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Tips for Parents of Adult Donor-Conceived People

Are you about to disclose, or do you have a child who just found out the truth?

Key points

  • Many parents have not been honest with their donor-conceived adult children because they're afraid of anger and/or rejection.
  • Donor-conceived people deserve to hear the truth and the emotion behind why they were not told earlier.
  • Donor-conceived people's natural curiosity about their ancestry, medical history, and close genetic relatives is not a betrayal.
Source: vectorlab/123RF

It’s become commonplace for DNA tests to reveal donor conception origins to many adults around the world.

Some parents may be struggling with adult donor-conceived children who have found out the truth on their own and may be dealing with feelings of shock, anger, confusion, sadness, or grief.

Other parents, who have kept the secret for decades, are finally deciding to tell their children the long-held truth about the way that they were conceived, understanding that their children will fare better when the truth comes from them and not from an unknown relative or a DNA website.

When is the best time to tell?

There will never be a “perfect” time, so the sooner, the better. The best time to tell is when a donor-conceived person (DCP) is very young, but if the donor-conceived adult hasn’t yet been told, the best time is now. This is not a parent’s secret to carry. It’s important that parents do the psychological work necessary to be emotionally capable of having the conversation and adequately supporting their children, including talking about and understanding the reasons why they haven’t disclosed the truth before now.

This process can be difficult but also very positive and affirming, and it can lead to a more honest and open family system with relationships now based on truth.

Parents can tell their stories about why they decided to use donor conception.

Parents are setting the tone for all future conversations about their children’s conception and should try to keep the conversation light, even using some humor if possible. They need to be as grounded, calm, and level-headed as possible because their donor-conceived children will look to them for answers about why their conception stories were kept from them. Complete openness and honesty are crucial.

Explain very honestly why they haven’t disclosed before now.

Parents shouldn’t be defensive or use their personal stories as an excuse. The DCP will want (and deserves) to hear the truth and the emotion behind why they were not told earlier. What were they (or their spouse) hesitant about or afraid of? Why shoulder this secret for so long? Knowing all of this can help their children adequately process their own complicated emotions (which might include anger, sadness, grief, confusion, or even relief) while also feeling empathy toward their parents.

Parents can let their children know that they made the best decisions they could with the information they had at the time. Many parents were advised by their gamete vendor (clinic or sperm bank) or doctor to keep the secret. They can tell their children how it has felt to carry this information as a secret and how they’ve recently come to learn about the importance of honesty and full disclosure. Parents should also tell their children who else knows.

Share any and all information.

For parents with children born before the 1980s (fresh sperm), they may have little, if any, information about the donor, while most parents with children born from the 1980s through the present time (frozen sperm) usually do have a donor profile or other non-identifying information about the donor that can be shared.

Apologize, and own it.

Parents need to own their choices. In both scenarios, where DCPs learned the truth on their own or when parents disclosed it to them as adults, it’s important for parents to apologize. This was their children’s information to have, and the parents kept it from them for too long. Parents can keep apologizing to allow their children to move freely through their emotions without getting stuck in anger.

Recognize the negative implications of asking a donor-conceived person to keep the “secret.”

Secrecy can imply shame and/or guilt. DCP can respond negatively when asked to carry on the shame of infertility in the form of secrecy. This is a burden that should never be passed along from parent to DCP.

Parents should be ready to continue the conversation.

This is not a one-time conversation between parents and their donor-conceived adult children. Some parents make the mistake of telling but then never talking about it again. This gives their children the clear message that the topic of their conception story is unwelcome or too embarrassing or shameful to discuss.

It’s important that DCPs know that their origin stories are a welcomed, ongoing conversation and that parents will be there for them as they process this new information, tell family and friends, and incorporate it into their identity. It’s OK for parents to disclose their own discomfort while admitting that they, too, are evolving and on a healing journey. Parents can gently broach the topic regularly, even if their children don’t, so that their kids know they’re there to help them understand what this new information means to them and their lives.

This is just the first step.

Parents must make sure their adult children know that any curiosity they have about their half-siblings and/or their unknown biological parents, their ancestries, and their medical histories is normal and to be expected. If a parent is not fully comfortable with this, it’s important they understand why, so they can continue to grow and heal in this area.

If their children are curious…

If their children desire to know more about their origins, parents can offer to walk side-by-side with them to find the information and genetic relatives they want to know about. Parents should understand that their children’s curiosity is not a betrayal to them in any way. If they are uncomfortable helping their children learn more, they can honestly express that in a way that lets their children know they are working on it. This is especially important for the non-biological parent. Longing to know about one’s ancestry, medical background, or close genetic relatives is an innate curiosity and doesn’t indicate that the parents who are raising the children are deficient in any way. Most DCPs are not looking to replace their current family, only to add to it.

Parents can let their children know that they can make mutual consent contact with donors and half-siblings on the Donor Sibling Registry and that commercial DNA sites are another avenue for finding close genetic relatives, although there is an inherent risk with reaching out to close relatives who might not know about their donor origins or who might not be open or ready for contact.

It’s important for DCPs to know that many others have walked this path before them. Parents can let their children know that while their conception stories may be different than most people they know, these stories are not rare, and there are opportunities to connect with other donor-conceived people.

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