A reader asks for help: How to prepare a 3 year old to meet her first mom?

A few days ago a reader contacted me with a request for help in preparing her daughter to meet her first mom for the first time.  I know precious little really. But, I have the amazing fortune of being connected to many who know much more. So I asked her if I could share this story out here on the ether in case you all had some great wisdom to share (names have been changed). At the end of her story, I’ve included what I took away from this summer of not meeting Sam’s first family, and of the ease in meeting Tree. What resources, suggestions, or lived wisdom can you share?

I was really interested in your posts over the summer about meeting and then not meeting Sam’s first family. Our daughter Aza was adopted almost 3 years ago, when she was 2 days old. We have never met her first mom, by her choice, but have had email contact with her off and on. We have also talked to Aza about her story. In the past months it seems she has started to understand some parts of this story a bit more and at times has expressed sadness about it – it seems to come mostly from the fact that her story is different than her older brothers, who was born to us. She has gotten upset/angry that she did not grow in my tummy like her big brother. My sister also recently adopted (almost 1 year ago) a baby and that seems to ease some of the sadness when we talk about the fact that she and her cousin share this. She is not the only one who was adopted.

All of this is a preface to the fact that I received a message from her birth mom that she would like to meet Aza.  This is something we have always been open to, but at her age (she will be 3 next week), I’m not sure the best way to prepare her for this. I want to prepare her in a way that she understands who this person is that she will be meeting, but hopefully not in a way that is too overwhelming for her at her age. And I also don’t want the meeting to become too much of a “big deal”, if that make sense. So, I was wondering if you have any thoughts/resources/advice based on your own experiences with Sam and his first family meeting that didn’t happen and also with Marcel meeting Tree.

My wisdom around the Sam story this summer–is that instead of it being about what Sam needed, it became about what I thought he needed, what I thought I was supposed to do, and what I thought was the “right” thing to do. What I learned was that Sam was super able in the end to let me know that he was not ready to make this trip across the country. I still have more to write about this, and to unpack. But for now let me say that developmentally a 6 year old and a 3 year old are in completely different places.

Marcel did not have time to question, or wonder any of the the what if’s (will he like me? Will he want to see me again?) in his relationship with Tree.  He could just be in his joy and excitement to meet this person he knew played some magical role in his life.  I don’t even think this is about semantics or relationship (donor, first mother, father, etc…) but is about allowing for joy, love, and connection to happen. Maybe that sounds so simplistic. But for Marcel it was that simple.

I let him decide on where to meet, and for how long. I continued to create space and time for him to talk about it, and react. I can confidently say that almost two months later the relationship is one of ease and clarity for all of us. It was about a meeting, and a chance to learn more about each other. It was set up as something we might all learn and grow from. Even though it wasn’t set out to be a life changing event–I think it was.

In Sam’s case I created this gigantic fanfare and neon letters over every sentence experience that none of us could live up to. When Sam was unraveling around me I was too consumed with the event to notice. He needed me to be the one to say-WE CAN’T DO THIS-because he wasn’t able to. He knows when he is ready we can try again. He knows that until then, he will not have to do anything he is not ready for. He knows that I am able to show as his mom, his gate keeper, and eventually the one to facilitate the meeting(s) he needs with any and all of his biological family who choose to be in relationship.

I don’t know if any of this will be of help in your situation with Aza. I suppose if I was to offer “advice” it would be to just try to find as many ways as possible to facilitate the possibility of love and relationship while listening to any and all messages she may be trying to tell you around her comfort and needs. My mistake was that I forgot that a six year old doesn’t express himself like a forty-three year old. My success (with Marcel) was that all along I had mentioned that if the possibility of meeting was an option I’d ask him if it was something he’d like to do. When the time came, I played it down, and just let it unfold (the antithesis of what happened in Sam’s case?) naturally.


  1. Great answers. I think listening to our children, being open to the possibility of something whatever that might be but always making decisions that benefit our families and our children.

  2. Yes, good answers. I think I made waaay too big a deal out of this in my own head. Not that it’s not a big deal – it is – but it has to fit into our lives, and my daughter’s life, and it can’t fit if it’s REALLY REALLY REALLY BIG.

    If this is going to be an ongoing relationship, then this is one of many meetings – the first step on a journey. Aza is three; she will know who her first mother is now as a three-year-old, and she will have to figure out who she is as she grows up. That’s likely to change with every developmental stage, or more often than that.

    I wish, when Eve was three, that someone had been able to convince me to make it smaller, to take a tiny bite and let a relationship with Laura be a part of our lives without having to be “just right”.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head by saying it’s simple for kids. They don’t have all the baggage that we adults add to the situation, so if we just handle it as “here’s a fun new person we’re going to meet, and by the way, here is how she is related to our family,” then they can relax. At three, they are probably still learning how all the “conventional” family members fit together (aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins), so adding one more to the mix should be pretty easy!

    Three might be too young for this, but I really like the book “How I was Adopted” by Joanna Cole for explaining adoption in a very matter-of-fact no-pressure way.

  4. Really interesting to read, because that is a very hard age to introduce some of these emotions and topics – Too old to do without verbalizing what’s going on, but too young to really play a strong role in determining the extent of contact and to process feelings. I like the idea that we should allow things to be simple for our kids, and acknowledge that we really put our own baggage on the situation. Like Liz said, it really can be so much more simple and matter-of-fact than what we grown-ups like to make it.

  5. My son is 3 (adopted at birth), and he first met his birthmother when he was 1 1/2. At that point, I didn’t try to explain who they (birth mom and birth dad) were–they just came and swam at the hotel pool with us, and he had fun with them. That was it.

    Then, three weeks ago, she came to live with us. I had been in email and phone touch with her on and off, and she just really needed a place to go for a few months. In preparation, I told my son that when he was a baby, he grew in her belly before he was born and came to live with us. He looked a tad puzzled, and said “no.” However, at 3, I’m certain that the “no” was due to his complete lack of understanding of reproductive biology, not a rejection of her. It’s clear that he simply doesn’t believe that he ever was a baby in the first place.

    In any case, to him she is another person around the house. And that’s fine–I’ve always wanted him to grow up sort of always knowing about his adoption and knowing her and his birth father. I’ve always wanted it to feel natural to him, and his getting to know her well now will, I hope, make it so.

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