I had the unique opportunity to hear two separate panels of donor-conceived adult children speak at a conference recently. The first group was comprised of four people in their fifties and sixties who'd found out about their donor conception in the last two years through a DNA test like Ancestry or 23 and me. In every case, their parents had used a sperm donor and never told them of their donor conception. In this case all four people were conceived through the use of the same sperm donor, therefore, all half siblings.
Side note - Because the word "sibling" indicates some sense of family or history, it doesn't always feel appropriate for these situations. Some people are using the term "dibling" (donor sibling) which often feels more appropriate to the relationship. Until people can decide on a term that works best for them, we often use "donor-linked peers" to indicate this relationship.
All four donor-conceived adult children expressed a myriad of emotional responses to this news. For all of them, the man they were raised with as their father, was not actually biologically related to them. For those that had living fathers (in their 80s and 90s now) they grappled with weather or not to tell them of their findings. You can imagine the sense of anger, loss, frustration, and betrayal someone would feel after not being given this important information about your genetic background. However, it was apparent too that all of the donor-conceived adults viewed the parents that raised them as their parents, and the man who donated sperm as a different factor all together in making them who they are.
It's also important to consider the cultural context at the time of their conception. Born in the 50s and 60s, talk of infertility was non-existent. And though this idea is changing, back then the thought that a man can produce healthy sperm to create healthy offspring was a badge of virile honor. Though still true for many men today, there is a shift for men to start to view infertility more as a medical condition versus a threat to their manhood.
The second group of donor conceived children consisted of a set of male/female twins in their twenties who were told when they were 17 that their mom had used an egg donor to conceive them, two embryos were created with their dad's sperm and a known egg donor. It was explained to them that their good family friend, was in fact the source of half of their genetic material. At the same time, the family friend had already had two biological children of her own, now in their thirties. In this scenario, all four children were half siblings (or diblings), and had grown up knowing each other as family friends.
It was amazing to see the difference in their responses to being told at age 17 about their donor conception. Both twins repeated that "my mom is still my mom" and knowing of their genetic history didn't change that. The biological children of the known donor were mostly impressed that their mother would give such a gift to their family friend. And the only regret that the young adults had was that they weren't told sooner.
There is no longer anonymity in the donor sperm/donor egg game. Access to genetic tests is simpler than ever and they immediately give you lists of people genetically linked to you. It is important to tell your donor-conceived children of their background early. If you're parents of adult children in their twenties and thirties, conceived at a time that DNA testing was more implausible, you can still having a meaningful conversation with your children. It is so much more important that they hear it from you, versus a computer screen.
It works best for people when they've been told early and often that they were wanted, loved, and made possible through the help of some other people (like egg or sperm donors). But if you're considering telling your adult children now, here are a few tips I gleaned from the older adult "donor-linked peers" who wished they had been told earlier:
1. Tell them "We love you and wanted you so much we went through some extra steps to get you."
2. Let them know that when they were born there wasn't any standard or support about how to do these things.
3. Give them a way to find out more about their donor if you can. They will likely be curious and it can be important for them to know their genetic histories for health reasons.
4. They may want to contact their donor or meet donor-linked peers if there are any. Know that this is not their attempt to abandon you, all of the panelists reported that the people who raised them are still their parents.
5. Know that this can be a good thing for them. Of the older donor-linked peers, after they'd processed the shock and started to get to know their donor-linked peers, they said they wouldn't change it the situation.
Honesty in these situations can leave everyone breathing easier with time. If at all possible tell early. If you've put it off, tell soon. It's going to be better coming from you even if it sends shock waves through the family for awhile. Focus on your immense love for your children, and remember all the hard work you did to bring them into the world. They are lucky to be so wanted, and lucky to have you.
Allison Ramsey is a licensed professional counselor and fertility counseling specialist in the Asheville area. She’s a member of Resolve, The Infertility Association and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, and completed their certificate training in mental health counseling for infertility. Contact her to start feeling better.