How we explained to our kids that my wife's brother is our sperm donor

September 4 | Guest post by Christina
Test Tube Baby
Photo by Brendan Dolan-Gavitt used by CC license
My partner and I (both women) have been thinking a lot about starting a family. We've thought about using a donor, and always come back to the possibility of asking my partner's brother how he would feel about donating his sperm for us to start a family. It seems like a good option on some level — we would know about the baby's biological history, and the baby would have both our genes.

We are mainly questioning whether this would be "fair" for our child(ren) to have an uncle/dad and if it would be very confusing for them. Any help out there?
-Elise


Someone recently told me this: "Every family creates their family story, be it about family history or religion or science. LGBT families in particular have to create a family narrative — be it about adoption, an unknown donor or a known donor."

When we decided to start a family, we explored many options. For us, the route of known donor (my partner's brother) seemed to work out best for us. It enabled us to have a child that biologically was related to both of us, and was an amazing and unique way to keep the donor involved.

Our philosophy has always been to be honest, upfront and loving. First, before we even began, we had our donor sign a contract. Although our donor is Patty's brother, we had him sign a document that outlined our needs (for example, he would be referred to as "Uncle"). Although it seems awkward, having this was actually a great opportunity to talk about the whole thing so that there were no surprises down the road.

We told our families, and all our family members know that her brother is the donor, but that he is referred to as "Uncle." We also are using the word "donor," so that it's part of our daughter's vocabulary. Although she's only two, we wanted to do this from the beginning so that it was just a part of her story, and that she was comfortable with it. We're lucky that her Uncle lives so close so we are able to have him as an active part of her life. Every Friday, her "special" uncle takes her on an outing. So she's comfortable with him and has her own relationship with him.

Now, our daughter is only two, so we haven't run into any "awkward" situations as of yet. But we believe that being honest and open is the key. We have some dear friends who have created their family in a similar manner and they were our "mentors" throughout our entire conception process (they are the ones who recommended the salsa jar!). Since their kids are older, I wanted to ask them about their experience so far. Here's what they had to say:

We have a seven-year-old and an almost five-year-old and we are thrilled that we were able to make our family using my partner's brother. It's important it is to consciously make your family's story, and to be open to it changing as time goes by. As of this morning, our seven-year-old referred to his donor as "donor, uncle AND biological daddy." He came to that himself, from learning more and more about the science of reproduction.

We've told them that, to us, parents are the people who make a commitment to be parents; the people who help make a baby are called biological parent, or donors. Most of the time the biological parent, or donor, is also the parent, but not always– and we have examples in our lives to show pretty much any form of family.

Our situation has been ideal, with all of us agreeing on our roles but open to the children questioning titles and relationships. Our donor is also gay and doesn't have any children nor does he want to parent. Everyone is completely open and proud of the way we made a family. Couldn't be better!

Our family story has evolved from this:
You have two mommies and you grew in my belly.
Your mommies wanted to have a baby so we asked your Uncle and he helped us to make you.
We wanted children but we both have eggs, and you need a sperm AND an egg to make a baby, so we asked Uncle to give us sperm so we could make you. He is your sperm donor and your uncle. I am your egg donor and your mommy. Mama is your mama!

Since her answer made me teary, I thought I should share. As LGBT parents, we are in the unique position to truly create our own families and family stories. I truly believe that your family story is what you make it as long as it's full of love and open and honest.

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  1. Posts like this make me wish there was like-A baby book for queer and infertile families. Where you could insert pictures or mementos from trying to get pregnant, so you have a storybook to read with your children later.

    Maybe I gotta look into making my own, or modifying a baby book to add in a 'Donor' and Fertility Doctor page.

    8 agree
    • The very fact that there are so many variables is what makes it difficult/impossible for there to be a standard-issue baby book like that. However, many of the new ones use the post system so you can take out/add pages as you like. And there are tons of adorable baby scrapbooks, if you're into scrapbooking, that would let you totally do your own thing. We have a pretty standard family-story, but I still had trouble finding anything I really liked, just in terms of aesthetics.

    • I enjoy making photo books instead of using the pre-form baby books. You can really include the things that are important to you. I also scanned non-digital items, such as ultrasound print-outs. I use Shutterfly, but I know there was a post on here before about other options.

      1 agrees
    • As a Homebirthing family we needed a different book too. (no need for hospital bracelets or other paraphernalia which were strangely labeled in the books we looked at) we went with a scrapbook so that it was perfectly personalized for us.

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  2. I actually worked in a practice that sometimes encountered issues relating to parentage and families. The biggest word of caution I would add would be to be cognizant that while the process of creating a child belongs to you, it also, and probably ultimately, belongs to that child. While you can try to plan for how the child will accept the circumstances around their parentage and history, you can't control it. I had two clients a while ago who were a lesbian couple. They came in deeply distressed because their teenage son had started the process of tracking down his donor because, in their words, "he says he needs to find his Dad." They interpreted both the son's identification of his donor as Dad and his need to find him as rejection of them. And it wasn't so in the least.

    Of course, you and your partner are free to refer to your child's donor however you wish – and you can do that freely. But you may have to prepare for the possibility that your child will not share your vision. Your child may insist on calling your brother Dad; they may wish for a close or particular relationship with him. Ultimately, it probably won't be very confusing to your child – kids have a tendency to be pretty open-minded. I think, personally, that it's easiest to tell children the facts (in an age-appropriate way, of course!) and let them search out the rest – because really, that's their right. The trick, I think, is to keep in mind that your child might not have the same vision of the family that you do, and how to deal with that.

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    • Of course, you and your partner are free to refer to your child's donor however you wish – and you can do that freely. But you may have to prepare for the possibility that your child will not share your vision.

      Such powerful advice.

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      • I would like to point out that rarely does anyone feel the need to point out to straight couples this sort of thing…. Does anyone believe that this is something queer couples have not considered? We have and it is an aspect of our internalized homophobia. We have to justify our parenthood in every classroom, legally, to our families, in our neighborhoods. of course it is the case that your children will not always agree with you about drug use, nap time,your chosen titles and roles, homework, and any number of things.
        Not meaning to be difficult but reading these responses totally got my hackles up. I feel like responding to your child's potential difference of opinion with you over these issues is a different issue than considering how you want to present this to your young child. I feel that the story of my child's creation does belong to me and my partner and also the child and the family as a whole. But to say, you know, you can tell your child whatever you want but they might not believe it and that's just how it is for you because you are gay…. I don't know about that. It seems to me that if as a culture we were more accepting of the huge variety of families this wouldn't be the case so much.

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        • I do not see at all how Ashley's post can be interpreted as homophobia at all- implicit or otherwise. The very biological nature of heterosexual couples means that such couples have to face this situation far less frequently than same sex couples. Yes, this is one more way straight couples have it easier but that's how biology works. Aside from using very expensive medical procedures, lesbian couples (such as the ones in this post) cannot make a child without male intervention (in this case, a donor) so relational complexity naturally becomes an issue especially since the bio-father/donor/"Uncle" is an active part of the child's life. To be fair, hetero couples who use a donor may also face a similar situation.

          It gets my hackles up when people find -phobia when there isn't any.

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          • Ah, I can't respond to your comment below, so I'll respond here.

            You are addressing something different that what the post is about. You're addressing third parties injecting themselves into your family life. And, if you're reading what I'm reading, that's not what this is about. The question is how to handle the donor/assisted reproduction question within the family context – so honestly, I'm not trying to be mean, but you're reading something that isn't there.

            I'd hope that any family, regardless of gender makeup, is honest with their kids about their conception and birth history. And yes, I include all of them there. LGBT families are thrust to the forefront of it because biology, in a sense, betrays them by making reproductive choices more apparant (straight couples have the privilege of being more discreet). This was a post about inter-family dynamics, not about public appearances, so I truly think you're making an argument that the post simply didn't bring up.

            1 agrees
          • The teensiest of nitpicks here: I think you mean "intra-family," as in inside the family. "Inter-family" means between two or more families.

            To be honest, I find it self-defeating for people to constantly make such a big deal about lack of specificity in advice and such things as this. No, the advice isn't clear-cut for same-sex vs. hetero couples, and yes, the situation is more complicated and must be dealt with consciously for same-sex couples, but that doesn't make the statement any less valid on either side of the argument.

            In the instance of titles, the comment is most commonly made to grandparents than anyone else. Grandparents and parents often have preconceived notions of what the grandchildren will call their grandparents. For instance, one of my cousin's great-uncles had all of the kids in my generation call him Papaw (even if he wasn't their grandfather – that was his general title). My cousin pretty much refused to call him that, and being the little child she was, decided on "dee-dee" instead, and she couldn't be convinced otherwise.

            A similar thing happened to my maternal grandfather. They tried to get my cousin Rosie to call him Pop-pop or something of the like, but she got stuck on "Poppo." That was his name to all of his grandchildren for the rest of his life. My grandmother was "Mommo" to match! And, thanks to a movie many years earlier and a story from a Scout camping trip when he chased off an angry mama bear, his kids had gone from calling him "Daddy" to "Daddybear."

            I can see how it could be important to plan on how to address a child's concerns – especially in same-sex or adoptive families – but I think the fault lies in planning too specifically and getting too attached to that plan. Your kids are likely going to be just as independently minded as you are – plan for the thought, not for what you want them to think.

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        • Ms. Trouble, I do think it's worth pointing out that reproductive assistance and technology are by no means unique to same-sex couples. Almost all the technology you're speaking of what actually created to assist straight reproduction in most cases. The difference is that in LGBT relationships, assisted reproduction is largely the only kind of reproduction available. It's not a matter of homophobia, its a matter of fact that because of this, LGBT families must confront this issue more often. So, that's sort of the whole point. (It's also worth mentioning that statistically, the vast majority of reproductive assistance in the US is still done for straight couples – so by definition, reproductive assistance does not equate to any particular orientation).

          1 agrees
          • That's true – but when you are a woman in a partnership with a man, and you have a baby, no one says, So, how did you get pregnant? What will the baby call you? Did you use a donor? So you want the baby to call you papa? They might not, you know. And I can imagine that has its own challenges in that parents might feel invisible in regard to fertility. But it is different and not exactly what is being discussed here, I don't think. I didn't think your commentary was homophobic either, but I also kind of doubt that queer parents need anyone doubting that they are, you know, parents. ( said by the child who certainly once screamed at her mother, I wish you werent my mother! You're fired!). It's complicated like a child is complicated, I know.

          • Quite. My husband was adopted, and while that didn't involve reproductive technology, it sure as hell involved him having an entirely different perception of his birth parents to that of his adoptive parents. When he was adopted, there was really no question of having a relationship with the birth family. He found them when he was 26, and five years later there are still huge issues between him and his adoptive mum (who is still, and always will be, his mum) because he thinks of his birth parents as also being his parents.

            No matter who the parents, kids will surprise ya.

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        • I disagree that this is a case of homophobia. I think most parents can use a reminder at some point that, in the words of Khalil Gibran:
          Your children are not your children
          They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
          They come through you but not from you,
          And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
          You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
          For they have their own thoughts.

          I don't hear the commenter making assumptions about same-sex couples so much as speaking from personal experience and wanting to pass that on. In this case, it's just a specific application of what Gibran said. And as someone who's not a parent yet but will probably take a route that involves donors or birth parents, I will initiate a process that involves a lot of conscious planning and envisioning of what my partner and I want and need. I appreciate the reminder that while such planning is necessary and important, the ultimate result is someone who will have "their own thoughts".

          Plenty of planning AND plenty of letting go seems like good advice for any parent-to-be.

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          • Yeah, to clarify: the reason I found Ashley's advice so powerful is because it has so much relevance to so many different aspects of parenting for ALL parents. As a parent in a male/female relationship, it resonates with me deeply.

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        • Just to clarify here, Mrs Trouble said, essentially, that the awareness (that even our children may not accept our family structures or methods) and the associated fear/frustration/hassle/unfairness of having to constantly justify our families to others are internalized aspects of homophobia that we as queer people carry within ourselves. I'm not sure I agree that it necessarily or always manifests as such, but the important point here is that she was not accusing Ashley of being a homophobe, but rather pointing out that she felt the advice was somewhat oversimplified and possibly condescending (if I'm reading correctly) and that the issue of difference would be less problematic if society in general was more accepting of the wide variety of family structures that actually exist.

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          • Let me try to clarify what I said.

            I don't think this is a particularly societal issue, especially since the question really isn't posed to society, but family dynamics.

            Regardless of what third parties or any outside entity thinks, it's a fraught issue. I personally come from the viewpoint that ALL children have an inviolatable right to know their backgrounds, histories and everything else about themselves. That includes the circumstances of conception. The problem a family will run into with this is that the parents may have a particular vision or idea about how the donor/other parents/whatever you call him/her/them will fit into their family dynamic. However, the child may have a different idea. Parents may envision the child having a more niece/nephew relationship with a donor or birth parent (or no relationship, or something else), but the child may not have the same idea. A child may want to know a donor, have a full parent-child relationship with them, or reject a birth parent entirely – they all happen. When the parents' and child's ideas don't line up, that is where the conflict happens. And that can happen regardless of how accepting society is of these dynamics. Even if society was 100% LGBT friendly, open to blended families and the like, there will still be disputes within the family – and that is what I think parents need to prepare for.

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          • I understand the point you're making, Ashley, but I have to disagree with your assertion that family and social dynamics are two separate things. A child relates to the adults in her/his life in public, not just at home, and that has an effect on how the family is perceived by the outside world. Likewise, the messages that a child receives from society will more than likely have an effect of some kind or another on how s/he makes sense of the roles, status, and place of her/his family and of the individuals and relational configurations within the family in greater society.

            As queer people in the US and in many other countries, we receive regular, often vehement and vicious public messaging not just from individuals but also from lawmakers, pundits, religious groups, judicial bodies, and so forth declaring that our families are not legitimate and not deserving of the rights and responsibilities afforded to those defined as being "traditional" (i.e., one man, one woman). This brings the social very directly into our family dynamics. In a world in which Mom and Dad are the only legitimate options, it can be very important indeed whether a non-bio parent is accepted by both a child and by society at large as a true mother or father. If a donor is seen as "Dad," again, by the child or by society at large, the legitimacy of the non-bio parent's relationship may feel threatened.

            I'm not saying that this will always be the case. For example, at this point I personally have no problem with the idea of our child one day calling our donor Dad, because I am confident that the love and care my partner and I give as parents will be sufficient to solidify our roles and status in our child's understanding. However, I realize that my opinion is based in the privilege of being the bio-mama, so any threat will not directly affect me as a parent. My partner may feel very differently in this hypothetical situation. Likewise, I can't ignore the fact that my confidence is colored by the fact that our donor has no desire to be a parent himself but, rather, is happy to be an uncle. If his feelings were to change, so might mine. Or they might not. Either way, for those of us whose families are still considered to be fair game for institutionalized and social discrimination, relationships and labels are never simply a private matter.

            You are absolutely correct that children may well grow to have ideas, opinions, and experiences other than those of their parents. For queer families, though, it's not always as simple as just acknowledging this fact and moving on. To assume that is or insist that it must be ignores the very real experiences of an entire group to which, I think (based on your comments–forgive em if I'm wrong) you don't belong. That turning a blind eye may not be the same thing as homophobia, but it can enable the bigotry to continue.

            Nowhere in this thread do I see anyone suggesting that children be lied to about their biological parentage. Rather, we're asking for wider participation in the more complex discussion at hand. Thanks for considering an unfamiliar position. It's opportunities like that that allow growth and positive change to occur.

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        • I am straight, and it's possible that my husband may be infertile. I starting reading this post because I had pondered the idea of using his identical twin as a sperm donor. I think that Ashley's advice applies to many types of couples in many different situations – not just LGBT. I really enjoyed this post and Ashley's comments – both were very eye opening for my particular (straight) situation.

          • Whoa, now there's a concept. Identical twins have nearly the same DNA, so using your husband's twin's sperm will be about as close to having your husband be the biological father of your children as you can get without actually using your husband. Crazy!

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        • Hetero couples deal with this, too, and get told this advice. IVF and adoption come to mind first and foremost of why a hetero couple might be asking advice on dealing with a non-hetero-normative situation that they need to explain and find non-hetero-normative terms. The key word here is "NORMATIVE," not "Hetero."

          And really, I think everybody gets the same advice when they're discussing how to address all sorts of issues with their kids, especially before the kid is even conceived let alone has any kind of personality for you to assess the best way to deal with each individual child. Ultimately, all advice about child-rearing comes with the implied or outright stated advice that whatever you decide now, your actual kid might not go for it. And you have to be ready to adjust.

          • After reading the posts above, which in various ways touch on this point, for some reason this one caught my eye 🙂 My (female) partner and I have just started trying to get pregnant using donor sperm in Australia, and the vast majority of paperwork, counselling and such is aimed at heterosexual couples (because, as noted above, fertility treatments were originally created for them). An interesting fact I found is that a lot of time and attention in the process is focused on 'whether or not' to tell the resulting child they were conceived using donor gametes, not just 'when & how'. Obviously as same sex parents we won't have the option of going stealth and just matching the donor's hair/eyes/complexion to my own. It was also something I hadn't realised still happens – are there souples out there that use donor eggs/sperm and keep it from their children? I'm curious, and I acknowledge that that would have its own list of pressures/guilts/worries/judgements etc associated with it.

  3. We're in this process right now (haven't gotten pregnant yet, but fingers crossed for finding out in two weeks).

    The best thing we did was sit down with my brother and have an hour or two conversation about EVERYTHING. Not just the obvious stuff (legal and logistical aspects), but everything that made us feel comfortable doing this together. Discipline. Religion. Names, even. And obviously we will be the parents, but we want him to feel comfortable with us parenting his biological offspring. It's kind of like open adoption, and kind of nothing like it. We still don't quite know what telling a child will look like, but we hope it will just be part of his/her story ever since he/she is cognizant. Being a same-sex couple, you basically have no choice but to address it; since I am male, it will be harder to get over people's preconceptions about our family. The most important thing is that we are honest with our child/ren and that they know it's their story, and they don't have to tell anyone. At the same time, it's our story, and it's my brother's story, and it's important to teach the difference between a story being private and a story being secret. There will be no secrets, but we don't really need our business broadcast to the world.

    For those looking for books, I would recommend What Makes a Baby. It is about how sperm and eggs make babies, not men and women. Some people have sperm, some people have eggs, some people have neither. It's a good jumping off place for these discussions.

    http://www.what-makes-a-baby.com/

    1 agrees
    • Yes! I bought What Makes A Baby as part of the kickstarter campaign, one for my future gaybies and one for my (straight) brother's children. It's such a lovely book, and I think truly could be used for any child in any family.

      1 agrees
  4. I think this is a great idea! My husband and I (a straight couple) had a conversation once about who we'd be willing to donate sperm or eggs to, and decided that it would be: our siblings. Now, most of our siblings are doing fine reproducing themselves, but what if some are reproductively challenged in the future? We'd be there for them, in a average-of-50%-DNA-match way.

    1 agrees
  5. A book is being published that is intended for children and that tackles some of the challenges presented here: What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg. This is long overdue for queer parents, gender non-conforming parents, parents using assisted reproductive technologies, and anyone else who wants their kids to have a realistic knowledge of the manner in which many families make babies.

    1 agrees
  6. Thanks for this article! I've been doing a lot of thinking and researching and soul searching around these very issues- but haven't come across anything for my situation. I'm a cis woman, my partner is a trans man- we both identify as queer.. We're using an anonymous donor- just ordered our first vial and will be inseminating next cycle! We're going to be bringing up our child knowing from the very beginning that they were conceived with donor sperm, but we are their parents. Question for all of you- we have a picture of the donor from the sperm bank website. Do you think it's best for the child to grow up seeing the picture (ie. tucked into the "what makes a baby" book)? Or just keep it on hand for when they ask? My partner and I have somewhat different feelings on this.

    A couple of other things:

    I think "what makes a baby" is a wonderful book. But it's strong focus on the stories the sperm brings made me a bit uncomfortable. I know it's a book about biology, but did anyone see feel it was a bit too sperm focused, with not enough about the stories we get from the people who love us/family?

    Last (sorry about this lengthy post), I started blogging my experience of our journey to parenthood. It's not super professional or anything- just my thoughts and experiences- but if anyone would like to follow it, the address is http://ourwayofdoingit.wordpress.com/

    1 agrees
  7. Stories like this are what make me suspect that the statistics will eventually show that children raised from same-sex parents will eventually fare BETTER than those with heterosexual parents….despite what the opposition says. Since about half of all pregnancies are accidental, you know there are a LOT of kids out there that are born to parents who were unprepared for or didn't want kids. Gay or lesbian couples have to really WANT kids to have them, so you know that they're going to be financially and mentally more prepared for children.

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  8. As an adoptee, I have to echo the advice on finding balance as parents in framing the story for your child while allowing the child to also hold their own truth about how they feel about the story and what they choose to call their sperm donor. I get so annoyed when people say "but your adoptive parents are your REAL parents." Actually, I see all 4 of my parents as real, and refer to them how I want…and it has changed over time. This doesn't take away from how much love your kid will have for both of you, even if someday they call their uncle/sperm donor "dad"

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    • I think it's also important for the child to honor her uncle/donor's wishes on that. She shouldn't insist on calling him dad if he doesn't want to be her father.

      1 agrees
      • But he IS her father, at least biologically. He may not wish to be called father, but he did father a child.

        Also, at what point does the child get to decide for themself what they want to call someone? 18 when they are an adult? Do they always have to play by the adult's rules?

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        • I think you always do. You wouldn't call me Anne when my name is Sarah. I think in general it's respectful to call people what they've asked you to call them.

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  9. There is always a lot of talk on offbeat about "blended families" I think this is one, too. I'm straight (which may not have anything to do with it, buttttt..) I don't find it weird, and I think when you approach the conversation at the right time, your child could feel many ways about it, but they should know you want to hear ALL the things they feel about it…

    To me…I feel like its better and going to a doctor to pick some one random, or randomizing results for "the best possible gene match" online.

    You will know that your babies are the same genes, the same blood, the same family, and that would seem like the most important thing to ME anyways. I think, if they KNOW that he is "dad" first and foremost, that's what they'll know him as. It depends on you, and what you tell them.

    1 agrees
    • I would be careful of labeling one choice as better, given that there are plenty of families on here who created their families through the assistance of unknown donors, not to mention adoption, in which no one is a blood relative (usually). We know how you meant it, but words are important, and "better" is one word that belongs no where near these discussions.

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  10. It makes sense to have someone in you biological gene pool contribute just because it is a bitch not knowing one half of your kids inherted family health profile. biological heir or biological direct heir? I know parent as the word for who carries that role regards of who you were born to

  11. As LGBT parents, we are in the unique position to truly create our own families and family stories.

    AHHH! I love this line! It's such a positive outlook and that always gets me.
    So many of us have crazy family trees with half siblings, step-parents, adopted siblings, aunts and uncles that aren't even related to us. The idea that this is unique to LGBT families always makes me laugh a little. I don't think there are many of us, gay, bi, or straight that can say we have a perfect family tree (that is one without any divorces, adoptions etc).
    It always seems silly to me that LGBT folks have to define their families for other people. No one ever walks up to a "straight" person and asks them how/where they got their kids. NONE-A-YOUR-BUSINESS!
    🙂

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    • Um, not true on the assertion that "nobody goes up to straight people and asks them where they got their kids." Transracial adoptive families get that a lot. And even in my own adoptive family, we look so dissimilar that people were always asking about it. I had to explain my family tree and so did my parents, to perfect strangers. It's not simply reserved for LGBTQ families!

      1 agrees
  12. I don't think this is unfair, I think it's really, really, really cool. I know my siblings and my partner's siblings would contribute this way, if we needed it, and hetero couples sometimes do too. The warm fuzzies I get knowing we have that kind of support.. I could basically knit a sweater.

    1 agrees
  13. My sister would like for me to be a donor for a child with her partner. My biggest hesitation is that as a straight male, I may also want kids of my own and not sure how THEY will feel about having a cousin who is also a half-sibling. I also do not want to have to force them to think any particular way about it and would only educate them and explain why I did it. Does anyone have experience and/or thoughts about this? I want to help my sister (who in fact already has two kids of her own – biologically hers, so their potential new sibling would biologically be a cousin), but I am hesitant, which makes me feel like it may not be the best decision at this time.

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