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"Artificial" Insemination:
Tell Children the Truth?

QUESTION: My husband and I have been married for 8 years and we just had twins. I got pregnant through artificial insemination from donor-donated sperm. We experienced infertility for 2 years until we got pregnant. It was a very rough time in our marriage.

We both decided it would be best if we never told the kids about this. He would be the father that hugged them when they skinned their knee, or cried on his shoulder when they didn't have a date for the school dance, so he was to be their "father" in every other way except biologically.

The only problem I'm having with this, I've told the people that know not to say that the kids look like my husband etc. and I'm afraid that somebody will slip one day. I've already thought my answer could be "Well, your father had a low sperm count so I had to be artificially inseminated so that we could conceive."

Anyway, my question is this...what do most people do? Do they tell the kids or not? Have you heard of adult children finding out? Will they notice when no one tells they they look like Daddy? As time goes on, will this feeling that I'm lying lessen?

I just don't want to live in constant fear that somebody will slip. What do you think? My husband told me (with tears in his eyes) that he never wanted our kids to know.

The weight of carrying this family secret is already taking it's toll. You have already lost one friend over it and suffer constant underlying anxiety which will affect the atmosphere of your family. This fundamental tension will be felt by your children. You and your husband are maintaining a secret at great cost. Before committing your future to a web of lies, consider your reasons for avoiding the truth and the consequences of further betrayal.

Your husband may be suffering from feelings of inadequacy stemming from his infertility. You are right to point out that he will be the only father his children will ever know. Because "fathering" is a social and familial role, your husband's love for his children will serve to secure his relationship in their eyes and in yours. Biology does not create quality father-child relationships, responsible nurturing does. Let your husband know that you understand his feelings and that you can certainly agree to boundaries around this particularly sensitive family history. But do not make the mistake of overprotecting him by creating lies to allow him to avoid resolving his own personal issues.

Recommend to your husband that he seek individual counseling to more thoroughly explore the complexity of his feelings. You may also make use of marital therapy to assist in finding your way towards establishing boundaries regarding this information and how to handle it with people outside the family as well as age appropriate discussions with your children.

Keeping facts about your children's biological origins a secret to them may prove highly unrealistic over time. Failing to release needed medical information could even prove deadly in some critical, albeit unusual future scenarios. Adolescence itself will prove confusing at some level, as your children's quest for identity takes precedent in their evolving development. The effects on them psychologically and medically could prove more traumatic than facing and resolving your husband's emotional pain surrounding the fact of his sterility. The distress you are signing up for could range from mild to severe, depending on other aspects of your family life and your children's personalities as they develop. Why would you agree to so complicate your family's future?

Loving your mate sometimes involves seeing clearly when he cannot. Your situation is a highly emotional one and your decisions are some of the most difficult you will ever experience together. Do not let your love for your husband cloud your own ability to see clear and present danger. Sometimes loving our partners involves healthy and compassionate confrontation.

Seek consultation with other parents who have also conceived in this manner. It is my clinical experience (in California) that most parents do tell their children the truth about their origins. No extensive data is available on what most parents do, and it no doubt varies with locale, education and a variety of other factors. A recent preliminary finding on the subject of egg donors has indicated a trend towards openness in California, where parents are more likely to know the donor, and less disclosure on the East coast where egg donor is more likely to be anonymous.

Perhaps sharing with parents who have faced similar struggles with adoption and alternative conception will prove enlightening to you and your spouse. Gain insight from sharing with parents who have faced and embraced non-biological parenthood. In 1980, experts on the National Council on Adoption reached a consensus that adopted children should be told of their origins. The controversy around this issue for donor egg or insemination is still in its infancy, but is likely to take the same course with time. Consider that a child who is conceived by alternative reproductive methods has still been carried in Mommy's body, with Daddy listening to the heartbeat prenatally. This affords even more of a biological connection than adoption. Yet, most adoptive parents cope with revealing the truth to their children.

When parents do tell their children the truth about donor egg or sperm origins, Carole Lieber Wilkins, a psychologist in Los Angeles and author of a pamphlet "Talking to Your Children About Their Conception: It's Easier Than You Think", suggests that you begin telling your children the truth from birth. Dr. Wilkins says, "Parents need to practice doing this when children are nonverbal, so they can get accustomed to the sound of words that are very awkward and uncomfortable to use like 'donor' or 'infertility'." Invite your husband to join you in dealing with the complexity of this parenting issue. Set a course for coping with adversity instead of "running away" from problems.

You will both benefit from letting go of the past pain of infertility, and refocusing on the true miracle of your children's birth. Given your biological pregnancy and delivery of your twins, there is much beauty, power and love that is held in the true story of your children's origins. All children love to hear the journey parents went through to have them. Whether it be driving through the proverbial "snowstorm" to be born or finding the necessary combination to bring their bright little souls into their rightful place in your family, your children will bask in the glow of being "wanted" and the efforts you went through to bring them into your lives.

There is no doubt that these are children who truly "belong" to you. Do not rob them or yourselves of the very special miracle of love that has brought you together as a family!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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