Monday 23 April 2018

When and how do we tell our sons about their conception?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman answers your parenting questions.

Question: My wife and I have beautiful twin sons that were conceived through IVF using donor sperm after years of infertility treatment.

We would like some advice as to when to tell them about this, as we want to make sure they are familiar with their birth story from an early age. We used an identifiable donor so my sons can access information about  the donor when they reach 18. They are now almost three. Is it too soon to start the conversation? When we do have it, can you tell us what language we should use?

David replies: It is heartening to know that you are very clear that you will be telling your children about the nature of their conception. You have no intention of trying to hide or disguise it from them.

All of the advice that you might come across will hopefully echo the same sentiment that it is really important for them to know. That said, there is no set timing for when to tell them.

Some advocate for talking with them, from an early age, about their conception and the nature of donor sperm.

Even if you wait until they are a bit older, the best practice is to make sure they understand about their birth story before they reach puberty.

Most parents, in practice, end up talking about their children's conception when their children start asking questions about where babies come from. These kinds of questions about babies, or bodies, can often start in toddlerhood or at preschool age.

The important thing, from your perspective, is that you are prepared to talk about donor sperm and donors in general, whenever the questions may come. The trick is to keep it simple and to keep it honest.

When children are young, the technicalities of how the conception was achieved is less important than the sense of love, belonging and connection that you both feel for your children and how they have come to be part of your family.

The actual words that you will use will depend on the age of your children at the time you talk to them about it. But if it was now, you might be saying something like:

"We both really wanted to have you two live with us so we could love you and mind you. We tried very hard to make you. Babies get made when a sperm and egg come together. The babies then grow in mam's womb. That is where you both grew. Our donor gave his sperm with mummy's egg so we could grow you."

You may find you get some other questions then about why you didn't use daddy's sperm and so you need to be ready to explain that "sometimes the sperm and egg don't come together like we expect and so mams and dads might need to get help to connect the sperm and egg or even, like we did, get a donor to give us a sperm to connect with mam's egg".

If you get asked "what is a donor?", you might reply "some very kind men give their sperm to other families to help them. These men are called sperm donors and they are a big help for families when dad's own sperm doesn't work so well".

This can be a tricky thing to discuss and you may find it hard to evaluate how you have done, or how they have received the information. The good news is that you will have many other opportunities during their lives to explain it again.

If needed, you will get to explain it differently and to add detail and complexity to the story as their understanding broadens with age and maturity. Telling them is a process, not a once-off event. So don't worry if your language seems clunky or awkward, or they don't seem to get it, or are confused. You will have lots more chances!

Every time you talk about it, though, try to stay attuned to their emotional response to what you are saying. How they feel may be different from each other and different from how you feel. Acknowledging and validating their feelings about their birth story will always be important.

It is great that you intend to give them full knowledge about their conception and birth story.

Since your hearts are in the right place, I'm confident you will find the right time and the right words.

My five-year-old worries about losing me and her dad. How can I help her insecurity?

Question: Last night, my five-year-old daughter was chewing on her nails, which is always a sign of anxiety for her. When I asked if anything was bothering her she told me that she was worried that I'd be going away from her sometime when she's a mammy, that I wouldn't be there for her. I also used to worry about losing my mam and dad when I was a child. I tried to reassure her but I didn't really know what to say to her. I would love to know how I can help her to feel safe and to try to stop her worrying so much about losing me or her dad.

David replies: Knowing when our children are off form, and knowing when to pursue them a little bit to find out what is up, can be tricky. Sometimes they may volunteer a worry, but more often we have to deduce that something is upsetting them.

It is great that your daughter gives a clear behavioural signal when she is worried or anxious. Her nail-chewing gives you fair warning that something is bothering her.

Other parents may have to be attuned to changes such as extended grumpy moods, drop off in school performance, cross and angry behaviour, or withdrawal.

The particular worry that your daughter has is quite common. Many children get fleeting, or sustained, concerns about their own security, or the security of their family. Indeed, you have personal experience of also worrying about your mam or your dad not being there, so you can really sympathise with her experience.

Using your own experience as a guide, however, I am sure you know that simple reassurance that your mam and dad weren't going anywhere and didn't expect any traumas, accidents or ill-health to befall them, didn't really help to reduce your worry.

Partly this is because you realised that your parents couldn't offer a blanket reassurance that all would be ok, because nobody could, or can, guarantee that. Mostly, though, I'd imagine that their reassurances didn't comfort you because you may not have felt that they really understood just how worried you were.

I think these two issues are at the heart of why your daughter still may feel a bit insecure.

The good news is that you can help your daughter to feel safer and more secure. There are specific things you can say to reduce her anxiety.

The first step is to show her that you understand the worry that she has. You do this by empathising with her. Empathy is the tangible sense that you may know the nature and the intensity of the feelings that she has.

Unlike sympathy, where we share someone else's feelings, you don't have to be worried yourself to understand and accept that your daughter may be worried. As it happens, you probably can sympathise too as you have that direct experience of worrying about losing your own parents.

Empathetic statements you might make to your daughter include things like, "you sound very upset and worried about me or your dad going away and forgetting about you." "You seem a little bit scared about being grown up and having to do everything for yourself."

"It can be scary to think about being a grown-up and having to mind your own baby". "I'd guess that there are times you wish you could always be a child and have me and your dad minding you".

"I wonder if you'd like for me to be with you always and to never leave you."

All of these statements will help your daughter to tap into the possible basis of her anxieties. You will probably find that if you talk with her in this way, guessing about what is bothering her about losing you, that this alone could help to dissipate her upset.

Once you have helped her to connect to her worried feelings, then your reassurances about being here, now, to mind her, and having no plans to be elsewhere, may have more effect also.

Children can go through many periods of insecurity at different stages of their childhood, or in response to specific events. Typically with some warmth and understanding from us, the worries fade away or they learn to soothe and comfort themselves.

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