There’s an excellent post on Olivia’s View this morning. (Actually, it might be from yesterday–I’m not keeping up very well.) It’s about telling children that they are donor conceived. As the post title suggests, it’s not so much about whether you tell a child that she or he was conceived using third-party sperm as it is about when you tell a child. It’s really worth a read.
Some of what’s interesting to me is right there in the post: the process of telling and retelling, for example. Perhaps this is obvious–how many times do you have to tell a child to pick up their socks rather than leaving them wherever they happen to take them off? It takes a long time–and many repetitions–for things to sink in. Plus, with something like use of third-party sperm, it surely has different meanings at different ages. And a child’s level of comprehension changes, too.
The post also made me think about why telling is hard (though I strong suspect it gets easier with each retelling.) Stigma and shame are in the foreground and I suppose our general cultural discomfort with conversations with children about sex are there, too. What strikes me (over and over) about stigma and shame is that each of us can take some responsibility on these points.
What I mean is that our own individual attitudes and manners towards these questions help to create or diminish stigma and shame. We each have some small power to make a friend or acquaintance or even a stranger hearing our words feel more or less marked by some difference that might set them apart. This is part of what bothers me about the tone of some of the comments here. When you suggest that a person is less of a parent because they’ve used third-party sperm it’s quite possible you make it harder for them to be honest with the child they are raising about the child’s origins. And yet surely we all agree that if there are going to be children conceived via third-party sperm it’s best to be honest with those children?
I’ve italicized the “if” in that last sentence because I suspect this is a key qualifier. For some people the goal is that there be no children conceived via third-party sperm–and perhaps one can advance this goal by increasing shame and stigma around use of third-party sperm. The problem (to me) is that until you get to that goal (and I for one doubt you ever do), you make the lives of those children who are donor-conceived just a little bit harder.
There were also a couple of thought provoking points that made me think harder. First, the people Olivia’s met recently with kids in the 18-30 range who do not know they were conceived with third-party sperm. I agree with Olivia that it is better to tell then to not tell, even when you have waited a very long time. No doubt it is difficult to do so. But one thing you get to do is explain to an adult child why you waited to tell them–why you didn’t tell them sooner. And as Olivia points out, part of the answer to that is probably that they (the parents) were told by their doctors not to tell. One can only hope that twenty years from now there will be far fewer people in this category as I think the received wisdom now–as Olivia discusses–is that telling is a good idea.
Second, this post makes me think about the larger context in which Olivia and her family operated. She had to think about telling/not telling her children because there was a man in the household (her husband) who the children would doubtless have assumed was the source of sperm had they not been told otherwise. But many people who use third-party sperm (indeed, I think it may be most in the US today because of ICSI) are women raising children without a man. They may be lesbian couples, they may be single women. But for these families there is no obvious source of sperm–no man the child will assume to be her/his genetic father. Thus, the whole process of telling/retelling is slightly different here. This is something I always think is worth remembering.