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Adoption Blog: The Perfect Blend

How to Talk to a Toddler About Adoption

The first time it happens we are coloring at the kitchen table. "I think his favorite color is blue, like me," Lilah says.

"Who, sweetie?" I ask. 

"The baby," she says. 

"Our baby?"

"Mmm hmm."

My heart swells. I have tears in my eyes. Lilah is only two and a half and hasn't said much about the new baby.

"And his mommy likes yellow," she singsongs.

Oh. Well.

"Hmmm," I say in my sweetest, nothing-could-possibly-be-wrong voice. "Who is the baby's mother?"

"You are," Josi replies. She's almost 4 and very excited about a new baby.

"Okay, well, what's my favorite color?" I ask.

"Gray," Lilah replies. My daughters have given me this concession, although they think gray is a ridiculous choice.

"So what's the baby's mother's favorite color, if I'm the baby's mother?" I ask, looking into Lilah's huge brown eyes.

"Gray!" she cheers triumphantly.

This has happened, in varying themes, about once a week since. Where will the baby sit for dinner? What about the baby's mommy? When prompted, Lilah knows that I am, in fact, the mommy in question, but she tends to forget in conversation. Incidentally, my husband (and their dad), Jeremiah, is always, always the father.

I tend to read this—at least, in part—as a new baby issue rather than an adoption issue. Lilah is still very young. Young enough to be confused about a new baby, especially without the swelling belly that's often there to remind her toddler friends of coming siblings.

But she's also completely reflecting the crux of adoption. Motherhood, it seems to me, is kind of fluid. There are birth mothers, foster mothers, and adoptive mothers. There are many fathers, too, but regrettably—and I don’t know why this is—we tend to forget about them. The way the story is often told (in my experience, and let me know in the comments section below if yours has been different), adoptive fathers are fathers. Adoptive mothers are, well, adoptive mothers.

Josi, it seems, is the perfect age to talk about adoption: old enough to understand the basics and young enough that she's unfailingly accepting of everything, just as it is. We've talked about how she and Lilah were in my belly and I've explained how that isn't always the way it happens. She knows that our new baby was in another woman's womb and that now he's probably been born, is in Korea, and will come home with us this year. We haven't yet introduced terms like birth family and adoptive family, but she knows the concepts inside and out. I'm sure it won’t always be this way and I welcome the questions when they come. They're just not here yet.

Lilah is trickier. She's part of the same conversations, but obviously, her beautiful brain can't digest the information in the same way. I don't know how to assure her that I'm the baby's mother without erasing the existence of the others, past and present. 

This is new to me and I so desperately want to get it right. Whatever that means.

Have you had similar, or different, conversations about adoption? Plus, Adoptive Families offers these tips for talking to toddlers about adoption.

Related Posts on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle


Great post Meghan! I’m very interested in watching how this plays out for you, and learning from it, as we expect to be in the same situation in a year or so. Manu will probably be Josi’s age at that time, so hopefully he will be as easy going!

By Jeff on Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm.

It looks to me like you’re doing fine.

The fact that Josi understands the concepts surrounding her baby brother’s origins suggests that you’ve been communicating what you want your kids to know.  With Lilah, it IS trickier due to her age, but that’s the nature of a two-and-a-half year-old.  There’s a lot she just can’t grasp yet, and that would probably be true even if you were about to give birth to her baby brother.  (Ever tried to have the birds and the bees discussion with a toddler?  Fun times!)

I think if Lilah doesn’t understand everything now, that’s okay.  The important thing is that you continue to explain it to her so that she develops a comprehension that grows as she does.  I’ve worked through lots of adoption-based questions with both of my kids—my bio son, now 9, and my daughter adopted from Korea, now 5—and a few of the things my kids have taught me are that a) it’s okay not to get it perfect the first time and b) if we get one thing figured out, they’ll come up with another, more complex question the next time.  The important thing is that they know they can always ask.

One strategy that has helped me is that I’ve used adoption vocabulary with both kids from the time they were quite young.  That way, terms like “birthmother” and “birth family” were never foreign to them.  Their understanding of the concepts has deepened as they’ve gotten older, but we never had to have “the talk.”  They have always known that “sometimes a baby grows in his or her mommy’s tummy, but sometimes a baby grows in someone else’s tummy, and that person is the birthmom.”  And we’ve gone on from there.

By Tracy Hahn-Burkett on Friday, January 14, 2011 at 7:37 am.

Thanks, guys!  (And, Jeff, happy to be a test case for you.) Tracy, thanks for the great advice, as well as the vote of confidence.  I just clicked onto your blog.  I’m so thrilled to find another great adoption blog.  Can’t wait to get to know you!

By Meghan on Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 1:09 am.

Meghan, wonderful post, with rich food for thought. I felt I was there with you in the kitchen. Have you seen the book “Mommy Far, Mommy Near”? It’s about a Chinese girl, but it’s a gentle loving story that helps distinguish between birth and adoptive mothers and the roles they play. By the way, I had a four-year-old daughter when we started the journey to a second child—I learned a lot (and laughed a lot, too) from the candid things she would say! Enjoy.

By Stacy Clark on Saturday, January 15, 2011 at 2:48 pm.

Thanks, Ariel.  I love reading everyone’s advice and perspectives.  I feel so much stronger and smarter as a parent with all of you weighing in.  (And, Stacey, I just ordered Mommy Far, Mommy Near!)

By Meghan on Friday, January 21, 2011 at 3:36 am.

Hi Megan,

Without a doubt Megan, you’re going to get most things “right”.  Part of the reason is that you think so much about it and you listen so well. This is the key to all parenting, but crucial for adoptive parents.

I thought you might be interested in what I discovered about toddlers through my own parenting and doing a great deal of reading.  I’m the mother of three adopted children from Korea. I discovered that at about two years old children are capable of seeing that they don’t look like you, if indeed that is the case.

Between the ages of two and four they engage in a child’s wishful thinking, hoping that you will soon all look alike. It is at four years old that a child has the cognitive ability to realize, this probably is not going to happen.

Age 4 is also very interesting for an adopted child, because it is at that point that the child has the ability to think about both sides of his/her adoption story. When children are toddlers they love hearing how loved they are, how wanted they are and how they were chosen to be in family.  Who wouldn’t?  At four years old though, they have the cognitive ability to realize that there is another side to that story, that may not be so joyful.  I knew I was at that point with one of my sons when he said to me in his tiny little voice, “you’re my second Mama, aren’t you”?

This began a period of intense grieving for him.  I will need to tell that story another time, because I don’t want this comment to be too long.

If you’d like to follow along with my blog, the link is http://www,

I’d love to hear from you

By JaneBallback on Thursday, March 03, 2011 at 7:32 pm.

Babies can’t feel the same way as the adults. But they can remember anything very fast and can store it for the maximum time. This is not because babies are intelligent than adults, this is because their mind is always vacant and ready to store information. Where as adult’s brains are not always ready to digest information. Because too much garbage are inside! Yes, it’s true. Anyways, this is a great post and inspiring.
Stay at home mother

By ericmathis on Wednesday, August 03, 2016 at 4:49 am.

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