Impact on parenting & talking to children

The experience of IVF can have a long lasting effect on parenting. Here we discuss what people told us about how their treatment had affected their approach to being a parent. We also discuss people’s views on telling their children about how they were conceived.
Impact on parenting
People, who have gone through fertility treatment to conceive, sometimes felt that they approached their pregnancy differently (see ‘Being pregnant after fertility treatment’). Sometimes this sense of difference affected how they started out as parents.
Liz was anxious during her pregnancy and felt that she remained anxious during the first year of her son’s life, “The lovely experience of birth was tinged by worries, onward worries really, unfortunately because of the precious nature of the baby… So it was a bitter sweet sort of thing.” Martha’s second child was born after fertility treatment and she felt she had to, “work very hard not to overprotect him”. 

Mary felt her IVF treatment had coloured the way she parented her three children. She was just so...

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Age at interview: 42
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30

I think it, for me it has definitely coloured my experience of parenting I think. Because I think, all the way through, certainly with my first, I was thinking I will never have, as long as they are healthy as well, hopefully I will never, it doesn’t matter what they look like, it doesn’t matter how clever they are. It doesn’t matter this, as long as I, I promise to God I will just accept and love whatever it is that I am given and of course then, later, if then you are desperate for your child too to get into this school or be pretty or not be, put on weight. Or whatever it is, all these pressure, tha … not any mother, but round these parts, a mother puts on their child and you feel terribly, terribly guilty. It is like you have reneged on the deal with God that you know, you have got, you know, I said I would be loving and accepting and here I am shouting at them, wanting them to be different, so I think it has affected my experience of parenting. Because I feel very guilty about things that perhaps people who conceive naturally don’t feel guilty about, because they don’t feel they have been given this kind of…. I mean there is so many people out there who just, and I know there are so many people out there who are desperate for a child, who probably you know if they are listening to this, will think what a silly bitch, you know, how can you… you should be just grateful. But I think it is that mixture of gratitude and guilt and desire, all mixed into one, so I do think it does have an impact on your parenting, definitely. 


Fiona adopted three daughters after her IVF treatment failed. She felt as though she had to work...

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Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
Has your previous experience with all your IVF affected your parenting?
That is an interesting question. I have no idea. Possibly. I have had to think about parenting and being a mother and everything a lot more, perhaps, than your average person. It has made me question how I was parented. Which is a really interesting issue as well. I don’t know actually.
I feel that I’ve become through having adopted children I feel like I’ve had to work extra hard at being a parent, but I feel I’ve had the chance to really try out lots of different things. I have had to do all kind of things to support them. I have had to go into school with them every day sometimes, and sit with them, you know, whereas another parent might just drop their child off. Because my children are so scared about who’s going to come and pick them up at the end of the day, that you know. 
All those kind of things you have to kind of work extra hard at. But I think perhaps then, this is occurring to me as I am saying it to you, you have wanted to be that mother so much that you will go to those lengths to do it, because you really want to be the absolute perfect… I wanted to a perfect mother. 
So I think it probably has actually. Because you are so grateful in the end that you got the chance to be a mother that you will do an awful lot.
I did beat myself up a lot about being a perfect mother, because I couldn’t handle the girls at first how I thought I would be handle them. And you realise that you are not as patient as you thought you were or that you want. And I used to think at school I can be infinitely patient in a classroom, but here with the children I can lose my temper really quickly and it comes as quite a shock to you, because you want to be, and especially to these children that have had a rough time of it, but I have learnt, you know, that is not what it is about. And I have learnt to say to the girls, you know, nobody is perfect. I make my mistakes I am sorry I did that wrong or whatever. 
So I am much more settled with that now, but again I think it. I suppose anybody has their ideas about being a parent don’t they, how they want to be, and the thing I kind of…I don’t know whether I comfort myself with it now, or whether it is a realistic thing, but I say basically, if I had had my own birth children, who knows what they might have turned out like. We may have had health issues, we may have emotional issues, just because they are not mine from birth doesn’t mean to say that I might not have had, you know, a bumpy ride. So it is true really isn’t it.
Talking to children about IVF
At some point parents need to decide what to say to their children about the IVF treatment. The parents we spoke to usually had quite young children, which meant any discussion needed to be in quite simple terms. Catherine had felt she was failing her son by not being able to have a sibling for him. She talked to him in simple terms about how they needed treatment to help them make a baby, but he misunderstood.

Catherine tried to explain her fertility treatment to her young son. He misunderstood and...

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Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
You talked a bit ago about how you felt really isolated during your first IVF cycle, and feeling sort of, as if you weren’t fulfilling what you should have been able to do as a woman. Did that change once you’d had one baby and you were trying again? Or did that sort of feeling carry on?
I think it did change to an extent. Because once you’re a mother, you’re a mother, and so you don’t ever feel that kind of sense of, “Oh, I’m never going to feel, be a mother.” But I think there, there are different things that come into play. I think, I felt very strongly that I was failing my son, because I thought I was kind of, you know, he was going to be an only child and it was entirely my fault. And I remember we talked about it once, before I got pregnant again. And he was still quite little and I was ex-, he said something about brothers and sisters and I was kind of trying to explain it to him. And I said, “Well, actually, you know, it’s really difficult for mummy and daddy to have babies and we had to have lots of help to have you. And some people can’t do it very easily.” And it was just before Christmas, and he said, “I know, I’ve got a really good idea.” He said, “You could go to the shops. There are bound to be some babies in the shops for Christmas.” And I just thought, “Oh, no.” I felt so mean. You know, there was nothing I wanted more than to go and get him this baby for Christmas. And it was all so straightforward in his eyes. And he obviously completely misunderstood what I was trying to tell him. But I felt really awful from this, you know, because I just wanted him to be able to be normal. And I felt in some ways I was not allowing him that, because we couldn’t give him a brother or a sister.

With the help of a book, Liz talked to her son from early on about how he was conceived. He was...

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Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 29
And [son] said to me, “They are asking at school about if I have got any brothers and sisters.” And I told him, from the very beginning, I have got a book, a book about it, about infertility, and how you explain infertility to children and that was very good. And he has always known that he is special. And we went to buy a bed for him actually, and I said… he had been a good boy, and I said to him, “Tell the lady why you are a good boy.” You know, “Tell her that you have been a good boy today.” He said, “I am a test tube baby.” And that was really sweet.
And he is quite, a very sensitive sort of boy. You know, at school, they are asking about children and brothers and sisters particularly and they had to go round and say what they had got. And [son] said, “I haven’t got any brothers and sisters.” He said, “There were three of us,” (because there were three embryos). He said, “There were three of us, but the other two didn’t make it.” It always gets me you see.
So, anyway, he would have liked, I would have liked and he would have liked more children, but you know we get on lovely together and we have got, he and I are just a lovely little family together and he is lovely and I wouldn’t be without him. So I think that is my story [laughs].
Talking to children about donor conception
Children who were conceived with donor gametes now have a legal right to know who the donor was. Frances conceived her twins with donor sperm. At the time of the interview they were nine years old. She had followed advice to tell them before puberty, and had told them a few months before the interview. They had taken it well. 
Walter and his wife have grown up children conceived with donor sperm. They told them from an early age which he believed was very important.

Frances and her ex-husband had explained to their twins that they were donor conceived.

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Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 32
What age did you tell them?
We actually told them this summer, so they were nine. 
I always intended to tell them from the moment they were conceived. I don’t believe in secrets and I don’t believe in the sort of secrets that always come out at the wrong moment and always cause enormous emotional turmoil for people.
My husband was less certain about telling them. Which was slightly odd because he was actually adopted and he didn’t discover it until a very awkward age about his adoption. So I would have thought he would understand very well how traumatic it can be to find out these things at the wrong moment. 
And there has been a lot of research done about children conceived with donor sperm. Or with donor eggs and there is a network, there is a website with very, very good information and that say a) that you really should tell them as soon as you feel comfortable and its less obviously, if you haven’t you haven’t but you really need to try to tell them before puberty. That once they get to puberty and they have got all of those questions and angst about who they are anyway. To be given that information at that stage is very, very difficult for them to cope with. And if you tell them before puberty that, at a stage when they can understand, pretty much what they are being told, it just becomes part of who they are, part of what has always been and it is not, it is not such an issue for them. 
So I was determined that this really was the time that they needed to be told. 
And did you tell them together?
We did tell them together.
And how was that?
It was fine. It was interesting. In that way with fairly young children you spend a lot of time worrying enormously about how they are going to react and in point of fact my son said it was a bit strange to think that daddy was daddy but wasn’t daddy in some way that he wasn’t quite sure about. And they had quite a lot of questions about the mechanics of the entire procedure and that was about it. Then they wanted to know if that was it and if they could go and do something else now, thank you very much [laughs].
So I will bring it up with them again though in six months or so just to see if they have any questions that have been sort of formulating because I think that sometimes happens. But they are remarkably unphased about it.
And how about you? Were you quite nervous about telling them? 
No. I wasn’t. No I think my husband, my ex husband was. I think he was very worried about it, but no I just felt very strongly that they needed to know and that it was about the right time for them to find out and to be told, because otherwise they were going to find out somehow. 

Walter talked about the importance of telling children they are donor conceived from a young age.

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Age at interview: 63
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 35
But it is something that parents have to think about as their children grow up, and they can’t just say, “Oh well, it happened, and now we’re just sort of pretending it never happened.” No that’s one of the most important things is to just start telling the children at an early age with the aim that the children grow up with this piece of knowledge and really can’t ever remember when they were first told about it. And that’s the position with our children. If you ask our children when they were first told, they really cannot remember. Truthfully they just can’t, there was never a moment when they can remember being sat down and told, “Here’s an important piece of information.” So it’s not something that parents need to be frightened of, although many of them are. But then there are all these other areas of, you know, telling grandparents. And sometimes grandparents, or parents, and grandparents, and particularly grandparents can be people who it’s difficult to tell, or it may be even appropriate not to tell. If it’s really thought that they would find it so difficult to absorb this knowledge, they might discriminate against the child or something like that. Or it might be so upsetting for them from a religious or cultural background. So those are issues which many parents have to face and then there are issues about whether it’s sensible to tell teachers at schools, particularly primary schools. Your child, you have explained it to your child, then is it sensible, you see your child may start talking about this sort of thing? And is it sensible to prime other, to prime the teacher to say, you know, if my child does start talking about this, then don’t think he or she is off on a tangent and this is something he does know, but may not really quite be able to express very clearly, not really understanding that much himself or herself. So there’s telling other members of the family, and telling teachers and others in the educational system, telling doctors, telling you know, who else needs to know and how you release that information in a way you feel comfortable with.
And there’s always that other question about is this really the child’s knowledge the child’s information and should we wait until the child is capable of telling other people. And I’m fairly clear in my mind that actually you have to prime the way for this, you can’t leave it until the child is old enough to start telling other people, because I think by then it’s really too late. So I think we do have to set the scene. 

Last reviewed July 2017.
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