The truth about my conception came like a punch to the stomach

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

I was told in my early twenties that my father was not really my father. The truth came like a punch in the stomach. It took several days to process the shock that my biological father was, in fact, an anonymous sperm donor.

It took much longer to come to terms with the betrayal. My parents had vowed never to tell me. A bitter divorce saw that promise disintegrate. The repercussions of that decision were far-reaching. The lie had infected their marriage and, in retrospect, polluted our family relationships.

My experience, of course, is anecdotal. I do not personally know other donor-conceived adults with whom I could make comparisons. That's not because donor-conception is uncommon. Far from it. There's an estimated 60,000 donor-conceived people in Australia. However, the majority of donor-conceived people are never told. In fact, it is estimated less than 10 per cent of donor-conceived adults know the truth of their conception.

It appears there's a real temptation for parents to pretend the donation never happened. Here is why I believe that is a big mistake:

Honesty is the best policy 

It sounds trite to say, but keeping the truth from those you love is toxic. You may think non-disclosure is a decision made once and subsequently forgotten about. You'd be wrong.

You will constantly be asked to attribute to either parent your child's physical features/athleticism/interests/talents. Withholding the truth is a decision made repeatedly over years, if not a lifetime.

Do you want the burden of maintaining the lie? Ask yourself, who does the lie protect? The level of topic avoidance and further deception required to conceal the truth is truly staggering. Is that kind of stress healthy?

At every opportunity, every curious question, disclosing the truth in plain and simple terms is much less complicated than you think. Delaying a "confession" for another day in the future only builds more anxiety.

We live in a world of modern families

Today, families come in all shapes and sizes. In fact, donor-conception has become more common with the prevalence of older parents, single women and homosexual couples wanting to have children.

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The need to create a family narrative that gives both parents an equal role in the family is understandable. But there is no shame in infertility anymore. Decades ago when gamete-freezing technology was being pioneered, the culture of shame and secrecy inhibited discussion of fertility issues, particularly male sterility. Not so today.

Surrogacy, adoption, IVF and donor-conception are all openly discussed. Moving forward, we must acknowledge the implications of these reproductive choices, not pretend they never happened.

We can't deny the influence of genetics

We do, oddly, call donor-conception "infertility treatment". But, if we're honest, no one's infertility is remedied by using the gametes of a third-party. Parents may attempt to dehumanise the donor by considering the gamete donation akin to blood donation, asserting the power of the social parent as more significant than the faceless biological one. But genetic material is not equivalent to blood donation.

Aside from physical resemblance, children will inherit personality traits and intelligence from both genetic parents. Ignoring this reality only promotes insecurity in the non-biological parent. Comments on heredity are routinely made. From the moment grandma peers into the hospital room crib to declare baby has his father's nose, or mother's chin, others are constantly noticing and scanning for similarities.

I can only imagine the pang of self-doubt that would, in these situations, possess a social parent of donor-conceived children hoping to conceal the truth. And it won't stop there. High-school science lessons on heredity, the development of particular interests or talents not shared by one's family, the countless times one is asked by medical professionals about family history of various illnesses; our culture is focused on genetics.

Biology does not determine who we become but, like the environment we are raised in, we can't deny its influence. If we deny children knowledge of their genetic origins, we deny them an integral part of their identity-making.

Anonymity is dead

Never has commercial DNA testing been more affordable nor more popular.

Even if you steadfastly refuse to ever do a DNA test and deliberately avoid discussion of genealogy, you cannot prevent others from investigating their genetic ancestry. It only takes a few DNA matches in a database, and a bit of genealogical detective work, for connections to be made.

In Australia, the donations from one sperm donor can be used for between five and ten families (limits vary according to State). Each family can use the same donor multiple times. The donor himself will likely have his own children. That's a lot of related children in one city!

An adult child who suspects something amiss may one day decide to test themselves and, from there, the truth is inevitable. What kind of emotional distress accompanies such revelations? What kind of trust remains when strangers tell us more than our own parents?

Truth is an act of love

Family bonds grow from shared experience, sacrifice, love, years of nurturing and parental guidance, not just biological kinship. The truth need not be threatening. Your child will thank you for bestowing on them the dignity and respect that accompanies honesty.

If they choose to seek out that third-party involved in their conception, if they desire to know him or her, then accept that as a natural, perhaps inevitable, consequence of the choice parents made at the time of conception.

In Australia, we now grant donor-conceived people identifying information on their donor at the age of 18, but we can't compel parents to inform their children about their conception. Of course parents have the freedom to choose what and how much they reveal to their children, but they would be wise to consider the cost of silence.

You can either complicate family relationships with fictitious narratives or you can simplify them with the truth.