Imagine being pregnant multiple times but never birthing a child. Imagine the idea of adopting a child in your mind and heart, growing hope where once only grief was found. Imagine just six months later, you and your partner have been matched with a two-month-old baby boy who you feel is destined to be your child. His dimples erase any doubt that this infant—born of another woman in a foreign country—is your son.
To see a digital image of a baby and believe him to be hers would have seemed preposterous to Julie even five minutes earlier. Yet deep inside her, something stirred. The connection she felt to Felix transcended logic. It felt magic. Out of the thousands of babies abandoned in the world, this little boy was meant for her. Felix’s face went blurry as Julie’s eyes filled with tears. She stood up, wrapping her arms around Mark.
“Hello, Mommy,” he said.
So begins the tale of Julie and Mark Cowan, the couple at the heart of Jessica O’Dwyer’s debut novel, Mother Mother, a follow-up to her best-selling memoir, Mamalita. O’Dwyer is a mother of two, now teens, adopted from Guatemala. The author spent seven years researching the history of her children’s mother country and the complexities involved in adoptions from that nation. In her Note to the Reader at the end of the book, O’Dwyer writes:
Mother Mother is not the first novel to explore adoption as a theme. Mother Mother is simply my attempt at conveying truths I believe after nearly two decades of lived experience as an adoptive mother. Other writers will come forward to express their own truths, to grapple with this subject in their own way.
I encourage these stories. I welcome them.
In the novel, O’Dwyer does not shy away from harsh realities, traumatic circumstances, nor graphic telling to give readers the most authentic and compelling adoption tale. Although I don’t think it should come with a trigger warning on the cover, readers should know they will learn, in detail, about the horrific conditions of a war-torn country, social upheaval, shady deals, abuse, rape, miscarriage, violence, class divides, unspeakable poverty, infidelity, anxiety, broken marriages, and failed adoptions. Though there are many unpleasant circumstances woven into the book, O’Dwyer writes a story that reads like a love letter for her children and their families of origin, and a lamentation for their birth country.
Early on, O’Dwyer writes a gut-punch of a scene where Julie and Mark receive an email from their adoption caseworker, a string of typed words that end everything they were hoping for because of a corrupted system: “A red flag by the U.S. Embassy. Based on the agent’s observations during an interview, DNA was not done. The agent believed the woman was not Felix’s birthmother.” In mere sentences, it’s confirmed that Felix will never be the couple’s son, and they must grieve all over again. The author expresses their solemn truth, “There was no ceremony to mourn a child who was never theirs in the first place.”
Despite the agony and hardships, the book is infused with many glimmers of hope and a sense of holding on even when letting go is necessary. With reassurance from their caseworker, Julie and Mark are compelled to continue with the adoption process. They persevere with full knowledge the window to adopt from Guatemala is about to close, despite their disappointing first experience, the uncertainties, and all the obstacles in their way. Soon they receive another email from their adoption worker:
“Referral,” the subject line read. . . . They stood at the kitchen counter in front of Julie’s open laptop.
His name was Juan Rolando Garcia Flores. . . . Five pounds three ounces at birth. Black hair and brown eyes, sitting up against a blue blanket, hands clenched at his sides.
Julie stared at the picture and tried to stop her heart from racing. Did she dare believe this time would be different? She’d already fallen in love with Felix and the three babies she’d miscarried. Juan was an infant alone in the world, and he needed her. . . .
And just like that, they decided.
Their family story takes off from here and, as readers are becoming acquainted with Juan, the novel flows seamlessly between the present day to the past. The author moves the tale backward seventeen years and introduces Juan’s birth mother, Rosalba, whose existence and sacrifice are imperative to the story. O’Dwyer writes the birth mother’s history in the first person which gives Rosalba, an indigenous Ixil Mayan woman, a clear and unforgettable voice as she shares her harrowing plight, from her origin story to the birth of Juan, and the incredible suffering she endured along the way.
Due to a litany of circumstances out of their control, it takes five years for Julie and Mark to adopt Juan. But after a difficult journey, and years spent flying back and forth from America to Guatemala, the three of them are finally a family and begin their life together in their California home. This part of the book details, with an insider point of view, the family’s joys and challenges and Juan’s understanding of his adoption, his struggles with fear of abandonment, and a visceral need to control his environment manifesting itself through extreme tidiness and obsessive ironing, and a few violent outbursts from triggering feelings. A poignant scene in the book involves Juan, who is fueled by the desire to choose something for himself, declaring he wishes to be called, “Jack.” Julie’s response to her hurting son and the emotional spiral that follows is an honest depiction of the family’s circumstances.
At one point in the novel, Juan / Jack feels ill and his condition rapidly worsens. His parents rush him to the emergency room where he is admitted due to high white blood counts, possible pneumonia, and further testing. Mark, a pathologist, gently explains to Julie they may be dealing with something far worse than pneumonia. Faced with the possibility their only living child might have a life-threatening disease, there is tenderness written between the couple confronting such a frightening moment together as parents. It also brings them to a pivotal point. After debating for years whether or not, when, or how they should search for Juan/Jack’s birth family, the brush with serious illness brings about the deciding factor: it’s time. O’Dwyer’s depiction of the seriousness of this choice, her grappling with the decision, is heartfelt:
Mark whispered that they still needed to find Jack’s mother and Julie knew he didn’t mean her. Not only for possible donors, which God forbid they wouldn’t need, but for medical history. Mark was right, but Julie didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t want to consider Jack’s life before he came to them. She didn’t want to think of anyone else connected to her son. She wanted to be his only mother.
O’Dwyer has a knack for character development and scene building, and a gift for telling multilayered stories without losing her audience. Not only does the author write with authoritative detail about the adoptive mother-son connection, but her writing offers, in equal measures, an affinity for Juan / Jack’s legacy and his birth mother, Rosalba, the woman who ultimately made Julie a parent. Rosalba’s chapters are some of the loveliest, most memorable parts of the book. Despite citing deplorable conditions and incredibly sad circumstances, O’Dwyer’s writing style triumphs in the telling, begging her readers to grow in empathy, awe, and wonderment at the strength of this Guatemalan woman. I was engrossed in the storylines and dilemmas presented in this novel, and O’Dwyer’s rendering of what it means to be an adoptive family, the complexities of the mothers and fathers involved, and the intricate web of DNA and choice that weaves families together in unforeseen and often, unbearable ways.
The sensitive consideration of the adopted child, honoring Juan / Jack’s right to discover his truth and cherishing where he came from, is part of what enamored me to O’Dwyer’s novel and adds another richly developed piece of this adoption tale. Furthering that point, the culmination of Rosalba’s story left me humbled and perhaps forever changed. The rich language and vivid detail used to capture this novel’s heroine as her story comes to fruition is a reading experience I won’t easily forget.
The baby was born. It was a boy. Not a girl like we expected. A beautiful, handsome boy. More handsome than my sister’s baby, as handsome as my brother Daniel. With ten little fingers and ten little toes. Ears like edges of shells in the riverbank. He was crying loudly.
He’s hungry, someone said, and I latched him on and watched him suck. His eyes closed, calm in a second. His weight on me felt solid. It felt right. He was of me and from me. My son, I thought. My son, my son.
A story of how two mothers are forever connected by the son they share, Mother Mother is a novel whose battle cry declares victory despite the messy tangle of life. O’Dwyer writes a realistic and engrossing tale that shows how lives can be meaningful despite hardship and strife, true familial bonds are both birthed and formed, joy can be found amidst the surrounding and penetrating darkness, and love grows even in tumultuous times. Ultimately, the strength and resilience factors of Julie and Rosalba, the two mothers at the center of Juan / Jack’s story, are reason enough to pick up this book and begin reading.