My Parents Hid The Truth Of My Birth From Me. I Almost Did The Same To My Own Daughter

"The longer we waited, the more anxious I became. If we didn’t tell her soon, I feared it could do lasting damage to our family."
The author as an infant with her adoptive parents.
Photo Courtesy Of Julee Newberger
The author as an infant with her adoptive parents.

The first time my seven-year-old daughter asked me about her ancestry, I froze at the kitchen cutting board, overwhelmed with dread.

“If you’re Italian and Swedish, and Daddy’s Italian and Polish,” she asked, as she dropped her flowered backpack onto the floor, “does that mean I’m part Swedish, Polish and Italian?”

“Well, not exactly…” I motioned for her to pick up her backpack and tried to think on my feet.

Clearly it was time to explain some complicated things.

My daughter was conceived by using an egg donor. I carried her to term, but she inherited all her genes from my husband and the donor. Any similarities we share are a result of nurture rather than nature.

Having grown up in a family that kept secrets about my birth, I’d promised myself I’d be open with my daughter.

My husband and I had gotten as far as letting her know that we tried for a while to have a baby and needed some help. But telling the whole story was proving harder than I’d expected.

“Are we French?” She asked excitedly (we’d been reading the ”Madeline” books together before bed). “I hope we’re French. I love the Eiffel Tower. And croissants.”

Upstairs there was a DNA kit in an unopened box. We had planned to test our daughter and share the results with her when the time was right. That time just hadn’t come yet.

I did some quick research and found a recent study on third-party reproduction. Results showed families have better outcomes when parents tell kids about their conception early on, ideally by the time they’re seven years old.

The longer we waited, the more anxious I became. If we didn’t do it soon, I feared it could do lasting damage to our family.

I should know. When I was my daughter’s age, I believed I was the biological daughter of my doting mom and dad, who said they tried to have children for more than 10 years until, at last, I arrived.

But I always sensed that something was amiss. There were no pictures of my mother pregnant or stories about my birth. Nobody in the family had my crooked smile or blue-green eyes. I’d overheard some whispered conversations about adoption, but whenever I asked my parents, they shut it down.

By the time an older cousin confirmed that I was adopted, I was in my early 40s and both my parents had passed away. This midlife discovery left me with tangled emotions and no way to work through it with the two people I’d loved and trusted most.

It’s possible that my parents thought they were saving me from stigma or that they feared I’d abandon them in lieu of my biological family. I’m sure their years of fertility struggles played a role.

I didn’t agree with my parents’ decision, but my journey to have a child of my own softened my resentment. When I finally brought home a healthy baby, I cradled her on our back-porch swing and felt an overwhelming need to protect her from every danger in the universe.

I also experienced something I hadn’t anticipated – a sense of shame, as if I had cheated nature. At 44, maybe I wasn’t supposed to be a new mother, and by extension, this beautiful baby wasn’t truly mine.

During the first few months, I carried her wrapped against my chest to mummy-and-baby coffee dates, feeling like an imposter, somehow less “legit” than the other mums. I feared I wouldn’t have the instincts that came naturally to others or that the baby would know something was different. I wondered if my parents had felt that way, too.

My husband and I agreed that we wanted our daughter’s identity to be something she felt she’d always known. We didn’t want to end up having a serious sit-down when she reached her teens or for her to stumble on the truth after learning about genetics in school. Most of all, we didn’t want the information to come from anyone but us.

Up until now, I’d told myself it was too soon to explain donor conception to a child who was too young to understand how a baby was made. But, in truth, I had mixed emotions. I feared that my daughter would feel disconnected or pull away from me once she knew the truth. As long as we lived in a bubble of secrecy, we belonged to one another and no one else.

The author with her husband and daughter in 2018.
Photo Courtesy Of Julee Newberger
The author with her husband and daughter in 2018.

As soon as she started asking about her ancestry, I bought a book called You Began as a Wish by Kim Bergman, which talks about all the different ways kids are conceived. My husband and I planned for all of us to read it together, but my daughter preempted that by pulling the book out of a box of Amazon purchases after school.

My whole body tensed as she began reading aloud and asking questions: “So all kids are made up of sperm, an egg, a womb ... ”

The timing wasn’t perfect, but I needed to interject.

“Remember we told you that Mommy had trouble getting pregnant at first?” I said matter-of-factly. “Well, an anonymous donor gave us an egg so that we could have you.”

We talked a little longer about the different kinds of families we knew, including ones that have two dads or two moms, and even how kids can grow inside someone other than their mommy. After a while, I could see recognition in her warm brown eyes, different in colour and shape than my own.

“So, I’m related to somebody else,” she said.

“Yes,” I said, and held my breath.

“OK,” she said and skipped away. Then she turned back, her face contemplative.

“Could I be French?’

I thought back to the “Ethnicity” column on the donor application.

“Actually, I think you are a little bit French.”

“Yes!” She pumped her fist in the air.

My shoulders relaxed. I could breathe again. For now.

The next day she came home from school and said proudly, “I told all my friends that I have a donor. Everybody thinks it’s cool. Lizzy asked if that means I have two mothers.”

Ouch. I felt my heart clench as I explained, “You have a mother, and you have a donor.”

“Oh, right,” she said. “Can I have some M&Ms?”

I know that this is only the very beginning of these conversations, and they will no doubt get harder as years go by. We’ll have to get into what it means to have limited information about family health history, just as I did as an adoptee.

We’ll have to be prepared for her to ask questions about her donor and half-siblings that might be out there. Who knows what other questions she’ll have or what emotions she’ll experience over time.

I didn’t have the opportunity to do that with my own parents. They chose to hide the truth, whether out of shame or an overwhelming need to shelter me. While I was in the dark, we all lived in that same bubble of secrecy I’d had with my daughter.

But now I know that living with a lie is painful. I can only imagine how hard it was like for my mom and dad to do so for decades. There was always a risk that I would uncover the truth ― with tremendous repercussions. That fear must have become all the more palpable as I grew.

Life for my family probably would have been more complicated if I’d known I was adopted growing up. And things may be more complicated for my family from now on. Telling the truth isn’t always the easiest option. But I had the right to know who I was, just as my daughter does. And this way we get to work through whatever complications arise together, without secrecy or shame.

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