The psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Serge Tisseron, author of the illustrated book The mystery of the baby seeds, addresses the difficulties emerging along the way for parents who set out on the journey of assisted reproduction
To what extent is the couple “put to the test” during the assisted reproduction process?
A fertility treatment process is often like an obstacle course: for things to work out the first time round is the exception rather than the rule and occasionally hopes turn into disappointments. So, after a series of successive failures, a couple who had been very united on their first attempt may end up having diametrically opposed opinions as to what attitude should be taken. One member of the couple has the feeling that it would be better to just throw in the towel, while the other wants to try again and again.
In this context, can the links between parents and children born through gamete donation develop properly?
Yes, they can develop normally; and in fact it’s what often happens except, in my opinion, when parents decide to hide their child’s origin from them, as secrets divide and alienate. Since the donation is anonymous, parents don’t live in fear that a stranger will suddenly appear among them because their child has gone in search of him or her. So it’s a worry that they don’t have to go through, even if a child has the chance to meet his parent when he comes of age, this will never lead the child to underestimate the importance of the parents who raised him. However, just because the donation is anonymous, some parents are tempted not only to hide the identity of the donor, but also the way in which the child was conceived. Just as they know nothing about the donor, parents decide not to tell their child about the circumstances under which he or she was conceived.
In your opinion, why do some couples decide not to talk about their experience of the fertility treatment process to their families?
Even today, many parents find it difficult to accept that parenthood is a complex process involving several components: the biological component, the educational part and the nominative element, linked to the transmission of a name. In the traditional family set-up, it is understood that all these components are exclusively and inextricably linked to the figure of the parents. In the case of assisted reproduction with gamete donations, however, the simple fact of being just one determining factor among several others in the birth of the child is sometimes lived with a sense of lack, even shame. All parents dream of being “complete” parents, in other words, parents who simultaneously transmit to their children their genes, their educational choices and their surnames. Unable to do so in reality, some may try to make their family and friends believe it, and, in turn, their child. It is a way of trying to hide from themselves the reality of a situation they live through in pain.
Is it something they also pass on to their family circle?
Well, it’s precisely the parents who decide to keep the secret from their family circle because they are afraid that their own parents may condemn the fact that they had to resort to assisted reproduction. And then they keep the secret from their child for fear that he or she would tell the grandparents. But in my view, this is a totally wrong choice. When you are a parent, you have to know how to choose between being the child of your parents or the parent of your own children at the same time. And this obviously means establishing a climate of trust that does not fit well with concealing information about their conception. Fortunately, even if they have hidden things from the child for a certain time, there is always the possibility of talking to him, telling him first that, if we have not done so before, it was because we did not know how to deal with the situation. Besides, it is precisely to help parents who are in this situation that I wrote The Mystery of the baby seeds! Even so, parents, more than anything else, have to insist on the overwhelming desire they had to conceive the child. A child is never told too many times as to how much he was wanted, and the best proof that he or she can be given is precisely that, namely, that they underwent a process of assisted reproduction.
Could concealing that you have resorted to fertility treatment have consequences for the child?
The secret of parentage is not like a gold bar deposited in a safe in Switzerland whose key only we have. For some parents, it is impossible to hide from their child an event as important as the conditions under which he was conceived with the certainty that he will never, and by no means whatsoever, find out the truth. Given the difficulty involved in deciding to embark on a process of assisted reproduction, those who do so often mention it to a privileged confidant, either a close friend or family member. But this confidant, like any other person keeping a secret that is not theirs, sooner or later, will share it with another person. And it is in this way that many children born through assisted reproduction find out about it at the age of 10 or 15, when a cousin, believing that the main interested party already knows about it, refers to this situation.
Moreover, we must not forget those situations where one parent thinks that telling the truth would be helpful for the child while the other is convinced it would be harmful. The one who is in favor of talking about this situation always ends up doing so, and the child’s question is then: “But if you knew, why didn’t you tell me before?” Finally, situations of tension between parents can stir up, by one or the other, comments on the fact that the child “is not really” theirs. A child who does not meet the expectations of their parents runs the risk of hearing one day, spoken by one of the two people believed to be their parents, an enigmatic comment about the fact that no one knows “where he comes from” or that one of the two parents was reticent “about this method.” What is harmful to the child is not that he doesn’t know about the circumstances of his birth, but to discover that he is not entitled to know about such an essential element of his own history. That is why, when it comes to deciding to tell the truth about the circumstances of his coming into the world, it is very important to make a point of telling the child about his right to ask all the questions he wants, and that the parents commit to answering all of them without hiding anything of what they know.
What advice would you give to those parents who still hesitate about discussing this issue with their children?
The best thing to do is to start as early as possible. As soon as the child’s origin goes through the mind of one of the parents, for instance when giving the child a bath or changing his nappy, one of the parents notices the child’s eye colour or the shape of his head, or the fineness or thickness of his hair, it’s important to talk about this subject with the child by saying, for example, “Oh! You don’t have the same colour of eyes as daddy or mammy because we made you with the help of someone else’s seed. But what a handsome boy you are! Of course the child won’t understand, but in this way, the parent will get used to saying a few simple words to the child every time the particular circumstances of his birth go through his or her mind. In this way, when the child grows up he will clearly know that he is not the biological child of his parents, and also that he can ask questions in order to try to understand: he will trust his parents about their willingness to answer his questions about his origins. Obviously there will always be questions which the parents won’t be able to answer because of the fact that the gamete donation was anonymous. But if the parents manage to make this element something on which to build beautifully adorned fictions, the child will not be short of opportunities to create his own stories, and will grow up by giving free rein to his imagination about his origins, just as children have always done. He will fantasise about his unknown biological father / mother knowing that he will never have any choice but to fantasise about him / her, but he will also know that he was born of an act of love without secrets or misunderstandings. This will make his parents, in addition to providing for his nutritional and educational needs, also become the solid pillars that will accompany him in both his real everyday life as well as in his imaginary life.