Telling children, family and others
Whether you are donor-conceived, a parent of a donor-conceived person, a donor, a partner, a family member or friend; it can be difficult to know how to talk about donor conception.
Telling family and friends
Knowing how to tell family and friends about donor conception can be challenging.
Helpful resources and support
Find additional support, including private counselling and support groups here.
A generation ago, parents were often advised not to tell their children about how they were conceived. Research now indicates this was not necessarily best for the child. Secrets can be a great burden, undermine the trust and stability in a family and create the unintended impression of betrayal and deceit. Families are created in many ways and being open may help your child to feel more comfortable about the way they were conceived. Regardless of your child’s age, it is never too late to tell. There are a number of reasons to tell:
- Identity - For many donor-conceived people, knowing their origins is an important part of understanding who they are and where they come from.
- Medical reasons - As knowledge about the inheritance of disease increases, it becomes more important for donor-conceived people to know their genetic and medical history.
- Both DNA testing and blood group testing are becoming more common and such tests can show that two people, who thought they were related, are in fact not related. It is becoming increasingly common for donor-conceived people to find out they were donor-conceived via third-party DNA testing before their parents tell them.
- Consanguinity - There is a very small but potential risk that a donor-conceived person may meet and form a sexual relationship with a half-brother or sister. Knowing and being comfortable discussing with others their origins may reduce this risk.
Telling your support network (family, friends and colleagues) can help start conversations and allow them to better support you.
Telling children – when and how?
Despite growing use and acceptance of fertility treatment, parents may struggle with the question of whether to tell their children about their origins and how to talk to them about it.
Research shows that many parents lack confidence in telling their family story. Rather than deciding not to tell, they just keep putting it off. It is never too early or too late to start explaining how you became a family; however, research shows the earlier you begin telling a child the story of how they were conceived, the more straightforward and stress-free it is for you and your child. It is helpful to view it as an ongoing conversation rather than a one-off talk. There are also many creative ways to tell your family story and let it evolve as your child develops. It is important to find your own words to explain your unique story.
As your child grows older, baby-making is likely to become a topic of conversation in your family. Explaining conception can be difficult and complexities of fertility treatment add to this. Children are usually fascinated by the details of their conception and birth and as long as the information is age-appropriate they will most likely enjoy hearing the story about how they came to be. There are a number of children's books that could help you explain fertility treatment and IVF to young children, as well as examples of what you might say. Sometimes it takes three to make a baby is an example of a children's book explaining donor-conception and family constellations.
Knowing what to say can be daunting. Unfortunately, this may mean you put off talking to your child and you never quite get around to it - just as many parents avoid talking about sex. However, it is much easier than you may think.
Talking to your child about donor conception is similar to the way that any child is taught about their conception. If stuck for words, check out these examples of what to say to help you get started. You may also consider making a family storybook.
- There is no 'right’ or ‘wrong' way or words to use. It is not what you say but how you say it that reflects your love and pride in the way you became a family. Hearing this will ensure your child understands they are much-wanted.
- Be confident and proud. If your child senses that you are embarrassed or ashamed that you used fertility treatment, this may affect the way they feel about themselves. As a result, they may be less likely to want to ask questions or talk to you about it in the future.
- Don't make it a big deal. Your child’s donor conception or surrogacy story is only one facet of who they are. All children want to feel special but that does not mean they want to feel different from their peers. Try not to refer to your donor or surrogate as if they are a super hero - they are ordinary people who did something extraordinary to help. At the same time, it is important that you convey a high regard for the person that helped you become parents.
- Remember the first conversation is just that - a beginning. Your child will have their own particular thoughts and questions and they need to feel able to talk to you about them. Keep the conversations going - they may need to hear some information more than once. It might also be helpful for them to talk with someone other than you - just as you may benefit from having a supportive friend, family member or counsellor to talk things over with.
- Every child’s reaction is different. Your child's response may surprise you as they may show little reaction and you may wonder if they have absorbed the information. They may become quiet and need time to process things. Conversely, they may be quite curious. Older children may be shocked or angry; they may also need time and space to deal with what they have learned. They may be sad they do not share a genetic link with you and confused as to what implications this has for their other relationships within the family.
Pregnancy and infancy
You can begin to tell your child the story of their conception even before they are born. Some parents who use a surrogate record their voices for the surrogate to play to the baby. When the baby is born, you can tell the story as you feed, change, or settle your baby. Doing this is also a good way to practice telling the story so that when your child is old enough to understand it, you feel confident explaining how they were conceived.
Toddlers and up
Toddlers need only very simple information. You can begin by teaching them:
- body parts, using the correct terms
- the different sorts of families that exist. Posters by the Rainbow Families Council illustrating various family formations may assist
- babies start from a part from a woman (egg) and a part from a man (sperm)
- babies grow in a woman's uterus
- some people need extra help to make a baby
- people called donors give them the part that starts a baby if parents do not have any or if theirs are broken and they need some extra help
- women called surrogates can help people have a baby by growing the baby in their uterus and then giving the baby back to their parents after it is born.
If your child is interested in listening to stories you can use the suggested books. Perhaps paraphrase them if you find your child is unable to concentrate on the full story.
Pre-school children are able to understand slightly more complex information. Children's books are perfect for this age group. You might also consider talking to your child's kindergarten teacher and offering to bring a book for the teacher to read to the class. Use accurate positive language. Children are very literal so you may need to clarify whether they have understood e.g. people's eggs are not like chicken eggs and they were not in a freezer if the embryos were frozen!
Children of this age love reading their family storybooks. You can include any information you have about their donor or surrogate. Use your donor or surrogate's first name if you know it and you feel comfortable to do so. When talking about the donor, it is important to convey your high regard for them.
Early primary school years
School-age children are able to begin to understand the implications of being donor-conceived or gestated by a surrogate. If donor-conceived, they may begin to understand the concept of genetics and start to question what they inherited from their parents and how they are influenced by their donor. Does their donor have a good sense of humour or did they get this from Mum? Does their donor have curly hair or is that from Grandad? Sometimes learning about genetics at school or seeing something on television prompts more questions. You may also use these opportunities to raise the topic.
Children may also be interested in the mechanics of the treatment you went through to have them. Answer their questions simply and honestly and encourage more questions. Do not forget to tell them about sex as they may assume all babies are made the way they were.
Later primary school years
If parents are telling their child for the first time at this age, the information is likely to come as a surprise and the child is likely to need time to absorb it. This is also a stage of life when children want to be just like everyone else and they may start to become self-conscious about their conception. Talking about reproduction may be a little embarrassing for them - especially if puberty is starting and their body is changing. They may become more selective about who they confide in with this information.
Talking to teenagers needs to be handled very sensitively. Teenagers are going through dramatic physical and emotional changes and are already questioning who they are. They are also testing boundaries and becoming more independent from their parents. Introducing this new information is likely to exacerbate this. Remember that it is common for teenagers to be rebellious and angry and fight with their parents, regardless of how they were conceived. It is important for parents to realise this is completely typical behaviour and not because they are donor-conceived or gestated by a surrogate.
Teenagers might benefit from talking to a supportive friend, family member, teacher, counsellor experienced in donor conception, or another donor-conceived person.
Research conducted with teenagers on their opinions about telling revealed that they thought donor-conceived people had a right to know; they preferred their parents tell them; they appreciated there is no easy way to tell other than to say it; and they recognised the need to talk as a family together with all the children being told at the same time. They also suggested that parents should explain why they had not told them before and that they feel old enough to understand.
Telling adult children
In years gone by, parents were often advised not to tell their children about how they were conceived. The good news is, it’s never too late to tell.
Telling an adult can be quite challenging, so here are some tips for preparing:
- Plan a time which is relatively calm for both you and your son or daughter. Avoid Christmas, birthdays or a time around a recent relationship break down.
- If you have more than one child, it is better to tell them together rather than separately.
- It is preferable to talk at home (yours or theirs) rather than being in an unfamiliar, public environment.
- It is better to talk as a couple, even if you have separated. If this is not possible, then inform your ex-partner so that they can be prepared.
Think through what you want to say and perhaps rehearse this to give you more confidence. If you are a better writer than a talker perhaps write a letter and give it to your son or daughter to read with you and then be available to discuss it. Apologise for not telling them earlier and explain that things were very different at the time you had treatment and that you were advised by medical staff that it was better that they not be told about their origins. This might be hard for them to appreciate as society is much more open now.
Make sure they have someone to talk to about this and you are likely to need someone to debrief with also. It is important to check in with your child later as the implications of what you have told them are likely to take time to sink in. It is important that this is not a one-off conversation and that you understand that they will probably want to discuss this again in the future.
Adults are initially likely to feel numb and may find it difficult to believe what you have told them. If this news has come from someone other than yourself - for example, a relative, an accidental discovery, or via third-party DNA testing - it is likely to be particularly difficult to deal with. They may feel confused and angry; may struggle to understand why you had not told them earlier; and wonder if there are other important issues they do not know about. They may have a feeling of being duped if others were aware of their beginnings but they were not. They may feel they need to completely rethink who they are and the relationships they have with other members of the family. If a different donor was used for other siblings, this can be even more challenging. Despite these strong difficult emotions, it is rare for a donor-conceived person to prefer not to have known. They may benefit from talking to another donor-conceived person and/or a counsellor experienced in this area.
Some donor-conceived people feel relieved when they find out, saying the discovery explains things they may have questioned; for example, a lack of physical resemblance or a sense that something had been kept from them. Some may have suspected this or mistakenly thought their mother may have had an affair and be thankful this was not the case.
Telling family and your support network
Telling your support network (family, friends and colleagues) can help start conversations and allow them to better support you.
It is important for you to have some support. Consider sharing your situation with close family and friends who are important to you and will be important to your child as they grow older. Feedback from parents who have confided in loved ones is that their reactions are usually positive, understanding and supportive of their decision to use a donor or surrogate.
It is common for questions to be raised about how your family was created - particularly for single or same-sex parents, but also for couples who have used a surrogate. Questions may come from immediate or extended families or from people in the broader community. Often these questions arise out of curiosity and are asked in an appropriate and respectful way and it is easy to respond openly and positively. Sometimes you may have to deal with questions that are inappropriate or intrusive and which make you feel uncomfortable or judged.
You should not feel that you must explain to everyone all the time: some days it might seem too hard or too complicated. Conversations may evolve as circumstances and personal feelings change and you may find you become more confident in handling difficult conversations.
It is important to note the difference between privacy and secrecy. While it might be important to talk to your inner circle of friends and family about using a donor or surrogate, this does not mean you need to tell everyone. It is helpful to decide what information you are happy to divulge at the various stages and to whom: immediate family, close friends, and the broader community. A good guide can be considering who will be significant in your child's life and then perhaps telling them.
Helpful resources and support
VARTA's Time to tell seminar: Talking to your children about how you became a family with the help of a donor.
A list of Children's books
''I have been making a book for him since before he was born so we've got everything from the donor profile, the photos of our first appointment, his birth, his naming day ceremony and his first birthday. He always wants to look at it and if I go too quickly he wants to turn back''. Pia
"I strongly believed they had an absolute right to know about their genetic heritage...I feared them finding out accidentally in the future when I was no longer around." Barbara
"It was a story of the whole of his journey. It started off in a sense that babies are made with love and I loved him from the beginning... since the moment you were a twinkle in my eye, I loved you and wanted you." Ann
"We started saying it out loud to kind of see how it would sound, to see what words we would use. We got to experiment, give it a go before it really begins to sink in. So that by the time they got to three and a half, four - we felt much more confident doing it." Sarah
"There was a special man that helped you be. He gave a gift to the hospital and the doctor passed it onto me. I've always used the term 'sperm' and 'egg'." Anna
“I found out at age 12 that I was donor conceived. My parents sat my brother and I down one evening and told us that my father was unable to conceive naturally, so they decided to use donor sperm. Finding out was pretty confronting...it shook my sense of identity to learn that my life wasn’t as storybook perfect as I thought it was - that there was something a bit different about us.” Hayley
"'Where do I come from?' is such a fundamental question and I think that…the right to know that should at least be equal to the desire to have children." Ross, donor-conceived person
"I’ve always been curious to find out more about the whole process and who my donor was. I used to wonder... what he looked like. I had always thought about seeing an older man on a railway station...did he look like me?" Riley
"I spoke to one Mum at school and explained how we talk about our family. I sent her the Rainbow Families Council link so that she could look on there at some of the resources." Cathy
"I do get a bit of curiosity and, I must admit, most of the time where it’s a casual encounter I generally ignore it or don’t go into detail." Vien
"Some people will ask very probing questions and I don’t have a problem with that at all. I think the more I can explain to people, the more they understand, the better for everyone." Simon
"I’m really happy if people want to ask questions. I’m not offended because I’d rather just educate people and show them that it is a thought-out process and why I am confident that it’s going to be OK." Pia
"I guess there’s a little of the advocate in me; the more people who know about these stories, the better it is for us and for our community." Brad
"I think the more open we are, the more people understand and the less they fear. The less fear they have, the less hate they have." Eve
Telling family, partners and close friends
While you may be curious to know more about your donor offspring, you may not have told your partner, family or close friends about your donation, which could complicate your feelings about the issue.
Your family may view future contact as potentially positive which may lead to new friendships and connections for them - or they may be apprehensive about how this may impact on the time they have with you or whether it will change their relationship with you.
Your parents may not understand donor conception and may view this in a negative light or, conversely, may be excited about potential grandchildren, especially if you have not had children. In this case, your parents may struggle if donor offspring do not view them in the same way or feel that you do not have a parental role.
Your children may question your role with your donor offspring. Some may see this as an exciting development and welcome the opportunity to connect with people conceived from your donation (donor-siblings). Others may be concerned this may change their role in the family and do not want to ’share’ you. They may need reassurance that your relationship with your donor offspring is different and the love you have for them will never change.
Helpful resources and support
"I made the decision to make myself available to any offspring if they wanted any information about me. One of those chose to find out more about me after he turned 18. One of the first things he said was thank you for what you did those 18 years ago. That was one thing I didn't expect but it was very nice... people have asked us about the sort of relationship we now have. There are no words in the English language... we haven’t got words for this yet." Roger
My partner is a donor
Finding out your partner donated sperm, eggs, or embryos can be challenging. Donors may not discuss their donations with their partners and family for a range of reasons. Some may feel embarrassed or ashamed of donating; some may believe there is no reason to tell as their donations were anonymous; while others may feel it is irrelevant to their current life. There are also donors who intended to tell their partner but have found the subject difficult to discuss. Other donors are proud of their donation and have been open with their partners and others from the time they donated.
Some people may learn about their partner’s donation as a result of an application to the donor conception registers. It can be confronting to find out that their partner donated, that a person was born from the donation and/or their parent may want more information about, or contact with, your partner. Partners may wonder what their role should be and where they fit in as they are not biologically connected to your offspring. It is likely to take time to process this information and to decide what to do. It is common to feel uneasy or confused about what this could mean for you, your partner, and your relationship. If you have not been able to have children, potential contact can stir up painful feelings which can be particularly difficult.
It is important that you are included, so you may want to:
- raise any concerns, with your partner and/or contact a VARTA counsellor
- attend the information and support sessions at VARTA together with your partner
- participate in decision-making
- contribute to correspondence or contact.
Helpful resources and support
I am a family member or close friend
Helpful resources and support
Find additional support, including private counselling and support groups here.
Frequently Asked Questions
What types of things might others ask me and how should I respond?
There are a number of scenarios and questions that you may be asked. How you respond is a personal choice. You can find a number of common scenarios below:
- It is common for people to comment on resemblance or ask about your pregnancy. This may feel awkward for you. If someone tells the non-biological parent their child looks like them, you can just smile, or say thank you - you do not have to explain anything more.
- If someone starts up a conversation with a non-biological parent about pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding, you may choose to correct their assumptions - or you may choose not to if that person is a stranger.
- Some parents feel that conversations with others provide a good opportunity to educate people about your family, which can, in turn, have positive outcomes for your children. Talking to people can dispel myths, correct inaccuracies, or just make people feel more at ease with you and your family.
- You may feel that the process of conceiving a child is personal and private and nobody else’s business. You may sometimes need to be very direct with people and explain that certain information is private, off-limits, or belongs to your child.
I’ve decided to tell my support network. What type of questions should I expect?
People may be curious about whether you used a known or anonymous donor; whether you conceived at home or using a clinic; in Australia or overseas.
In same-sex families, questions may also be asked of how you decided which partner would carry your child or provide sperm. Gay Dads may choose not to reveal who is the biological father of their child born through surrogacy and lesbian Mums may not wish to share information about who the biological mother is.
People may ask questions that appear judgmental or homophobic, but which might just be clumsy, ignorant or not thought through. It can be helpful to give people the benefit of the doubt sometimes.
What is a family storybook and why should I create one?
A family storybook is an opportunity to document the story of your child's journey into this world. It can take many forms, limited only by your time and creativity - including a digital journal, a scrapbook, a children's book, a film, or even a memory box.
Regardless of the medium you choose, your family storybook can include images and mementos collected from your fertility treatment, the pregnancy, and any information you have about your family, your child and your donor or surrogate. These items can include: a positive pregnancy test, scan images, donor profile or photos of the surrogate or donor if you know them already, an ID bracelet, or a lock of hair.
You and your child can add to it over the years, including new cards, photos, or letters from the donor or surrogate.
A family storybook is a communication and documentation tool that helps to:
- Give a child conceived with the help of a donor or surrogate a piece of their history to enable them to tell their story from a place of security, pride and strength. It builds the child’s sense of identity, self-esteem and self-worth.
- Broaden the perspectives of parents who have used a donor or surrogate so they can be proud of the way they created their family.
- Promote good relations between parents, their children, and their family’s story.
- Retain memories of your journey to becoming a family.
- Enable the child to share their story with others.
How many people have donated eggs, sperm or embryos in Victoria?
In 2019-20, there were more than 4,000 donors on the Central Register.
I want to speak to other donor- conceived people. Where can I find support?
There are a number of peer support and online groups.
There are a number of Facebook groups that exist to support donor-conceived people and parents/recipients considering donor treatment or that have created their families with the help of donated eggs, sperm, or embryos. Some are listed below:
This closed Facebook group is for donor-conceived people across Australia and New Zealand. It is a safe space to discuss what it means to be donor-conceived. You will be asked some questions before you are admitted to the group to establish that you are donor-conceived.
This Facebook group enables members to stay in-touch in-between social events - it is also especially important for members who live in regional areas and can't make it to many social events in the cities.
The group is administered by individual members. Details of the Facebook group is provided on acceptance of membership.
Join this new Facebook group to meet other Aussie mums with children born from embryo donation.
This is a closed Facebook group for women who have decided to have a child on their own with the help of a donor or adoption. It is for women who are either contemplating, going through or are already a solo parent to a donor conceived or adopted child.
This closed Facebook group is for people involved in donor conception, regardless of position in the spectrum.
This closed Facebook group was created to provide support for Australian donor-conceived children's parents, Australian egg/sperm/embryo donors looking to connect with families resulting from donations and those new to the world of donor conception. This group could also be a network to connect with other donor family or other donor conceived families.
I’ve found out that I’m donor-conceived through DNA testing. What should I do next?
You can find out more information on discovering you are donor- conceived through DNA testing here.
VARTA has professional and supportive staff who can talk with you about your experience and feelings. VARTA staff can also connect you with support groups and help you decide whether there is anything you might like to do with this new information, either immediately or in future. You can find our contact details here.
Do you have examples of what to tell young children?
Below are some examples of what you might say when telling your child their story of coming to be. It is important to use your own words and to adapt it to your child as they develop and begin to be able to understand more complex information. Remember that telling is a process, not a one-off event - what is most important is how you say it, not what you say.
Donor sperm or donor egg (heterosexual parents)
We wanted to have you for so long. We couldn't make you on our own. We needed some help. All babies start from an egg from a woman and sperm from a man and you did too. We went to the doctor and the doctor said that a part of Mum's/Dad's body did not work and we needed some eggs/sperm. A donor offered to give us some of their eggs/sperm to make you. A donor is someone who gives something to someone else to help them (just like a blood, kidney or charity donor). We went to the hospital and the doctor put the eggs/sperm inside Mum and you started to grow. Mum's tummy grew bigger and bigger until you were ready to be born. We will always be your parents. We will always love you and be grateful to our donor for helping us to have you.
Donor sperm (same-sex mothers)
We really wanted to have you and become a family so we went to the doctor who said there was a way for two Mums to have babies. All babies start from a part from the man (sperm) and a part from the woman (egg). We had that egg but we needed some sperm. Your donor, [donor's name] helped us so that we could have you. The doctor put the sperm that [donor's name] gave us inside me and you started to grow. My tummy got bigger and bigger. Mumma was there the whole time and talked to you inside my tummy every day so you knew her voice. Finally you were ready to be born. Mumma and I were so happy to meet you at last. We will always love you and be your parents. [Donor's name] was so happy to have helped us and we are grateful that he helped us make you.
Mum (and Dad) tried and tried to make you. Sometimes mummies (and daddies) need help from another man and woman (donors) to start a baby. The donors gave us/me a tiny embryo which is the beginning of a baby. It is made from a part from the woman (egg) and a part from the man (sperm). Everyone in the world starts from an embryo and you did too. The embryo was put inside Mum and you kept growing there until you were born.
Double donation (donor egg and donor sperm)
Mum (and Dad) tried and tried to make you. Sometimes mummies (and daddies) need help from another man and woman (donors) to start a baby. A woman gave us/me an egg and a man gave us/me some sperm. This was put inside me and the sperm and egg joined and started to grow... into you! My tummy grew bigger and bigger until you were ready to be born. We are so grateful to our donors who helped us to start you.
Donor egg and surrogacy (same-sex fathers)
Dad and I wanted to have you for so long. To make a baby you need a part from the man (sperm) and a part from the woman (egg) and then you need to put these parts together inside a woman for the baby to grow. We were so lucky that two special women helped us to have you. [Donor's name] gave her egg, and then [Surrogate's name] grew you inside her. We are so proud of you and so happy to be a family at last.
Surrogacy (heterosexual parents)
Mum and Dad tried and tried to have you. To make a baby you need a part from the woman (egg) and a part from the man (sperm) and a safe place for the baby to grow inside a woman (uterus) before it is born. Mum had the eggs and Dad had the sperm but mum's uterus was broken and a baby couldn't grow there. [Surrogate's name] offered to grow you in her uterus for us. The doctor put Mum's egg and Dad's sperm together and they joined to become an embryo. Everyone in the world starts to grow from an embryo. The embryo was then put inside [Surrogate's name]'s uterus and you kept growing there until you were ready to be born. We held [Surrogate's name] hand as she pushed you out and then Mum held you while Dad cut the cord and you were finally ours at last. We are so grateful to [Surrogate's name] for helping us make you. She will always have a special place in our hearts. We will always love you and be your Mum and Dad.
What are some typical questions my child may have about the donor or surrogate?
Children, and especially teenagers, often question:
- Who am I?
- Where did I come from?
- Do I have anything in common with my donor or surrogate?
- For those who do not already know their donor or surrogate: would I like them?
- Why did they (the donor/surrogate) want to help make me?
If children have not already met their donor/surrogate, they may wonder what they are like. This is normal and healthy and does not undermine your role as their parents in any way. You may be curious too. Answer questions as honestly as you can. While it is important to talk about your donor or surrogate with high regard, do not overdo it either - your child may then have unrealistic expectations of their donor or surrogate. Share with your child the information you have available. Support them in applying to the donor conception registers (if in Victoria) or your treating clinic to find out more information.