An Adoption Memoir


By Jessica O’Dwyer

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This gripping memoir details an ordinary American woman's quest to adopt a baby girl from Guatemala in the face of overwhelming adversity. At only 32 years old, Jessica O'Dwyer experiences early menopause, seemingly ending her chances of becoming a mother. Years later, married but childless, she comes across a photo of a two-month-old girl on a Guatemalan adoption website, and feels an instant connection. 

From the get-go, Jessica and her husband face numerous and maddening obstacles. After a year of tireless efforts, Jessica finds herself abandoned by her adoption agency; undaunted, she quits her job and moves to Antigua so she can bring her little girl to live with her and wrap up the adoption, no matter what the cost. Eventually, after months of disappointments, she finesses her way through the thorny adoption process and is finally able to bring her new daughter home. 

Mamalita is as much a story about the bond between a mother and child as it is about the lengths adoptive parents go to in their quest to bring their children home. At turns harrowing, heartbreaking, and inspiring, this is a classic story of the triumph of a mother's love over almost insurmountable odds.


For my children and their other mothers, with love.


Chapter 1
I've never given birth, but I know the exact moment when I became a mother: 10:00 AM, September 6, 2002. My husband and I sat huddled on a sofa in the lobby of the Guatemala City Camino Real hotel. On sofas in every direction, other light-skinned American couples cooed over their brown-skinned infants.
Our in-country facilitator, Theodore, strode toward us across the lobby's polished marble floor, his stainless steel Rolex loose around his left wrist. He wasn't Guatemalan but Greek. We had met for the first time that morning.
Behind him was a foster mother. She was dressed in tight designer blue jeans and black leather boots, a pile of pink blankets pressed against her chest. As soon as she reached us, she sat next to me and shifted the bundle to my arms without saying a word.
My heart pounding, I peeked inside.
It wasn't our baby.
I turned the blankets toward my husband, Tim. "Does this look like Stefany Mishell to you?"
This baby had thin tufts of brown hair. Stefany had black hair as thick as yarn. This baby was tiny and frail. Stefany had weighed a robust six pounds ten ounces at birth and was now four months old. And where were her elegantly shaped ears?
The foster mother glanced at Theodore before answering. She seemed to be seeking permission to speak. "Es Tiffany Dolores."
"Tiffany Dolores?" I said. "Our baby is Stefany Mishell."
Theodore, perched on the edge of a pinstriped wing chair across from the sofa, jumped up. "This is not your baby," he said.
I passed her back to the foster mother, who began to sing in a soft voice. I didn't want to see this baby, or touch her, or develop any feelings for her unless she was going to be ours. With the edges of my mouth quivering, I put my hand over my heart.
"She's lovely," I said. "But she's not Stefany."
I had fallen in love with Stefany from the single photograph we had of her: skin the color of nutmeg, hair as black as a crow. Brown eyes wide open, scowling at the camera. Her head was turned slightly to one side, and barely visible through her hair was that small, elegant ear.
I scanned the sofas dotted throughout the lobby, trying to see if one of the other couples had been given Stefany. The other Americans were grinning and rubbing noses with their babies.
"I call Yolanda," Theodore said. "We find your baby." Yolanda was our agency director in Los Angeles who was supposed to relay information about us to Theodore. Before we had left San Francisco, I emailed her every detail: our flight number, our arrival time, our departure date. The one detail I didn't confirm was the name of our baby. Because Yolanda was responsible for completing the paperwork for the U.S. and Guatemalan governments, I assumed she knew that.
Tim and I watched as Theodore hustled the foster mother across the lobby toward the front door. On the sidewalk outside, Theodore snapped open his cell phone and started pushing buttons with one hand. A black-and-white taxi pulled up to the curb and Theodore held onto the cell phone with his chin while he opened the back door. The foster mother climbed inside.
Tim reached over and squeezed my knee. "Think of this as false labor," he said.
I forced a smile. We would have to wait a little longer.
Theodore returned, rubbing his hands together as if trying to get back his circulation. He flopped into the pinstriped wing chair with the ease of someone at home in his living room, which in a sense, he was. According to his business card, his office was the hotel lobby.
"We found your baby." He shook his wrist in an Ay, ay, ay gesture with which I would become very familiar. "Yolanda has too many babies to keep track of."
Tim nodded sympathetically. "How long have you two worked together? "
"Six years here. We worked in Romania ten years, but the babies, they cry in the cribs and nobody picks them up. Before that, we owned a Greek restaurant in Hermosa Beach."
He added this nonchalantly, as if owning a restaurant was the normal career path to facilitating international adoptions.
"I hear the food business is brutal," Tim said.
"Nothing compared to this." Theodore shook his wrist again. "You brought the supplies?"
Tim pointed behind the sofa to the eight overstuffed shopping bags.
Yolanda had given us a long list of supplies for the foster mother to use for Stefany: a framed picture of ourselves; a cassette recording of our voices; one hundred eighty disposable diapers; six packages each of wet wipes, diaper rash cream, and shampoo; seven sets of pajamas, onesies, and socks. We brought every item and more. When Tim and I had wrestled our four gigantic suitcases off the lone luggage carousel in Aurora International Airport, we looked as if we were staying for a year, not a short visit over a three-day weekend.
Theodore informed us that Stefany's foster mother—the correct one—lived in a suburb one hour north of Guatemala City. Theodore and Tim invited me to join them in the restaurant for coffee, but I couldn't move from the sofa. I stared across the lobby to the hotel entrance, awaiting my daughter's arrival. My arms ached to hold her.
Bellmen in beige uniforms and tan rubber-soled shoes pushed shiny brass carts stacked high with suitcases. Guatemalan businessmen walked in pairs to the hotel restaurant. The staffers checked in guests swiftly and efficiently. The concierge answered questions with a dazzling smile.
The Camino Real was the most luxurious hotel in Guatemala. The crown jewel of the capital city, it was complete with crystal chandeliers, blue porcelain vases sprouting bunches of flowers, and a polished marble floor as shiny as an ice rink, maintained by a team of cleaners who never stopped swabbing it. Neighboring buildings were protected by cement walls topped with razor wire, and policemen armed with sawed-off shotguns patrolled every street. But inside the Camino Real, all appeared to be in order. American couples rose from the sofas with their babies. They were parents with children now. Families.
Tim and Theodore returned with three coffees on a tray. I poured steamed milk into a thin china cup and stirred with a demitasse spoon. Except for us and the front desk staff and concierge, the lobby was now empty, which was a relief. I had dreaded meeting our baby among so many strangers.
The familiar flavor of warm coffee comforted me. I told myself this was the last cup of coffee I'd drink without knowing Stefany.
Theodore clutched the arms of his chair. "Your baby is here!" He sprang from his seat and race-walked across the floor.
A compact Guatemalan woman carrying the telltale bundle of blankets stood at the front door. Theodore steered her toward us. As they approached, I saw a baby's head covered with so much black hair it looked like she was wearing a beret.
"That's her." I set down my coffee cup unsteadily in the saucer. Tim and I stood.
The foster mother, Lupe Garza, placed the bundle in my arms. The baby felt small, the size and weight of a kitten. Her head fit neatly inside the crook of my elbow. I lowered myself to the sofa, not sure I could remain standing.
I pushed back the blankets from around her face. I recognized her as mine, as ours. I breathed in the sweet smell of her chubby baby cheeks, swept my fingertips along the softness of her brown arm. She was perfect and beautiful, with a high forehead and tiny red lips. Fierce, pure love washed over me as I whispered her name.
She was my daughter, and I was her mother.
How could I have ever known that this was only the beginning?
Every American in the Camino Real lobby had a different reason for adopting. Mine was because I had gone through menopause twelve years earlier, at the age of thirty-two.
When the hot flashes started, I thought I was imagining them. During the day, rivulets of sweat dripped down my legs. At night, my sheets got so drenched I slept on towels.
Still, I never expected my gynecologist to call me to say I was in the throes of early menopause. He had drawn vials of my blood for testing, and the results were conclusive. The condition, called premature ovarian failure, affects one to four percent of women over the age of fifteen. No one really understands why. Whatever the cause, it meant that my body had stopped producing eggs. My chance of becoming pregnant was less than five percent.
In the span of one three-minute phone conversation, everything I ever believed about my life changed. How could I go through life without the experience of someone calling me "Mommy"? Why would I want to? I was one of five children. My sisters each had three. Family meant everything to us. At every holiday—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day—I sat at a table full of nieces and nephews and thought This is what I want. What else matters? The ability to create children seemed like a birthright, the definition of being female.
To make matters worse, I was recently divorced from a college beau I married in my mid-twenties. Everything had seemed on track for a baby before thirty, until he left me for one of his colleagues. I was thrust back into the dating world feeling like damaged goods.
Precisely how much information about my infertility should I share with a man? And when? If I told a guy everything soon after we met, he accused me of rushing him to make a decision about the relationship. But if I didn't tell him until later, he accused me of withholding facts.
"You mean you're sterile?" one man asked. "How old are you anyway?" asked another. As tough as those questions were, though, they were a snap compared with the one posed by my last boyfriend: "How can I continue this relationship, knowing the possibility of offspring is denied to me forever?"
It was a fair question, and one I may have asked myself.
Women talk about the wisdom of menopause, a change brought on by the shift in hormones that causes them to view their lives in a new way. Maybe that was what happened to me. After six months of crying almost nonstop, one morning I woke up infused with insight. With extreme clarity, I saw my life as finite, understanding that entire systems in my body could, without warning, break down.
I stopped obsessing about what I couldn't have and began to concentrate on alternatives. Egg donation didn't appeal to me. Millions of babies existed who needed love, and I had an enormous need to love a baby. It didn't matter if we shared genetic material as long as we shared that need. I read every book and article I could find on the subject of adoption and educated myself on the options: domestic, foster care, international.
Since graduating from college in 1980, I had focused on building my career, first in New York City and then in Los Angeles. Now I yearned for a simpler lifestyle. I quit my job in the press office at the L.A. County Museum of Art and found a new one at a smaller museum in San Diego. Although I had grown up at the Jersey shore, my parents and siblings had migrated to San Diego over the years, and I needed to be close to them. I wanted to watch my beloved nieces and nephews grow up.
In my new apartment by the ocean I heard waves crashing and tasted salt in the air. On weekday mornings before reporting for work at San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art, I rode my bicycle along the beachfront promenade, logging two hundred miles a week with a group of retired Navy captains and ex-SEALs. In the evenings, I jogged on the beach while the sun set. My goal was to become as strong as possible for my new life as an adoptive mother.
But first, I wanted a husband.

Chapter 2
After I'd been living in San Diego for a few years, I signed up for a five-day, four-hundred mile group bicycle ride through the hills and deserts of San Diego County. A hundred cyclists from around California participated. I didn't sign up because I was daring—timid was more like it—but because the ride took place the week between Christmas and New Year's. That week was hard: the avalanche of cards from friends with children, the office parties to brave solo, the ubiquitous mistletoe.
The first morning I stood in the staging area straddling my bike, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Everyone else seemed to know each other, and they all had monster-sized thighs. There was no way I was going to keep up with this group. But then someone blew a starter's whistle and everyone took off, and the next thing I knew, I was tucked in behind somebody's wheel, being pulled along in the draft.
Around mile twenty, as I hauled myself up a hill, struggling to keep up with the pack, I noticed one of the riders on the side of the road changing a flat tire.
"Need help?" I asked.
He glanced up. Great smile. "No, thanks."
Then, around mile twenty-five, I saw the same rider. "You again?"
Another great smile. Also a wave. Beautiful blue eyes. "Bum tire."
He was cute in an impish way, and he seemed patient and thorough. At night when the group ate dinner at long cafeteria tables, I saw how attentively he listened to people when they talked to him and how his eyes twinkled behind his glasses when he laughed.
I nudged the woman sitting beside me. "Who is that guy?"
"Tim from Marin," she said, identifying him as part of the contingent of riders from up north in Marin County. "Why?"
"No reason," I said. "Just curious."
She laughed. "Nice butt, don't you think?"
The evening before the last day of the ride, the organizers presented gag awards to everyone who participated, culminating in one for "Mr. Nice Guy." The award went to Tim. At the lunch stop the next day, I positioned myself next to him as we waited in the sandwich line at a roadside deli and congratulated him on his Mr. Nice Guy crown.
He groaned. "My whole life it's been the bane of my existence."
"There's nothing wrong with being nice," I assured him, checking to see he if he wore a wedding band. He didn't.
We carried our trays to a picnic table outside and sat beside each other. Tim opened a bag of potato chips and set it between us.
"I've been trying to find a good sourdough bread recipe," he said, biting into his sandwich.
"You bake bread?"
He also grew tomatoes and strawberries and made his own jam. He tended a garden in his Marin backyard, over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, where he worked as a dermatologist at the University of California. His practice included patients suffering from diseases with names like "pemphigus" and "leishmaniasis" and "notalgia paresthetica." He was divorced with no children, and he liked to travel and dance.
When I told him I worked in a contemporary art museum writing press releases, he said modern art was his favorite. Before he worked for the university, Tim had served as an Army doctor for twelve years. He'd spent hours touring the great museums of Europe. "I developed a real appreciation for German Expressionism," he said.
I had never met a man on a bike ride who knew the difference between contemporary and modern art, who grew tomatoes, made his own jam, and baked bread. In truth, I'd never met a man on a bike ride who didn't spend most of his time telling me about other, better bike rides, and future ones he planned to take.
"I ride in a bike club with a bunch of ex-Navy guys," I said. "That's my connection to the military."
He grabbed my bicep and squeezed. "That's why you're so strong."
Every nerve ending on the surface of my skin tingled.
I knew that when the last leg of the ride was over, Tim was going to return to his life in San Francisco, five hundred miles away. But I'd been single long enough to know how rare our chemistry was. There was a naturalness between us, as if we were continuing a conversation we had started a long time ago instead of just beginning one. Sitting beside him, I was giddy and lightheaded. My cheeks felt warm; I couldn't stop blushing. I wanted to know everything about him.
Before we got back on our bikes—and breaking every rule about being mysterious and playing hard-to-get—I blurted out that there was one more thing Tim might want to know about me: I couldn't have children.
"Just as an FYI," I added.
Tim nodded. "That must be hard for you."
I looked straight into his blue eyes, trying to see all the way through to the inner workings of his mind. "I'd like to adopt."
He emptied a cup of ice into his water bottle before answering. "Adoption is a viable option for a lot of people."
"A lot of people, but not you. Right?" I was already picturing myself riding away alone with my head tucked down.
He touched my arm again, pulling me back from wherever I had gone to protect myself. "Don't put words in my mouth. The truth is, I've never been a big believer in the biological imperative to reproduce myself directly."
"Oh, really?" I said. "How interesting."
Perhaps he wasn't a big believer in the biological imperative to reproduce himself. But after the series of heartbreaks I'd been through, how could I be sure? It was easy to say you didn't believe in something as long as it didn't apply to you. Ask any of my previous boyfriends.
"Is that why you never had children?" I pulled my arm back closer to my side.
Tim sealed the top of his water bottle, shaking it lightly to double-check it was closed. "I was married sixteen years," Tim said. "It just never happened." He must have noticed the way my face fell because he added, "That isn't the reason we broke up. But it's why I don't have children."
Every week for the next three months, Tim express-mailed me a package of homemade bread. Grain spiced with cardamom, carrot flecked with raisins, poppy seed on rye. Tucked inside each was a note: The water in the bay glittered when he rode over the bridge; the soil was rich as he turned it over in his garden, preparing for spring planting; a cloud formation at sunset was the same shade of pink as my cheeks.
I opened the packages cautiously, as if they were something I had to stand back from, a connection too hot to touch. Anyone could write a nice letter, I reminded myself even as I read his over and over, relishing his description of my freckles as "forbidden fruit" and cherishing his pet name for me, the "Maximum Fox." He assembled Top Ten lists of why I was special, clipped articles from the newspaper about appealing art exhibitions we should go see, marked up maps with bike routes we could ride together when I came to visit. I responded via email with short, chatty notes about my job and bike rides, terrified of the intimacy of writing by hand. I was afraid that if I put pen to paper, I might reveal my true feelings for him—the way I appreciated his compassion and sensitivity, his curiosity and intellect, his thoughtfulness. Somehow I might have let slip that I was falling in love.
In March, Tim was invited to lecture in San Diego. The date coincided with a reception at my museum, and I invited him to stop by when he finished. He'd never seen me in anything other than biking shorts or sweat pants, and I was afraid he might not recognize me in my black dress and pearls. But he did, and he hugged me hard in the middle of the atrium.
"I can't stop thinking about you," he whispered in my ear. "You're the love of my life."
I started laughing and crying, astonished. We kissed for the first time.
We dated long-distance for a year before I moved to Tim's house in Marin. By then, his love for me convinced him he was also ready to adopt. When I told my parents we were engaged, my mother threw her hands over her head and exclaimed, "It's a miracle!" It was only the second time in my life I'd seen my father cry.
On January 5, 2002, Tim and I were married in my folks' living room. I started the adoption paperwork the day we returned from our honeymoon.

Chapter 3
I discovered Yolanda Sánchez while sitting in my cubicle at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on a Monday morning in late May 2002. Her agency, Across the Border Adoptions, featured photo listings of Guatemalan infants so new to the world their eyes weren't yet opened. Fingernails as tiny as match heads, mouths the size of miniature rose petals. Their dark hair glistened flat against their heads, still wet from being born.
Stacks of glossy adoption brochures sat on our kitchen table, filled with pictures of "Russian princesses" and "China dolls," home at last with their "forever families." But it was Yolanda's website to which I was addicted. Every morning for a month I arrived at work an hour early, and before I had taken the lid off my coffee, I logged onto my computer to check the babies' status. "Emily with the enchanting eyes," "Darling Jacklyn," and "Healthy Hannah" were listed for only a week or two before a family claimed them. How could the adopting parents make a decision based on a photo? Wasn't the temptation to fall in love with the most adorable child—logic and health concerns forgotten? Yet here I was, scrolling through Yolanda's website, falling in love myself.
After returning from our honeymoon, I began assembling our adoption dossier, the required compendium of facts about us that I ultimately had notarized and authenticated by the Secretary of State in Sacramento: a home study compiled after three interviews with a licensed social worker; copies of birth, marriage, and divorce certificates; three personal reference letters and one from the California State Police Department verifying we had no criminal records; tax returns; medical reports; and, finally, fingerprint clearance from the Department of Homeland Security.
In adoption parlance, Tim and I were "paper-ready." We could have signed with any one of the agencies whose brochures sat on our kitchen table. The agency would have added our names to the bottom of the waiting list, and after two or three months, assigned us a child in a step called the "referral."
Or I could call Yolanda. She didn't "refer" us a baby; we asked for the one we wanted. Her babies were adoptable immediately, no waiting required. At least that was what she claimed on her website.
On a Wednesday afternoon in July, I entered an unused conference room and closed the door. I circled the conference table three times before Yolanda's answering machine picked up on the eleventh ring. The brisk outgoing message was in English, Spanish, and French.
"My name is Jessica O'Dwyer," I stammered after the beep. "My husband, Tim Berger, and I are considering adoption from Guatemala."
"Hello? Soy Yolanda. I'm here."
"I saw your website."
"You choose your baby," Yolanda purred. "We get paperwork done, quick."
"But we've only been married seven months. Every other agency says we need to be married two years."
"You don't need to be married at all! Look at me, I'm single myself. I adopted one girl already and am adopting a second."
"My husband is over fifty. I'm almost forty-four. They say we can't adopt an infant."
"As long as one parent is under fifty, you can adopt whoever you want."
"Even an infant?"
Yolanda laughed heartily, as though I had just told her the funniest joke.
"Jessica,"—she pronounced my name Yessica—"you want the baby or not?"
Maybe if Tim and I hadn't been so old—maybe if we'd found each other in our twenties instead of in mid-life after our divorces—I wouldn't have felt so much pressure to make a decision quickly.
"All my babies is in foster care," Yolanda murmured.
The private foster care system was the most compelling reason Americans adopted from Guatemala. Instead of growing up in orphanages, the children lived in private homes, doted on by Guatemalan foster mothers. Costs were covered by the adoption fees paid by the American parents. This especially appealed to Tim as a physician. He was a dermatologist, not a pediatrician, but he appreciated how crucial dedicated early care was for an infant.
"Your baby can be home in six months," Yolanda said.
Every book and article we had read on the subject stated that the younger a baby was when she entered a permanent family situation, the easier her transition. Adopting an older child practically guaranteed future challenges. Two different social workers I had spoken with said Guatemala was the country they would adopt from themselves.
At first we had assumed we would adopt a Russian baby with blue eyes and light hair—a baby who looked like us—or a little Chinese girl who was abandoned because of her country's one-child policy. But children from those countries came home at ten months or older. Guatemalan adoption meant our child would look nothing like us, but her life might be easier because she joined our family at a younger age.


On Sale
Oct 19, 2010
Page Count
312 pages
Seal Press

Jessica O’Dwyer

About the Author

Jessica O’Dwyer is the adoptive mother to two children born in Guatemala. Her essays have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Adoptive Families, and the Marin Independent Journal; aired on radio; and won awards from the National League of American Pen Women. She has worked in public relations and marketing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and has also taught jazz dance and high school English.

Jessica is a member of the Left Coast Writers and Writing Mamas, sponsored by Book Passage. A graduate of the University of Delaware, Jessica lives with her husband and children in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mamalita is her first book.

Learn more about this author