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Bittersweet Joy: Post-Infertility Parenting

When Donor Makes Three

Over 300,000 children in this country have been born through donor insemination. And though not as common, babies born through egg donation are rapidly increasing in number, from a few hundred per year in the 1980s to several thousand annually today.

Since one parent will lack genetic ties to the child, counselors at fertility clinics urge prospective parents to carefully explore their feelings before pursuing this route to conception. Still, they shouldn't be surprised if certain issues resurface after birth, says Anne Bernstein, Ph.D., a psychologist in Berkeley, CA. Sometimes the parent without a genetic link ends up feeling less legitimate than the other, and retreats emotionally.

Many parents worry that a child born through the help of a donor may feel stigmatized or may someday reject them as "real" parents. For these and other reasons, parents may choose not to reveal that the conception was donor-aided, even to their own child.

But psychologists caution about the effects of such secrecy. "There will be times when the child will pick up that something is wrong," says Bernstein. "It may be a pinched expression when someone tells the parent, 'Oh, he looks just like you,' or an awkward silence when the pediatrician asks about family medical history."

Like many mental health workers, Bernstein urges parents to be open with their children. "The question is, do you want to spring this potentially mind-blowing information on a child when he's a teenager, or introduce it naturally, early on, as part of the story of his birth?"

For better or worse, secrecy isn't an option for the thousands of single women who become mothers through donor insemination. Linda Gerhart, of Plano, TX, is already anticipating the day when 9-month-old Brandon asks, "Where's Daddy?" Among the things that Gerhart will share with her son is an audiotape of his biological father, in which he talks about himself and the altruistic reasons that he chose to become a sperm donor.

"It would be dishonest to say that I didn't want my genes to be carried on, that I didn't want my children to look like me, be like me," admits Mark Sullivan (not his real name), of suburban Maryland. His and his wife's two children, 3 and 5, were conceived through donor insemination.

Sullivan feels comfortable as a father today, he says, because he acknowledged his loss. "There's a residue of sadness," he says. "But I know that I'm not less of a father." He and his wife have formed a support group for parents of children conceived with donor sperm or eggs. "Now, as we tell the kids the story of their birth, we can point out friends born in a similar way."

Janet Moller and her husband have chosen to stay in contact with the egg donor, who also carried their son to term. (Janet has legally adopted the child.) "He will know that he's special because he has two mommies who love him," she says. He will also know that he has a half-brother by his birth mom. "If and how a relationship evolves remains to be seen," she says.

Whatever the circumstances of their birth, what kids need most is a sense of confidence. "Both parents and children need to come to believe that they are entitled to and deserving of one another and that they belong together," says Irwin-Johnston. The biggest gift moms and dads can give their children, she adds, is to fully embrace their wonderful new role as parents.

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