Susan Imrie is a researcher at the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge. She says sitting down to discuss “where do babies come from” is an experience most parents expect at some point… and it can potentially be quite awkward.
But what happens when explaining to your child that their conception was not straightforward?
Here she gives us an insight into her research with the increasing numbers of UK people who have turned to donor conception or surrogacy to start their families.
As more people in the UK turn to donor conception (sperm or egg donation) or surrogacy to start their families, how do parents prepare to talk to their children about how they were conceived? What kind of language do families use to explain how they started their families? How do children feel about these conversations and how much do they understand? These are just some of the questions we’re interested in at the University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research, led by Professor Susan Golombok.
We research the psychological, social and emotional well-being of parents and children in families created through assisted reproduction. Over the years we’ve conducted research with heterosexual couples, lesbian mothers, gay fathers, single-parent families, surrogate mothers, children and adolescents and have asked children to talk to us about their families, and we have spoken to parents about their experiences of using IVF, sperm donation, egg donation, surrogacy and adoption.
So what do families who have used donor conception tell us? Perhaps unsurprisingly, parents’ experiences are many and varied and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. In terms of talking to their child about how they were conceived, some parents we speak to plan to explain their child’s conception to them (and many have already done so), and others decide that they would prefer not to do so. The families we speak to make their decisions based on what they believe is right for their family and their particular circumstances.
Parents who do decide to talk to their children about their donor conception generally do so early on, usually before they turn four. Their intention is for their children to grow up knowing how they were conceived so there is never a time when the news is surprising or shocking. Some parents struggle with the idea of finding “the right time” to tell their child, and most tend to bring up the topic spontaneously, rather than in a planned, formal way.
Parents give a lot of thought to the sort of language to use in these conversations, and may start to give bits of information to their children little-by-little in easy to grasp terms. Some parents find that using imaginative language can be useful, for example, talking about “seeds”, “tadpoles” or “magic ingredients”, while parents who have started their families through surrogacy often talk about “mummy’s tummy being broken”. Some prefer to use books to help them discuss donor conception (for example, Our Story by the Donor Conception Network) and some choose to keep diaries, scrapbooks or photo albums documenting their journey to parenthood.
In terms of children’s reactions to these conversations, most parents tell us that their child’s initial response was either neutral or one of curiosity. In spite of their anxieties about broaching this topic, not one of the parents in our research has told us that their child responded with distress. It is unclear to what extent young children understand donor conception, but by the time they are about 10 years old, most show a basic understanding of their conception and generally refer to their donor in positive terms, describing a “nice” or “kind” person.
Families generally tell us that talking about donor conception with their child is not just a one-off event but instead find it more helpful to think of it as a process whereby the child’s understanding develops over time. As some children are very interested in talking about their conception and others less so, parents may find it helpful to be guided by their own child’s needs, questions and development.
Families tell us that they take part in our studies in the hope that the more knowledge we have about these complex issues the more other families in similar situations can be supported in their decisions. One of the most important findings from our research is that the quality of relationships within a family is far more important for a family’s wellbeing than the number or gender of parents in the family, or how the family was created.
At the Centre for Family Research, we are committed to carrying out high-quality research which can be used to help families and we know that there is still much to learn. Hundreds of families of different shapes and sizes have welcomed us into their homes over the years and we are very grateful to them all for sharing their experiences with us and for helping us to better understand their lives.