DEAR ASK A THERAPIST: I am a to-be single mother by choice. I did not have anyone who could act as a known donor and so I chose a donor whose identity can be disclosed when my child turns 18. I saved all medical records, genetic testing, ancestry, extended profile, audio, and other information in a folder. The sperm bank I used confirmed that all medical records are verified and updated every five years. The bank also has a sibling registry.

I am going to have my child learn about their conception and ancestry as soon as they come into existence, but is there anything else I can do to ensure they are internally confident and secure in themselves? I do not mind having them grow up with a therapist to reinforce open communication and provide general guidance and affirmation. I am also on board to encourage them to have a good relationship with their paternal side. Do women such as myself have a good shot of doing this right for our kids if the traditional way is not within our reality? — INTENDED PARENT

DEAR INTENDED PARENT: Thank you for your letter, and for the leadership and intentionality you demonstrate as you navigate family building as a single parent via sperm donation. You have clearly taken time to learn and make thoughtful choices with your future child’s best interests at heart. The question I hear you asking at the core of this is, “Will my child(ren) be ok?” And to that, I will answer, “Welcome! You have already started parenting.” 

There is no sure path for any parent, regardless of the method or manner of family building, wherein you are afforded the certainty that you will do right for your kids. We can only try, and it sounds like you are really trying. It seems to me, in general, that this is a particularly anxious time to be parenting. Donor conception only further complicates this and adds additional layers of decision making and anxiety. It is no wonder we want reassurance. No wonder that we try so hard to get it just right. Might I say (as a fellow parent who struggles with perfection) that we try to do it perfectly. 

But here’s the thing. Perfectionism undermines emotional safety and destroys connection. Perfectionism loves to lead you to believe it is helping you, protecting you, that you need it, all the while isolating you and gnawing at your sense of capacity and capability. 

In 1953, Donald Winnicott, a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst in the mid-20th century, coined the term, “Good Enough Parent.” A “Good Enough Parent” is any parent that gets it right often enough that children grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. Winnicott asserted that children greatly benefit from having imperfect parents. He states that seeing parents foul up and then repair, by empathizing, validating the child’s experience, and stating how they will change it, creates a stronger bond, greater connection, and more security in the relationship than if the parent had never made a mistake in the first place.

Studies into this matter have shown that “Good Enough Parents” demonstrate attunement, attentiveness, and responsiveness to their child somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of the time. Further, decades of research on attachment theory also tells us that as long as a child has at least one safe and secure attachment in childhood by a caregiver, they can build a healthy template for relationships spanning throughout life. 

I do not want to detract from the importance of making mindful, intentional choices, particularly given the current state of the fertility industry and baby making business, and the dire need for reform. However, what would it be like for you to embrace this journey with awareness that your child’s well-being will not rest on any one decision that you make but rather on your ability to recognize harm, uncertainty, insecurity, and to provide for those emotional needs in an attentive, attuned, and responsive manner that centers your child’s experience first? 

What would it be like to shift the goal from doing it “right” to finding opportunity after opportunity to “repair”? You may find that this shift empowers you to see and meet your child or children in ways that help to reduce harm. 

Ely Reisen practices therapy with individuals and couples in Colorado (LCSW, LMFT) and Texas (LCSW). She has practiced for over 15 years in various settings, mostly focusing on relationships, parenting, attachment-based trauma, and maternal-infant health needs. She has taught at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work since 2013. Ely comes to this work by way of her own lived experience as a solo-parent via sperm donation, which is by far her very favorite role. 

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