Posts Tagged ‘international adoption’

Birth family visit 2015

Sunday, December 13th, 2015

I’ve written a few times about Olivia’s ongoing visits with her birth family. To recap: Olivia reunited with her birth mother “Ana”–a middle-aged widow–when she was seven years old. A year later, at age 8, Olivia met her birth grandmother, Abuela, and her siblings “Dulce” and “Santiago.” Over the next several years, we continued to visit the family, always in a neutral place, not Ana’s small village, because I worried about drawing unwanted attention to Ana and her family. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: In Guatemala, we stand out.

I knew our visit this year would be extra special because in 2015 our family experienced three important milestones. Olivia turned 13 and became a “senorita.” Dulce married her sweetheart and gave birth to her first baby. And Santiago moved away. Big changes, all.

On a Tuesday last June, Ana arrived by chicken bus at the appointed spot at the appointed time, as usual. But instead of clambering down the steps with Dulce and Abuela, she climbed out the back door alone. In my limited Spanish, I asked “Where is everybody?” and Ana answered that this year, we were coming to her house because the baby was too young to travel and the trip wasn’t easy for Abuela, either.

My attitude toward chicken buses is “Don’t ride them,” but what could I do? Nothing except run back to the hotel for our suitcase of gifts. Olivia and I hopped with Ana onto the next chicken bus for the return journey.

One chicken bus, one microbus, one taxi ride, and one uphill hike later, we stood in the lane at the gate in front of Ana’s adobe house, where Olivia’s family has lived for generations–possibly before the arrival of the conquistadors. A sumptuous lunch of fried chicken and squash and rice was served. The blue corn tortillas were handmade that morning from Ana’s own crop, the best we’ve ever eaten. Thirteen felt like the perfect age for Olivia to transition to a new setting. Abuela gave her a rosary necklace and Dulce’s new baby was beautiful.

As we finished lunch, Ana jumped up without notice and disappeared, and Dulce shrugged when I asked her why. A minute later, from the lane in front of the gate, a hundred firecrackers ignited and lit the sky, the snapping racket loud enough for every person in town to hear.

Ana’s daughter Olivia had come home.


Washington Post essay on adoption

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

For anyone who has waited for a child, fought for a child, loved a child, this Washington Post essay is for you. There are no simple answers. Only complexity.

Is She Happy? Is She Loved? Remembering the Girl Who Was Almost My Daughter by Sharon Van Epps



Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

On Sunday, Olivia and I attended our annual potluck for adoptive families with children born in Guatemala. Mateo wasn’t feeling well, so Tim stayed home with him while Olivia and I drove over the Richmond Bridge to the East Bay to join the group.

What Olivia probably would tell you about the day is that it solidified her belief that I must get an iPhone or GPS, because we wasted our usual half hour driving in circles, lost, with me freaking out. The reason we got lost is that I, yet again, relied on unreliable directions downloaded from the Internet. And a paper map. We only got there, finally, because I flagged down a truck driver in a gas station and asked for directions.

But what I’ll tell you is that some of the children in this group are now teenagers in high school, and their parents have been meeting since the kids were toddlers. What I’ll also tell you is that many of those kids consider one another “BFFs,” although they may meet just a few times a year. What I’ll also tell you is that the minute I met several members of the group, my gut told me: These folks are committed! To their children, to Guatemala, to the idea of learning all they can about adoption, at every stage and in every phase.

Finally, what I’ll tell you is that an “adoption group” is really about friendship. We listen and we talk. We laugh and we eat. Our annual potluck is not a big, special deal. Simply a bunch of adults sharing casseroles and stories at long tables in a recreation hall, delighted to watch our children run around or do crafts or hang out listening to the same iTune or YouTube video. We’re happy to be together.

I know I’m lucky to live in an area with an active adoption community. Believe me: It’s the main reason we can never move! If you’re reading this, and haven’t yet connected with a larger circle, I urge you to reach out. To do the research. To make the effort. To show up. To find your way there, somehow. ~





Intercountry adoption now

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

EJ Graff, who writes often about inter-country adoption, authored a summary of its current state as seen through the lens of Ethiopia (mainly). The article is thorough and well-researched, although the title, to me, feels gratuitously offensive: They Steal Babies, Don’t They? (Is that the way to open a productive conversation? With an insult? Note to EJ Graff: You lost a big chunk of your potential audience right there.)

In any case, Graff’s main idea confirms that inter-country adoption, as it was practiced in the past (by some), is over.

“It’s been 14 years since the U.S. Senate ratified our nation’s entry into the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Slowly, the State Department and Congress have put into place the rules, regulations, and laws that make it possible to keep open international adoption agencies that do their work carefully and respectfully—while at the same time closing agencies that “find” children for adoption through bribery, deception, coercion, and kidnapping. With the right kind of oversight, international adoption may be able to shed some of its systemic problems. It will never be perfect, but it can return to its roots as a system that finds families for needy children, instead of looking for children to fill families.

“In 2004, the peak year for international adoptions, Americans adopted nearly 23,000 children from other countries, according to the U.S. State Department. For years, those numbers had increased every year, mostly infants and toddlers. By 2012, Americans adopted only 8,668, and a larger proportion were older and special needs—the children who most urgently do need new homes abroad, according to international child welfare experts. And as surprising as it may sound, that’s good news, for families and children around the world.”

My wish for 2015 is that folks who write and think about adoption could acknowledge this paradigm shift and move on to discuss the new challenges in front of us. Such as: The lives of our children who are here now and how they navigate two worlds and cultures; and the lives of present and future children conceived through assisted reproduction and embryo transfer, and their natural and inevitable questions around identity.

Yes, remember the past. Look at the past. Learn from the past. But move on and move forward.


Thoughts on “Gotcha Day”

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

For National Adoption Month, the Huffington Post is running a series of articles on the subject, written by different members of the triad. Here’s a link to a very thoughtful piece by a young woman adopted from China, about the implications of the term “Gotcha Day.” (We don’t use this phrase in our family, just so you know.) The third paragraph is quite profound. Here’s an excerpt:

“Gotcha Day is one of those times when we think about our past and how little some of us actually know about it. We think about our biological parents and wish we knew them and could ask them why they didn’t keep us. We think about what our lives would be like, where would we be, what our futures would look like, had there been no Gotcha Day.”

Gotcha Day Isn’t a Cause for Celebration by Sophie Johnson


A note from Mateo

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

One of the benefits of clearing out clutter is that stuff you forgot about resurfaces, including this letter my son Mateo wrote to me in January 2012. In it, he addresses a theme that remains ongoing: his pining for a dog. Reading Mateo’s letter helped me realize he’s wanted a dog for at least two years, a very long time in the life of a nine-year-old. Not that I’m planning to relent and get a dog. Just that Mateo’s desire is not new.

My son’s writing feels so energetic to me. His spelling and punctuation could use a copy-editor, but I love his voice.

Dear Mom,

I think Olivia an me shood get a DOG!!!!!!!!!!!

BECAUSE it will giv us xrsize.

If she didn’t want to do it I would do it for her.

Il give them a bath evry day.

If it’s a school day il do it after school.

If it’s a weekend il do it after brakefast in the morning.I’l take rely good car of the pupy.

“I promis promis promis”

Please Mommy i beg you.

yours Truly




Seven years

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Seven years and 27 trips to Guatemala later, the Kern family of Missouri finalizes the adoption of their son Hudson, born in Guatemala. Congratulations!!!!

Here’s the link to TV news coverage.

It’s hard for me to understand how living in an orphanage for years while a family waits for you benefits a child. Yet that was the reality for Hudson, and for all the children whose cases stalled after adoptions between Guatemala and the US closed in December 2007.

Reform, yes.  No doubt the adoption system was broken and needed to be fixed. Or shut down permanently. But to allow a small boy to spend seven years in an orphanage when he doesn’t really need to: Why?

Again, congratulations!~



Update on orphanages in Guatemala

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014
The Wall Street Journal published Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s “Guatemala’s Stranded Orphans.” Below is a link to an interview with O’Grady–the article itself won’t “re-post.” Everyone agrees: Children first should stay with their mothers or be placed with extended family; second, children should be adopted in-country. But when that doesn’t happen–and few other countries besides the US embrace a culture of adoption, a documented fact–kids grow up in orphanages. Which is what is happening now.!410993E0-1A7B-48FB-8C7C-C83D0B695850


Interview with the Cooperative for Education

Monday, January 20th, 2014

The Cooperative for Education, an NGO that works in Guatemala, interviewed me about Mamalita, and our connection to our children’s birth country.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

Jessica O’Dwyer knows Guatemala. She and her husband Tim adopted two children, Olivia and Mateo, from the land of eternal spring. Her memoir, Mamalita, is a beautiful account of her dogged pursuit to complete Olivia’s stalled adoption—even quitting her job to move to Antigua! In the past 12 years, Jessica and her family have been back to visit Guatemala many times, and have intentionally cultivated a connection with their children’s country of birth. We interviewed Jessica about writing the book and the ways in which she stays connected with Guatemala. Enjoy! -

See more at:

Thanks for reading!






On the Trip to Maine

Monday, December 16th, 2013

I’m thrilled because my essay, On the Trip to Maine, is featured in the Winter issue of Adoption Constellation, the quarterly publication of Adoption Mosaic, an organization based in Portland, Oregon. The publication is not online, so I’ve posted it here:

On the Trip to Maine

Olivia, Mateo and I are on the last leg of our all-day cross-country journey to my nephew’s wedding, to be held in a tiny coastal village in central Maine. The airplane is small, so the kids sit together in seats 9A and B, while I sit across the aisle in 9C. Because we’re in the brief, blessed lull that often happens close to the end of a long trip when they’re too exhausted to fight with each other, my face is buried in the book I’ve been trying to read for weeks, hoping I can progress beyond Chapter Three, which may be why I don’t notice the flight attendant until she appears beside my elbow, leaning into my kids.

“How old are you two?” she asks without any preamble. Olivia looks up in the way she has when she wants to be sure she’s answering correctly. “Eleven and eight?” She says it like it’s a question.

The flight attendant gives a thumbs-up. Whatever test she’s administering, Olivia has passed. “Big kids,” the woman says. She pushes off and scurries up the aisle, her fingertips running along the overhead bins, slamming one shut as she passes. Turning sharply when she reaches the cockpit, she begins the safety demonstration, showing the belt low and tight across your lap, and the way you should affix the oxygen mask to yourself before assisting others.

A few seconds later, she’s back addressing Olivia. “Can you show me your nearest exit?”

Olivia points to the front door. “There?” Her voice sounds uncertain.

“Exactly,” the flight attendant says. “How about you, young man. Can you show me?”

Mateo’s face brightens. Happy to be noticed, he aims a finger forward. “There.”

The flight attendant smoothes her hair back behind her ears. “Excellent.”

Then it dawns on me: She thinks they’re flying unescorted. She must have spotted my two brown-skinned children, looked around and seen a plane full of white people, and assumed they were flying alone. Sure enough, in the next breath, she asks, “Are you traveling with an adult?”

“My mom,” Olivia says.

The attendant takes a quick scan of the surrounding faces, including mine, eye level with her elbow. “Where is she?” she asks.

“Right here.” I smile. “Beside you.”

“Oh.” The flight attendant’s eyes take in my pale skin, my blonde hair and blue eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize…” Her voice trails off.

Reaching across the aisle, I squeeze Olivia’s hand and wink at Mateo. “How would you?” I say. “No worries.” The kids stay silent. They don’t smile. When we’re out in the world, people often mistake us for strangers to one another, instead of for who we are: mother and daughter and son. The mistake is not malicious. My kids are adopted from Guatemala. We look nothing alike.

And although I was warned, by our social worker and adoption agency, of what lay ahead, I have to confess: I wasn’t prepared. After spending the first four decades of my life blending in, how could I imagine what it would be like always to stand out? To be the family who forever must explain, in the airport security line, at the new dentist’s office, during the drop-off at the first day of school: Yes, I’m the mother. Yes, these are my kids. Yes, we’re related, although not by blood. Yes, they’re really brother and sister, although not biologically.

I signed up for transracial adoptive parenthood. I embrace my role as my children’s mother. But today, as I sat on an airplane inches away from my children and someone assumed they were alone, I wonder, as I have a thousand times, what does that feel like for my children? When confronted with the reminder that they’re adopted, do the questions threaten the bond they feel with me? Or do they make the bond stronger?

Over the years, I’ve heard every argument there is against transracial, transcultural adoption. People who know nothing about me or my relationship with each of my children’s birth mothers judge me, based on their own assumptions and beliefs. I’ve been called a privileged white American, an entitled imperialist, a baby snatcher. None of that bothers me. What bothers me is being faced with the fact that, because of our physical appearance, our family tie is undermined. I know it’s a small thing, but just once it would be nice if a stranger saw my kids and me, and knew that we belong together.