Allison Rouble’s four-year-old daughter is just starting to ask some big questions. Most recently she asked, “Where did I come from?” But the answer is not straightforward. After years of infertility, Rouble’s daughter was conceived via an anonymous sperm donor. Sixteen months after her daughter was born, Rouble gave birth to twins, now three, using the same donor. “We have been answering her questions as age appropriately as we can and with as much detail as we think a four-year-old can handle,” says Rouble. “Regardless of her being conceived by sperm donor, she is still a little girl who has no idea about the birds and bees yet.” But this brings bigger questions for parents: What and how much do we really tell children about conception and childbirth? What can they really understand?
Simple Answers are Best
“I see lots of parents with questions about how to talk to their kids—about traditional reproduction and otherwise,” says Deborah Bell, PhD, a Vancouver-based child psychologist and founder of Sand Story Psychology Services. She says a developmentally appropriate answer with just enough information is best, especially since parents have a tendency to over-explain, which can overwhelm little ones. “Sometimes a five-year-old asks, ‘Where do babies come from?’ and parents launch into a detailed account of baby-making, when ‘Mommy’s tummy!’ is enough,” says Dr. Bell. “If the child wants more information, he will ask more questions. That will cue parents as to what information the child is ready to hear.”
Of course, every child is unique. “Depending on his personality and temperament, you might have a kid who asks every single question—or you might have one who seems entirely uninterested,” says Dr. Bell. And if you have three kids, you might be blessed with many different questions—and that’s okay too. “Think about what you want to say ahead of time,” advises Dr. Bell. “Especially if the child’s origins are more complicated (i.e., adoption, reproductive technology)—that way you won’t be taken off guard.”
A Non-traditional Start
If life were a Hollywood movie, the Roubles might sit their daughter down on her 18th birthday and drop a plot-twisting bomb about the donor. But for the thousands of Canadian children born via non-traditional reproduction, such as egg or sperm donation, IVF and surrogacy, the reveal is much less dramatic.
“We don’t want them to remember it is as a time in their lives when Mom and Dad sat them down and ‘told’ them,” says Rouble. “We would prefer if it was something they just always remembered knowing from the time they were very young—a discussion that is ongoing, open and one that I am sure will always be evolving as they grow and as they have more complex questions for us.” And hopefully, the children will grow up not remembering anything different. “All families are diverse now, so for us to be different too isn’t all that strange,” adds Rouble. “It is why I want our kids to grow up knowing that they are not a family born out of secrets, but one born out of joy.”
As Dr. Bell notes: “All children wonder where they fit in and make connections through sameness and love. Be sure to emphasize similarities even if they are not biological. A sense of humour and a strong work ethic can be just as connecting as eye colour and hair colour.”
New books and resources reflect changing times and can help parents with this conversation. “There are so many single parents, gay parents and straight parents using assisted reproductive technologies. More and more people aren’t biologically related to the kids they’re raising,” says Cory Silverberg, a Toronto sex educator and author of What Makes a Baby (Triangle Square). His book, written for the curious son of a trans man, uses colourful, gender-neutral figures to explain how an egg, a sperm and a body for the baby to grow in makes a baby. “I wanted a book that could work for anyone, regardless of how many grown-ups were involved, what their gender, orientation or identity is.”
Whatever your family situation, says Dr. Bell, embrace it, making it a part of your family story from the beginning. “Parents can say, ‘We wanted you so much and were so thrilled when you arrived.’ Then the child can feel part of you, regardless of who donated the genetics.”