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When I became a single mother by choice, I knew one day I would need to have a big conversation with my son about his anonymous sperm donor.
I’ve never been scared to have this conversation, but I’ve been intimidated. I just don’t want to mess it up. There’s a small part of me that wishes a show would take the wheel and drive this home for me, but a larger part knows that as his mom I need to prepare for the big question: “Where’s my daddy?”
My son is two and a half years old, so I thought I had a bit of time before I had to have this conversation. But when my boy called the checkout guy at Target “Daddy,” I knew it was time to start preparing.
“It is best to start at birth,” said Jane Mattes, the founder and director of the organization Single Mothers by Choice. “As soon as you are able to start thinking about having a conversation, try it out with your child and see how it feels. It may be easier in your head than out loud,” Mattes said.
While starting early may sound intense, it makes sense. “The origin story is a natural part of life and history,” said Ashley Herndon, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “It shouldn’t be a surprise, and it shouldn’t be ‘now you are old enough.’ It should be an organic thing they have known since babyhood.”
No one is suggesting I sit my toddler down for a PowerPoint on what happens when a mommy egg meets sperm from an anonymous donor. Experts recommend serving up the facts in an age-appropriate way.
“In the beginning it should be very simple,” Mattes said. “Kids can’t think abstractly for quite some time. Terms that have to do with biology and conception are way too difficult.”
Another term that may be too difficult for young kids is “daddy.” Both Herndon and Mattes recommended using the word “donor” in lieu of “daddy.”
“‘Daddy’ is setting an expectation that is hard to navigate,” Herndon said. “He wouldn’t be living up to the expectations a child will see from other dads.”
Starting off simply may look different from family to family, but for many, storytelling has been a graceful and relatable mechanism for starting this conversation. Mattes has seen mothers who have turned their children’s origin stories into beautiful bedtime books.
Other moms have purchased books such as Todd Parr’s “The Family Book,” which highlights the variations in families. Some moms get book recommendations from their fertility specialists. CNY Fertility in Syracuse, New York, has provided its patients with a roundup of children’s books focused on the different ways a family can be made.
I may be a single mother, but I’m not doing this alone. I have an entire cavalry standing behind, beside, and sometimes in front of me as we navigate our life together. As involved as my support system is, experts agreed that providing information specific to our family would be important as my son learns and grows.
“Tell your family and friends, ‘This is how much my kid knows right now. These are the books we read and what they are used to. We are going to take cues from their questions,'” Herndon said.
There’s no way that I’ll do this perfectly, but speaking with experts made me feel more empowered in how I’ll answer my son’s questions about his donor. Like I said, I’m not scared of telling my son how he came to be.
He was so deeply wanted and loved that his mom moved heaven, earth, and science to have him.