Jessica O’Dwyer is the adoptive mother to two children born in Guatemala. Her book, Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir, was named Best Memoir by the San Diego Book Awards Association and one of the Top Five Books of 2011 by Adoptive Families Magazine. Jessica is a vocal proponent of open international adoption and lifelong connection to birth country and often speaks on these subjects. Jessica’s essays have been published in San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, West Marin Review, and the Marin Independent Journal; aired on radio; and won awards from the National League of American Pen Women.
Jessica grew up on the Jersey shore, the daughter of a high school shop teacher and a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. She now lives with her husband and two children, Olivia, age 10, and Mateo, who is almost 8, in Northern California. Freelance writer Marianne Lonsdale sat down with Jessica to discuss what led her to adoption, how she found time to write her book, her concerns about international adoption, and how publication of her book has led her to teaching memoir writing.
Marianne Lonsdale: How did you come to the decision to adopt?
Jessica O’Dwyer: At the age of 32, recently divorced, I went through early menopause. Meeting men was tough enough — I never knew when to bring up my fertility issues. Yet I yearned to be a mother. I’m one of five children; having a family was always part of my dreams. Adoption made the most sense for me. Luckily, while on a bicycling trip, I fell in love with a man who embraced the idea.
ML: Why did you decide to adopt internationally and how did you settle on Guatemala?
JO: Most adoptions in the United States are private, which means the birthmother chooses the adoptive parents. My husband and I feared that as older parents of two different religions — I’m Catholic and my husband is not — we wouldn’t get picked. So we decided to adopt internationally.
We knew once we adopted from a country other than the U.S., that that country would become part of our lives. Guatemala appealed to us for several reasons: Spanish is a language we thought we could learn more easily than, say, Russian or Mandarin; the country is relatively close and easy to get to; and the culture fascinated us. We love the art, the textiles, the history of the Maya. Thousands of Guatemalans live in California, so there was a community.
ML: What was it like adopting your first child, Olivia? What’s the process?
JO: Arduous. Unfortunately, initially, we got involved with an unethical agency that essentially cashed our deposit check and stopped working. From start to finish, the process took nearly two years. Requirements vary, but in general international adoption requires a home study; copies of tax returns; three letters of reference; proof of financial stability; employment and medical histories; fingerprints and criminal background check; birth, marriage and divorce certificates; various forms; and photos of family, relatives, home and pets. The documents must be notarized and certified by the individual state’s office of Secretary of State. At first, it seemed as though assembling the dossier was the hardest part. Soon enough, we realized that was only the beginning.
ML: Was it the challenging process of adopting that prompted you to write a memoir about your experience?
JO: After we were a year into the process with no results, I quit my job in San Francisco and moved into a rented house in Antigua, Guatemala, with our not-yet-legally-ours daughter, Olivia. She was then 15 months old and had lived in two different foster placements. She and I ended up living together for six months, and during that time, I completed the adoption myself. I got inside Guatemalan offices and met with bureaucrats, gaining insights available to few Americans.
When we first considered adopting, I read every book published on the subject, but nowhere did I find anything that described to me what I had seen and felt. 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 story was it.
ML: Your kids were pretty young when you were writing Mamalita. How did you manage to find writing time?
JO: In the beginning, when the kids were really young, I wrote on the fly: during their naps, sitting on a bench at the playground, jotting notes in the car at a stoplight. Mateo was still a little guy — he came home at six months — and he really needed a lot of attention, which I was happy to give. Once he entered preschool and Olivia was in first grade, finding time got easier. Right after school drop-off, I’d start writing, and I didn’t stop until pick-up. After 20 years of magazine editing and crafting press releases, I was ecstatic to focus on my own work. Writing my book felt like a luxury.
I used to tell my husband that if I couldn’t find an agent and sell the manuscript, I would print copies of the book myself and hand it out on street corners. I was possessed by my passion to tell this story.
ML: You’re open about the fact that you worked with a writing teacher. It’s amazing that you found a teacher who lived near you in Marin but who also has a home in Guatemala. Did you know she had a home in Guatemala when you started studying with her? Can you tell me about that relationship?
JO: For years, as a girl growing up in New Jersey, I had read Joyce Maynard’s column in the New York Times. I knew her as a New Hampshire writer. As an adult, I read all of her books. When I was a year into my manuscript, another writing teacher told me, “Did you know Joyce Maynard lives a few miles from you? And that she owns a home in San Marcos, Guatemala? Oh, and by the way, she’s offering a workshop at her place in Marin next week?”
Although I was thoroughly intimidated by the idea of studying with someone as brilliant as Joyce, how could I not? All signs pointed me toward it.
I showed up at her workshop in Marin, and within five minutes of listening to her talk, I knew I had found my teacher. Everything about her approach to crafting a story made sense to me. When the day was over, Joyce said she was leading her Guatemala workshop in a month, and invited me to come. In total, I attended the San Marcos workshop three times, which I think is some kind of record. Ever since I met her, Joyce has been a generous teacher and mentor, as well as a friend.
ML: How did Joyce influence or help shape your story?
JO: In two ways. First, Joyce believes in telling the truth. Not only the facts of the story, but the emotional truth: how you felt about what happened to you. That sounds simple, but to me, it was terrifying. In order to get through our ordeal, I was forced to hold myself together. When I came home, I suffered a kind of post-traumatic stress breakdown. I had lots of nightmares and irrational fears — that someone would kidnap Olivia or otherwise harm our family. Joyce helped me find a way to access the story’s power without falling apart. Second, Joyce taught me to drive the narrative. Nobody wants to read a book about paperwork. Your must compel your reader to turn the page.
ML: How often do you visit Guatemala?
JO: We try to visit at least once a year, for two weeks to a month. We go during our winter, which is their summer and the dry season, or we go during our summer when it rains a lot. Our dream is to go during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, Guatemala’s most celebrated holiday. Our last visit was in February 2012. For our kids, like many kids who are adopted, a trip back to their birth country deepens their sense of a personal history, and grounds them. For example, every year we take a picture in front of the house in Antigua where Olivia and I lived for six months while I was completing the adoption, and visit with Paola, the housekeeper who still lives there. We say hello to the ladies who work at the Internet café, and swim in the pool where we whiled away many happy hours when Olivia was a baby. We’re establishing new traditions, too: taking boat rides to different villages around Lake Atitlán, watching soccer games in a local stadium, or learning to make tortillas. Guatemala feels like a familiar second home to Olivia and Mateo. They love visiting.
ML: Why did you decide to find your children’s birthmothers?
JO: The longer I was a mother to my children myself, the more I thought about their other, first mothers. Wouldn’t they wonder about the babies they gave birth to? Wouldn’t they want to know that those babies were alive and healthy, and cared for, and loved?
During our adoption process, the United States required a DNA match between the birth mother and the child. The DNA tests prove the baby wasn’t kidnapped. When I received the DNA test results, the file included two photos of Olivia sitting on her birth mother’s lap. Seeing them together, the way they looked so much alike — the shape of their faces, their black hair, their brown skin — and the way neither one of them looked anything like me, that experience shook me to the core.
For my children, too, a connection to their birth mothers felt vital. After all, what are the big questions we grapple with: “Who am I? Where do I come from?” There was never a day we didn’t tell our kids they were adopted, and they both began to ask about their origins soon after they could talk, around age three. For adopted children, instead of answers, they find mystery. To help fill in those blanks, we decided to hire professional searchers to look for each of our children’s birth mothers.
Although I am open to letting people know we have found and connected with Olivia’s and Mateo’s birth mothers, I am very private about the details. Most birth mothers in Guatemala do not discuss their adoptions and I respect this.
For me, one of the best outcomes of the book has been the increased dialogue about open international adoption. Every adoptive family must make their own decision about searching, but for us, open adoption makes sense.
ML: Your book made me aware of how international adoption “hot spots” move from country to country. There is such a need in so many countries but it seems like eventually corruption occurs and then adoption is closed off or slows to a crawl. Then focus moves to another country.
JO: Within the past few years, the number of international adoptions to the United States has dropped precipitously because of the closing of many countries’ programs due to corruption. Unfortunately, a small number of greedy people may get involved in a country’s program, forcing an entire program to be shut down. It’s frustrating because leaders lack the will to impose sanctions and oversight, and the people who suffer are children. Adoptions from Guatemala have been closed since December 2007; other countries may suspend or close adoption with little advance notice.
It’s estimated that there are some 100 million children worldwide who are not living with their families. That number astounds me. Yet the number of adoptions by U.S. families has declined in this decade. In 2000, there were 18,857 international adoptions by U.S. families. The number climbed to 22,734 in 2005 and then began to drop. The number in 2011 was 9,319. The number of adoptions compared to the need is miniscule.
ML: How aware are your children about your book? What do they think of their mom, the author?
JO: My children are much more interested in the YouTube book trailer, or what they refer to as “the movie.” When I hear them describe me, though, they say, “My mom’s a writer,” which is very sweet.
ML: How did you get involved with teaching memoir writing?
JO: Every year, our family goes to Heritage Camp, a camp for children who are adopted internationally. Two years ago, I was scheduled to speak at a camp in Colorado, and the organizers asked if I would lead a workshop in helping others write their stories. The experience turned out to be cathartic for everyone who participated because the subject of adoption is so emotional. At this point, I view myself as a facilitator, someone who helps others break through and look at their experience, and find a way to express what it felt like for them.
ML: What’s next for you?
JO: When Mamalita was published in November 2010, I focused much of my creative effort on promoting it. Now, I’m finally ready to begin thinking about my next project. The trick will be finding the same discipline I had when writing my memoir.
I also consider myself an advocate for international adoption. I keep track of key activities and changes in the international adoption arena and post information on my website. I also highlight stories of other adoptive families and non-profit organizations that work to provide education and health care to families and children in need.