Telling the Truth About Surrogacy

I just came across this from the Motherlode blog at the New York Times.  It’s an account of how one woman told her young daughter that the daughter was born with the aid of a surrogate mother.

It seems to tie back to some conversations we’ve had in the past about truth telling.   Issues of truth have always been present in the ART debates (and in discussions of adoption long before that).   One of the key themes raised by those who identify as donor-conceived who also claim injury is that they were lied to.   And the demand for truthful birth certificates (whatever that means) have often been raised in the comments.

As it happens, I am a great fan of truth-telling.   (I know some people won’t accept that, but really–ask my friends.)   The thing is, this doesn’t mean I think everyone gets to run around telling the truth all the time.  I do, in fact, keep secrets.  When I am told things in confidence I tend to respect that confidence, which means I do not go out and retell the truth I have been entrusted with, even when I realize that others may be unaware of the truth.

I guess I also do not think that I am always entitled to tell the truth (and this is where Marilynn and I parted company in the comments under this recent post, I think.)  Suppose a four-year-old asks me “Where do babies come from?”  If it isn’t my four-year-old, I would not presume to have the right to tell this child “the truth.”   And in the same way, if I came across an eight-year-old who believed in the tooth fairy, I wouldn’t feel that I had the right to tell that child the truth about tooth fairies.

Beyond that, it isn’t always clear what “telling the truth” means.   Suppose it was my four-year-old who asked the babies question above.   There are many truthful ways to answer this question in more and less detail.   Less detail might seem less truthful but it also might be age-appropriate.

It is in this complicated framework that I consider the Motherlode piece.   It’s a story about how one mother told her daughter the truth–that a different woman–a surrogate mother–gave birth to her.   I won’t quote the whole piece–it’s worth going to read.  Amy Blumenfeld talks both about why to tell the truth and also how much of the truth to tell at any given moment.

What struck me most, though, is the reaction of Mia, the child who was told the truth, and here I will quote:

We pulled out the album filled with snapshots of my hands on our carrier’s progressively growing abdomen and lay them out on the butterfly rug in Mia’s bedroom.

“See, that was me,” Mia said matter-of-factly, pointing at a picture and looking up at her cousin.

Now I confess I am not wild about the word choice (“carrier,” you know?).   But that really is not what struck me first.  What struck me first is that this all seems to appear perfectly natural to Mia.  She’s unselfconscious and, perhaps even more importantly, unashamed.   That’s really what telling the truth can get you.

I thought at first her response–her unashamedness–was startling, but I’ve been thinking about it and I wonder if it is.   Why would she be ashamed?   It’s only if the adults (and children) around her make her feel that way.   There’s no reason a child should feel shame over the manner of the child’s conception and birth unless that shame is brought to them by the world around them.   After all, the truth about conception in more common families could seem pretty strange, too–at least in the eyes of children.

It seems to me that lying–or not telling the truth–is much more likely to inspire shame, or at least to create fertile ground where shame may grow.   And in the same way, telling the truth is not a bad way to convey to a child that there is nothing to be ashamed of.   Surely that’s the right way to go.

7 responses to “Telling the Truth About Surrogacy

  1. Julie,

    Telling your child as early as possible IS the best way. It is their normal. Age appropriate of course that expands as the child’s cognitive abilities expand. Then there is no shame, awkwardness, embarrassment – just reality.

    The flip side is not pretty – even finding out at say, puberty – that has huge rammifications – at 35 or 55 your entire life was built on a foundation of lies. and is like a house of cards. TRUST is gone. Being one that has always known and cannot remember the actual event of being told…priceless…

    Why would we not speak out when we see the harm lies have in this very specific subject?

    • We agree here, right? It is best to be honest from the get-go. If you pass up the chances to be honest then you sow the seeds of distrust, which is a terrible thing between parent and child.

      That said I do think parents are entitled to figure out when the right time is (or when the right times are) for their child and also to figure out how much to say and how to say it. Of course, giving parents this freedom means you run the risk that the parents won’t be honest and I’m just not sure what to do about that.

  2. Yes we agree. Re the right time – honestly Julie the minute they become parents is the right time because it seems to take them a long time to become comfortable talking naturally about adoption to the child. And if they are stiff and awkward in talking to the child the child then believes there must be something less than about being adopted and knows not to talk about it. When that happens the shame, bad, embarrassment is the end result.

    How to make it mandatory – Social workers should be able to tell if a person won’t tell and that should automatically disqualify them. As you can tell I have no patience for their right to form a family over the childs right to know.

    • I’ll come close to agreeing. You’re right that counselling in advance of surrogacy ought to include discussion of why it is beneficial to the child to be told early on. I don’t suppose a social worker could set a deadline and I’m having trouble imagining a person saying “no, I would never tell.” If a person said “I understand this is important for my child and I would tell them in the way and at the time that seemed appropriate” would I be satisified? I don’t see quite how I could not be without saying “you must tell them at age three” or whatever.

      This is one of those areas where gay male couples and single men who use surrogates are perhaps better off. There’s no question but that they’ll tell their children.

      This story (http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/09/23/surrogates-often-deeply-upset-by-the-process-study/) does suggest that many people do not tell and that is, I agree, a problem.

  3. Sorry – I am talking about infant adoption which has a time frame when the child will not comprehend which is when the parent gets comfortable.

  4. sorry should be surrogacy and yes their should be a social worker involved simply because of the surrogacy and differences involved that a parent by the natural reproductive method does not face.

    • I am inclined to agree about some form of counselling. Surrogacy isn’t for everyone–that’s clear from some of the cases that have gone seriously sideways that I discussed here. And I think (tentatively perhaps) that counselling is equally important for the woman who will be the surrogate and the intended parent(s). But what I have in mind isn’t the same as the home study required for an adoption.

      I’m sure there’s more to say about this–just wanted to make that line clear.

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