As an agency, we place a major emphasis on emotional support for intended parents as well as their gestational surrogates and egg donors. It’s important for them to feel comfortable and supported in the process as they build - or play a key role in building - a family.
But what about the children who are born as a result of this unique partnership? We were intrigued by a new study in the June issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry that explored the mental and emotional health of children born with the help of a gestational surrogate or donated eggs and sperm.
Susan Golombok, a professor of family research and the director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, led a team of researchers following 30 surrogacy families, 31 egg donation families, 35 sperm donation families, and 53 natural conception families until the children were 10. At the age of 3, 7, and 10, the children’s mother’s were surveyed about their perceived “adjustment.” Behavior problems like aggressive or antisocial behavior, or emotional problems like anxiety and depression were taken into account.
What their findings suggest is that children had more difficulty with the concept of being carried by a surrogate than not being biologically related to one or both of their parents. According to the research, no difference in behavior was found between the children conceived with donor egg/sperm and those conceived naturally. We found this especially interesting, considering the issue of disclosure is one intended parents through egg donation often grapple with the most. How do they explore this sensitive topic with their child? And when?
Major organizations in the infertility community, including the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and The American Fertility Association (AFA), have stressed the importance of disclosure. In fact, a 2004 Ethics Committee Report from ASRM stated that it “supports disclosure from parents to offspring about the use of donor gametes in their conceptions.” The AFA has also published guides offering suggestions on how intended parents can share and discuss third party reproduction with their children.
Many of the intended parents we work with seek guidance on the best way to do this, and the decision is ultimately a very personal one. It’s something the licensed mental health professionals at ConceiveAbilities are well-versed in addressing, and it’s part of what prompted our monthly support group for intended parents through gestational surrogacy. The opportunity to explore concerns about disclosure makes the concept less daunting, and gives intended parents the confidence to be open and honest with their child from the very beginning about his or her unique start.
Deb Levy, ConceiveAbilities’ Director of Surrogacy and a Licensed Professional Counselor, is herself the mother to two children through surrogacy. “I have opted to share their birth stories with my kids since they were very young,” she explains. “We were also very open about our fertility struggles with friends and family.”
For her children, surrogacy is very normal. “At one point they didn’t understand that it _wasn’t _the norm,” she laughs. “When my son was about four, he asked a pregnant woman about the baby in her tummy. I can’t even describe the look on the woman’s face when he asked her, ‘who’s is it?’”
Open discussion - even to the surprise of others - has never been a question in their family.
“As a mental health professional and mom through surrogacy, I feel confident in saying it hasn’t affected my children in the least - at least yet,” she says.
While the study has generated a lot of attention, we have doubts about the magnitude of its findings. It seems difficult to gauge the long-term emotional impact of surrogacy or egg donation on a child at the age of 3, or even 10. While it’s true that children may experience “identity issues” as they approach adolescence, attributing it to surrogacy seems like a stretch. This factor alone is an unlikely trigger if there has always been honest, age-appropriate discussion about it. We have to question when and how these children were told of their surrogacy beginnings. How was their initial curiosity addressed? The study doesn’t say. An open line of communication within the family is key - whether a child is conceived with the help of a surrogate and donor egg or not.
For more information about the monthly Intended Parent support group, please contact ConceiveAbilities