Posts Tagged ‘Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir’

Mamalita is 8

Wednesday, November 28th, 2018

My memoir, Mamalita, was published in November 2010, eight years ago this month. A lot has happened since then: My daughter, Olivia—whose adoption is the subject of Mamalita–is now a young woman of 16. Her brother, my son Mateo, is 14. Both my parents have died. Olivia’s older half-sister in Guatemala is the mother of two children. Olivia has attended four different schools. Mateo has transferred schools once.

I’ve met countless people touched by adoption, both in person and virtually, including (maybe) you if you’re reading this. “Adoption people” are my tribe, in a deep, lasting way I never expected. We speak the same language, a shorthand that feels sometimes to belong only to us. No explanations are necessary. There’s a comfort to that.

A few years after Mamalita was published, I began jotting down other ideas for stories. Adoption remained my obsession, but after penning a memoir and many essays, I realized some truths can only be expressed through fiction. One day, I opened a new Word document on my laptop and wrote: “Three trucks carried the soldiers up the dark mountain road to San Rolando. They rolled past corn and bean fields, past grazing pastures for cows and sheep, past rows of adobe houses with thatched roofs.”

The scene had come to me in a recurring dream, with details so vivid I felt I’d lived them.

In 18 days, I’ll graduate with an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch LA. My thesis project opens with the San Rolando scene and contains the first 140 pages of my novel. The full novel draft contains 320 pages or 90,500 words.

I can’t predict if the novel will ever be published. All I know is I wrote the best book I could. I’m happy to have finished.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. xoxo


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!






Signing off for now

Monday, August 27th, 2012


Greetings Friends:

I’m suspending this blog, for at least the next few months.

Everything’s fine! I just feel a need to step away for a while.

You can still find me blogging occasionally at Adoption Under One Roof, and posting links on my public Facebook page, Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir.

As always, thank you for reading.

~ Jessica


Crazy California Claire and a Mamalita book giveaway

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

For the past few days, I’ve been in New Jersey for my high school reunion, and to speak at my alma mater and another high school about adoption, Guatemala, and memoir-writing. Each of those elements deserves an essay, but right now, I’m catching up on subjects I meant to post about days ago, before the hubbub of Thanksgiving  and the subsequent cross-country trek.

One subject I must note is this great review of Mamalita on the blog Crazy California Claire. “Claire” is Claire Hennessy, fellow Writing Mama and good friend. That’s Claire in the photo above; you can see in her face that she’s full of laughter. I recommend Claire’s blog not only because she’s giving away free copies of Mamalita, but also because Claire is a very funny writer whose essays I love to read myself. Currently, Claire is penning a memoir about being a British woman who, after a 30-year separation, married her boarding school sweetheart and moved “across the pond” to Marin County, California, which is where we met. Like everyone else who knows Claire, I eagerly await her book’s publication. I guarantee the read will be delicious.  To enjoy more of Claire’s work, visit the Writing Mamas website and search for her name.

Thanks for the shout-out Claire! ~


Four moms

Friday, October 14th, 2011

One of the questions I get asked most often when I talk about my book, Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir, is “How did your daughter, Olivia, respond to meeting her birth mother?” For many parents who adopted children internationally, a birth mother-and-child relationship is uncharted territory. No one knows what to expect.

Each reunion experience is different. What is true for us may not be true for you; what is true for us today may not be true for us tomorrow, or next year. Our relationship with Olivia’s birth mother continues to evolve. The over-arching element is love. And relief. Relief for “Ana,” knowing the baby she gave up is a growing, nine-year-old girl, healthy and happy and loved. Relief for me, knowing that Ana placed Olivia for adoption—not without sorrow and loss—but with free will. For Ana, adoption to a family in the United States was the best choice.

To connect with Ana, I hired a professional “searcher,” a Guatemalan woman I found through an online adoption group to which I belong. The searcher approached Ana with discretion, under the guise of delivering an express mail envelope. Afterward, the searcher gave us photos and a detailed report outlining Ana’s reaction to hearing from the couple in California who adopted her baby—a welcomed and unexpected surprise—as well as a description of Ana’s current living situation.

In addition, the searcher facilitated our initial meeting in Guatemala, which I recommend. Reunions between birth and adoptive families can be awkward for everyone. Our relationship with Ana now feels secure enough that I navigate the logistics myself. Like most people in Guatemala, Ana owns a cellphone. She does not, however, own a computer; her home lacks electricity. I call from the U.S. to arrange our meeting time and place.

Language remains a challenge: Ana is an indigenous Maya K’iche widow, who lives with her two older teen children, “Luis” and “Dulce,” and her own mother, Abuela, in a highland town north of Lake Atitlan. Ana’s s first language is K’iche, with some Spanish. Luis and Dulce are bilingual K’iche and Spanish, while Abuela speaks only K’iche. My Spanish is rudimentary at best, and Olivia’s skill is developing.

We hug a lot. We gesture. We hold hands. A very effective way to communicate is via sketch pads. Like Olivia, her birth mother and half-siblings draw very well. Everyone depicts scenes from their lives, and passes them around. Favorite subjects for our Guatemalan family include birds, and trees, and the facades and interiors of churches. Luis and Dulce call me their “American mom.” Ana refers to me as “little mommy.”

Since our first reunion in 2008, we visit Olivia’s birth family at least once a year, sometimes twice. To protect Ana’s privacy, we meet in a relatively large town on Lake Atitlan, instead of her small village. Someday, we hope to visit Ana’s home, but we will wait for Ana’s invitation, and respect her timetable. Relinquishing a child is often viewed with shame in Guatemala, and we wouldn’t want to compromise Ana’s safety or reputation by making ourselves visible in her community.

Meeting Olivia’s birth mother has answered many questions for Olivia. From visiting Guatemala, Olivia has witnessed firsthand the hardships faced by many in the country, especially poor indigenous women. At the same time, she has sat on her birth mother’s lap and felt her mother’s embrace. She knows that she is loved. Even from a distance, Ana feels like a real and familiar part of our family. “Your beautiful smile is just like Ana’s,” I tell Olivia. “You’re both artists.”

This past Saturday at home in California, I drove the minivan into our garage with Olivia and her brother, Mateo, in the back seat. Seemingly out of nowhere, Olivia piped up and said, “I have four moms.”

I put the car in in park and turned off the engine. “Do tell, Olivia.”

“I have you, Mom, and Mama Ana. And I have Mateo’s birth mom, because he’s my brother so she’s my mother, too. And I have Mary, the mother of God.” (We’re Catholic.)

“Four moms,” I said, “and we all love you.”

Reaching over the back seat, I squeezed my daughter’s hand.


New York Times: “Desperate Guatemalans Embrace an Iron Fist”

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

This morning, I opened the New York Times to find this excellent front-page article by Damien Cave, about Guatemala’s upcoming presidential election.

Read it here: Desperate Guatemalans Embrace an Iron Fist.

The challenges faced by the country and people of Guatemala seem almost intractable. As one friend commented on my Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir Facebook page, “Notwithstanding the progress stated, can any sane person expect that corruption will be stemmed significantly?”

Another friend, a Guatemalan, said to me words to this effect, “Until I read your book, and saw your reaction to Guatemala–the fear you felt when going to court, the knowledge that someone on the sidewalk might stick a gun in your face to steal your passport–I forgot that what we experience every day is not normal in a lot of the world.”

Damien Cave’s article captures that reality.


Travelojos on Mamalita and the uphill climb

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Thank you to Steven Roll of Travelojos for reviewing Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir. I’ve always viewed Mamalita as part travelogue, and I’m glad Steven saw the book that way, too. What I also loved is that Steven understood the many-layered challenges adoptive families face—not only “dishonest adoption brokers, government corruption, and endless bureaucracy,” but also a prevailing suspicion of outsiders in general. Steven writes:

“My interest in the book was piqued by my visit to Guatemala last year. I had learned about the country’s adoption reform initiative before I attended a language school in Xela for a week in May. The language school’s application asked if I preferred to stay with a family with or without children. This seemingly innocuous question gave me pause because I had read about instances of mob violence in Guatemala arising from suspicions of child snatching. Guatemala is one of the top sources of adopted children in the world. In 2007, the country tightened its adoption regulations following allegations of profiteering and infant trafficking.

“Suspicion there runs so deep concerning foreigners’ intentions with children that the U.S. State Department warns tourists against interactions with them. The tourists who do risk becoming victims of mob violence.

“The U.S. State Department’s profile for Guatemala notes that:

in 2007, two foreigners (including an American citizen) and a Guatemalan kayaking on a river near Chicaman, Quiche were accused of stealing children and seized by a 500-person mob (estimated). Although threatened, the individuals were not physically attacked. The incident occurred after the group had been talking and joking with a local boy on the river bank. In Sayaxche, Petén, rumors escalated into mob action against a Guatemalan couple believed to be involved in child stealing. The husband was beaten and burned to death, and the wife threatened, but was eventually turned over to the police. A local American resident was also seized and threatened with death when he tried to intervene with the mob. In the same area, a family of American tourists, along with several Guatemalan motorists, was held overnight at a road blockade for possible use as human shields. Mobs have also targeted police, resulting in delayed or ineffective responses by law enforcement.

“Unfortunately, O’Dwyer’s book makes clear that the paranoia surrounding this issue causes problems for families who have only the best intentions. It often makes them easy prey for dishonest profiteers.”

Read Steven’s entire review here. And if you know anyone with an interest in Central America, please tell them about Mamalita.


A commercial interruption…

Monday, August 8th, 2011

I still want to say more about this summer—Latin American Heritage Camp in Colorado; a visit to Guatemala where we met up with Service Trips to Guatemala with Leceta and Common Hope; and a week in Missouri that included our first-ever attendance at MOGUATE, a gathering of families with children from Guatemala.

But first, I want to officially thank Adoptive Families Magazine for naming Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir to AF’s 2011 Best Books List. The other four titles named are No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene; The Waiting Child by Cindy Champnella; The Kid by Dan Savage; and In Their Own Voices, edited by Rita M. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda. I’m honored our story is included among such esteemed company.

Thank you, Adoptive Families!


Why I wrote Mamalita

Monday, July 11th, 2011

During public readings from Mamalita, I’ve met many people who harbor strong opinions on the subject of adoption, pro and con. Now, before I read from the book, I talk about why I was compelled to write it. I’d like to share those thoughts here.

Eight years ago, I was living in Antigua, Guatemala with my then-fifteen-month old daughter, Olivia, whom my husband and I were trying to adopt. We had been enmeshed in the process for more than a year, ever since I first saw a photo of Olivia on an adoption website and had fallen in love.

I wasn’t the only American would-be mother living in Guatemala who was trying to sort out a stalled adoption. We were a group of eight, with nothing in common except our overwhelming 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 one of those families had a story, no two the same.

Soon after I returned home with Olivia in January 2004, 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 made to birth mothers, coercion of women to become pregnant, and the trawling of countrysides by “finders” to trick young girls into relinquishing their newborns. Adoptive parents like me were depicted as privileged Americans who swooped in to snatch kidnapped infants. Even UNICEF pronounced that it was better for a child to remain in his country of origin than it was to be adopted by foreign parents. The news got so bad it was impossible not to feel under attack.

But that was only a part of the story. The story I experienced was that of adoptive parents who felt great love for their children, pushing back against a system that seemed designed to manipulate emotions at every turn.

When I lived in Antigua, the others 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 Olivia’s adoption saga was it.


A short hiatus

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Dear Friends:

I’ve decided to take a short hiatus from my blog for the next week or so, in order to be more present with my family during the Fourth of July holiday and the days following. Knowing myself as I do, I may post a few pictures, but otherwise I’m going to walk on the beach; eat hot dogs; watch fireworks; and spend time with my mom and dad, sisters and brother, and my own immediate family; without once simultaneously thinking of how I can write about the experience.

Of course, if all the cases of the waiting Guatemala900 are released, or adoptions reopen in Guatemala, I’ll dance with joy and inform you at once. Otherwise, please check my Facebook page, Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir, for links to interesting articles and short comments by yours truly. (more…)