You Need Help: How Do I Explain Our Sperm Donor to a Five-Year-Old?

Q:

Hello! My wife and I have a one-year-old child. We used an anonymous sperm donor to create her. My five-year-old niece has recently learned that part of the genetic material from a man and a woman go together to create a baby. She told my sister “That’s not true. Aunt A and Aunt K were able to make a baby.” My sister didn’t know what to say and told her to ask us about it next time she sees us. What should we tell her?

A:

Hi, Mama A and Mama K!

Congratulations, first of all, on making it through the first year. Truly, it is a feat and I feel like straight parents and moms especially have really not been honest with the world about how dang hard it is to keep it together for the first year. It’s a wild, cute, rewarding, also terrible-at-times ride!

I hope you’re finally starting to catch up on sleep.

When you meet with your niece, please suggest your sister is in the room, too, because she may need to reinforce what you share and, also, it’ll be good for her to realize it’s not that complex to explain! Bonus for you two is that this will be great practice for when you have to explain this all to your own kiddo.

If your niece already knows enough about babymaking to know that “genetic material” goes together to create a baby, this should be fairly simple. Most child psychologists recommend talking about your sperm donor to your child at an early age, so your niece is definitely old enough. A cool thing about little kids is that they’re naturally inquisitive and able to process new information quickly. Unlike grown-ups who’ve already decided the sky is blue and the grass is green, kids are very open to new ideas that challenge their assumptions.

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This is going to go great, I swear. Here are six tips to get you started in preparing for the convo:

Don’t romanticize your donor’s role in your baby-making story.

Don’t make up a fairy tale. Kids do best when we make things simple for them. Decide what you want to call the donor, which could just be “donor.” “Helper” is another kid-friendly option. Make a distinction between parent and helper/donor in your story and emphasize that you are the parents while expressing gratitude to your donor.

Keep the medical explanation simple and accurate.

As long as your sister is OK with it, it may be helpful to explain to kids in simple medical terms that you need an egg and a sperm to create a baby. You don’t need to go into the nitty-gritty details, but kids at age five can understand the idea that you need to mix two things together to get something else. You can explain that you both have eggs and wanted to have a baby, so you needed a helper to give you the sperm. If you can’t say, “sperm,” you might call the donor’s contribution a “seed” or talk about it in baking terms (“eggs” and “sugar,” etc). I personally think “sperm” and “egg” is less gross than “seed” or “sugar,” but whatever works for you and your sister.

Normalize the idea that families are created out of love.

This is a great time to talk about how families aren’t always related biologically, in general. Again, use simple terms, but reinforce that families come from love, not from “genetic material.” I assume your niece will one day play with your kid and it’s important that your niece comes away with a sense that your family is not less than her family. Also, this is just the truth. Families are bound by love and broken by the lack of it. This also helps normalize the idea of adoption, foster parents, step-relatives, and chosen families.

Be ready to answer personal questions.

Both your niece and your sister may have questions. Do your best, especially with your niece, to be open to more questions immediately when you talk or later after she’s thought more about it. Let her know that she can reach out to you (or to her mom). Kids don’t mean to ask rude questions. They’re truly curious about everything. So go in emotionally prepared for her to potentially say or ask something unintentionally hurtful. For example: commentary on “dads” or who the “real parents” are may come up. Correct gently and be as clear and direct as possible to help her understand.

Bring some picture books!

Kids often learn better through visual processing, so bring some colorful children’s books. I like What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth to explain fertility and the classic Mommy Mama and Me by Leslea Newman to expose kids to affirming stories of two-mom families.

Don’t overthink it.

Act like it’s very chill and simple and hopefully, your sister will internalize this as well as your niece. Truly, I predict your niece will be totally fine with this info! She’ll just roll with it once she has the answer she seeks. It may take adult family members a little longer to become comfortable with how to talk about the lovely way you grew your family.

You’re such cool aunts! You’re going to do great!

KaeLyn is a 37-year-old (femme)nist activist, word nerd, and queer mama. You can typically find her binge-watching TV, standing somewhere with a mic or a sign in her hand, over-caffeinating herself, or just generally doing too many things at once. She lives in Rochester, NY with her spouse, a baby T. rex, a xenophobic cat, and a rascally rabbit. You can buy her debut book, Girls Resist! A Guide to Activism, Leadership, and Starting a Revolution if you want to, if you feel like it, if that's a thing that interests you or whatever.

KaeLyn has written 219 articles for us.

18 Comments

    • Hi KaeLyn! This was my question. Thank you so much for responding! I’ve loved reading your series about Raising Remi and your advice here is really great. I don’t know why, but while my wife and I have thought a lot about how we want our own kid to learn about her origins, we never thought about explaining our family to other people’s kids, and felt a little overwhelmed about it.

      I’ll talk to my sister and make sure this all sounds good, and then next time we are together I’ll follow the plan you laid out. This seems so much more approachable now!

      Also, thanks for the book recommendations! We’ll definitely bring our copy of Mommy, Mama and Me next time we see them, and I ordered What Makes a Baby and I’m looking forward to reading it!

  1. Love the point especially about her mom being there, too! Good advice all around.

    Also, relatedly:
    Please, please, please seek out the voices of adult donor-conceived children, if you have or are planning to use a sperm donor. Do not use completely anonymous donors, which completely cuts off the donor-conceived person from knowing anything about their biological heritage. Same goes for closed adoptions. I speak as an adult adoptee, but I listen to donor-conceived folks, because some of our issues are overlapping. Think about the major life choice you are making for your child and what is truly in *their* best interests. If you find yourself feeling insecure or scared of any level of openness, process that, because you’re the adult and the parent. If you have already chosen a closed/anonymous situation, do what you can *now* to talk openly and honestly about it, help them feel safe to share their feelings with you, and support their efforts to learn more, if they want to.

    Biology for sure isn’t the only thing that makes a family, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t play a role or that it isn’t important to many of us. And as a queer person, it’s often felt difficult or impossible to have these kinds of conversations, because it’s very personal and emotional all around. I support my queer parents and families and their rights! AND I want us as a community to start thinking more about adoptee and donor-conceived rights and issues. And very few will hear it from their adopted or donor-conceived family, even if you ask, because we love our family and don’t want to hurt them, and because we’re tired and wary because we often see people get shut down frequently for saying “hey maybe think about this.”

  2. I’m so glad your sister is thinking about this and including you in the conversation! I feel like sometimes straight parents will create their own narrative about conception without thinking it through or consulting the people they are talking about. My own kid asked about this. I’m in a cis/het looking relationship so my kid’s basis for understanding conception came from talking about that initially.
    Fortunately we have various situations around us that provided an opportunity to talk about the various ways that families are built, just based on people we see regularly anyway. On our street, one couple are men who have kids because one of them was initially in a cis/het seeming relationship. Our other neighbor friends as well as my kid’s teacher conceived via donor. My close friend who has a kid the same age is a trans guy who carried his baby, so knowing them was a really good real life example of “not all birth parents are moms” and another good friend is (basically) a single mother by choice with known donor… These people who are all fully integrated into my kid’s life make a really nice variety of real life examples of how love makes a family, and how there are many ways to build a family.
    My kid is the same age as the niece and has a pretty robust understanding of the world but I don’t think she really understood the mechanics of the donor. But she has a foundation for understanding later, and I think we can all agree that robust and early sex ed is the best way to do things.

      • Thanks, and gosh I’m glad this came across as being part of a close circle. I hate to think of anyone I am close to feeling like they are “an example of diversity” rather than someone I hold dear – which is a big fear of mine. After I wrote this I was worried about how it sounded.

  3. Love this advice! My wife and I have three young kids conceived via a known donor. We use the book Zak’s Safari, which talks about sperm donors a bit in the context of a two-mom family. We’ve been reading that book to them since they were little, since we don’t want them to feel surprised about anything later. They’ve been very chill about things so far, we’ll see how it goes when they get older.

  4. Hi KaeLyn! I accidentally posted this as a reply to another comment above, so please ignore the duplicate!

    This was my question. Thank you so much for responding! I’ve loved reading your series about Raising Remi and your advice here is really great. I don’t know why, but while my wife and I have thought a lot about how we want our own kid to learn about her origins, we never thought about explaining our family to other people’s kids, and felt a little overwhelmed about it.

    I’ll talk to my sister and make sure this all sounds good, and then next time we are together I’ll follow the plan you laid out. This seems so much more approachable now!

    Also, thanks for the book recommendations! We’ll definitely bring our copy of Mommy, Mama and Me next time we see them, and I ordered What Makes a Baby and I’m looking forward to reading it!

  5. Great advice! I’ll also recommend the fairly new (October 2019) picture book “You Began as a Wish,” by Kim Bergman, a queer mom and licensed psychologist who’s been helping LGBTQ families and others with third-party assisted reproduction for nearly 30 years.

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