When Parents Talk To Their Children

I’m at the midyear conference of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys/American Academy of Assisted Reproductive Technology Attorneys just now.   It’s a program devoted to the world of ART and there are lawyers from around the country and the world–a really terrific and interesting group.  It’s very busy but I wanted to take a minute out to post this.

This morning there was a great speaker who focused on psychological issues around egg donation.   Her name is  Dr. Andrea Braverman and she teaches at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.  One particular point she made was both simple and provocative:  The way parents talk to donor-conceived children can profoundly shape how the children react.

Perhaps this was and is obvious.  After all, think about what you call the man who provides sperm?  Donor?  Father?   Daddy-donor?  [Your choice here?]  But imagine (as she asked us to do) the difference between saying to a child “you may have brothers and sisters out there” as opposed to “other people may have used sperm from the same donor as we did and they might have kids, too” as opposed to “you might have some genetic-half-siblings out there.”     (It’s actually easy to imagine many variations.)

I suspect each of us finds ourselves drawn to one or another of these formulations (or we make up our own), because built into them are our assumptions about the world.   So I know that some of you out there are thinking that the “brothers and sisters” quote is the only way to go.  But I would never say that, because I wouldn’t describe the children of the common donor as “brothers and sisters” –because I don’t think that genetics is what makes people brothers/sisters in the ordinary sense of the word.

But the point that really struck me isn’t just that we’d say it differently.  I knew that, I think.  But consider it from a child’s point of view.  A child hearing “you may have brothers and/or sisters” gets a message about some essential connection to those potential people out there.   A child hearing “genetic half-siblings” doesn’t get quite the same message.   Neither does the one who hears about other unknown people with the same donor.

And so we shape our children.  It’s hardly any wonder that kids who are donor conceived respond in different ways, is it?

Gotta go now.  I’ll be back soon to finish off some of the recent open threads–or at least to work on them.

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62 responses to “When Parents Talk To Their Children

  1. I’m cool with the genetic half sibling thing, but the megilla about people-having-childrrn- who-bought-the-same-sperm ,is just beating around the bush.

    • Of course when your first grader says “what’s a sibling” your kind of stuck amyway. i mean what kind of kids is this pdychologist studying who know what grnetic sibling means. must be from that ivy league sperm bank.

      • Actually, all that was my language, not hers. And I wasn’t actually suggesting using it, I just wanted to make the point that there were lots of different ways people might convey the information. In fact, I think even one individual will convey the information in different ways at different times–clearly as the child ages what you say changes, right?

        In any event, forgive the clunky language. But it looks like we agree that people will say the same thing in different ways. And some will use words that have other (and important) social meanings (like brother/sister) while others will use more clinical words?

        You may think it beating around the bush–and that means it isn’t what you’d choose to say. But I don’t think it is beating around the bush if you describe the circumstances accurately.

  2. This study makes sense. Language matters and kids take their cues from parents.

  3. I agree that Dr. Braverman is an impressive speaker. I have heard her present at a few conferences over the years. Her credentials are wonderful and her work with parents and young children is good as far as it goes, in her clinical world of ART. However, to my knowledge, she has had little if any experience working with donor conceived adults and likely has never met any of us. I’ve always felt that her assumption that parents have a profound influence on shaping their children in the language they choose is merely speculation, not based on evidence. Looking back on my 68 years, it’s obvious to me that how I think about myself was initially shaped by my parents but has been continually revised by many other influences from friends, teachers, the books I read, mass culture, current events, other donor conceived people, but most of all by my own ability to think critically for myself. My forty-eight year relationship with my wife has had a far greater impact on me than my seventeen years with my mother.
    My feelings about my conception have dramatically evolved since 1983, when my mother finally disclosed to me. She had little impact on how I felt about my unknown relatives. Like you, she may have believed that genetics doesn’t make people brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, but her formulation had no meaning for me. I spent thirty years searching in vain to find other people whose mothers had the same reproductive partner as my mother. This year I finally identified this man and have connected through genetic testing with three other people born from the same man. When we met each other, all three of them called me “brother,” just like their marital full and half-brothers. All three of the brothers I grew up with were each born from different unknown fathers. I actually feel more in common with these new brothers and sisters. Of course, we have no history of sibling conflicts so that may account for some of this feeling. A large part of my inherited nature was unacknowledged and never resonant with my parents and three brothers. I do see these missing reflections of my nature in my new brother and sisters. There is a connection of essence with these former strangers.

    • Friends, society, future spouses, cultural media, and popular rhetoric all work to shape opinion and attitudes.

      Take religious tradition as an example: Children who are Baha’i or, Baptist, or Catholic may convert to the religion of one’s wife, but the tradition in which parents raise them does work to shape the early identity formation of children. Or peers might influence one to convert to a different religion. But those early religious experiences are still part of a child’s life experience.

      Parents have an outsized effect on young children in critical years as identity forms. The messages children can get in those years can be long-lasting and enduring.

      I am not attempting to assert that adults may not learn to change “the tapes” people develop when young. But psychological research has made it pretty clear that parents, by the virtue of their societal role, and constant presence in the every-day life of children, do have a large effect on the emotional life and social attitudes of their children.

      I would think a child raised, say, in a gay Quaker community in Burlington, Vermont, with several friends who are donor-created, and attending a Waldorf or Montessori school, would have different life experience and attitudes (about a whole host of issues!) when compared to a child who is raised by parents who are ashamed by the need to use a donor and lives in a heterosexual, socially conservative Baptist home in Alabama.

      Obviously these two kids will have drastically different life experiences as children.

      A child raised as a leftist Quaker and growing up in Vermont may decide he hates snow and espresso and leftist politics, convert to evangelical Christianity, move to Texas, and vote for Ted Cruz.

      But I would think those earlier experiences probably effected the child in some way. Perhaps the kid hated the skiing in Vermont? Perhaps he was annoyed by his leftist-Quaker friends? Maybe he felt pressured to be a vegetarian or disliked the cold Vermont winters? In any case, it’s obvious that this kid grew up with very different life experiences then a child who was raised in west Texas as an evangelical Baptist.

      A parent’s attitude towards an array of opinions tend to shape identity. The towns and cities that parents choose to raise their children will have a significant role in shaping identity. The religious tradition of the parents, and schools to which parents chose to send their children, will shape the experience of the kids.

      Parents are not determinative, but parents are powerful in shaping the early identities of children. And those early identities can have enduring effects as one grows older.

      • I’m inclined to agree with Tess. It all matters. We are products of our social/psychological experiences as well as our genetics. And at least in the short run, parents matter a good deal. I don’t think we can possibly know (in the long run) how much those early influences matter. Or at the very least, it is hard to know. For instance, if a young child experiences a traumatic incident of some sort before they are two, they may have no conscious recollection of it But it may still have shaped them in ways that are subtle but important.

        In any event, I don’t think one has to say what matters most. The point, as I took it from her, was that the language parents use is important. That it seems to me is true. And I think most parents know it–without any research at all. Think about how parents talk to their children about the death of a pet, say. They choose their words with care because they know the words matter. Or when another family that they know disintegrates–divorce or whatever. I think parents have to figure out how to explain it to their children. In making these choices, the parent’s beliefs and what they want to teach their children obviously influences the language the parents choose to use.

        To more specifically address Bill’s question/point above: In the presentation I saw, Dr. Braverman did not refer to any research on the question of parental influence in children. And perhaps it is true that parental influence diminishes over time. That, too, would make sense. But (to go all anecdotal on you) I think frequently about how deeply my parents influenced me. (And I’m happy to say I am grateful for it.)

        • My response to both of you is that I have known over three hundred other DI adults through my web site and personal meetings with many of them. I could recite many anecdotes about how they never accepted the “construct” created for them by their parents about how they should see their relationships with unknown siblings and their biological father. Some were told young and accepted it but later grew to see these relationships as more important to them as adults. Parents deceive themselves that they can determine how their children will see this. Eventually, we tend to remember our early “identity” as artificial and yearn to know our missing relatives as a source to help them define ourselves for ourselves, not by the way our parents view who we are. Identity is a lifelong process of self-discovery, not something created for them by their parents. Of course, the “telling” is important and should be done early and often, with sensitivity. I also acknowledge the influences of my parents but part of that came from their Omerta, the hidden elephant in the room. The secret was palpable, even though unexplainable. My parent’s initial impact is enduring but, after a long life, it has dwindled in comparison to many other influences, especially from my wife and children. By the way, my new siblings had vastly different lives from mine, especially from the influences of their locally predominant religion. My mother would have had me despise the LDS but I never did. I am an agnostic and a liberal but that does not reduce the sense of connectedness I share with my two new sisters and brother who accept me for myself and as their brother.

          It should be obvious from all this that I am not an essentialist. It is not an either/or question for me. However, I have seen too much from adoptee reunions that confirm to me we inherit far more than physical characteristics, including emotional aspects that are not culturally determined by “socail constructs,” a term that tends to oversimplify huiman nature.

          • I think hormonal tendencies and responses can most definitely contribute to aspects of personality can be inherited. Hormonal depression, for example, is attached to genetics. Hormones can contribute to all sorts of affective modes, which can be genetically inherited.

            I think culture, society, and history shapes the meaning of the biology that is inherited. That’s not to say that cultural constructions are not enormously powerful.

            As I said in an earlier comment, I believe cultural constructs can be harder to change, and more enduring, then things that are shaped by biology.

            I find the anecdotes very interesting, and I thank you for sharing them. I don’t doubt the experiences you describe in others or those you have experienced. I don’t deny that you have identified genetic relations as your family, and that you all accept each other as family and are creating a new form of kinship.

            However, I don’t find the anecdotes persuasive enough to alter my historical view of the family, or its cultural and social construction. It seems to me that these described experiences don’t contradict or refute a cultural or historical explanation.

            That said, I think biology and culture mixes in very interesting combinations, and I do not doubt the power of genetics. But I suspect Bill and I differ in the meaning and range that may be found in the various combinations and expressions of the genome.

          • It is certainly true that we do not always accept the constructs our parents hand us–or try to hand us. And in fact, our parents may change their minds along the way, too, so even they may no longer accept the constructs they handed us. For instance, I know there are instances where parents began with one idea about how to present things (being adopted/being donor conceived/other things) to their kids but, after a long time and lots of other influences, changed their minds.

            Surely you are right that parents ought not to deceive themselves about this. We who are parents ought not to imagine that our children are simple clay to be molded and that, once molded, they will keep the shape we imposed on them. I suspect most people who have raised a child into even early adulthood have seen how their influence wanes.

            But this does not undermine what I see as the central point Dr. Braverman made: What parents say–how they explain things–matters and they ought to give careful thought to this. Very likely it matters less in twenty years than it does in the months right after it is said. But it still matters. And as such those who work with parents contemplating adoption or use of third-party gametes really do need to encourage parents to think about how they will say what they will say, even as they understand that they won’t be the only influence on their children, nor (maybe in the long run) even the definitive one.

        • a quote i heard once: we worry most about how to wxplain to children what we have most difficulty explaining to urselves. or i add: when you worry so much about explainong somethink, its usualy bad news.

          • I think I disagree about the bad news part, perhaps. For instance, one think I think many people worry about talking to kids about is sex. It’s probably true that this is because we have trouble explaining it to ourselves. But I’m not sure it is bad news. I have trouble talking to my kids about god and about faith, too. Again, not particularly bad news, but difficult to explain to myself, too. I can make a longer list, I think, of hard topics.

            At the same time it is true that some of them are bad news. Explaining death to a child isn’t easy and that certainly in the bad news category.

            I guess to the extent you are suggesting that if it is hard to explain than it must be bad news (and therefore that adoption/use of third-party gametes are bad news?) I disagree. That may not have been what you were driving at, though. And I do agree that it is hard to explain that which we do not feel clear about ourselves.

            That said, I think many people who adopt or use third-party gametes feel quite clear about it and perhaps it does therefore follow that for these folks it isn’t so hard to talk to their kids.

      • nice example of religious tradition, Tess. Parents do shape a child’s worldview but not necessarily in the way they intended. I know plenty of ex fundamentalists who are hostile to fundamentalist religion due to rejectign their parents presentation of it.
        In the same way, children who eventually reject their parents formulation of the issue may view it with a bitterness they may not have otherwise.

        • Yes–I think the point is more that parents influence their children more than that they determine a particular outcome with any certainty. For me, though, the fact that parents don’t determine the outcome doesn’t free them of their obligation to consider their influence carefully.

    • “All three of the brothers I grew up with were each born from different unknown fathers. I actually feel more in common with these new brothers and sisters.”

      Were the three brothers you raised with adopted? Or are you 50% genetically related to people you grew up with?

      If you were 50% related to the boys you grew up with, wouldn’t you have seen some sort of genetic similarities in those individuals?

      This genetic identification intrigues me, because I am very different from my 100% biological sister. We have different physical looks, interests, personality, and intellectual talents.

      • One was adopted; the other two were from DI (three different donors). Of course I saw genetic similarities with my two DI brothers but it was the distinct differences between us that struck me as a teenager, coupled with no genetic resonance with my Dad. My traits were radically different from my younger brother to the degree that two of his friends bluntly asked me “Are you Dick’s brother?” Others simply reacted with looks of surprise when I was introduced. Plus, it was common knowledge that my parents had infertility problems for ten years before they adopted my older brother. Are you leading to a dismissal of my feeliings based on your experience with your sister? If you haven’t done DNA testing with your sister, can you be certain she is 100% related? Sorry if that sounds disrespectful but some DI children never suspect anything when younger but slowly realize something is missing much later in life. My two new siblings are in their sixties and never suspected until contacted by my other sister who informed them she was their sister, which was confirmed by their own testing later. Their response was that, thinking about their family life, they should have suspected but missed the clues.

        Bill

        • Feelings are real and profound. I do not discount the emotions of others. I thought I was pretty clear about that in my comment about the power of cultural constructions.

          Honestly, I’ve had to deal with people asking if my sister and I are related all of my life. I don’t find it disrespectful. Rather, I see it as arising from an ignorance of how the genetic code can can manifest in siblings. I do think this ignorance about genetics hurt my sister a little when she was younger. She has a darker skin colour then I do, and that’s more socially difficult to deal with in this world.

          My sister looks nothing like my mother (skin colour.) My father was in the hospital when my mother gave birth. My mother has been asked if she was the “real” mother of my sister. And, yes, my sister was born before egg donation, so I am quite certain my mother is my sister’s genetic mother.

          My sister’s skin colour is similar (if a bit darker) then my father’s skin colour. She looks more like a grandfather. My skin tone is more of a compromise between my mother and father.

          Of course we had genetic similarities. My father, my sister and I are all super-tasters. We all get severe migraine headaches and seizures run in the extended family. Despite a slender build, my father came down with high blood pressure as a young man. I developed it at the age of 28. High blood pressure runs in that side of the family.

          Growing up people asked my sister and I if we were related. Those who are not knowledgeable about genetics are usually shocked by the fact that 100% genetically related people can have different skin tones.

          Not only do we have different skin tones, but our facial features are drastically different. Our hair texture is different. We do have the same metabolism. We also have the same height, petite bone structure, and acne as teenagers. We both get tendonitis and migraines. Also – same allergies! But we look nothing alike, in terms of the popular conception of “how sisters should look.”

          We also have very different personalities. I was shy and bookish. My sister was voted president of her class, homecoming queen, and was a cheerleader. I love my sister dearly, and we are very close, but we are very different people. This difference has demonstrated to me that the popular understanding of genetics is simplistic.

          But I am not saying that genetics is unimportant. I think it is profoundly important. As I wrote, the genetic code can cause physical and mental illness. But I think the popular understanding of how genetics can manifest in families is simplistic.

          I also think it’s very interesting that there is doubt about my familial relationship with my sister. The doubt fascinates me.

          I wonder what it is about. Cui Bono?

          What ideology is threatened if my sister and I are different, yet biologically related? Is it an investment in the biology of skin color? In a certain understanding of genetics? Of biology? I don’t know, but I’m curious.

          • Genetics can be quite strange and random. My sister and I are both very pale, but otherwise look and act nothing alike. However, her daughter looks a lot like I did at that age, to the point where I thought a picture of her was an old one of me from preschool.

  4. so,,,, what kind of language did she advocate and why?

    • She did not advocate any particular language. Rather, she felt that people contemplating using third-party gametes needed to think–in advance–about the fact that they’d be explaining this to their children and that they need to consider that the words they choose will matter.

      She’s in favor of people talking with their kids honestly about issues of donor conception–I hope I made that clear. But I think she thinks exactly how people do this–what they say–is a personal choice.

      I’m thinking that similar points must be made to prospective adoptive parents. They are counseled to talk to their children, but exactly what they say–the words they choose–is up to them. And, as above, the words matter.

  5. I find it interesting that the question: “Are parents influential in the life of their minor children” is one that we are debating.

    Perhaps, what people actually want to assert, is a biological essentialist position about the family? It seems to me, what is being asserted is rather a debate about the nature of family, and not a question of if parents may influence the experiences and opinions of children. (It seems rather obvious that parents have a lot of power in a child’s life.)

    What is the extent to which families are historical or does the concept of the family exist outside of history? Is the family a timeless biological or religious creations?

    If so, let us just state our respective positions:

    One need not be a biological essentialist to believe that a person can be emotionally moved or intellectually influenced by a genetic connection.

    I believe genetics are incredibly important, but probably for entirely different reasons then Bill. Genetics can cause physical and mental illness, determine physical characteristics, and strongly influence brain growth and intellectual capacity.

    Furthermore, popular opinion regarding the nature of genetics and family connection strongly influences people. (I think the popular understanding of genetics is not a scientific or precise understanding.) But this understanding strongly influences how people think about fatherhood. Popular beliefs about genetics are much more important for the current definition of fatherhood because of the specific historical ways fathers have been defined in the 20th and 21st century.

    But I do not think genetics create essentialist, a-historical families. I also see lineage as different from genetic descent. And I do not think genetics determine emotional or social attachment.

    But I do think people may be profoundly emotionally moved by the fact of biology and that emotional response and sense of connection is a cultural and social construction. I am not saying that that emotional response is not profound. But I am identifying a different cause of the response.

    A cultural constructionist may believe that popular opinions about genetics are strongly influenced by culture and society. These popular understandings of genetics are not necessarily accurate in terms of the scientific implications. (Recall the cloned cats.)

    In my opinion, cultural constructions are stronger and can be harder to change then biology or biological impulses or genetic mapping.

    And I think the concept of the family is a historical and cultural construction that changes over time.

  6. I’m not particularly dense but I don’t understand where you’re going with this or what it has to do with the initial question of whether what a parent says has a lasting impact on a child. Changing this to a discussion on the nature of the family is not something that seems relevant to me. I think that even geneticists don’t precisely understand the science of genetics enough to say which has more influence: genetics, family nurture, social interactions, local culture, national identity, mass media, etc. etc.

    I am only responding to Julie’s initial statement that ” I wouldn’t describe the children of the common donor as “brothers and sisters” – that such a statement would lead the child to believe in some essential connection.to these people. Some parents want their child to believe that the mother’s sperm donor should have no more meaning to the child than as a mere stranger. Julie says we shape our children by the words we use. I believe we are not so easily molded. I do not presume to have had that much power over my own children, nor would I wish to. You imply that children are shaped by cultural constructions and popular understandings of genetics. I also believe in that but also in our own ability to reject popular cultural influences through critical thinking. Besides, there are many varieties of cultural constructions and popular beliefs to chose from. Isn’t genetics a part of our history in addition to our non-genetic family.history? One doesn’t cancel the other. Ask a few adopted people who have reunited with genetic family about that. Both families have meanings for them. Both genetic and non-genetic parents and siblings have meaning for a large number of donor conceived people, as well.

    • Since most parents who use ART do value genetic connection, they’re going to come off as hypocritical if they try to convince their child it doesn’t matter.

      • Not all people who use ART are interested in genetic connection. ie – Embryo donation.

        RE: language used by parents. This all doesn’t seem that complicated. Language used by parents is powerful. Parents can mess young kids up with abusive language.

        For example, parents who use ART shouldn’t call their children monsters created in test tubes. Some people do talk about ART in those terms, and that would be unhealthy language to use around any child who was a product of ART.

        Let me say something else that is obvious. Parents should not tell children created by ART that they were created through sinful means.

        Children should not be told that they are inferior to other children or other siblings.

        Unless, of course, parents want to upset their children and mentally traumatize them.

        • I know for me, my goal with my soon to be born daughter will be to tell her the truth about her conception, and to give her opportunities to know her genetic relatives from the sperm donor (I used an open ID donor and will also use the donor sibling registries) without making her feel like she has to feel a certain way about her genetic relatives. I don’t want her to feel it’s wrong to be curious about them, and want to meet them or have a relationship with them, but I also don’t want her to feel it’s wrong if she doesn’t care that much, or just wants some information or to have a relationship but not a super close one, but doesn’t feel the same way about them as she does about the family she grew up with. Personally I am curious about the donor so I’ll be a little disappointed if for whatever reason she does NOT want to use the contact option ever but I will do everything I can not to let that show, since ultimately it’s her decision not mine.

          • I like your approach, although I suppose you can let your daughter know that your curious without feeling that its her responsibility to satisfy your curiosity? guess its a difficult tightrope to walk.

            • another thing is that you might suggest she find out who he is, and tuck the information away, even if she doesn’t want to make contact. because you never know when it might be necessary in the future for medical reasons or even if she simply changes her mind one day.

    • “Julie says we shape our children by the words we use. I believe we are not so easily molded. I do not presume to have had that much power over my own children, nor would I wish to/”

      Bill you used some very powerful words there.
      Indeed it makes me wonder, what is Dr. Braverman implying by telling parents to choose their words well? Perhaps this was not her intent, but surely many parents will understand it to mean- choose your words so as to best influence your children to see things the way you want them to?

      What is the line between a parent educating their child, and brainwashing their child?

    • It seems to me we are talking and debating how cultural construction works via language and parental influence.

      Specifically we are debating the power of language to shape the identities of young children and how these children view the gendered identities of mothers and fathers.

      “Isn’t genetics a part of our history in addition to our non-genetic family.history? One doesn’t cancel the other.”

      The historical reception and interpretation of genetics is historical, in my opinion. To clarify — the specific meaning and interpretation of genetic lineage varies in terms of place and time. I define meaning broadly (culturally, legally, socially, materially.) Language may affect this interpretation.

      “Ask a few adopted people who have reunited with genetic family about that. Both families have meanings for them.”

      I do not see meaning as a essential, unchanging constant. Not all people feel in exactly the same ways. Interpretation is changeable. It varies, and can vary significantly, between people and according to time and place.

      “Julie says we shape our children by the words we use.”

      Yes, it seems to me this is something of a cultural studies or literary debate. What is the power of language, and to what extent do parents influence their children’s identity? Jacques Lacan and his theory on children, language and gender identity seems on point in this discussion. The definition of mothers and fathers are both gendered identities.

      When do men identify as fathers? When do children identify men as fathers?

      When do children identify women as mothers? When do women define themselves as mothers?

    • To say that we shape our children by the words we choose to use is not to say that we are so easily molded. I do not mean that simply by choosing my words I create a permanent reality for my children. I do not. But I do have some effect on them–and particularly in the short run with a young child, I’m inclined to think it can be a fairly profound effect. Do we really disagree on that?

      Consider the way a lesbian couple who used sperm from an unknown man might talk to their child. They could say “You have a father, but we don’t know who he is.” Or they could say ‘You don’t have a father–there is a man who helped us have a child, but he is not your father–you have two mothers. ” At that point you might point to other families where there is no father present, or where there is no mother present.

      There are many different things they could say, too. Some who write here might suggest that one should in honesty say “your father sold you to us” or “your father abandoned you.”

      For a child of four or five or six I think these different formulations might matter. And of course, you wouldn’t say it just once, but over and over, because children require repetition. I know that in the real world people think long and hard about exactly what they say in this situation. And people reach different conclusions. And I think people are right to think long and hard, because I do think it is of some consequence, even if it doesn’t ensure any particular outcome.

      • Julie said in response to a comment by Bill: “To say that we shape our children by the words we choose to use is not to say that we are so easily molded. I do not mean that simply by choosing my words I create a permanent reality for my children. I do not. But I do have some effect on them–and particularly in the short run with a young child, I’m inclined to think it can be a fairly profound effect. Do we really disagree on that?”

        Been thinking about this post and the comments. I am sure a parents words do have an effect on children – but actions must also back up those words – or the effect is moot.

        Words: You (general you) could temper your words to ensure your child clearly understands that you want them to believe (and they likely will) that they have no connection to any other genetic relative past, present, or future, nor that there is any need. You (general you) could also show your bias for your connection to your genetic family in many ways that you don’t realize is a bias – to you (general you) it is just an explanation of where that came from. My dad was good in math so that’s where I get it from. We all look alike in my family. None of us are musical. All the males go bald in their 20’s and 30’s. Your child looks just like your husband. Diabetes does not run in our family. We are all athletic. Normal typical conversations that happen when family get together.

        Actions: Completely off topic analogy. I would state that I do my very best to treat people well – regardless of who they are now, or where they came from, or what choices they have made (I have and will fail as well). Mom and dad practiced that in their daily lives, not simply talked about it, and in reality – they talked very little because they didn’t waste words. They gave to others and treated everyone equally and led by example – every day. How you live your life is far more likely to have an effect on your children than the specific words you chose because those are just words that aren’t remembered – actions are.

  7. Good Gravy Tess complicate matters much?
    What about the concept of personal responsibility and accountability for the hungry little mouths we reproduce to create? All this genetics and biology is such a side track. People are deeply attached to biology and genetic family this seeming attachment to genes is not about genes or cells – it’s about the individuals who owe it to their kids to be taking care of them because they made them.we are connected to our kin through these persons responsible and someone else can come along and do just as good or better a job of raising someone’s kids for them, but the kid will always have deserved their own parents to have acted responsibly and taken care of them. The people who owe it to them to have taken care of them are those who reproduced and caused them to need to be taken care of in the first place. The connection is far more practical than either you or Julie make it out to be but then how can you have a clear conversation when you are talking about people’s genes instead of about the people themselves?

    • Marilyn,

      I believe these are complicated issues.

      If the conclusion is obvious, one should be unconcerned about close examination.

    • I agree with Tess. It is complicated.

      I think personal responsibility is quite important, but I don’t think the invocation of personal responsibility along answers any of the questions, really. After all we, as a society/culture, decide who is responsible for what. For centuries a man was not responsible for children conceived with an unmarried woman. At the same time, a husband was responsible for children his wife gave birth to even if he wasn’t genetically related to them.

      I do think we need to be sure that someone is responsible for children, but the question is who and on what basis. I think for some people the answer is “the person whose genetic material is responsible” but other people answer the question differently. This is really the core question we’ve discussed here for all this time.

  8. What if we were talking about a child abandoned by its genetic father during pregnancy or shortly after birth? This situation is not uncommon, but perhaps less complicated or controversial than ART in that there may not have been the intentional act of creating a child that would not be raised by both genetic parents.

    Such a child is then likely to be raised by its genetic mother. Will what she says about the genetic father shape the child’s feelings towards him? How will the child react if the mother says he was an “irresponsible jerk” vs “had too many problems to be able to look after a child”, “was a good man”, “was simply too immature”, etc?

    Will the mother’s statements about the genetic father shape the child’s views to some extent, even if the child later re-examines those views and feelings? I think the answer is an obvious “yes”.

    Is the act of selecting the words she uses carefully wrong? Actually, many people explicitly warn against saying an abandoning genetic father was simply an irresponsible jerk, even if that happens to be true.

    • My parent's donor is my father

      So true J and Bill. I was told that my father was a ‘mere donor’ and that I have to just deal with that fact. I was made to feel guilty that he mattered to me and was more than just a ‘mere donor’. It took years to digest what this meant not only to me and my children but in context with the practice itself.

      My parent’s ‘donor’ is my father.

      I personally would have loved to have had a loving, meaningful relationship with my father (my parent’s ‘donor’) but I wasn’t designed in a way that allowed for that. I know who he is now though and have comfort knowing that he was a truly amazing (and flawed – aren’t we all?) man.

      Understanding and knowing the whole situation from everyone’s perspective helps tremendously but it doesn’t make the loss less real. I can at least say that I love him and I speak highly of him with my children – they deserve to be proud of their grandfather. After all he is a part of them too. Yes, words matter.

      • Exactly. Being told how to feel affects you, even if it wasn’t in the intended way. It seems like you were personally very damaged/hurt by the words your social parents chose on your behalf. A semantics 101 doesn’t right all the wrongs, and may even add to them.

        • There’s a key point here I want to highlight. I’m not inclined to think parents ought to tell their children how they should feel. To go back to J’s point above–about the missing genetic father–I think the mother ought to choose her words carefully in describing the missing man and all that. But I don’t think she should tell her child how to feel about that. Rather, I’d say she should listen carefully to hear what the child has to say about how the child feels. Perhaps she can help the child understand his/her own feelings, too, as sometimes children lack vocabulary. But she cannot tell her/him what she/he should/does feel.

  9. My parent's donor is my father

    I would also like to add that Andrea Braverman is not a non-partisan, non-biased (with no personal interests) spokes person. She VERY much represents the Industry and promotes the practice. It is disingenuous to hold her up as a representative of the go to person on these issues. Julie you too are obviously biased. Please be frank about this.

    • i never heard of dr braverman before, but after all this was a conference of ART and adoption attorneys, their whole practice is about making sure adoptions and ART plans go through smoothly.

    • I’m not entirely sure what you mean by biased. Certainly I have opinions on the topics here. (Don’t we all?)

      I do think that the use of third-party gametes is fine sometimes. Depends on circumstances. I’m also in favor of people be honest with their kids that this is what they’ve done. I think I’ve been (and I hope to continue to be) frank about this.

      I think if one starts from the view that the use of third-party gametes is generally wrong, then the whole conversation about how parents should talk to their children about having used them is a bit weird. It makes more sense to me to consider this point from the perspective of one who thinks the use of the gametes can be fine and that’s certainly where I’m coming from. If there are other things you think I need to clarify about my views in the interests of frankness, I’ll do my best to do so.

      • My parent's donor is my father

        Julie wrote: “I think if one starts from the view that the use of third-party gametes is generally wrong, then the whole conversation about how parents should talk to their children about having used them is a bit weird.”

        I’m NOT starting from the view that the use of “third-party gametes” is wrong, I’m starting from the view that in most cases there is no such thing as “third-party gametes” or “third-party reproduction” in relation to the offspring. Only 2 people are reproducing, 1 man and 1 woman. The rest is a matter of semantics, wordsmithing and social engineering. In context, yes, I guess that makes it weird to me as to how ‘parents’ should talk to ‘their’ children about their intentionally disconnected biological parent, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, ancestry, heritage etc. etc. etc. Which leads me to believe that this practice is wrong. My bias is organic.

        Thank you Julie.

        • I am not sure what it means for a bias to be organic, but I take your initial point. Perhaps I should have said “If one believes that the practice of using of third-party gametes is generally wrong….” and gone from there. My point was (or was meant to be) as you suggest: If you think that what the parents in question are doing is intentionally disconnecting children from relatives, ancestry, heritage, etc. then it’s a little weird to ask “how should the parents talk about this with their child.”

          • My parent's donor is my father

            There is no such thing as a ‘donor’ in relation to the offspring. Everyone comes from 1 man (genetic father) and 1 woman (genetic mother) with the exception of new reproduction engineering involving the eggs of two women, same sex reproduction and cloning. This is what I meant by having an organic bias against the practice in general and where it will lead.

          • My parent's donor is my father

            Yes, this is what is happening but of course this is not how intended ‘parents’ will spin the story. I completely understand why following feel good scripts are supported by the practice, industry supporters, commissioning ‘intended parents’ and gamete sellers (genetic parents). I do however, think that it disenfranchises the offspring from being able to express their feelings openly and/or having their possible feelings of loss disconnections/connections socially recognized and acknowledged.

          • “If one believes that the practice of using of third-party gametes is generally wrong….”

            I agree with Julie. It is odd to ask how parents should talk about this with children if they accept the above premise.

            It seems obvious that people who accept the above premise wouldn’t use donor egg/sperm.

            And if they did use donor egg/sperm, they wouldn’t see themselves as the parents, or recognize the child as their own.

            • Quite the opposite, wonderimg how to tell the kids is evedence that something os not 100 % cool. we don’t wonder how to disclose pleasant surprises. julie gave the example of the death of a pet. something sa.

              • You are assuming that everyone would have a hard time figuring out “what to tell the children.” You may want to check your assumptions when you assume that others feel uncomfortable when contemplating subjects related to bodies or sex or sexuality.

                From my point of view, it seems entirely obvious and simple how to talk about this subject, or other subjects related to bodily function and sexuality.

                It seems to me that you are assuming a sense of shame or nervousness about this topic.

                As an analogy — it reminds me of how some people talk about telling other people that their children are gay. Some parents may feel shame about this subject and are scared to tell their relatives and friends about their child’s identity. But many people do not feel awkward or shameful, and many have no problems discussing the topic. In fact, many do not tolerate others who would attempt to project shame upon their child.

                Some parents can’t handle talking about periods with their daughters. They convey a sense of shame to their daughters about a natural bodily function through their lack of confidence about the subject.

                Then again, I find it easy to answer the typical 5-year-old question of “where do babies come from?” (I have never understood why some people can’t handle this question.) Or “what is a period.” Or “what does it mean for someone to be gay?” Or “what is sex.” Or any other simple question related to bodies and sexuality.

                This stuff isn’t hard, although people can make it hard through their own sense of shame about bodily function or sexuality or sexual identity.

                I don’t think it’s a good idea to have one “talk” where you introduce the birds and the bees (or any other subject related to sexuality and the body). These are on-going conversations appropriate to the age level of the child.

                They should be dialogues in which the child develops their own analytical framework and feels free to ask for additional factual information.

                • i don’t think sexuality is the reason people are having trouble telling their kids that they were donor conceived. agreed, not everyone has trouble.

                  • I think there’s an assumption that this is a difficult topic.

                    Just as some parents make a big deal out of the “Where do babies come from” question.

                    Bill’s parents kept his conception a secret for some reason. I’m quite sure sexuality was a big part of it.

                    His mother had fertility treatments with the sperm of a man who was not her husband. Many people in the 1940s may have seen this as a form of adultery. And you know all of the sexual stereotypes about “men who shoot blanks.” Her husband was infertile. He was a Marine who could not conceive in the 1940s and they were living in Utah.

                    What are the chances that this sort of father would have felt awkward talking with his daughter about her period or avoided the chore of purchasing tampons and advil at the local grocery store?

                    It’s not like they were a leftist Quaker gay family living in Vermont, where the husband(s) would not only be comfortable talking about donor conception, but would have no problems buying tampons at the grocery store or whatnot.

                  • My parent's donor is my father

                    I agree ki sarita, sexuality issues are an aside to the biology (mother/father/siblings etc.) factor. But just like with infertility and social infertility, there are people who use their sexuality to justify the practice of creating a child with no social connection (in a loving meaningful way) with their biological mother/father/siblings etc. etc..and need to use feel good scripts (just a ‘donor’, ‘source of dna’, ‘nice helper/other person’ etc.).in order to be ‘open’ and ‘honest’. Desperate measures but understandable.

                  • People who are confident of their ethical stance and family structure, are the most likely to be at ease in chatting about this with their child about donor conception.

                    But those who have ethical problems with 3rd party, or who are scared that their children will not “really” be their child, are much less likely to talk about the subject with their child. They are the group most likely to hide the fact of donor conception from their children.

                    This attitude of secrecy is likely to convey a sense that something is “wrong” to the child, as children are quite perceptive when parents feel uncomfortable about a subject.

                  • I’m responding to Tess’s response to Ki sarita because there is no reply button for Tess’s response.

                    “Bill’s parents kept his conception a secret for some reason. I’m quite sure sexuality was a big part of it.”

                    Maybe I totally misunderstand you, Tess, but I take it that you mean that the sex of his children would have made a difference with respect to disclosure. Or do you mean his own sexual self-image was a factor? I agree with the latter. As I perceived my dad retrospectively, since he died before my mother’s disclosure, my dad would have been more motivated by his personal shame over his infertility, for which he was likely responsible due to either STDs or his commitment to a reformatory in Indiana where they regularly sterilized boys designated “incorrigible” in the 1920s. I doubt that he would have had any different feelings if he had daughters, instead of four sons. He had a strong desire to appear masculine and fertile in that era, especially since he was an MP in the Army, pre-WW2, and on Shore Patrol before that in the Navy. He was never in the Marines. During the war he was in the Army Reserves and not called up to serve until the end of the war, as a MP in Puerto Rico, a couple of days before Hiroshima and two weeks after my birth. He had been in the essential war industry of copper mining. After that need declined, he was called to keep order among returning soldiers who were temporarily deployed to PR before returning to the states.

                    “His mother had fertility treatments with the sperm of a man who was not her husband. Many people in the 1940s may have seen this as a form of adultery. And you know all of the sexual stereotypes about “men who shoot blanks.” Her husband was infertile. He was a Marine who could not conceive in the 1940s and they were living in Utah.”

                    Regardless of where my dad lived at that time, DI would have been legally deemed adultery, which is why doctors at the time set up barriers of deniability to cover themselves legally, in case of a divorce. My dad was not invested in the predominant culture in Utah, so the Utah value system would not have been relevant to him. Of course, many inferitle people would have balked at DI but I suspect it was far more prevalent than believed since many returning GIs came back infertile due to many reasons related to the war. Just like many Catholics who use DI despite religious sanctions against it, Utahns of any religion probably used DI at this time. In fact, the OB GYN was LDS, as were the parents of my newest siblings. The LDS Church was and is neutral about DI. My new brother even suggested that the OB GYN (our genetic father) would see this as a form of polygamy, consistent with some of his genealogical relatives, but not in his own direct line. My great-grandfather’s two oldest sisters married the same Mormon patriarch who had 17 other wives and countless children. Although polygamy was officially banned before Utah became a state in 1894, the practice continued. It is strictly forbidden by the Church and State of Utah, but multiple LDS offshoots still practice it today, while the attorneys general have not pursued arrests unless polygamists have taken minor women as wives. According to one OB I know, even infertile polygamists have used DI and other ART, because the need to produce many children is their cultural construct.

                    “What are the chances that this sort of father would have felt awkward talking with his daughter about her period or avoided the chore of purchasing tampons and advil at the local grocery store?”

                    I suspect all or most sorts of fathers, genetic or not, would have felt awkward about talking with daughters about sexuality, especially those of my dad’s Depression and WW2 era generation. I doubt that he would have wanted a daughter to have known about his infertility, just as he wanted to keep his sons in the dark. Most DI fathers appear to desire non-disclosure regardless of the sex of their children. Fear of rejection by their children is another strong impulse towards secrecy.

                  • Bill,

                    Yes, that is approximately what I meant in terms of how his infertility may have constructed his identity as relating to his masculinity and his sexuality.

                    Utah doesn’t tend to be associated with progressive social movements. It may have been harder for a man to push back against the normative masculine stereotypes, especially for someone who had participated in the masculine culture of the military and living during the (fairly repressive, in terms of gender norms) baby boom era.

                    Male sub-fertility is caused by all sorts of things, but the most common reason would be a varicocele. It’s hard for me to understand why someone would rationally attach shame to infertility. But, I likewise don’t understand the repressive gender dynamics of the baby-boom years, so I accept that it’s a historical period that I will not intuitively grasp.

                    My father was very comfortable talking about periods. I was shocked when I learned how backwards other fathers (and parents) could be about all sorts of commonplace issues.

                    Honestly, it surprises me now that anyone would find it difficult to talk about donor conception with a child. The ways to talk about it seem straightforward and obvious.

                    I find it interesting that some commenters here cannot conceptualize that people would not find this a difficult subject to introduce to a very young child. It seems that some assume that shame is attached to either infertility and/or donor conception, which to me, seems very silly.

                    But I grew up in a different historical time and place. These things don’t have to be “difficult” or scary subjects. And confident parents tend to make children feel the most secure.

                  • As you said before, feelings are real and profound, and tied to current social constructs. I was a war-baby and don’t see myself as a baby boomer. But that’s beside the point here. I remeber the post-war period well, even a bit from the Truman years. There was an open debate then about the crisis in American Masculinity, explored mostly by Arthur Scheslinger. It may seem silly today. Infertility was often hidden by both sexes. This was also the era when adoption itself was deeply influenced by these feelings. From the end of the war, adoption “experts” counseled non-disclosure to adoptive parents, not previously practiced during or before the war. This practice of shame inducement from professionals in both adoption and DI lasted well into the 1970s, until adopted people began speaking out and studies were conducted about their experiences. Di adults didn’t begin speaking out until 1980 or so. Meanwhile, unwed pregnant women continued to be secretly sent away by their embarrassed parents to institutions so that they would be coerced into surrendering their children to various adoption groups. Often, they would be drugged during delivery and not even see their child. They would then be sent back home with the message to forget about it all and never to speak about it. In later generations, such attitudes seem wrong and now adoption is relatively open, but not as much as people think. I recommend that peope should read a long exploration of this era of secrecy conducted by Elizabeth Samuels for the Evans Donaldson Adoption organization, as well as “Wake Up LIttle Suzy” by Ricky Solinger who focused on the homes for women. In that respect, the adoption experience and the DI experience is identical, despite the other less important (at least to me) differences. It is not just a phenomenon more prevalent in conservative Utah but actually worldwide in many different cultures, with a sense of shame induced by many different religious groups.

                  • A more historically specific title for the time period is the “cold war era.” The gender and sexual dynamics of the period are fascinating.

                    _Wake Up Little Susie_ is a good book. For general background Elaine Tyler May’s _Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era_ is good.

                    I’d also suggest Margot Canaday’s _The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America_.

                    The experience of a teenage girl who was pressured to give birth and relinquish her child is drastically different to that of a man who voluntarily acted as a donor. Anyone studying the period should be sensitive to the implications of those specific differences, and I think as historical events they should be studied on their own terms.

                  • “The experience of a teenage girl who was pressured to give birth and relinquish her child is drastically different to that of a man who voluntarily acted as a donor. Anyone studying the period should be sensitive to the implications of those specific differences, and I think as historical events they should be studied on their own terms.”

                    Tess, you are missing my point about shame and fear. I am talking about the impact of the shame of infertility as it affects adoptive and DI families. Infertile people during the cold war era felt afraid of social responses to their infertility. This era included rampant, often unreasonable and silly fears that were reinforced by the Cold War, anti-communism, witch hunts by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Sen. McCarthy’s attacks on innocent people, the Korean War, Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, the John Birch Society, J. Edgar Hoover’s secret files on politicians, Hollywood blacklists, duck and cover drills in elementary school, loyalty oaths, ad infinitum. These were not the “good old days” that led to nostalgia after the impact of the tumultuous sixties.

                    I mentioned the “girls who went away” as an example of part of the general fear of social reactions against unwed mothers that is linked to the socially coerced surrender of a child, conducted out of the public eye. Secrecy among infertile couples who became adoptive parents also came from fear of the same social reactions, but it was because the public had little empathy for infertility, regardless of gender. These same groups of infertile couples also choose DI (sometimes both DI and adoption, as in my family) and kept it secret as a result of the same fears of exposure as infertile. This is why we should study both DI and adoption as historical events with the same facots. Shame about infertility certainly wasn’t the only reason for secrecy, but it was a primary source. Whether the parents adopted or used DI didn’t matter, the toxic results of secrecy on the children, family dynamics, and marital stress were the same. The experiences of a woman surrendering her child under coercion and a man selling his sperm to an infertile couple are indeed drastically different. Sperm donation, by the way, was not without some coercion. Medical students felt strong pressures to do it. How the child came to exist in a family is totally irrelevant to how these children experienced the family secret of infertility and how the children struggled with their lack of a complete genetic identity as they approached adulthood. Both adopted people and donor conceived people feel that anonymity and non-disclosure are unjust and unnecessary.

                  • Bill,

                    I take your point that sexuality, and shame and fear about sexuality, had a specific historical effects in the 1950s in regards to both adoption and infertility.

                    If I was writing a book proposal about the subject, I would be careful to define the differences between the two subjects.

                    Although there are commonalities with the subject of sexuality, the specific events surrounding insemination — use of another man’s sperm (which carried concerns about adultery), and the obvious conclusion that the man is at fault — would be a different experience then adoption in the 1950s.

                    In adoption it is not clear to others if the woman or the man is at fault. In the 1950s (and earlier!) the woman was often blamed, even if her husband was infertile. The experience of adoption itself, and navigating specific church or other bureaucracies — that is a different experience then navigating the medical system.

                    I’m not saying an author couldn’t point out similarities. Both experiences intersect with infertility. Both involve sexuality in the 1950s. But they are materially different experiences, and any book would need to compare and contrast those differences.

                    I would be cautious in assuming a identical experience for adopted children in the 1950s and donor children. Not all adoptive parents hid the fact of the adoption. It’s hard to hide an adoption from society (There’s no pregnancy. A baby or a older appears in a family), which made it harder to keep adoptions secret from friends, family, neighbourhood children, ect. Not all parents hid the fact of the adoption from their children. In contrast, the facts surrounding the conception of donor children were much more likely to be hidden in that decade.

                    There is another significant difference between donor children and adopted children. Adopted children, if and when told, confront the fact that despite the fact a woman gave birth to them — and despite this fact, they were relinquished to another family. That event of birth, and subsequent relinquishment, may effect some children in specific ways. A person might wonder — why was I given up after my mother gestated me and went through labor? She knew me for nine months — why was I given up?

                    There are commonalities between the two historical experiences, but I would be careful not to over-determine the similarities, as there are significant differences.

  10. Julie,

    You need to factor in the common sense of people. I can’t recall a conversation with my parents regarding the fact that my mother might marry and have children. Yet I assumed that she most likely would and my most pressing question as a teen was whether or not I had siblings.

    By the very nature of families both within our family, and within our social circle we learn that a person can have siblings – perhaps it is more blatantly obvious if you have non-genetic siblings (like I did), and, your friends have genetic siblings – that you too likely have genetic siblings out there, somewhere.

    People are better off being honest that beating around the bush – that creates more cause for thought and concern than facts any day.

    • No disagreement at all about being honest. I think people ought to be honest generally and that parents need to be honest with their children. I think deceit is damaging. (One of the ways in which I think parents can shape their children is by teaching them the importance of honesty.)

      But there are many ways to honestly explain things to a child. Go back to J’s example–outside the context of ART or adoption–of the missing father. There are many ways to talk about that with a child that (for me anyway) are honest.

      I also believe in integrity–slightly different from honesty. When that mother explains the man’s absence to her child she needs to speak (in my view) from a place of personal integrity. It is (again, in my view) essential that she model that. This means she has to search her own heart, perhaps, and figure out what she really does think about the missing guy. If he was horrible and abusive, I’m not sure she should deny that, but perhaps she shouldn’t put it first and foremost either. And ultimately I think I have to allow her to make her own choices here. I cannot tell her what words to use.

      • Completely agree. I have met adoptees whose parents had nothing good to say about the morals of their mother for being unwed and pregnant (sanitized). Really not the right way to reference the person who conceived you and gave birth to you. Not how my parents chose to explain – thankfully.

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