(The Vancouver Sun, March 2003)
QUESTION: My partner and I have been in a lesbian relationship for 12 years and have an 8 year old son born through in vitro fertilization. We live in a very small, conservative community and have worked so hard to help him accept that his family is different than most. He hasn’t asked yet, but I think he’s started to wonder how we had him. Do you think he’ll be ready to deal with this information as well? How much should we tell him?
SALEEMA: Even though your son hasn’t asked you direct questions about how he was conceived, I agree that he is probably starting to realize that the “penis enters the vagina to deliver the sperm to the egg” routine doesn’t apply to him. As an educator, I find that most children know something about alternative ways to have a baby such as “test tube babies”, surrogacy, and artificial insemination. In fact, a grade two student recently asked me how lesbians get babies. They hear about these things on TV, they hear adults talking, and those kids who are aware that they were not created by sexual intercourse are usually more than willing to share this news with their peers! For this reason, I think that it is crucial that when we talk about reproduction with children, we emphasize the numerous ways in which adults can become parents. I am certain that your son is ready to handle this information and will appreciate your honesty. I am also so glad that you are recognizing the need to tell him even before he starts asking questions. Of course, you wouldn’t want him to think you were intentionally hiding this information from him or hear it through gossip from someone else.
In terms of what to tell your son, try to be as honest and open as possible. Depending on your specific situation, you could start by explaining to him that you wanted to be parents so a doctor helped you and another man gave you some of his sperm. If the sperm came from a sperm bank, explain that sperm banks are not like the Bank of Montreal down at the mall. They are located only at universities and hospitals, to which only specialist doctors have access. Although the identity of the sperm donor cannot be identified, encourage your son to recognize the generosity of this man. If the sperm donor is someone you know, hopefully an agreement regarding revealing his identity and his involvement in your son’s life is already in place. It’s also a good idea to clarify that your son did not grow in a test tube. The doctors join the sperm and the egg in a small glass saucer called a petri dish, and after a few hours (not months!) the fertilized egg was placed in his mom’s uterus through her vagina.
Fortunately, we are seeing more and more resources being published to help parents explain alternate ways of being pregnant to their children. BC author Holly Smith has written a wonderful book called I Was Created by Love and Donor Insemination. You can contact her in Ladysmith by fax at (250) 245-2106 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase a copy. Let Me Explain: A Story About Donor Insemination by Jane Schnitter (Perspectives Press, $19.95, 32 pages) is also a great one. To help your son understand and appreciate the uniqueness of families in general, check out Families Are Different by Nina Pellegrini (Prometheus Books, $21.35, 50 pages).
Saleema Noon is a family life educator and Teresa Harris is a family and youth counselor. Their Go Girl! empowerment workshops provide youth with the skills to navigate the teen years. They can be reached at email@example.com.