Single Parenthood: Building Families with Donors and Surrogates

If you are considering single parenthood, there are many questions to explore. Addressing these questions will help you feel secure about your decision and establish a strong foundation for building a healthy family. Some of the most significant questions are:

  • Do I have the emotional and financial resources to parent on my own?
  • Do I have a solid support system and am I willing to reach out to others?
  • Do I have a flexible work schedule and is my work environment family friendly?
  • Do I believe that children can feel stable, happy and secure with one parent?
  • If something happens to me, is there someone who would assume parenting my child?
  • Have I talked to other single parents and do I have a realistic idea about what parenthood entails?
  • If my ideas about building a family involved having a partner, have I grieved my loss and am I ready to embrace being a single parent?

Once you decide upon the path of single parenthood, you may have questions about building your family with the help of egg or sperm donors and surrogates:

  • How should I choose a donor and should the donor be anonymous or identified? Should I ask my friend to donate?
  • What should I look for in choosing a surrogate?
  • How should I talk to my child about the donor/surrogate?
  • What do I say when my child asks, "Do I have a daddy (mommy)?"

These are complicated questions that require information gathering and contemplation. I offer the following considerations to help you begin your family building journey.

Donors: Anonymous or Identified

Single parents tend to openly disclose donor origins to their children from an early age, since it is a way to explain conception and answer the question, "Do I have a daddy (mommy)?" Your donor will remain in your awareness as you talk with your child about his origins and your thoughts and feelings about the donor will affect your child's sense of himself; the donor's DNA literally is part of the fabric of your child. As such, when selecting a donor, pay close attention to your feelings.

  • Do you like the donor?
  • Can you identify with the donor?
  • When looking at donor profiles, imagine answering this question, "Mom (Dad), why did you choose him (her)?"

Once children learn about their donor origins they likely will have questions about the donor. In fact, many studies demonstrate that donor conceived offspring want to know about their genetic origins, desire information about the donor and often wish they had more information than was provided. Furthermore, not knowing about the donor may leave the donor conceived person with a sense of loss and unanswerable questions about his/her own identity.

Many sperm banks offer identifiable donors (those who are willing to have their identity released to the donor conceived offspring upon the age of legal maturity) and some egg donor agencies and medical clinics will facilitate open identity options. By selecting a donor who is willing to be identified, parents can ensure that their child will be able to obtain information about the donor. You can ask your doctor, agency or a mental health professional about possibilities of storing donor information so it is available to your child in the future.

Collaborating with Friends

Many prospective parents considering single parenthood wonder if they should ask a friend to be a donor. This question cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Rather, there are many variables to examine, and the answer is determined by whether you and your friend share the same values, beliefs and desires.

  • Is your friend comfortable with the role of a donor or might s/he have parental feelings for the child?
  • Did your friend talk to his/her family and might they feel like grandparents, aunts and/or uncles?
  • Do you and your friend agree about disclosing donor origins to your child?
  • Are you and your friend in agreement about the frequency of contact and the role s/he will have in your child's life?
  • Have you and your friend considered how your friendship might be impacted by the donation?
  • Do you have good communication and the ability to work through conflicts?
  • If technology was used to create embryos, do you and your friend agree on the disposition of those embryos?

Due to the numerous emotional and legal issues associated with family building with known donors, most medical clinics will either recommend or require you and your potential donor meet with a mental health professional and attorney who have expertise in the field. These evaluations and consultations are invaluable in providing information that will assist you and your potential donor about deciding on collaborative reproduction. The goal of every evaluation and consultation is to help you build a healthy and secure family.

Establishing a Gestational Surrogacy Relationship

In addition to an egg donor, single men also will require the assistance of a gestational surrogate to carry a pregnancy. Single women who are unable to carry or maintain a pregnancy also may turn to a gestational surrogate for help with family building. Whether your potential surrogate is a friend or family member who offered to carry your pregnancy, or a woman who signed up to work through an agency, she will undergo both a medical and psychological screening to evaluate her readiness and ability to proceed, and to ensure that she understands the procedures, expectations and responsibilities involved in being a surrogate.

Mental health professionals also meet with the surrogate and intended parent jointly to help them determine if they would work well together. In terms of the relationship between an intended parent and surrogate, the keys to success are communication between the surrogate and the intended parent that is based on cooperation and mutual respect, the ability to resolve conflicts, knowledge of the medical, emotional and legal issues associated with surrogacy, agreement about the amount and nature of contact during the pregnancy and concurrence about decisions involving the pregnancy such as the number of embryos to transfer, carrying a multiple pregnancy, genetic testing, and pregnancy termination. Continued support for parents and surrogates throughout treatment and pregnancy is instrumental in maintaining a healthy relationship.

Surrogate agencies can provide assistance with surrogate recruitment and matching, legal consultation and continued care throughout the pregnancy. It is important to note that surrogate agencies differ in the amount and kind of services they provide and how they conduct surrogate evaluations.

Explaining Family: "Do I Have a Daddy (Mommy)?"

Becoming parents with the help of donors and surrogates challenges the traditional notion that families are formed solely around blood ties. When talking to your child about his origins, describe his conception within the context of your desire to become a mother (father) and to build a family. While you acknowledge the importance of genetic connections for your child, emphasize that loving relationships and shared values form the foundation of your family. In so doing you will increase acceptance of different ways to become a family. Additionally, separating motherhood and fatherhood from eggs and sperm will help your child understand his experiences of himself and of his family.

Single parents must help their children understand that they came into the world just like other children-that all children begin from an egg, which always comes from a woman and a sperm, which always comes from a man. The baby grows inside a uterus, which is always in a woman. However, it is important that parents stress that although all children are conceived and born in the same way, they may belong in different kinds of families-some children come from a family with a mom and dad, some from two moms, some from two dads, some from one mom and some from one dad, as well as other families where children are raised by other family members or guardians. In this way, single parents can let their children know that both men and women were involved in their conception, but that they have only one parent.

Of course, as children grow into teenagers and young adults, their questions about the donor and the nature of their relationship with the donor will become more complex. They may wonder if the donor is part of their family and what it means to be a donor conceived person. Additionally, your child's experience of family may extend beyond you and the donor. Your child may be interested in locating donor siblings and creating a larger extended family. Furthermore, if a surrogate was involved, your child also may have questions about how she is connected to your family.

Building a family as a single parent begins with self-exploration and self-examination. There are many questions to ask and answer to determine if single parenthood is right for you. By exploring your feelings, beliefs and values you will be confident about your decisions. Once you decide to begin this journey, establishing connections with donors and surrogates provide an excellent opportunity for having children and building family.

Madeline Licker Feingold, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in California. Dr. Feingold is past chair of the Mental Health Professional Group of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and currently serves as a member of the Mental Health Advisory Council for Path2Parenthood. She is Director of Psychological Services at the Alta Bates In Vitro Fertilization Program and President of the Alameda County Psychological Association.