08 Feb 2022 How to Tell Your Kids They Were Born Using IVF
In 1978, in England, Louise Brown, the first child made outside the womb, was born. Over the course of the next few years, babies like Louise were labeled as “test tube babies” and shrouded in mystery, and there was a stigma attached to babies born with this new technology. Many parents were reluctant to discuss infertility and kept the particulars of their children’s births a secret, not only from their friends and family, but often from the children themselves. In 1978, even Louise’s parents didn’t want anyone to know her identity and had police line the hospital corridor as her father was led to see her for the first time, for fear of the newspapers finding out.
Thankfully, over time, the pendulum of public opinion has swung away from secrecy and shame and toward acceptance and celebration. “I always get uncomfortable if I hear patients mention that they’re going to keep it a secret, because I think at the end of the day, children have a right to know of their origins,” Dr. Melissa Cameron, a fertility specialist at Melbourne IVF, told The World News.
Now, more than 40 years later, and with over 8 million people who have been born through IVF, parents are encouraged to tell their children how they were conceived, and terms such as “in vitro fertilization” and “surrogacy” have become “household names” in many parts of the world.
By the time my husband, Tommy, and I began our parenthood journey almost 14 years ago, assisted reproductive technologies such as egg donation, IVF and surrogacy had become largely accepted treatments for infertility and even as a way of allowing same-sex couples or single individuals to realize their dreams of parenthood.
We always knew we would tell our twin boys when the time was right. People often ask how, as gay dads, we explained things. In fact, I think it was easier for us because we are gay dads than it sometimes is for heterosexual parents. There was no question that we created our family the “old-fashioned” way; because we are two dads, it is obvious that we used assisted reproduction or adoption. There was no way of hiding it.
For our boys, that realization seemed to happen naturally. As they began preschool, they noticed that some kids were picked up after school by two dads, other children by a mom and a dad or by two moms. It was a great way to start the process of telling them about how they were made and to remark on the fact that all families are different. As we began to explain to the boys about their birth, we made sure to tailor the conversation to their ages and levels of understanding.
I can imagine those conversation might be harder for heterosexual couples who create families using assisted reproduction. In some communities and cultures, infertility still carries stigma. Unlike same-sex or single parents, heterosexual parents may be able to hide the fact that their baby was born via IVF. But experts encourage all parents to tell their children about their origins, honestly, in terms they can understand, and when the time is right, rather than treating it as a forbidden secret.
What is the best age to tell your child he was born using IVF?
While there is no universally perfect time to tell your children the circumstances of their births, studies show children experience less anxiety, stress and depression when they are told that they are a product of IVF at a young age. Children whose parents are open and honest with them are more likely to accept the facts of their conception and birth as normal parts of their existence. When children receive the information early in life, they incorporate it naturally into their developing self-identities.
And parents are freed from the dread of an expected revelation exposing their secret.
Revelation of the truth later in a child’s life can create distrust and sends the implicit message that the child’s birth was something shameful to be concealed. “People don’t like being lied to, so adults or adolescents who find out belatedly that they were the result of donor sperm or donor eggs think their parents have told lies for 15, 20 or 30 years, and so they think, ‘well, I can’t trust you,’” says Roger Cooke, infertility specialist at Swinborne University told The World News.
Telling children about their birth story when they are young also helps avoid the risk they will find out from someone other than their parents. Cooke recalled a distraught teenager who learned he had been born via IVF from his cousin on a school playground. When the information comes from someone other than the parent, the child may feel his whole world has been a lie, putting a strain on the parent-child relationship and inadvertently putting the story of the child’s birth in a negative light.
For all those reasons, my husband and I knew we didn’t want some huge reveal when the boys turned 15. For us, it was important that they view their birth story as part of who they are and to understand how very much we wanted them. I think talking to them about how they came to be was just a little easier for us because we were two dads.
How do you tell your kids they were born using IVF?
Deciding on what to say to your children can be almost as difficult as deciding when to tell them. The most important thing is consistency and to tell the story regularly. “When you keep repeating the story, both you and your child will become more comfortable with the issue,” says Dr. Debmita Dutta, parenting consultant and founder of What Parents Ask.
The story doesn’t need to be long or use a lot of detail, and at a young age, you don’t need to use a lot of technical terms. Keep the story simple and tell it consistently. In the beginning, my husband and I would tell our boys little bits of information at a time. We simply said, “We had a friend help us; her name was Joyce.”
Eventually, as the boys got older, we began to use the word “surrogate.” We told them that Joyce was a surrogate, and she was generous with her time and body, and she gave us a great gift. There seemed to be a natural progression to how much information they wanted or needed, and we added more details to the story as they grew older and began to understand more.
When giving your child information, Cameron recommends using correct terms for body parts and technologies rather than euphemisms, as The World News reported. As a child gets older, introducing more terms and eventually integrating into the story the fact that doctors were involved progresses naturally.
As our sons got older, we eventually began to introduce the term “egg donor” into the conversation, which led them to the understanding that the egg donor was part of their DNA and that they might have some qualities that were inherited from her. Today, when the boys ask about their donor, we are excited to tell them, regularly and with honesty. At each stage of their development, we have wanted to make sure they can handle the complexity of new information, so we wait for them to drive the conversation with their questions and curiosity.
Susan Seenan, chief executive of the non-profit Fertility Network UK, says it’s important that parents not make a big deal about assisted reproduction, explaining that the only thing different about IVF to create a family is the “extra nudge at the start,” as reported by Huffington Post UK. The most important message to convey through all the stories, questions and answers at every stage is how much the children are loved and deeply wanted.
Knowing your child’s genetic history
Besides reducing anxiety, stress and depression and helping create a healthy self-identity, there is another benefit to telling children about the circumstances of their births: their future health. Hiranandani Hospital Vashi psychologist Niharika Megta told The Indian Express, “After the child has grown up and become an independent adult, it is better for them to know where they have come from so that it is easier to trace their medical history.” With the advancement of genetic technologies, medical professionals can now identify predispositions to certain diseases such as some cancers, heart disease or diabetes. Based on this genetic background, an adult child may benefit from earlier screenings, lifestyle changes and preventive medicines.
Today, almost 2 percent of babies in the U.S. are born using IVF or other assisted reproduction technologies. As assisted reproductive technologies such as egg donation, IVF and surrogacy continue to improve and become more affordable, we know there will be lots more families like ours. The families at our children’s school are a perfect reflection of all the different ways a family can look. We look forward to the day telling your children about how you got them will feel “normal” for everyone, regardless of the path that took us to parenthood.