ART - Talking to Children About Assisted Reproductive Technology

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Audio Transcript from “Talking to Kids About ART

Here, Hilary Hanafin, Ph.D., the chief psychologist at the Center for Surrogate Parenting in Los Angeles, discusses how to talk to children of different ages and create a family story you can live with comfortably through the years:

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HILARY HANAFIN, Ph.D.: Most children will ask these kinds of questions. How did I get out of your tummy? Not if. Where was I born? Can I have a brother or sister? A lot of three-years to six-year-olds ask these kinds of questions. The parents of ART children have to make a choice at that point. Do they answer the question fully and with clues to the child's unique beginnings? Do they answer the question and cover up the ART beginning? Or do they see these as opportunities to start to present the child's story?

The sperm and egg issue is not an issue at age five. It's the giving birth story that five-year-olds want to know. So I'd encourage couples who work with surrogate mothers to go ahead and introduce the concept that maybe they were born in a different state. Maybe they had a special friend help them because mommy's uterus didn't work. Maybe it's mommy's a little sad sometimes that you didn't come out of my tummy, but we had a wonderful lady who helped us and you came out of her tummy. Sometimes around that age I've encouraged couples to make scrapbooks—storybooks, pictures of mommy and daddy at the hospital, mommy and daddy with the surrogate mom at the hospital. And introduce, not sperm and egg, not conception, but the concept that there was someone special, someone we respect, someone that we feel very fondly of who helped us bring you into to world. And that usually takes care of it up to about age five.

I think the other question, though, on a more psychological level that they're asking is, "Am I connected to you? Am I forever connected to you? Is there a chance that we're not going to be connected together?"

The biggest danger for a parent is to not recognize what's normal developmentally, and assume that some of these issues are because they're ART kids. When a 12-year-old girl is angry and says, "I wish you weren't my mom. You're not a cool mom." It's not because you're the non-genetic mom. It's because that's how she's feeling about you that day. All parents—especially ART parents—are much benefited by understanding what's normal development, so they don't contaminate and get disrupted and uncomfortable with things that are totally normal, and forget just to see the kid as a normal kid, and not see everything through the eyes of a non-genetic issue.

Rebecca, 18, learned at age 6 that she had been born through surrogacy. Her mother, Jean, starts the story:

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JEAN: Michael and I were very apprehensive about how to tell her, but we did know that we had to tell her. So we went and sought counsel from a psychologist, and talked to her about how do you tell a six year old, as opposed to an eight year old or a nine year old about this process. And she was terrific. She said, "Very simple statements, and very clear. And just note that your child will either not want to hear it, or will cry and all that."

REBECCA: We were making family trees in our kindergarten class. And someone—one of those girls I was having a rivalry with—was talking about how she was adopted. So I came home and I was like, "I'm so lucky. I'm not adopted. Katie is so unlucky and I'm so lucky because you guys are my real parents." And my parents were like, "Oh no." (laughs)

JEAN: And I thought, this had to be the way that we tell her. So I just said, "You know, I want to talk to you about parenting, and what real parents are. Let's go over to the couch." I could see she was looking at me because I had my serious look on my face. And I said, you know, you've talked about Katie's parents being adoptive parents. And in a way, you have something special going on in your life. And I just said a few things: that daddy's her real daddy. I'm not really her real mommy. There's another mommy who is her real, real mommy. But I am her real mommy. And she's looking at me and she starts to cry and she says, "What are you talking about?" So I kind of tried to do it again and I used the word special. I'm her special mommy, and Sherry's her real mommy. And she started to cry and she said, "I don't want to ever tell anybody about this." And we said OK. You don't ever have to tell anyone about this. But anytime you have questions, you come and ask us.

REBECCA: I remember we were sitting in the living room, and they told me basically, like what the process was. And I, of course, had no idea what they were talking about. And I cried afterwards. I called my mom "my real mommy" but then I called Sherry "my real, real mommy." And the next morning, in car pool with Katie, who was adopted, I was telling them what I had learned. And they had no idea what I was talking about. So from then on, I sort of knew that my situation was different from normal.

JEAN: The next day I get this phone call from my friend Nancy Bloch, Katie's mother. "What is your daughter talking about? What! What! You're not her real mom? You're a special mom? That doesn't make any sense." Sure enough, she'd told them in the car pool. I mean like, didn't waste a day!

Sometimes the kids themselves help parents keep perspective. Sixteen-year-old Daniel Wilkins and his mother Carole Lieber Wilkins offer this advice:

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DANIEL WILKINS: With parents, although you may be staying up late talking to each other about when to tell or whether to tell, going to counseling and all that stuff. You have to realize something. That no matter what, sometimes kids just don't care. And you build up all your confidence; you're going to tell your kid. You've got your serious face on. You're all ready. And you tell your kid. And you get, like, "Hey, why do I care?" Don't take it too hard. Sometimes it's not that big of a deal to kids.

CAROL LIEBER WILKINS: Which is a good point. Because we're coming from infertility, it might be a much bigger deal for us than it is for them.


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