How Do Children of Lesbian Parents Relate to Their Sperm Donors?

How Do Children of Lesbian Parents Relate to Their Sperm
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It’s International Lesbian Day, so let’s celebrate with the latest results from the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS), the longest-running study on any LGBTQ-parent families. This summer, the project published a study of the relationships between the adult offspring of lesbian parents and their unknown or known donors.

Two moms and their three children

The National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS) has focused on the same group of subjects over many years (what researchers call a “longitudinal” study) and offers a picture of lesbian-headed families that few other studies can match. Principal Researcher Nanette Gartrell, M.D., a psychiatrist and Visiting Distinguished Scholar at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, and her colleagues began interviewing the parents in 1986, when they were inseminating or pregnant, then again when their children were 1 1/2 to 2 years old, 5, 10, 17, and 25. (They focused on donor-insemination (DI) families in order to limit the number of variables, especially with the few resources they had for the study.) They also directly questioned the children at 10, 17, and 25 years of age. The study has had a remarkable 92 percent retention rate since it began.

The interviews at age 25 were the first to be conducted after those with open-identity donors became old enough (18) to contact their donors, and the latest study dives deep into the relationships between them. Among the 76 participant children, there were approximately equal numbers of men and women. Most were White, college graduates, and self-identified heterosexuals. Thirty had permanently unknown donors and 16 had open-identity donors whom they had not met. Another thirty had currently known donors, of whom 22 had always known them. Eight had open-identity donors whom they had met at an average age of 20.4 years old.

Among those with a donor they had always known, 10 of the 22 characterized him as a ‘‘father.’’ The researchers note, “In choosing a known donor, some NLLFS parents anticipated the possibility that the donor would assume a father role or be identified by the child in that way.” At the same time, seven of the eight offspring with open-identity donors whom they had met characterized them as ‘”acquaintances.”

Nearly half of all who knew their donors had good feelings about their relationship, though a minority expressed “conflicted feelings.” The researchers explain:

Offspring comments demonstrating conflicts or reservations centered on mismatched perceptions, hopes, or expectations of either the offspring toward their donor (‘‘I would have preferred that he were someone more similar to me’’) or the offspring’s view of their donor’s false hopes or expectations of the offspring (‘‘He became. . .dissatisfied with my choices’’, and ‘‘He sees himself as a father but I would consider him more of an uncle or relative.’’).

Those who did not know their donors, either because they never could or simply had not met yet,  expressed “more comfort than discomfort” about them. The researchers hypothesize that “early disclosure to offspring of their donor origins, even with a permanently unknown donor, along with conversations about the rationale for type of donor selected, may have contributed to these feelings of relative comfort.”

They also note that most of the research done on DI offspring has been on those with heterosexual parents, and that based on this, “It has been proposed that DI offspring who cannot or do not have contact with their donors may have identity formation problems or even ‘genealogical bewilderment.’” Yet these problems were not found in the NLLFS offspring, and there were “no psychological adjustment differences between offspring based on their donor type.”

Age-appropriate, early, and open disclosure of a child’s DI origins may be integral to facilitating an understanding of this information and to creating overall positive feelings about the donor.

Many of the previous studies, however, found that offspring had a more negative response when they learned about their donors as adults or by accident. Since only one third of DI offspring in the NLLFS sought to contact their open-identity donors (a rate consistent with a previous study from the Sperm Bank of California), this might mean that “strong family bonding with open and early discussions of their origins have resulted in most offspring not feeling an urgency or desire for donor contact.” They conclude that “Age-appropriate, early, and open disclosure of a child’s DI origins may be integral to facilitating an understanding of this information and to creating overall positive feelings about the donor, whether always-known, open-identity and met, or unknown, and whether from a lesbian couple, heterosexual couple, or single woman.”

The study has some limitations, however. The NLFFS is a non-representative sample because it began when many lesbians were closeted and most could not access DI, so a more representative sample wasn’t feasible. The parent sample therefore “lacked diversity,” and the offspring, “who are mostly white and highly educated,” don’t reflect do not reflect what the entire population of DI offspring with lesbian parents looks like. (Of the 76 parents, 69 were White and seven were people of color.)

At the same time, the results do suggest some ways that we DI parents can try to approach discussion of our children’s origins with them. They also offer health care professionals some insight into working with us. The researchers advise that clinicians “should be aware of the different life experiences of offspring with known, identity-release donors, and unknown donors.” Clinicians should also keep in mind that those who have always known or recently met their donors generally feel positive about them. When there is conflict, it is often about mismatched expectations, which “might be mitigated by clear and continuous communication between lesbian parents and their offspring about role expectations concerning an always-known or recently met open-identity donor.”

More generally, they say, health care practitioners should be familiar with the research that shows “the adult DI offspring of lesbian-identified parents fared as well as their peers in population-based comparisons of psychological adjustment” and “should not assume that sexual minority parentage or DI conception inevitably is associated with any psychological challenge that DI adult offspring may report because empiric studies have shown overwhelmingly that family processes have more influence on mental health outcomes than family structure or the means of conception.”

Darn right.

  • Want to know more about the NLLFS and its results? See my post on their paper from last fall, the first to look at the overall experiences of any LGBTQ parents from their children’s conception through young adulthood, and my interview with Gartrell in 2018.
  • Want some help talking with your kids about their donors? Kim Bergman’s Your Future Family: The Essential Guide to Assisted Reproduction is a good place to start. (See my longer review here.) Bergman, a fertility expert and a lesbian mom herself, has also written a picture book, You Began as a Wish, based on “what I’ve been telling parents for 30 years to tell their kids.” (See my longer review here.) Another good picture book on the subject is  Zak’s Safari, by Christy Tyner. Get a hard copy here, or view it free online here (in English, Spanish, or French).

The current paper is “Adult offspring of lesbian parents: how do they relate to their sperm donors?” in Fertility and Sterility, by Audrey S. Koh, M.D., Gabriel van Beusekom, Ph.D., Nanette K. Gartrell, M.D., and Henny Bos, Ph.D., July 03, 2020.


(I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program that provides a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.)

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