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Telling your child that he/she is donor-conceived: the full guide to parents

A mother sitting cheek to cheek with her child who is donor-conceived.

Do you wonder when and how to tell your child that it is donor-conceived? Then read on. We spoke with psychologist Henriette Cranil who specialises in counselling women and couples considering donor-assisted conception. Henriette used a sperm donor herself to have her twins. In this blog post, Henriette provides advice on how to tell your child and what to say at which age. 

When should I tell my child that he or she is donor-conceived?

The operative word here is when, not if you should tell your child. Henriette Cranil advises that you always tell your child about his or her biological heritage.

According to Henriette Cranil, it’s a good idea to start telling your child about its background from the very beginning. Most children can sense the mood in their mother’s or father’s voice before they develop language of their own. For that reason, your child will associate the topic of donor-assisted conception with something positive when you explain it to them in a relaxed and open manner.

“There are no guarantees that conversations with your child will always be easy”, Henriette says. But if you start telling your child at an early age that it is donor-conceived, you’re paving the way for a general openness around the topic. This will make it a more natural thing to talk about as your child grows older. Start by explaining in very simple terms how children come into this world. Then, explain how this is done with donor sperm or donor eggs. Keep your language simple and consider making your story more concrete by drawing it or using a picture book.”

The earlier you start having this conversation, the better. Sharing the truth has a huge impact on the connection and trust between yourself and your child. Knowing our biological heritage is incredibly important to our sense of self and the development of our identity. For that reason, a child should learn about being a donor child early on. Having said that, Henriette Cranil stresses that it’s never too late to tell your child about their biological background.

What should I say to my child when I tell him/her that they’re donor-conceived?

It might be difficult to start a conversation about being donor-conceived with your child. But Henriette Cranil reminds us that the relationship between child and parent won’t suffer from having conversations about difficult topics. On the contrary, it can strengthen the bond between yourself and your child.

According to Henriette Cranil, we should be careful not to transfer any apprehension we might have about the topic to our children. Often, children have a much more simple and straightforward outlook on the world. That goes for this topic as well.

Depending on the situation and the age of the child, you can start the conversation in many ways. Regardless of circumstance, Henriette Cranil advises that you, the adult, initiate the conversation. Don’t wait for the child to start asking questions. You need to take responsibility and make sure that the dialogue about the topic is positive and natural.

Henriette adds: “There are no details or considerations about the process that you should omit when speaking to the child. But make sure you match the level of complexity with your child’s age and comprehension level.”

At which age do I say what?

Donor children aged 0-2

At this age, it’s a good idea to tell your child about the situation gradually. Tell him or her in small snippets while your child is playing or while you’re spending some downtime together. 

“You can draw the situation or read one of the many good children’s books on the topic. Picture books showing how children come into the world are also a good option. At this age, your child won’t fully comprehend what you’re telling them, but fragments of your story will settle into their minds and over time, form the basis of their understanding.

Donor children aged 2-5

During this time, your child will develop enough language and cognitive skills for you to tell them more about the donor. You can also start to explain to them why you decided to get help to have children.

“Books, images and puzzles will enable the child to start asking questions and think aloud, so you can have an open conversation. Typically, children this age won’t maintain conversation for long, so it’s a good idea to return to the subject once in a while. Again, you should initiate the conversation and not wait for your child to bring it up.”

At this age, children will also start getting questions about their family from their friends. Questions or statements about how you can have two mothers or that the child doesn’t have a father will pop up. It’s natural for children this age to be curious about each other and wonder about things that are different from themselves.

Henriette explains: “It’s normal for kids this age to start making sense of what they experience. For instance, by saying that ‘Hannah’s dad is dead.’ This makes sense to a small child because he or she distinguishes between something being present or something being absent. If it’s absent, it must be because it’s dead.”

Henriette recommends that you explain to your child that his or her dad isn’t dead. Instead, tell your child that he’s a sperm donor (“a man who has provided sperm”). That way, your child has answers at the ready when friends ask questions. It gives the child a sense of security that he can answer the question himself: “I don’t have a daddy. My mum used a donor who gave her some sperm cells, so she could have me”.

Donor children aged 5-9

When children reach this age level, their way of thinking starts to mature. The child will start asking questions of her own and connect pieces of information provided to her.

It’s common that children from the age of 6 or 7 are interested in matters relating to life and death. For instance, the origin of life on earth, where we come from and perhaps the history of the family. That means lots of openings for new conversations about the topic of being donor-conceived. Including themes like what does mum know about my donor?, can I meet my donor?, do I have half-siblings? and so on. Again, Henriette Cranil recommends that you, the adult, initiate the conversation. But most likely, a lot of the questions will come from the child – provided that the topic of donor-assisted conception has been openly discussed in the past.

Children this age pick up impressions from all over: television, social media and so on. These sources of information will provide ample opportunity for conversation. Perhaps it’s an interview with a donor explaining his thought process before deciding to donate or an adult donor child telling her story. You’ll be able to gradually tell your child more and more about the topic. And in turn, this will lead to more questions from your child.

Pre-teen donor children (9-13 years of age)

Most pre-teens have a well-developed capability of abstract thinking. This means that they’re able to ask nuanced questions, draw logical conclusions and imagine situations that are not based on personal experience.

At the beginning of this age level, children go from asking “what questions” – what are egg and sperm cells? What is a donor? What does it mean to be donor-conceived? – to an interest in correlations. That means, questions starting with “why” or “how”. Why did mum choose to use a sperm donor? Why don’t I have a dad? How does a medical professional perform inseminations?

“As a parent, you need to welcome these new types of questions. Also, know that your child will reflect more deeply on the topic: how do I feel about being donor-conceived? How do I feel about being compared to a traditional family?”, Henriette says.

The role of the adult continues to be that of supporting the child in all reflections. You need to be open and curious about positive as well as potentially critical thoughts that the child is having. This openness and willingness to listen to the full breadth of what your child is thinking should be sustained through adolescence.

Henriette summarises: an adult donor child should possess all information about their biological heritage and the considerations driving the choices to have him or her.

Can I get help to tell my child that it is donor-conceived?

Some professionals have specialised in counselling parents on donor children-related topics, among them Henriette herself.

“I find it really positive when parents seek professional help to make sure that they do the right thing for their child and the family as a whole”, Henriette says. “That said, a lot of the work can be done by parents on their own if they shed their insecurities and apprehension about the topic. Start talking to your child today – if you are open to and non-judgmental towards their reactions, you’re already well on your way.”

Single mother by choice holding baby in her arms with a playground in the background

Having a baby on your own? 7 survival tips for single mothers by choice

Single mother by choice holding baby in her arms with a playground in the background

If you’re considering becoming a single mother by choice, you’re probably asking yourself a wealth of questions. How will I cope with years of interrupted sleep? What about male role models? And the question to sum it all up: Can I do it alone?

The short answer is: yes, you absolutely can. But there are ways to organise yourself that will make your life as a single mother by choice a lot easier.

At European Sperm Bank, we speak to thousands of women who choose to become single mothers each year. Here, we’ve collected our top tips for preparing to have a child on your own.

1. Baby-proof your life as a single mother by choice

Becoming a parent is one of the most incredible experiences and it’s a decision you’ll never regret. For many people – whether they be single mothers by choice or couples – having a child is also one of the most overwhelming experiences they’ll ever go through. So think about how you can organise yourself to make everyday life with a child as easy as possible.

Making life with kids as easy as possible could mean moving closer to your family and friends, so you have your network close by. Or perhaps you’ll want to find a job with a better work-life balance.

Also, it’s expensive to have children. So start your journey to motherhood by reviewing your financial situation. Creating a budget will give you an overview of your fixed vs. your discretionary spending. That way, you can determine if you need to make changes to your life in order to pay for everything that a child needs.

And while you’re at it, consider leaving room in your budget for more than just baby stuff. With extra money to spare, you might be able to afford a regular nanny. Or you can order take-out for the umpteenth time. Whatever gets you by when you’ve had 3 hours of sleep.

2. Find someone to share the small moments with

Have you ever rolled your eyes at parents cooing over their baby’s newfound ability to ____? Or wondered how people can spend so long talking about toilet routines and feeding rituals?

Once you become a mother, you’ll realise how the smallest things can mean so much – whether it’s glee or worry. It’s your baby girl snoozing on your chest. Or the tiny rash on your toddler’s arm that’s been lingering for days.

Two-parent families have each other. They can marvel at and obsess over everything together. As a single parent, it can get lonely sometimes.

To counter this feeling, make sure you have a reliable network to share things with. If you don’t have family or friends that you’re close with, there are online communities for single mothers by choice. Speak openly to the special people around you about wanting them to be close to your child’s life. It means the world to have someone who takes an active interest and to whom no moment or concern is too small.

“Sharing the small moments in life with other adults creates what you might call life witnesses. People who are included in the small things, not just milestone events. This shows the child that his or her life is important – a crucial way to build their self-esteem,” says psychologist Henriette Cranil. Henriette specialises in counselling women and couples who are considering donor-assisted conception. She is part of our expert panel here at European Sperm Bank.

3. Creating your family’s story. Or the answer to “where is my daddy?”

At some point, your child will start asking questions along the lines of “where is my daddy?”. As a single mother by choice, it’s a good idea to think about how to explain your family situation to your child early on.

For instance, the choices you make about your sperm donor might affect your story. How did you choose the sperm donor? Did you want someone you could see yourself dating in real life or did you choose a donor who looked like you? Open or non-contact donor – what were the reasons for your decision? Consider writing down your reasons if you worry that you might forget over time.

Also, make sure you acquire as much information about the sperm donor as possible. Your child might never want to know all the details, but having a full donor profile leaves options open for your child to find out more about their donor.

With these preparations in place, you’ll have the building blocks you need for telling your child about how they came into this world. Experts advise that donor-conceived children are told the truth as early as possible, so start telling your child this story from day one.

4. The sad, legal stuff. Who will take care of my child if I die?

Nobody wants to think about this part. It’s an uncomfortable question and it’s hardly something you’re thinking about when choosing to become a mum. But it’s a good investment of your time.

Once a mum, make sure that you create a will in which you nominate a guardian for your child in case the worst happens. Make sure that you ask the person you’re nominating if they are willing to take care of your child.  

Legislation and legal practice vary from country to country. Typically, a family court will decide who should take care of orphaned children. The court will assess all options and make a decision based on what it deems best for the child. In such cases, knowing the will of the parent is valuable information.

5. Stop comparing yourself to two-parent families

Many women considering single motherhood worry whether they can provide everything that a child needs. Basically, will the child suffer from not growing up in a normal family?

The truth is that no family is ‘normal’. In the UK, for instance, single-parent families make up nearly a quarter of families with dependent children

And remember, two-parent families eat lots of frozen dinners, too.

6. Practice asking for help

Most of us are terrible at asking for help. But like all new parents, you’ll appreciate a helping hand. Whether it’s a last-minute deadline at work or taking time to yourself, you’ll be wise to lean on others for support sometimes.

Psychologist Henriette Cranil advises that you plan early: “It’s a good idea to ask your network about their commitment before the baby arrives. How much can you count on them for errands or last-minute babysitting? That way, it’s easier for you to ask for help when you need it.”

Also, remember that most people love to help. By asking for help you’re showing the other person that you think of them as resourceful and trustworthy. Don’t worry about being a burden.

7. Take some time to yourself and don’t beat yourself up over it

Mothers are excellent at caring for their children. Sometimes they do pretty poorly when it comes to taking care of themselves, though. But the truth is, you need time to yourself to be the best parent you can be. Especially as a single mother by choice.

Henriette Cranil reminds us that taking time away from our kids actually benefits the children, too: “Children will love walking home with a friend to their house after school once in a while. It teaches them that they are not dependent on their parent(s). ‘I can do this on my own.’ Learning that lesson builds self-esteem and confidence.”

‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’

Many women considering single motherhood worry whether they have the stamina or resources to have a baby on their own. But with these tips and your unconditional love for your future child, you will be fine. In fact, the only regret we hear from single mothers by choice is “why didn’t I do this sooner?”