How to talk to your children about their donor father
Many Solo Moms live in absolute fear of a certain question: “Who’s my daddy?” It brings strong, resolute women to tears in an instant. Maybe it’s because it seems to come out in such strange and unsettling ways. I read about a sperm-donor-conceived child who told his mom that he did not have a dad because she had flushed him down the toilet. She guessed that it was related to the dead goldfish they had flushed down the toilet a few days prior. But it did not lessen her panic and grief.
So what’s the best way to talk to your child about her biological father? First of all, remember that this is a lifelong conversation that will vary based on your child’s age, but the key message to convey—no matter what age the child is—is that you made a decision out of immense love and desire for which you are proud.
But don’t be afraid to ask your child, “What would you like to know?” Children can come out with some odd statements (like flushing daddy down the toilet) because they are exploring the topic. Though your first instinct might be to panic and end the conversation as quickly as possible, it’s important to let children express themselves. Ask some questions so you can hear what they are thinking about, while bracing yourself for irrational, illogical, or untrue statements. Don’t make the topic taboo. If children learn at a young age that they can have an open and honest discussion with you, they will feel comfortable coming to you to express their concerns and feelings.
The world of adoption has taught us that children want to know about their origins. The majority of research seems to suggest that the earlier, the better. But others say you should wait till they start to ask or until they understand something about the birds and the bees. My personal belief is the earlier, the better, so the topic is normalized from the outset and you can become practiced in telling the story. I started telling my son, who is now 16 months old, about his donor origins from the minute he was born.
Just last night I was speaking to a fellow Solo Mom who surprised herself when she tried to talk to her son’s preschool teachers about her child’s lack of a father figure. “I completely tripped over myself and acted emotional, even though I feel very clear about my decision and don’t have any regrets,” she explained. “It’s been a long time since I’ve talked about it, and I found that I just couldn’t find the right words. It came out all emotional and weird.”
So how do you start talking about a topic that involves intimate body fluids and body parts?
Toddlers take their cues about how to feel about things from their parents. So when a toddler asks about having a daddy, if you tell him that some families don’t have daddies or that you are a child-and-mommy family, he will usually accept the answer without much concern. Practice ahead of time. Those little ones are keenly aware of the emotional tone of your words, so if you act apologetic or ashamed, your child will notice.
Preschool and elementary school
By the time they reach preschool, kids have some notion that a father is necessary to make a baby or that everyone has a father. So the conversation needs to be more sophisticated. First of all, explain that you wanted very much wanted to have a family but that you had not found a man to be a part of your family.
To help children grasp the concept, separate eggs and sperm from motherhood and fatherhood, and separate baby making from family making. For example, explain that it takes a seed from a man and a seed from a woman to put into a woman’s belly to make a baby. But some families have a mommy, daddy, and baby, while some families have just a mommy and a baby or two mommies or two daddies.
Using language such as “We don’t have a daddy” as opposed to “You don’t have a daddy,” signals to your child that you are in this together. You may also explain that although your child is unique in how she was conceived, there are many ways to make families and that many other children are made the same way.
At this age, other children may tell your child that he has to have a daddy. It can be helpful to tell your child ahead of time that he might be asked how and why he doesn’t have a dad. You can practice with your child: What will you say? How do you feel about that? What might make you feel better about that?
Many Solo Moms find it necessary to educate their child’s school and classmates. Providing age-appropriate books for the teacher to read is a nice way to give both the teacher and the children appropriate language. There are many books for children that introduce all types of family configurations, such as Todd Parr’s The Family Book (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010) and Suzanne Lang’s Families, Families, Families (Penguin Random House, 2015).
Because children hear their friends referring to adult men as daddy, your child may assume that all men are dads and start calling other men daddy. Most moms will instantly crumble when they hear this, but rest assured, it’s simply a label that your child doesn’t understand yet. Take a deep breath. His heart is not breaking, even though yours might be!
As your child reaches adolescence, the concerns will get more complicated as she starts to grapple with identity. Your child may start to ask questions about the donor, how the donor is connected to the family, and how being donor conceived affects identity. She wants to know if she is different and whom she belongs to.
If you’ve been discussing these issues all along, your child will feel free to explore her feelings without shame or discomfort and will likely develop a strong and secure sense of self and family.
It’s gonna be OK
Though your child may catch you off guard with some very colorful explanations and questions about his origins throughout his life, one thing remains constant: the extraordinary lengths you went through to have your child. If you can convey this message over and over again, your child will experience a sense of belonging, knowing that he is loved and celebrated. The good news? Research shows that although children want to know and understand their origins, if they have been able to engage in open and honest communication throughout their lives, they turn out well adjusted and comfortable with their origins.
Resources about donor origins
The Donor Conception Network
is a UK-based organization that has endless resources for
donor-conceived children of any kind, including books for children of
any age and videos and books for adults; here are a few:
- Our Story: For children conceived through sperm donation in solo mum families (Donor Conception Network).
- Just the Baby for Me by Barbara Sue Levin (Lulu Press, 2008) explains how a mother always wanted to be a mommy but couldn’t find a man to be her husband. It uses the terms sperm and egg, and presents a lovely expression of how much the baby was wanted and loved.
- Before You Were Born—My Wish for a Baby by Janice Grimes, RN (X, Y, and Me, LLC, 2004). This book is available in single donation and sperm/egg or embryo adoption versions. It does not use the terms sperm and egg. It’s available for electronic download.
- Telling and Talking family guide series, available in three versions (for 0 to 7-year-olds, 12- to 16-year-olds, and 17 and older), by Olivia Montuschi (Donor Conception Network).
Image via Shutterstock.com
Sarah Kowalski, ESME’s Solo Mom by Choice Resource Guide, is an attorney, somatic coach, Feldenkrais practitioner, and qigong teacher, specializing in the mind/body connection. As the founder of Motherhood Reimagined, she coaches women through their emotions and fears so that solo motherhood, egg donation, adoption, or other means can become an option to consider. She helps women redefine what it means to be a mother so they can cultivate the love, courage, and tenacity it takes to conceive and raise a child by unconventional means. Join her private Facebook group for juicy discussions and support, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.
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