Guest Post by Jessica O’Dwyer
I’m the adoptive mother to two teens born in Guatemala, ages 18 and 15, and have written two books with adoption as theme. My memoir, Mamalita, was published in 2010. My novel, Mother Mother, was published last month. It was during my book tour for Mamalita—remember public readings, in bookstores?!— that I first learned people harbor strong feelings about adoption—pro and con. I also learned that trying to change anyone’s opinion on the subject was futile. Better simply to write my truth and hope the reader understands.
Seventeen years ago, I quit my job as a publicist at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and moved to a rented apartment in Antigua, Guatemala to live with my then-toddler daughter whom my husband and I were trying to adopt. We had been enmeshed in the process for more than a year, ever since we saw our daughter’s photo and had fallen in love.
I wasn’t the only would-be mother living in Guatemala who was sorting out a stalled adoption. We were a group of eight, with nothing in common except our desire to become mothers and the belief that our bureaucratic nightmares should not be allowed to happen to anyone else. That year, more than 3,000 Americans adopted children from Guatemala. Each of those families had a story, no two the same.
After returning home with my daughter six months later, international adoption became headline news, none of it good. The private adoption system in Guatemala was singled out as particularly corrupt. Front-page stories described payments to birth mothers, coercion to become pregnant, and the trawling of countrysides by “finders” to trick young women into relinquishing their babies. Adoptive parents like me were depicted as privileged Americans who swooped in to snatch kidnapped infants. Even UNICEF pronounced it was better for a child to grow up in an orphanage in his country of origin than to be adopted by foreign parents. The news got so bad it was impossible not to feel under attack.
But that was only part of the story. The story I experienced was that of parents who loved their children, pushing back against a system that seemed designed to manipulate emotions at every turn.
When I lived in Antigua, the other mothers used to say, “Somebody needs to write a book about this.” My entire life I’d been searching for the one story I had to tell. Even as I was living the experience, I knew our adoption saga was it. The result was Mamalita.
A few years later, I realized there was more to say about family, marriage, and adoption; and about the violent history of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war and its aftermath. Adoption is so broad and so deep, and most novels that incorporate it as a theme, to me, merely skim over the surface. My goal was to give a more complete, nuanced, and layered picture.
The inspiration for my novel, Mother Mother, came from living with adoption 24/7 in my own family, as well as from my growing obsession with Guatemala’s political history and how it led to the widespread adoption of babies to other countries. During our annual summer trips to Guatemala, we visited with our kids’ birth mothers and I recognized the complexity of their stories. A novel was begging to be written, but I couldn’t find my way in. (To Be Continued)
November is National Adoption Month: Elaine Pinkerton’s The Goodbye Baby website will be featuring guest posts from adoptive parents. Please comment and, if inspired, submit your blog ideas for future publication. Send them via the site.
Jessica O’Dwyer, an adoptive mother, lives in California with her husband, son, and daughter. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Adoptive Families and Marin Independent Journal.