Published on October 27th, 2020 | by Cheryl Klein1
“Getting My Arms Around the Thousands of Pieces”: Jessica O’Dwyer on Her New Novel and the Complexities of Adoption
We’d just said goodnight to a newly expecting friend when we got the email. Our friend was excited and nervous about becoming a dad. He wondered about birth plans and his girlfriend’s vegan diet. I thought, for the millionth time, with the millionth friend, I hope we adopt soon so our kids can grow up together.
My partner, C.C., looped from freeway to freeway and played the Frozen II soundtrack in hopes that our five-year-old would fall asleep in his carseat, which he did. Some hopes are small and easily fulfilled.
I read C.C. the email from our adoption facilitator: new case in the works, 20-year-old African-American mother in South Carolina, struggling to parent her seven-month-old boy, had decided adoption was best. Medical records pending. Should they share our profile with her?
Yes, we agreed. I tapped out a reply from the passenger seat. I imagined telling our child about the night we learned of his existence. The masked walk we’d taken with our friend, the smells of street food, the app we’d held up to the sky to find Jupiter. His mother’s unimaginably hard, brave choice.
And then, sixteen hours later, another email from our facilitator: The baby’s mother had chosen someone else.
Adoption demands that you constantly re-narrate your own story, and that of a handful of strangers. To carry around love for a child you’ve never met is to know that fate is fake. You could love any baby, and the story is the thing that grows in its wake. Yet–in the same way that certain dreams are so unshakably real–you hold onto a problematic, fatalistic belief that “our baby is out there.” You know that your parenting story begins (and continues) where someone else’s parenting story ends (and continues).
When Julie Cowan, one of two mothers in Jessica O’Dwyer’s new novel, Mother Mother (out this month from Apprentice House Press), sees a picture of Felix, a gorgeous Guatemalan baby, she knows he’s meant to join her family. But attempts to confirm his origins fail, and Julie does her best to move on. Matching with baby Juan begins a new story and a new struggle, as Julie and Juan ride the waves of American and Guatemalan history, war, and government bureaucracy.
The second mother in Mother Mother is actually a first mother (and this small narrative reversal speaks volumes about the power dynamics of adoption). Rosalba is a young Indigenous Guatemalan woman–an adoptee herself, rescued from a village decimated by either military or militia forces–whose life is pockmarked by poverty and loss. Her decision to place her baby for adoption is a matter of survival. Her first-person story unfolds as a testimonial to a group of adoption tourists.
Adoption exists at the intersections of privilege and oppression, destiny and happenstance. Mother Mother explores these themes while also holding tight to the narratives of two particular women. To truly understand adoption, the novel suggests, one can’t ignore the zygote-small details or the great cruel tides that pull us all. Here, Jessica O’Dwyer expands on the ethics of both storytelling and adoption in a horrifically unfair world.
You wrote a memoir about your own experience adopting children from Guatemala. How did it become apparent that you wanted to write a novel on the topic? What did you hope to explore or accomplish?
After Mamalita was published, I realized there was more to say about family, marriage, and adoption; and about the violent history of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war and its aftermath. I wanted to tell a story that was true—that contained Truth with a capital T—and some truths can only be revealed through fiction. Adoption is so broad and so deep, and most novels that incorporate it as a theme, to me, barely scratch the surface. My goal was to give a fuller, more layered picture.
Rosalba’s narrative is moving and immersive. How did you make decisions about crafting her voice? How did you balance the #OwnVoices movement in the literary world with the inherent risks of fiction (i.e. fiction necessarily asks us to imagine lives we haven’t lived)?
I knew the success of the book hinged on getting Rosalba’s voice right. I also knew Rosalba would tell her own story, through a format known as testimonial, a first-person recitation that’s popular throughout Central America.
My daughter’s family is K’iche’—one of 23 Mayan groups in Guatemala—and approximately 40 percent of the country identifies as indigenous. On my many visits to Guatemala, I’ve had ample opportunity to know and interact with women and girls who inspired Rosalba. I’ve also witnessed and listened to testimonials by survivors of the Guatemalan genocide, including Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú, whose voice is very distinctive. I absorbed these voices into my body—almost as an actor would do—and wrote them into Rosalba. Imagining other lives is the work of a fiction writer.
The #OwnVoices movement is important and essential. Voices that haven’t been heard deserve to be heard and should be brought forward in the publishing industry. During the seven years I researched and wrote Mother Mother, in every writing workshop including at my MFA program, my right to tell this story was questioned. The questions forced me to make sure I did my due diligence times ten, in terms of writing with authenticity.
In adoption, we talk about the “triad,” which is the birth or first mother, the baby or child, and the adoptive parent. You can’t discuss adoption without considering each one of these three essential parts. Acknowledging all sides of the triad is similar to the concept Chimamanda Adichie describes in her famous TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” As Adichie explains, the danger of a single story is not that it’s wrong, but that it’s incomplete.
To tell a story that contains truth about adoption, I needed at least two points of view. Two different mothers from two different worlds. Ultimately, that’s how I gave myself permission to continue.
Part of the power of this novel, for me, is in the juxtaposition of Julie’s life as an upper-middle class museum curator in the California Bay Area, and Rosalba’s life as an Indigenous woman in the mountains of Guatemala. At one point, Julie does self-affirmations and tells herself “Everything works out for my highest good.” That sense of American manifest destiny is pretty painful to read alongside scenes of the militia destroying Mayan villages. I’m often struck by how adoption (perhaps international adoption, especially) eliminates the option to live in a bubble of moral purity. What turning points did you identify for Julie? How have you navigated the inequities of the adoption process in your own life?
The first turning point for Julie came when she got the DNA match report and saw a photo of her son sitting on his birth mother’s lap because that was the moment Julie was confronted by Juan’s back story, beginning with his being formed in another woman’s womb. A second was educating herself about the 36-year armed conflict in Guatemala and connecting the dots from that societal disruption to the growth of the adoption “industry.” A third was recognizing the loss her son endured in being separated from his biological mother—the phenomenon known in adoption as the “primal wound”—and how that primal wound played out in Juan’s ability to trust and love.
All of those are minefields Julie needed to navigate. That, in addition to the growing realization she was party to something that may have been illegal.
Being an adoptive mother for nearly two decades has changed me profoundly. From our first visit to Guatemala, I was faced with an imbalance of power, on every level—from the privilege of traveling on an American passport to turning on a faucet and being assured of clean drinking water.
But the most profound change came when I met each of my children’s mothers. I felt tremendous sorrow that each is not raising the baby who came from her body. Even if a mother seems content to see her child happy and loved, even if she’s placed other children because she feels she can’t care for any child, even if her children have been removed from the home for their safety, there’s still a sense of loss. Should I have done more to help her keep her children? Could she really give informed consent? And those questions don’t take into account the reality of raising kids who don’t look like me, and what that feels like for my children every day of their lives.
Adoption is mired in complexity. Yes, corruption and trafficking are real. Yes, the system lacks transparency. On the other hand, consider the millions of kids around the world who grow up in institutional care without the support and love of permanent family, who age out of systems lacking any safety net whatsoever.
How do I navigate this? With many years of reflection and therapy. By accepting that I’ve participated in a process that’s not black-and-white, but gray. I reside in nuance. At the end of the day, my children are here now. They’re here now and they need me. My job is to love and raise them to the best of my ability.
As you know, adoptions between Guatemala and the United States closed permanently in December 2007. My husband and I do what we can to help improve conditions for girls and women in Guatemala, by financially supporting organizations focused on education, health care, and family planning.
Julie’s friend Piper decides to “rehome” the girls she and her husband have adopted from Haiti, for reasons that are rather suspect. I loved that you drew parallels between the choices that birth moms make and the choices that adoptive parents make in placing their own children. (I wrote a blog post in response to the Myka Stauffer story, and got a lot of “Nope, she’s a monster” pushback.) Tell me a little bit about how you developed this storyline.
Rehoming is a tragic reality of adoption and one I needed to include to tell a complete story. It’s a subject that always results in an avalanche of judgement, often from people with no direct experience of adoption.
Not every parent can parent every child. Full stop. If every parent could parent every child, there would be no adoption, no foster care, no abandoned children. Every baby, child, or teen comes with her own specific needs—some are physical and many are psychological or emotional—and not every parent can handle those needs. Admitting you are overwhelmed or ill-equipped doesn’t make you a monster. It makes you human.
With Piper, I created a character who was the biological mother to two teenage sons. Parenting those boys had come easily to Piper, so she assumed she’d have no problem parenting two newly adopted daughters from Haiti. What Piper hadn’t counted on was the trauma her daughters had endured—by losing their mothers, by living in an orphanage, by being rejected by extended family—and how that trauma would play out in Piper’s family’s daily lives. Piper also hadn’t understood the preparation required to introduce two children to an existing family unit.
Reading about high-profile rehoming situations and the harsh judgment that follows reminds me that adoptive parents are held to a standard different from biological parents. Developing a thick skin comes with the territory.
Have your kids read Mother Mother? What feedback and insight did they offer along the way?
To be honest, my kids show little interest in any of my writing. For example, my first book, Mamalita, is a memoir about my daughter’s adoption. Olivia is 18 and still hasn’t read it. That said, my kids are perceptive and insightful, especially around their feelings and experiences. Simply by being themselves, they’ve taught me so much, which I’m sure has informed my writing subconsciously.
What was most exciting about writing this novel? What was most challenging?
Most exciting was reaching a point where the manuscript was a cohesive whole, a behemoth that needed rewriting and cutting and re-ordering, but worked as a narrative. Most challenging was getting there. Simply getting my arms around the thousands of pieces of information and emotion and wrestling them to the ground.
The story ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. In your mind, do you know what happens next? Why did you decide to leave things open-ended?
I know what I hope happens next: that healing begins for everyone, with inevitable challenges along the way. I left things open-ended so the reader could insert herself into the scene and ask, “What would I do?” Nothing about adoption is simple.