The Corner

Complicated Family Structures: Is More Openness the Answer?

The New York Times dives back into complex families forms with ‘Who’s on the Family Tree? Now It’s Complicated,’ by Laura M. Holson. The story features parents who conceived using arrangements in which the biological father or mother (also known as the ‘sperm donor’ or ‘surrogate’) are known to the child but are not typically present in the child’s daily life. In some cases the families also have adopted children or children from previous relationships. Complex family forms indeed.

As someone who has spent some years thinking about children’s experiences in divorced families, step-families, and in families using sperm donors to conceive, I had mixed feelings while reading this article. On the one hand, the messiness of human existence has often challenged our desire to draw neat family trees. There have long been illegitimate pregnancies, secret adoptions, stepchildren of remarried widows and widowers, and the occasional illicit divorce. Stigma served to guard the boundaries of institutional marriage and family life; secrecy covered up the transgressions. The tidy family trees of the past have probably always been somewhat fictional. Some stories simply were not told.

Today there is a trend toward greater openness: less stigma for sexual activity and the bearing and raising of children outside of marriage, less secrecy and shame around adoption, and perhaps a trend toward less secrecy around the use of sperm or egg donation or surrogacy — although the latter movement, if it can be said to exist at all, remains nascent and tentative. My study of family-systems theory and my examination, with colleagues, of the experience of young persons conceived via sperm donation convince me that the emergent trend toward openness is the right approach. For example, in a study colleagues and I released last year, we found that sperm-donor-conceived persons whose parents tried to keep the fact of their donor conception a secret were much more troubled (see Table 4 on page 112 of the report).

Yet we also found that openness alone did not resolve the confusion and losses that can result from being deliberately denied your biological father, as happens in sperm donation. Even those donor offspring whose parents were always open with them about their origins still had an elevated risk of substance abuse or problems with the law, compared with persons raised by their biological parents. And nearly half of donor offspring had concerns about or serious objections to donor conception itself, even when parents tell their children the truth.

So it is right for parents and educators to be open with children about their origins and to grapple with questions such as how to draw their family tree. But it is also worthwhile to ask why we would deliberately conceive children to struggle with these questions in the first place, especially when a host of children, already born, await loving, open, adoptive homes of their own.

— Elizabeth Marquardt is author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, editor of, and vice president for family studies and director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.


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