Archive for February, 2010

A Mother’s Rights

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

I wrote the following piece a few years ago, when I first started researching my daughter Olivia’s adoption, begun in 2002. Here it is 2010, and I’m still wrestling with Homeland Security, now for two updated Certificates of Citizenships, one for each child. For anyone who has or is navigating the Byzantine process of adoption or naturalization, this one’s for you. The photo was taken in front of the casita where I lived while fostering Olivia in 2003.

For three years I’ve been petitioning the Department of Homeland Security for the return of my daughter Olivia’s sealed adoption file. First, with forms to Immigration in Los Angeles, then with letters to Immigration in San Francisco, and finally, with appeals to the behemoth keeper-of-all-records in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.

Access to that file is my right as a United States citizen, guaranteed under the Freedom of Information Act. Which doesn’t mean they make it easy.

Parents like us who adopt children from Guatemala are handed a sealed envelope at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City and instructed to surrender it sealed and intact at the first point of entry, which for us was L.A. The temptation is to steam the envelope open and make copies of everything in it: original photographs, birth certificates, foster care facts, birth mother information. But who would dare take that risk? It took almost two years to get our daughter home, and that only happened after I moved there for six months and learned enough Spanish to plead our case myself.

 January 5, 2004, the day we touched ground with Olivia in our arms, was the day I started the paperwork to retrieve the file. My next-to-last communication with Homeland Security was dated January 9, 2007. The case had gone on for so long they wanted to know if we were still interested. Yes, I responded via fax, certified-mail, and telephone message left in the director’s office. Still emphatically interested.

Tuesday night I didn’t get out to the mailbox until 10 p.m. The children were finally asleep, and my husband was dozing over the newspaper at the kitchen table. I thought the file when it came would be another envelope. But with technology, everything’s on CD.

I ran downstairs and turned on my computer without even pausing to wake up my husband. They say knowledge is power, but right now it feels like a gift.


Swimming Back to Myself

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Whenever my husband, Tim, and I reminisce about activities we used to do B.C. (before children), one of the first to come up is swimming. I don’t mean splashing around in the shallow end playing “motorboat, motorboat,” or sitting on the pool deck and clapping during our kids’ swimming lessons (as much as I relish both of those activities). I mean getting in the water and swimming laps, hard enough that you elevate your heart rate and get that longed-for endorphin hit, the one that leaves you a much calmer and happier person than when you started.

I grew up around water, in an old stucco house in New Jersey, a block from the Atlantic Ocean. Summers, I spent every day fully immersed, riding waves for so many hours that when I finally emerged in late afternoon, the tips of my fingers were shriveled with waterlog, my throat raw from swallowing so much salt. As an adult in California, I signed up for swimming lessons to improve my stroke. For years, my practice was to swim on Tuesdays and Thursdays before work, a mile each morning to alternate with my other exercise. I’d show up to my office with my hair still wet, smelling of chlorine, alert and happy.

All that went by the wayside soon after Olivia arrived. By the time we adopted Mateo, I doubted whether I could make it from one end of the pool to another, much less finish 72 laps.  Like so many things, the ability to swim seemed part of someone I used to be in my former life, that person I no longer knew.

But during our recent trip to Guatemala, Olivia and I stayed in a hotel with a pool. And the deal we made was that if she cooperated with me and followed my agenda without too much complaint (lots of shopping for Guatemalan handicrafts, for example), then at the end of the day, we could spend an hour or two in the pool. Which we did. And somewhere during those sessions, I realized how much I longed to be in water, how much I craved to feel myself moving through it.

So this morning, after I dropped the kids off to school and before I started the rest of my day, I drove to the pool where I used to swim. I’m a lot slower than I used to be, and my stroke, never perfect, is far from smooth. But after a few shaky laps, I found my rhythm. My heart rate was elevated and steady, I felt those old endorphins kick in. Now, as I sit at my desk to write this, my fingertips are slightly shriveled, my hair smells like chlorine. This is the person I recognize. This is me, myself.


Slowing Down

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

I didn’t take my laptop along to Guatemala, knowing that with Olivia along and so much to see and do, I likely wouldn’t have much time to write. This was true. In Guatemala, we walked everywhere, or, if the distance was too great, hailed a tuk-tuk, a small, three-wheeled vehicle that will never break any land-speed records. At breakfast, we lingered over coffee and fresh orange juice. When a hammock looked inviting, we hopped in. The pace was necessarily slower; nothing was instant. Even taking a drink of water required a trip to a local tienda to buy it bottled.

In Panajachel, we stayed in a hotel that offered guests a single computer, one that sometimes got Internet access and sometimes didn’t. On the few occasions I was lucky enough to log on, other travelers loitered behind me, shuffling their feet as they checked their watches.  I felt too guilty to type for more than ten minutes. I was in Guatemala. It didn’t make sense to rush.  

In my life here and now, I’m aware, it’s naive and probably impossible to ignore the instant nature of just about everything.  But after this last trip, I’m going to do my best to try.


Trip to Guatemala

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

No matter how many times I return to Guatemala, I´m never prepared for how strong my reaction is. Excitement mixed with anxiety, as if I´m about to relive our adoption experience from seven years ago. For my daughter, Olivia, the reaction is much more straightforward. When we landed at Aurora International Airport, she looked out the window and said, “This is my country.” Olivia is American now, but Guatemala will always be home.

I´m so grateful we have the opportunity to visit.  It´s ¨Ski week¨ in California, so schools are closed. We´ll be in Guatemala City, Panajachel and the Lake Atitlan region, then a few days in Antigua, where I lived with Olivia for six months during 2003 when she was a baby and our adoption was taking what felt like forever. I wrote a book about the experience, MAMALITA: AN ADOPTION MEMOIR, which will be published by Seal Press this November.

Guatemala´s weather is nearly always perfect in February, just as it is today.  A glorious beginning to a week in my favorite country.



Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

As the Academy Awards approach, I’m once more reminded that in eight years of marriage, Tim and I have been to exactly one movie. Atonement on our 5th anniversary. I read other people’s blogs and see long, long lists of movie recommendations. Or read postings on Facebook about movies people have seen on their release day.

Not us.
I’m the one to blame. So far, I’ve been unsuccessful at finding reliable babysitting. And it often seems as if when I do find one, we pay dearly the next day. Unfortunately, I haven’t been good about enforcing bedtime on the rare occasions when we are out. So when we return, the kids are still awake and monumentally overtired.

I want to see a movie on a big screen! At night, on a date with my husband.

The babysitter search begins now!


A Baby in My Tummy

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

Mateo walks into the kitchen as I’m unloading the dishwasher wearing his red pajamas with the fire engines on them. He turns to the side so I can see his profile, and from that angle he looks like an extremely short, three-year-old Jackie Gleason: all stomach.

“Look, Mommy,” he says. “I have a baby in my tummy.”

He lifts up his fire engine top and there, tucked inside his undershirt, is his stuffed green sea turtle, Tortuga.

“How nice!” I say. “A little baby for Mateo.”

“Baby grow big.” He opens his eyes wide for emphasis.

In Mateo’s world, babies in tummies are everywhere: The aisles of Safeway, the playground, and the pediatrician’s waiting room are filled with babies in tummies. The Lion class teacher and the assistant principal at his preschool have them, as does his speech therapist, Ms. Cydney. Even the substitute babysitter we hired last Friday night showed up eight months pregnant.

But the one tummy that doesn’t have a baby in it is mine. That’s one tummy that’s never had a baby in it.

I turn from the dishwasher and crouch to Mateo’s eye level. He knows both he and his sister, Olivia, were adopted. I tell him the now-familiar tale of how he was born in Guatemala in another lady’s tummy, his Guatemalan mommy. I fill in the details as I know them, ending with the plane ride home to San Francisco. I assure him that Mommy and Daddy love him more than any other little boy in the whole wide world.

After I finish, he crawls into my lap.

“I like that lady,” Mateo says, referring to his birth mother. He calls her by name. “She nice.”

“She is nice,” I agree.

“I want to be in Mommy’s tummy,” he says, pouting. He pushes me to the floor and lifts up my t-shirt. He pulls it over his head and snuggles into me. “I love Mommy.” His voice is muffled.

I hug him through my t-shirt. He’s such a little boy, but must understand so much. My own life with biological parents and siblings seems so easy and straightforward by comparison.

“I love you, too, Mateo,” I say. We sit on the floor for a long time.


Speech Class

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Mateo didn’t say a word until after he was almost three. I went into a bit of a panic and signed him up for the services offered by the County of Marin. No fooling around there. If he had a delay, I wanted to know about it. Much better to face an issue head-on than to ignore it.

We attended speech therapy for year, with a lovely young woman named Cydney. She and I had a special bond because we were both adoptive mothers. Halfway through the year, she became pregnant, and is now the proud mama to a daughter and son.

Mateo and I loved speech class. We broke down words: “hel-i-cop-ter.” “ce-ment mix-er.” Kit-chen.” Cydney tapped the syllables out with her hand as Mateo said them. A very fun game. At home, I talked to him constantly. Tapped out every conversation. Had him blow through a straw to make bubbles. Made vowel and consonant sounds from morning till night. In fact, I talked so much I thought maybe I wasn’t letting him get a word in edgewise. Olivia talks a lot, as does Tim. Poor Mateo, maybe he got tired of trying to make himself heard.

Finally, after about a year of speech, Mateo suddenly started in full sentences, whole paragraphs. It was as if he’d been storing up all his ideas and could now, finally, let them out and express himself.

He hasn’t stopped talking since.


Olivia and Mateo

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Tim and I knew when we married that we wanted to adopt. No questions there. We wanted to become parents, and the best solution for us was adoption. Olivia was born in 2002 and Mateo in 2004. To the question so many people have asked us: different birth families, different part of the country.

That’s one thing you get used to pretty quickly as an adoptive mom: People asking questions. All the time. Actually, it’s slowed down as the kids have gotten older and people in our small orbit know us. But it still happens, most recently at Mateo’s preschool. One of his teachers said, “Are they really brother and sister?”

“Really? Yes,” I responded. “Biologically? No.”

I’ve found that answer to be the quickest, easiest one that people understand.

I keep meaning to ask my sisters if anyone ever asks them similar questions, but I think I already know the answer. As a transracial, adoptive family you just have to accept that people are curious. You can’t let it bother you. A small price for being a mother.


The Beginning

Monday, February 1st, 2010

I met my husband, Tim, on a 400-mile bicycle ride in 1998. He lived in San Francisco; I lived in San Diego. He was born in New Jersey; I grew up in New Jersey. We married in January 2002 and now live in the Bay Area.

When my mother heard the news, she threw her hands over her head and screamed, “It’s a miracle!” She was right. I was 39 when I met Tim, divorced for 11 years after an unsuccessful early marriage, and I lived in Southern California, where it seemed as if everyone else was already married, or else had no intention of ever being so. I got lucky. Now I tell all my single friends to get on their bikes, or go for a hike, or do whatever it is they love most. The right person will be doing the same thing, and already you’ll have something in common.

These days, Tim and I rarely ride our bicycles together. With two young kids, one of us usually stays home while the other exercises. But we’ll get back to it eventually. Soon enough, our children will be riding alongside. Or better, we’ll be following them.