DEAR ASK A THERAPIST: I’m a solo mom with an adult sperm donor conceived child. I didn’t respond to my daughter’s curiosity about the donor when she was growing up, and we have become more estranged over time. Can I fix this relationship? — RECIPIENT PARENT

DEAR RECIPIENT PARENT:  Estrangement is incredibly painful for all parties. Both parents and their adult children report experiencing intense shame and isolation when, for whatever reason, a parent-child relationship has ruptured to such a degree. Healing is possible, but it takes time, willingness to change, and support for creating new patterns. Additionally, both parties must be open to healing. 

First, let’s talk about what causes estrangement. Estrangement generally follows periods wherein boundaries have not been respected or emotional needs or differing values have been dismissed or invalidated predictably and frequently over time. Estrangements happen when the anxiety or tension of holding a boundary or expressing a need becomes too much, and people distance themselves or cut off contact in attempts to relieve the anxiety and tension. 

You demonstrate some nice insight and self-awareness in being able to take accountability for your lack of responsiveness to your daughter’s needs related to donor conception in childhood. It’s possible that missing this curiosity, however, is symptomatic of broader relational rifts. I want to encourage you to consider more broadly:

  • How have you negotiated control, decision-making, and expectations for closeness and contact with your daughter over time?
  • How tolerant have you been of different viewpoints and values?
  • Were there big emotions in your family? Who was allowed, or not, to have those big emotions?

This reflective process can be painful. It can be helpful to partner with a trusted therapist to explore and process these experiences and to build skills and capacities in the relationship that perhaps were not present before. 

With this awareness, you can consider next steps, which may include attempting to reach out.  Express willingness to listen, learn about, understand, and respect her needs. Then take accountability, accept responsibility, and let her know what you will do differently in the future. Offer a sincere apology for hurting her. Express that you are open to her feelings and needs and that you are ready to listen. 

Let her know that you have no expectations of her, that she may take as much time as she likes to be in contact, and that there is no pressure to respond at all. Accept it if she does not respond. If she does respond, go slowly, provide empathy, listen, and let her set the pace. 

A few things can be helpful to you as you move through this time. First, nurture and attend to the relationships that you do have. Resist the urge to isolate. Let yourself be in relationships—this will restore your confidence and remind you that you are loving and lovable! Focus on building a life that brings you meaning, that is fulfilling to you. Even though it’s hard, find some forgiveness for yourself, and for your daughter too. 

Most importantly, keep taking good care of yourself. 

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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