her at the time, although her mom was worried it would be.)

She makes the point that, as a kid, sometimes you wonder (no matter how well loved you are) if you were a mistake, if maybe your parents didn't want you; knowing that they went to a lot of trouble in order to conceive you can be reassuring.
posted by hattifattener at 7:12 PM on February 5, 2007

I once babysat a girl whose parents had her adoption certificate framed over her bed (the girl was 6 mos. old when I took care of her). I don't know how it turned out for that family, but I've always thought that if I adopted a kid, I'd do the same. In any event, there are certainly families who've shared this information as early as possible with their kids.
posted by occhiblu at 7:21 PM on February 5, 2007

I don't think that this situation is very much like adoption, but I agree with the consensus that the potential downside of secrecy is far worse than the downside of the kid knowing (which is most likely none).

Our first son was the result of several years of infertilty treatment (though not IVF) -- we've never hiden the fact from our him, nor made a big deal about it. He seems hapy, well adjusted, and unconcerned. It's not quite the same as your situation, but I think that a similarly low key approach would serve you best. Don't worry about "telling" him, just make sure it's never hidden.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 7:52 PM on February 5, 2007

I'm sorry, but to those of you arguing to tell him now... just how do you plan to explain donor eggs to a toddler?! I would wait until the child asks about what pregnancy is, at least.
posted by IndigoRain at 8:22 PM on February 5, 2007

Speaking from experience, just make sure you and your spouse are in AGREEMENT about telling people or not in general, and your kid in particular.
My wife feels ashamed that she has not contributed genetic material to our beautiful son. She is a marvelous mother.
I attach no stigma to her "only being the oven and not the pastry chef" argument, and maybe she'll change her mind some day.
But I told my parents about our using IVF and caused my wife great distress.
Talk it out!
posted by Dizzy at 8:27 PM on February 5, 2007

Indigorain has a point. I'm not sure how drilling an incomprehensible fact into his head is going to accomplish anything. The appropriate thing to do would be to correct his assumptions and answer his questions honestly.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 8:38 PM on February 5, 2007

I have no direct experience of the subject matter, but, if I'm reading your post correctly, there are only very small, very subtle differences in appearance between you and your child?

A slight difference in hair colour? Someone would have to look with a "careful eye" to see anything at all?

I don't know why you're worried about it being discovered.

I'm sure the overwhelming advice to be open about it is the correct advice, but surely you're being a little paranoid in thinking that the child or someone who knows him will somehow guess that he's not the biological child? That seems to me incredibly unlikely.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:11 PM on February 5, 2007

For a little kid, "mommy" has nothing to do with genes. A little kid doesn't know what genes are and wouldn't understand the explanation.

Mommy is the woman who loves the kid and cares for him, and that's what's important. You are his mother. It doesn't matter in the slightest where the egg came from; he was created because you love your husband, and he loves you, and both of you love your son.

That's what you tell him. That's what he'll understand -- and it has the added benefit of being completely true.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:23 PM on February 5, 2007

By the way, as regards hair color:

My dad's hair was black. My mom's hair was dark brown. They had three kids and all of us are redheads. That's just how it goes sometimes. We all look a lot more like each other than any of us look like either of our parents.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:25 PM on February 5, 2007

tell the kid as soon as possible. talk to adoptive parents and parents of children who used donated genetic material for advice about how to break the news and how much to explain at what age--there are lots of support groups out there.

if your wife is upset about not having been able to contribute genetically to the child, then she should see a therapist about it, because that's a hangup that will affect her parenting. she's probably afraid that the child will eventually want to seek out his "real" mother and choose biology over nurture. it's a common fear among adoptive mothers and there are lots of strategies for coping with and conquering that fear. besides, keeping a secret is rough and breeds resentment--not a good thing.

a friend of mine, an educated, competent career woman, learned the truth of her parenthood in her twenties and was devastated. it's literally taken years for her to recover from it. don't lie to your child about where he came from. the pain you will all feel when he finds out later will be far greater than the discomfort of explaining it now.
posted by thinkingwoman at 9:30 PM on February 5, 2007

I agree with everyone else--you should tell him now. And as for the people who are wondering how you're supposed to explain egg donation to a two-year-old, well, we say a LOT of things to little kids that go way over their heads (sometimes even when we think we're being very clear).

How would you explain to a toddler that the earth orbits the sun, or how the car moves on its own? He's not going to get it at first, but that's how kids' thinking gets more sophisticated--when you don't talk down to them. The OP need only state concisely what happened--"we took a something from Daddy, added a little piece from someone else, and then you went in Mommy's tummy to grow." The kid's not going to find that any more unusual than the fact that the lights magically turn on and off by flipping a switch.

AND, as little kids start asking about where babies come from, you know that their favorite part is always the baby in the tummy--and you have that, OP. Doesn't matter how it started.
posted by folara at 10:06 PM on February 5, 2007

I was adopted at birth through an open adoption, and have very similar advice to that of qldaddy above. Adoption is a different situation, but I don't think there's any more of a stigma attached to IVF than adoption - which is to say very little at all.

Like qldaddy writes, I've always known of my adoption, though the earliest story I know is of when I was five years old, talking it over with my mom. I cried and told her that I wanted to come out of her belly.

Was it difficult for me to understand as a young child? Probably. But I deserve to know my biological background and have always had that right. I am able to have a stronger, closer, more trusting relationship with my parents because I never felt duped or lied to.

I'm sure that your child will feel the way I do: my adoptive parents will always be my only true parents, and nothing can change that. I've met my birthmother and she is an incredible person, but you and your spouse are the ones putting love, energy, food, and shelter into your baby and that's that. S/he deserves to know.
posted by coolhappysteve at 10:42 PM on February 5, 2007

Well, whether you tell the tyke now or later, he has a right to know his heritage. Truth is probably the best thing, I would think. Then again, I'm not in your circumstances. Good luck.
posted by geekhorde at 11:04 PM on February 5, 2007

If anything, the kid should find out from you first - without having to someday ask you. Or to be put in an uncomfortable situation...

For example, my biology professor tells this tale of a girl who asked, "Is it possible for a child to have AB blood type when her parents are A an O?" As the teacher was in a lesson on blood types, he didn't think about the possibilities, and jokingly said, "No! Absolutely not! Ask the milkman!" And the next day the girl comes to him and tells him that after class that day, she went back home to her parents ... and found out she was adopted, they just never had the heart to tell her.

And it's quite okay for a child to know from the start that he or she was adopted. I could pull real-life various examples of this to tell you, but the easiest one to refer to at the moment is one that is on TV. Yes, I know TV isn't a complete reflection of reality, but take a look at the situation of Claire from NBC's "Heroes".
posted by Xere at 12:33 AM on February 6, 2007

Definitely tell him! He's a much loved child, the mechanics are incidental.

Also, IVF is so much more common nowadays (I'd bet that he's not the only child in his class?), there must be resources out there that will help in explaining this in age appropriate terms.

For your sake too, I'm so sad that it's a secret amongst your family and friends. To me, a successful IVF is something to be celebrated with joy rather than hidden away in secret. I do hope that you're able to share it with a wider group.
posted by ceri richard at 2:32 AM on February 6, 2007

just to echo that my two blond bombshells look nothing like me, and I've only ever had one direct question about that in 10 years.
Secondly this is somthing that should come out when the child is old enough to understand basic reproductive health information, because that is what this is.
When explaining genitalia, sex, periods and childbirth, you start off at an early age with very simple explanations suitable for that age. As time goes on you will find that your explanations are questioned more. So you tailor your answers to the newer understanding your child is showing in the subject. For me an issue this detailed (although not this exact question) came up when my daughter was 15, I simply worked into the question and answer we were having why I was slightly different to the textbook case. I was a bit concernd but it was fine and just felt right at that time and in that context. I'm guessing that this may be different with a boy but I do feel a conversation will arise around the late teens that will allow you to work in the information
posted by Wilder at 3:56 AM on February 6, 2007

I'm not sure I can offer anything more than what has already been said, but I would like to say that, as an adopted child, myself, I think knowing from a very early age was best for me. While I, until recently (and due to other reasons, other than being ashamed or anything), never really walked around telling people I was adopted, it was hardly this big, terrible secret I had, either. I agree that knowing your parents went to great lengths to have you makes you feel special in such a good way that any other negative connotations that might exist in society are easily ignored (and I would also argue that society is used to this kind of thing). I will also add my voice to those saying tell him early. My memory is hazy, but my recollection is that I was told at the same time I got "the sex talk." For me, that was fairly early, and it all was really no big deal, at the time.
posted by hankbear at 5:23 AM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

IndogoRain, you'd explain IVF to a toddler the same way you'd explain pregnancy -- in broad terms. When they're ready for details, they'll ask. Folara's got a great answer to that effect. The important thing is not to spring it on the child at some later point, but to work it into his own story in a way that doesn't make it seem like some dark secret.

To the OP, whether or not you agree with those of us who see similarities with adoption, I'd just like to emphasize this: Relax! Lots of people have been through this before. It doesn't have to be difficult.
posted by sonofslim at 5:28 AM on February 6, 2007

One article - note the part near the end that suggests that DNA testing advances might decrease the odds of even being able to keep the secret (c.f. blood type example above).

NY Times article, The Berkeley Parents Network, Natl Infertility Assn - see helpline number at very bottom of the page.

You might be able to find some resources from your doctors as well.

I agree with the idea of getting yourselves comfortable with the idea. Your son will take his cues from you - the more normal and less of a big deal that you treat it, the more likely he will treat it the same.

I don't have a frame of reference for what you might be feeling as parents, but I agree with telling him. Families come in all different varities, and your son will have friends with all kinds of family situations. I bet he will like hearing his story.
posted by KAS at 6:53 AM on February 6, 2007

I wouldn't tell him because I can't think of a situation where it may "come up" outside of a genetic disorder diagnosis. Adoption is different -- there's no biological link, the mother didn't carry the child, the child was placed in the family after it was born (maybe months after), earliest memories of the child might be that of separation, etc. The fact you carried the child, birthed the child, had the child from his first memories, and the father is his biological father make him biologically a part of both of you.

He's not "different" from you. Afterall, your body nourished him for nine months; your blood flowed through his veins. He's your child, donor egg or no. Why is it important for you to tell him?

(BTW, I have two adopted cousins and three other cousins born with donor sperm.)
posted by parilous at 7:33 AM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Parilous's comment sort of typifies the "there's no reason to tell your child" school of thought, whereas the majority of comments here are of the "there's no reason not to tell him." My objection to the former comes from the feeling that not telling your child implies that there's something worrisome or troubling about the circumstances of his birth, and that he'd be happier or better off not knowing. When he does find out, you better believe he's going to internalize that message.

And those of us who have been through the adoption conversation all seem to agree that, really, it's not so different. The details aren't the same, but as was pointed out upthread, the mechanics are pretty inconsequential. All you're really saying is some families do it one way; we did it a little differently, and that's ok.
posted by sonofslim at 8:07 AM on February 6, 2007

Also, a book that you might find helpful.
posted by KAS at 8:18 AM on February 6, 2007

Those that have said you need to start the conversation now as opposed to much later are right on.

In my mid-30s I learned that my dad had been married previously and there were 2 offspring from that marriage. It was something he never spoke of. Ever. I was hurt and felt betrayed and denied of the right of knowing my siblings. It was, and remains, a terrible feeling.

Things like this, and like your situation need to be shared and communicated throughout your child's life. Hiding the fact from him will only build resentment when the time comes that he finds out the truth. And trust me, no matter how much you think the fact is hidden away, at some point it will come out.

IMO, you should be celebrating this fact with him that modern medicine provided you with this wonderful option that gave you your son.
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 8:47 AM on February 6, 2007

Just another voice in the "tell early as part of the sex talk stuff" chorus. When I was very small, an older, I guess she was a cousin or second cousin, in my extended family found out that she was biologically her mother's from a previous relationship and raised as her father's. She was 13 and she obviously felt hurt, as she ran away and she's never been heard from.

Since then, the larger family has made it a point to be honest -- with IVF, with adoption, with fertility treatment, with everything that could be close to age appropriate -- with all the children from a very young age. I haven't seen any of them ashamed, worried or hurt about their heritage. Often, at around age 8 or so, there is bragging. I was created special as opposed to luck of the draw and the like.

Kids learn shame from us. Don't be ashamed of it and he won't be either.

Oh, and just because something won't be found out doesn't mean it shouldn't be shared. The fewer secrets in families, the better in my experience.
posted by Gucky at 9:18 AM on February 6, 2007

I'm a young guy and having kids isn't even on my radar yet, but I've never understood NOT telling kids they're adopted, and in this case I would say that's even more true. I think explaining IVF to a kid could be difficult, yes, but I think it could be a much less devestating thing than full-blown adoption. I'm with pretty much everyone else that you should reveal the info now.

This is probably the idealist in me talking, but I think explaining to him as he grows up that someone donated their eggs to help someone out who couldn't have children on their own could give him a much more positive view on the world and the people in it... I guess letting him know there are still nice and helpful people left in the world, and that he's very personally connected to one of them.
posted by joshrholloway at 9:16 AM on February 7, 2007

My parents began telling me about my other-than-normal biological parentage before I could understand words. As it is normal to me, there was never a point in my life where it was an upsetting issue. It was an occasional curiosity, and I came back to ask my parents various questions as I grew up.

All the friends and acquaintances whose parents decided to wait "until they could understand" were upset or disturbed by the revelation at ten, fifteen, or even seventeen years old.

I hope you can remember this when it comes up in the rebellious years... Many children of mysterious (or even mildly unusual) parentage have a Little Orphan Annie fantasy of what their "real" parents are like, and how they might be waiting out there somewhere to rescue them from their boring/unfair/whatever life. It was a stage my sister went through, and it nearly broke my mother's heart. But she got over it as she outgrew her rebellious years.
posted by Elsbet at 7:43 PM on February 7, 2007

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