Wednesday 22 February 2017

Should we tell the kids our relative is pregnant via IVF?

Published 17/01/2012 | 06:00

Columnist David Coleman PIx Ronan Lang/Feature File
Columnist David Coleman PIx Ronan Lang/Feature File
Pregnant woman

A close family member has received the happy news that she is pregnant, but she became pregnant via a sperm donation and IVF. Have you any advice on how to address this with the children the rest of our family have?

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The kids involved are between three and 10 years. If we tell them precisely what the situation is then everyone will know and it will compromise the girl's privacy. They know she doesn't have a boyfriend, and we don't want to lie and give poor example by saying it was via a one-night stand. In most ways this is great news, a new little person to love and invite into the family, but just how can we treat this sensitively?

The most important person who needs to be consulted is the mum-to-be. I am guessing she is an independently minded woman given that she chose to become pregnant via a sperm donation. How does she feel about her privacy?

The key to deciding what message to give to the various children is knowing what information she wants shared. If she has chosen a sperm donation and IVF, in the intended absence of a male partner, then I can't imagine that she is overly bothered by the perception other people may or may not have about her.

If she is in a lesbian relationship and she and her partner have been together for a while then I imagine that the other children in the family would not be surprised that she would want to have a family of her own.

It can be tempting sometimes to spin a white lie to our children. Sometimes the full truth can be unpalatable, or we fear it might be overwhelming for them.

I am guessing that in this situation the truth is simply complicated and gives rise to further awkward questions that may then have to be explained.

All of the children are comparatively young and so they are unlikely to have complete understanding of conception and pregnancy.

In my experience of discussing sex education with parents, most people find it easier to explain the concept of two seeds, a male one and a female one, merging and growing into a baby, than they do to explain how the two seeds get together in the first place.

Perhaps this is at the heart of the general reluctance amongst the rest of the family to have to explain about the pregnancy.

However, in the long run, white lies, even if well intentioned, usually end up causing more confusion or distress for children. You have picked up on one aspect of this: it will be harder for your children to trust you if they know that you have lied to them.

In this instance the potential story they might be told will also give them a very false impression of their pregnant relative.

Neither outcome is particularly helpful for the children.

So you and the other family members might be better served telling the children enough of the truth to satisfy their curiosity, or all of the truth if you can. Once they have the information you can then help them to deal, emotionally, with it. It is vital, though, that the expectant mum knows what information is being shared.

It would be a real shame if different family members took different approaches to describing how the pregnancy came about. This will add greatly to the children's confusion as it may well be a source of conversation among them at family get-togethers and the differences in story may become apparent.

Your approach with the children might be slightly different, however, because patently the older ones will have greater capacity to understand, as well as perhaps greater curiosity about the specific details.

The central fact, that there isn't and won't be a dad around, is, I think, no longer a difficult concept for most children to get. There are plenty of one-parent families around and the children probably have friends who only have contact with one parent.

Whether or not you explain the full details of how the conception occurred depends mostly on what the mum wants to be shared and secondly, I believe, on how much the children want to know.

Not all children will be curious about how she could become pregnant without an obvious male partner on the scene.

Assuming that the mum-to-be is prepared to be open and upfront about her circumstances then I think the best approach is to tell as much of the truth as the children seem able to digest.

Children have a great capacity for taking on board only the information that they can make sense of. Usually when they hear some new information they try to locate some context for what they are hearing based on what they already know.

If the new information can't be fitted into the old model or way of understanding then it is either ignored or the child must create a new way of understanding.

All of the follow-up questions that may emerge, then, are likely to be your child trying to build a new context and understanding for themselves. Again this is good reason to continue to tell them accurate and truthful information.

In practice, then, the truth may go over the heads of the younger children and may intrigue the older ones who then will want to understand more.

If the news is mind-blowing for them part of your job becomes about helping them to make sense of it and to make sense of their feelings about what they are hearing.

Once adults are understanding and supportive then children can confidently cope with discovering more about the true complexity of the world they live in.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author

Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence

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