Being open with family, friends and others

Is openness right for us?

Openness about donor conception is now widely accepted by counsellors, psychologists and those with expertise in the welfare of families as being important for the long-term well-being of children and happy, healthy relationships in families.

  • Puts honesty at the heart of family relationships
  • Is respectful of donor conceived children/people as individuals in their own right
  • Allows donor conceived people to make choices about their lives
  • Allows donor conceived children to learn about aspects of their history, integrate the knowledge as they grow up and accept their story without shock or distress
  • Means that significant differences between a child and parent (in looks, talents etc.) can be easily explained.  Some DC adults have thought they must be adopted or the result of an affair by their mother.
  • Means that a true medical history (or lack of it) can be given to doctors, making diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions more accurate.  It also removes anxiety about the inheritance of disorders from the non-genetic parent
  • Does not mean that children will reject their non-genetic parent.

In the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, Parliament recognised the importance of donor conceived children being told about their origins.  It now requires that fertility clinics encourage potential parents to tell their children about donor conception at an early age and to inform them of ways of doing so.

Putting honesty at the heart of family relationships sounds self-evidently like a good thing, but many couples wonder if this is something they can manage, both for themselves and with their wider family and community.  Some people hope that they might be able to share the information with their child whilst at the same time not telling anyone else.  This strategy, however, risks giving a negative message to a child that donor conception is something to be hidden or ashamed of. Telling your child does mean that some other people do need to know.  See the next sections for Who, How and When.

Some people believe that as they live in small, probably rural, communities, that sharing information with others is not possible as they would become the focus of local gossip.  Many DCN members who live in communities like these have discovered that sharing information with confidence in a matter of fact way removes the stimulus for gossip and that, indeed, many people simply forget after a while.  Those who ask others to ‘keep their secret’ are much more likely to find themselves the object of school-gate chatter.

Perceived protection of the partner with the fertility difficulty can also be seen as a reason not to share donor conception information with others.    This approach is usually motivated by kindness and a wish to support someone who is loved very much.  Sadly, however, the secrecy that results often leads the person with the difficulty with feelings of failure and inadequacy and a lack of opportunities to mourn, integrate their condition into their sense of who they are, and grow as a person as a result.

What can help in thinking through openness –

  • Reading accounts by donor conceived children and adults about the differences between living in families where openness was normal or not practiced.  These can be found on this site, in books in our Library and on other web sites.
  • Read the first 'Telling and Talking' booklet which sets out reasons for being open, the limited circumstances when openness may not be in the best interests of children and ways of sharing information with those who do need to know.
  • Read Telling and Talking for Family and Friends for support and guidance about sharing information with those closest to you and buy Our Family to give to these people so that they can gain insight into what you have been through and what donor concption might mean for the whole family.

Who needs to know what and when?

Those people who are close to you, both family and friends, can be valuable confidantes and supporters at all stages of the donor conception process.  Informing the important people in your life sooner rather than later, perhaps before conception or during pregnancy, means that they will have time to learn  about donor conception issues before a child is born and that they are likely to feel privileged to be trusted with this very personal information.  Leaving ‘telling’ until later can cause resentment and sadness in family members and friends who had assumed they were close to you and that you would trust them.

Others who will need to know in due course are doctors and teachers.  The first so that medical conditions can be accurately diagnosed and treated and the latter so that they can be sensitive supporters if and when a child decides to speak about being donor conceived at school.

Strangers or acquaintances who comment on your child’s resemblance to one parent or another (as they will in their droves) can be told about DC if you choose to do so but they can also be fobbed off with euphemisms or told the child looks like himself.  If they are not part of your circle, then they don’t need to know.

What can help with deciding who needs to know and when -

  • Read the Telling and Talking booklets, particularly those for Family and Friends for guidance and personal experiences on sharing information with others.
  • In Personal Stories read the contributions by the panel on this topic at a recent DCN National Meeting. We always have small groups on Telling Friends and Family at national meetings.
  • Join DCN and talk with others about the ways they have approached talking with family and friends. 

How can we start to talk about it?

Starting a conversation about donor conception with your mother or father or your oldest friend may feel very natural or odd and difficult – or a mixture of the two – and will probably depend, at least in part, on what your relationship with them has been like in the past.  If they are close to you, they probably know that you would like to have children and maybe that you have been having difficulty conceiving or even that you have been seeking help.  Hang the donor conception information on what they know already, starting a conversation with something like, ‘You know David/Davina and I have been trying for a baby for some time, well we’ve been going to a fertility clinic and they are now saying that the only way we are likely to conceive is by using donor eggs/sperm’ or ‘Wonderful news Mum and Dad, David/Davina and I are going to have a baby.  As you know we have been trying for some time and in the end we needed the help of a donor but it’s so great that we are going to be parents and you are going to be grand-parents.’

What can help in starting conversations with others –

  • Read the Telling and Talking booklets, particularly for Family and Friends for guidance and personal experiences on sharing information with others.
  • Join DCN and talk with others about the ways they have approached talking with family and friends
  • Once you have your child come on a Telling and Talking workshop which addresses this topic as well as talking with children.

What sort of reaction should we expect?

The reaction you get to telling people about donor conception is likely to depend on two things –

The relationship that you have with them and how you convey the information.

Hopefully, those who are close to you will understand that this is very personal information and will respond with appropriate support, even if they are surprised to start with.  Parents can sometimes feel guilty that it is something they have passed on that may be responsible for fertility problems.  Being from an older generation they may be embarrassed, but as many will have grown up in the Sixties and Seventies they may also be comfortable talking about topics that have an indirect sexual connection. Parents may also have their own grief for you, their child, and for the loss of a genetically connected grandchild, although this is unlikely to affect the love they feel for the grandchild they can have.

Both family and friends can initially be thrown by the news and some have been known to say inappropriate things along the lines of firing blanks or the female equivalent because they don’t know what else to say.  It can be helpful to remember that you have been on a journey that most of them will not have shared and that they have not had the advantage of being part of the learning you have gained along the way.  Given time to catch up, it is rare for those close to a couple using donor conception not to be thrilled for them and give their full support.

If you can feel confident and comfortable in the way you talk with anyone, whether family, friend, professional or acquaintance, they are likely to respond in a similar way over time, even if they are surprised at first.

What can help in anticipating or dealing with the reactions of others:

  • Read the Telling and Talking booklets, particularly for Family and Friends, for guidance and personal experiences on sharing information with others.
  • Join DCN and talk with others about the responses they have had when talking with family and friends.

How can we respect our child’s right to know first, whilst being open with those close to us?

Many parents very understandably feel that their child should be the first to know about their origins by donor conception. However, there are some unexpected downsides to this very respectful approach.  Children do not completely take in and understand the information until they are about seven or eight and if parents are delaying telling anyone else until this time, it can lead to the sense of lack of trust and resentment by close relatives and friends mentioned in the section on Who Needs to Know, What and When above.  It also puts the child in the position of having to tell people something s/he may still understand imperfectly and it can give them the impression that as other people don’t know, it may be something to be worried about.   

Over the long lifetime of DC Network we have not seen any evidence that children resent others knowing about how they were conceived before they understand this information themselves.  If they have been told their story from a very early age by parents who are confident and comfortable, then the child will have accepted the facts without question and will assume that everyone else knows about it too.  Far from seeing this as private information, most DC children are very comfortable for others to know and to talk about it themselves, although from age around 8 they can understand that not everyone will know what they are talking about if they mention it and that not everyone needs to know.

See the section Telling Your Child for information about sharing information with young children.