The way we communicate with kids can impact their ability to learn, listen and respond to us. In this series, psychologists, educators, and childcare experts answer our queries on communicating with children across various topics, from death and mortality to sexuality, mental health, finance, and more.
Having children via IVF is becoming an increasingly common way to conceive. In 2019, the Ministry of Health saw the number of cycles couples undergo rise to 8700 from 7100 in 2015. However, the topic of infertility – or fertility in itself – is still generally quite taboo.
Not everyone truly understands how IVF works, and a lot of the older generation may view IVF children as “other”. Many assume only those who are infertile opt for this method of conceiving. They believe that the kids are not 100% the parents’, and look down on parents for not being able to conceive naturally.
The truth is that many couples undergo IVF treatments – not just those who face infertility. In most cases, couples use their own sperm and egg to conceive, making the child genetically theirs. The only difference is that the egg is fertilised in the lab before being returned to the mother’s body. For mothers who are unable to carry their child, the embryo is planted into a third-party receiver who will help carry the child to full term.
With these preconceived notions floating around in society, it makes parents — who conceived via IVF — hesitant to share the truth with the kids.
Firstly, it’s okay if you feel scared
When it comes to telling your kids they were conceived through IVF, it’s normal to feel scared. Your fear can stem from a variety of different reasons, especially with regard to how your children will see you. Worst yet, you could be worried that they will feel disappointed or like they don’t belong.
In short, as Dr Chow puts it, parents are “afraid of judgement”.
It doesn’t help that there is a prevalent stigma against IVF. According to Caryn Lim, “people used to think of infertility as “failure” and something to be ashamed of. IVF tends to be associated with that. Another reason could be related to religion as some do not support IVF – it is seen as unnatural.”
Here’s why you should do it anyway
For Caryn, the most important aspect is that couples go through IVF do so because they want to have their children. “I think children will be very moved knowing they were so desired that their parents would go to such extents to have them.” On top of that, she adds that IVF is slowly becoming a common practice and that children may even have friends who were conceived in a similar fashion. Discussing the topic with your children can help destigmatise the topic of fertility in the long run.
Beyond that, growing up knowing who you are and where you come from helps children shape their self-identity. On top of that, “it is helpful for children to know about their genetic background so that they have a complete medical history.” For children whose parents used donor eggs or sperm, “There is a very small but potential risk that your child may meet and form a sexual relationship with a half-brother or sister. Knowing and being comfortable discussing their origins may reduce this risk.”
When is a good time to talk
While you may be tempted to leave the conversation for future-you to tackle, Caryn recommends sharing the truth when they are young. She says, “it is better to tell them when they are younger as they tend to have no preconceived notions.”
Dr Chow agrees, and reminds parents that “the information needs to be age-appropriate, while more technical terms can be introduced gradually”. Alternatively, she suggests having the conversation when children ask how they came to be, which is usually around the age of four. “That is when children start to develop a more concrete sense of identity and desire to know more about their environments and themselves.”
While figuring out their self-identity is an important stage of many children’s life, Dr Chow notes that not all kids will find it necessary to explore their genetic origins. But just because your child doesn’t ask doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. She also warns not to tell kids who don’t have the mental capacity to understand the truth. If you deem that your kids aren’t ready for the conversation, you can always sit on it until they are mature enough.
Getting yourself ready
If there’s one thing that needs to happen before the big reveal, it’s for you to be comfortable with your own conception decision. Overcoming any internal stigma you may harbour is the first step for your children to accept their birth origins. Dr Chow notes, “Prior to the conversation, parents should reflect on how they feel about IVF and as an IVF beneficiary, especially if donors were involved. They should consider how the conception method affects their view of their parenthood. It will aid the conversation if they feel comfortable in their conception decision.”
It’s especially important for parents to be open about how they conceived and not feel like they have to hide the truth out of fear. The worst thing that could happen is that you send the message that your kids’ birth is something to be ashamed of.
One thing for parents to remember is that they’re not alone. Caryn notes that she has seen an upward trend of parents willing to tell their kids they were conceived through IVF. She says, “We [mothers] tend to think of ourselves as IVF warriors and are very proud to share about it with our children, knowing that they will be proud of us and themselves. We now also know that there is a large community of people who have undergone the same journey so there’s really nothing to be ashamed of.”
What to actually say
Caryn’s book “The Blessing” treis to make the IVF experience understandable to kids. “I have analogized the embryo transfer ultrasound picture as a star in the night sky in my story so that it becomes more relatable to children,” she says. “I can almost imagine some children asking their parents, “So I am a star, mummy?”. This opens up endless possibilities of conversations to have with your children and makes it interesting for them to learn about.”
She stresses that it’s important to tell older kids that society will have its own opinions on IVF. Discussing these different (and often negative) viewpoints and explaining why they are wrong can help.
For parents who need a bit more guidance, Dr Chow recommends starting off the conversation by discussing the different types of families – families of different races, different child-delivery methods, and finally, the different modes of conception. Then you can proceed on to share that some parents need a bit of help. They can also then share their rational behind their decision and their struggles.
Be open to future conversations
The biggest thing to note is that your first conversation with your kids about this topic will certainly not be the last. “Be prepared that it will be delivered through a series of consistent small talks rather than one big event,” Dr Chow says. End your conversation by letting your kids know that you are open to discussing more and answering questions at any time.