When donor conception was first practised, sperm and egg donations were made anonymously. Historically, parents were encouraged to maintain secrecy about their donor treatment. Time has shown that this approach may not have been in the best interests of the child born.
It can be challenging for donor-conceived people to find out that they are donor conceived as adults, but in VARTA’s experience, the majority have said they preferred knowing the truth and are very clear that their dad is still their dad. Donor-conceived people understand that their parents needed treatment; that they were very much wanted; and that parents were advised not to tell. They also consistently say they would prefer to learn the news of their donor conception from their parents and not from another source.
Even though parents may feel confident they are doing the right thing by informing their son or daughter how their family was formed, telling an adult child that they are donor-conceived can be challenging for parents especially when they have kept this a secret for so long. Parents who feel uncertain or anxious about how to talk to their child about their donor conception can speak privately and confidentially with a counsellor at VARTA. VARTA’s experienced staff can support parents about how to have this conversation. They may also be able to put you in contact with another parent who has told their child as an adult. This is a free service.
Watch Elizabeth’s experience of telling her adult donor-conceived children of their conception
A life-long secret can be a great burden. Secrets have a tendency to come out in ways that you often have the least control over. Donor-conceived people who find out in difficult circumstances can find the issue become clouded with an impression of betrayal and deceit, even if that was never the intention of their parents. Finding out from another party can be devastating.
The increasing popularity of DNA ancestral testing means that secrets are becoming harder to keep. Donor-conceived people are finding out from popular DNA tests such as 23andme and ancestry.com that they are not genetically connected to their dad. They may presume that their mother may have had an affair. Your son or daughter may be approached by someone who was conceived by the same donor even if they have not had DNA testing as it is possible to identify genetic relations with a combination of DNA and genealogical information.
Since 1988, Victorian donor conception laws have allowed egg and sperm donors to apply to the Central Register for information about their offspring. If the offspring are legal adults, the offspring will be contacted directly by VARTA if an application for information about them is lodged by their donor. If the donor-conceived person does not know that they are donor-conceived, it will be necessary for a VARTA counsellor to inform them as part of the application process. This process is similar to which has been used for many years in adoption.
Once VARTA has spoken with the donor-conceived person about the application made by their donor, VARTA will only release information about the donor-conceived person to their donor if the donor-conceived person consents.
How to tell
It is good to pick a time when the family is relatively calm. Think through what you want to say and perhaps rehearse this to give you more confidence. You can also discuss your thoughts with a VARTA counsellor. If you are a better writer than a talker consider writing a letter and giving 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.
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.
You may find it helpful to have someone to talk to and to debrief with once you have had the conversation. You may also consider arranging another support person for your child/ren.
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.
Once your son or daughter is aware of their conception; they may want to find out more about their donor. It is natural to be curious and often important to be aware of medical history and is no reflection on your parenting. It is important to support them in whatever they decide.
VARTA has a range of information that you may find useful to read or watch before having the conversation with your child or children.