If you’ve decided to share your children’s origins with them, you’ll likely wonder: When? How? To date, very little formal research data is available to guide us to answers. Most of the data is either anecdotal or based on generalizations made from adoption research. But mental health professionals can help, based on this research and our knowledge of child development.
You might choose to start sharing while they are young babies rocking in your arms. While this might sound crazy, given an infant’s inability to understand any language, it gives you the opportunity to rehearse how you want to communicate this information. It might not easily roll off your tongue the first few times you say it out loud. It might take a while to find the specific words and ideas you like to use. It will make the conversation more comfortable once they can understand. It also helps create an open emotional atmosphere in your family from early on.
You might instead choose to wait until your children are able to understand some of what you are telling them. As young as three years old, they are forming an identity, and will ask questions about themselves, their family members and how you became a family. But they will not be able to fully comprehend their donor origins, in all its complexities, until they reach adolescence. But if you wait this long, you risk confusing and shocking them, possibly feeling betrayed, with the trust between you disrupted.
Some parents might choose to begin sharing with children at 5 to 7 years old, when they can begin to understand a bit about “the birds and the bees” aspects of the story. Others prefer waiting until a child is a bit older, to avoid the likelihood of public disclosure. The desire for privacy should be weighed against children’s need to know. Unfortunately, waiting much later than this to begin sharing increases the chances that they’ll remember the day you sat them down to tell them, and question why you didn’t tell them sooner.
You want to accomplish broad goals in talking to your children about their origins. You want to convey how special (especially to you) and how normal they are. Just like every other child in the world thus far, they were created with an egg and sperm being brought together and carried in a woman’s uterus.
If communicated simply, matter-of-factly and comfortably, your young children will likely take for granted what (for you) might be mired in emotion. Try to keep in mind that while for you this story may be about infertility, disappointment, delays and being different, for your children, the story is about how they came to be. While the library is still quite small, thankfully there are a growing number of parent guides and children’s books available to help you share your children’s origins with them. Good luck to you!
Jan Elman Stout, Psy.D is a clinical psychologist in private practice who works with ARR clientele and numerous prospective surrogates, egg donors and parents to assess their emotional readiness for alternative paths to family building.