Telling In Context

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.

20 responses to “Telling In Context

  1. Julie – this is when the ART community needs to use the adoption community – they have already BTDT. You are correct that different ages have different cognitive stages. I recommend this book “Being Adopted – The Lifelong Search for Self” by Brodzinsky, Schechter, Marantz Henig – obviously some parts won’t be 100% relevant but they can be applied with common sense conversion to the ART community because many/most of the underlying feelings and questions will be the same (goes on the cognitive levels/feelings). This very short article closely mirrors and one of the authors is Brodzinsky and is a very handy guide to the cognitive understanding/questions/feelings at different levels.

    I agree that the parents feelings of shame and stigma from society at large can be a big part of the problem – I think they need to practice on talking about it in front of the mirror and between them. Kids interpret the non-verbal cues very well and if you the parent aren’t comfortable then they can think the subject is taboo. My parents never had the issue because of dad being a doctor and no question was ever off the table and answered but more in a medical context – perhaps that was how they separated the two. Shame and stigma was part of the outside world but they prepared us for that with how they handled it in the home. And really – your job is to prepare your children for the outside world in every other context – why not this?

  2. Agreed. There’s surely no need to re-invent this wheel and there’s lot that can be learned from the experience of families formed via adoption. There’s a similar arc from secrecy to openness. I’ll try to check out your link–though I have fickle internet for one more week, so no promises.

    What’s BTDT?

  3. Two things bother me about what you just wrote. The whole source of sperm thing. What the hell is that? Source of sperm You mean that they’d likely believe themselves to be related to their mother’s husbands and likely believe that all of his relatives are their relatives as well. They’d likely believe that they had no other relatives out there in the world and that half the people they were related to had not been concealed from them and vice versa (sp?). Source of sperm is such a lame way to say it – as if the sperm were not the mechanism by which a man reproduces himself and creates offspring. The big problem with the jargon that accompanies this practice is that it takes the human being out of the equation – A man reproduces to create offspring and his sperm is how he reproduces his entire body. Sperm does not reproduce to create more sperm, sperm creates more of him, the guy, the man. He is forever connected to the offspring he creates even if he does not know them because they would not exist had he and his body not reproduced. That is human reproduction; 2 humans reproduce to create a 3rd. When you say a woman’s children likely believe her husband to be the source of sperm it dehumanizes everyone involved. Its horribly disrespectful to the child who is the result of normal human reproduction between two individual people – to create offspring. They are that couple’s offspring. When a woman tells her child that her husband is ‘not the source of sperm’ its way bigger a deal than just not being the source of sperm because it means they are not his offspring they do not have a genetic parent child relationship with him which means they have a genetic parent child relationship with someone else and all of that guy’s relatives. Where is he and why can’t they know him and all their other relatives? Why are those people hidden? What purpose does it serve to not allow them to be a legal member of that family that they by genetics belong to.

    The next issue is when they are told and how often. You need to realize what a mind bender that is. Your telling them hey we are not letting you know all your relatives and that is just part of your special story – get over it and get use to it – we own your reality. And so, much like being raised on a dairy farm, you get so use to the smell of bullsht, you don’t think its anything out of the ordinary – even though your standing knee deep in cow dung every day. You have to adapt to that smell in order to get through each day. Its not until you leave the dairy farm and get out in the world that returning to it that it becomes evident that you were just conditioned to accept the situation as no big deal.

    Damian Adams has a great blog and discusses how telling early does nothing but get the kid use to an unpleasant reality that they can do nothing about. He was told as a toddler and loves his social father. Does not mean excluding him from his genetic family was right, nor does it mean it was no big deal and he should come to accept it either. Worst and most insulting is when I read people analyze donor offspring or adopted people who voice exactly that and people analyze that it must be something else in their life that is wrong and they are just blaming it on being donor offspring. No. Come on! Cutting someone’s ties to their genetic family and sequestering them so you can have them all to yourselves is plenty reason to be p’d off. They don’t need another reason and no matter how wonderful the replacement people are it does not mean they should have interfered to disrupt the connections in someone else’s genetic family.

    • I do indeed mean that they are likely to believe that they are genetically related to their mother’s husband. I might also say they are likely to believe they are genetically related to their social/legal father. This is not exactly what you said–as you used “related to” without any modifier. The modifier is important to me. The child does have some relationship to the man in question–but it isn’t a genetic one.

      I could say it different ways and perhaps one would be more acceptable to you. I could call the man the genetic father–and I imagine that would do? I could talk about where the sperm came from or the man who provided the sperm. Mostly what I try to do is stay away from “sperm donor” because I do think the “donor” part is misleading. I cannot be a lot more specific than this because I don’t know if you are talking about how I use the language generally or if there is some specific sentence in the post you are referring to.

      It’s quite true that when the woman says that their social/legal father is not the source of the sperm (or when the couple says that) they are saying that the child is not genetically related to the social/legal father. this may or may not have deep meaning to a three year old or a five year old or an eight year old. I’m inclined to think that if the parents (the legal/social parents) aren’t all freaked out about it, the child won’t be either.

      As for how they are told–I think what you’ve got there is what you might think to say to a child–and an unhappy child it would be. But surely we can agree that not everyone looks at the world as you do. There are many ways to understand the situation where a child has been created with sperm from a man who will not be playing a social/legal role in her/his life. If one thought of it as you do, then it would be a mistake to go down this path in the first place. But not everyone does see it that way.

  4. great point marilyn regarding “source of sperm”. if father irks you so much julie you could have written genetic father. After all young children don’t assume their father is a source of sperm- they don’t even know what sperm is. they think he is their father in the same way that everyone else’s father is their father by some undefineable (to them) internal, essientalized, irrevocable way.

    • After all young children don’t assume their father is a source of sperm- they don’t even know what sperm is.

      Young children don’t assume the sperm donor is their father either. They assume the man they come home to, the man who feeds them, who pays for the stuff they need to survive and grow, who plays with them, who changes their diapers etc. is their father. The sperm donor is a genetic father in the medical and legal sense but one doesn’t become a father in the colloquial sense by contributing sperm alone. One has to do a lot more than contribute sperm in order to be emotionally viewed by the child as a father. Wouldn’t it be discounting the child’s emotions and confusing the child to tell him/her that the man who takes care of them and performs all the fatherly duties is not their father, but the man who donated sperm and whom they don’t have any emotional connection with is their father?

      • from what I understand from the writings of donor offspring, it’s not an either or proposition. They understand that they are both fathers in different ways.
        Thats what I meant to say about Julies “they thought their father is a source of sperm” which of course they didn’t. They thought their father was a father in a certain way which they don’t quite understand, but really he wasn’t.

      • Word play! Kali, hey can you address the fact that they are being told that they are not his offspring and are not related to his relatives? Can you address the fact that they are being told that the man who they are related to in the parent child way does not want to know them and does not want his family to know about them? Can you address the fact that they are being told that half of everyone they are related to will be hidden from them for 18 years or possibly for ever

  5. anyway its a confusing situation so of course their confused. using one word or another won’t change the fact that it’s a confusing situation.

  6. From one who’s been there. Check out my post “That Guy” to see the first conversation my 8 year old son invited me to have about his donor. I had opened the door to the conversation in the past and had always been met with a firm “No.” He didn’t want to discuss it until this very short conversation we had. And so far, nothing else since. I let him lead on this one.

  7. interesting post femme. your son, with now prompting, clearly associates the sperm donor with fatherhood. as usual, its the adults who insist on convoluting things.

  8. Femme on a second reading…. are you really letting him lead? He used the word DAD, and he used it twice. You are the one who deliberately avoided it. Thereafter he yielded to you and said “That Guy.” I mean, how persistent do you expect an 8 y ear old to be.

  9. in any case the kid is clearly pleased to have some miniscule connection to that guy even just hair color

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