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open international adoption guatemala

Author Jessica O’Dwyer: Why We Wanted Open International Adoption

When deciding which type of adoption to pursue, some would-be parents choose international adoption because they tend to be by their very nature closed. First parents are presumed unknown and not in the picture (which may not always be true). Closedness is part of the allure to some; an open international adoption with birth parents in the mix is rarely possible.

But sometimes an open international adoption is possible. Jessica O’Dwyer is a mom who was determined to find and connect with the birth mothers of her children and cultivate ongoing contact with them over the years. Here’s why and how.

Jessica O’Dwyer on Open International Adoption

Growing up, I didn’t know anyone involved in an open adoption. Granted, I’m old, and back then nobody talked about adoption, much less expanded their family configuration to include first mothers. When my husband and I started the process to adopt our daughter Olivia from Guatemala in 2002, we never discussed reuniting with her birth mother. I hadn’t known it was possible. And even if I had known, I’m not sure I would have rushed in to participate. My thoughts about reunion mostly were based in fear. What if her birth mother said the adoption was corrupt (a possibility in Guatemala)? Would they take my daughter away? What if Olivia loved her other mother more? 

When Olivia turned 15 months old and her adoption was dragging on, I quit my job in San Francisco, rented an apartment in the colonial town of Antigua, and moved there. Guatemala was unique among sending countries because it allowed adoptive parents to stay with their children before the final decree was signed. By then, Olivia had lived with her birth mother and two different foster families, plus stayed with us for long weekends in a Guatemala City hotel. The back-and-forth was confusing for my daughter. I wanted her to bond with me. 


It was while we lived in Antigua that my thinking about reunion shifted. Everywhere I looked, I saw women who could have been Olivia’s mother, with faces that were time-lapsed, future versions of my daughter’s. On street corners and in restaurants, I imagined I saw her sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts. Once at a tourist market, a weaver said she was from the same village where, according to the paperwork, Olivia’s mother was born. I started shaking and hurried away.

Not to mention that Guatemala itself was so different from California. Living in Antigua, I came to understand that my daughter’s homeland was a specific place, with a culture, history, and traditions of its own. Olivia was marked by these elements, which were as deeply embedded in her as the blood of her biological parents.  

Closing the Circle

Soon after I came home with Olivia, we adopted our son, Mateo. From online groups, I learned about “searchers” who found and reunited birth mothers with children they’d relinquished. When Olivia and Mateo were seven years old, we searched for and found each of their birth mothers. Nothing compares with witnessing that first moment of recognition, the discovery of “Yes. It’s you.” I describe it as a circle being closed. 

Open international adoption by Jessica O'Dwyer. Daughter with birth mom and birth grandmother.

My children know they are loved because they feel their mothers’ love. They understand why their mothers made the decisions they made because their mothers have told them. “Ana” and “Claudia” are relieved the babies they said good-bye to and never expected to see again are healthy, happy, and cherished. Amid their loss, they’re reassured their children are safe. 

We All Benefit from Open International Adoption

I’ve benefitted, too. Knowing Ana and Claudia has given me insight into my children’s personalities, talents, and temperaments, which are so much like their Guatemalan mothers, and nothing like mine. Knowing these women also helps me comfort my children when they’re overwhelmed with feelings of sadness that sometimes arise, despite belonging to a family who loves them and feeling love from their birth mothers. 

Neither Ana nor Claudia wishes us to connect with the fathers of Olivia and Mateo, and we’ve agreed to honor their wishes. That could change as my children get older. The story continues to unfold as our relationships with Ana and Claudia deepen.

open international adoption guatemala

Our two open adoptions are not simple or straightforward. Lives are complicated and emotions can be volatile. Needs and desires don’t always align. But the rewards outweigh the challenges. Opening our adoptions was the right decision.

I’d never presume to tell anyone else how to parent. I can only share my experience. My kids are now 18 and 16. We’ve been in reunion for more than 10 years. Because of our relationships with their birth families, the ground we stand on feels solid. We keep moving forward together. 

Jessica O’Dwyer is the author of the novel, Mother Mother, and memoir, Mamalita. Her essays have been published in The New York Times Motherlode, San Francisco Chronicle, Adoptive Families, Grown and Flown, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Northern California. Find her at and on Facebook as Jessica O’Dwyer, Author.

Mother Mother, Jessica’s New Novel

Over the summer, I got to read an advance copy of Jessica’s novel Mother Mother. I thought I was in for some light reading, something feel-good about adoption, but I was wrong. Jessica’s first foray into fiction shows she isn’t afraid to go into the hard parts of adoption, of conflict, of strife.

The main character, Julie, is in the position many adoptive moms were in the early 2000s: we had an Either/Or mindset that came from what everyone “knew” about adoption. Such as the idea, from the Closed Adoption Era, that a person can have only one legitimate set of parents. Flowing from that is the need to elevate one set and erase the other. That still seems to be what people “know” about adoption: Either/Or.

As the novel progresses, Julie does what many adoptive moms of that era did: she begins to see more and more from her child’s point of view. Doing so often cracks a person open to a more functional BothAnd heartset.

There is much more to this story than just the mom’s inner journey to better meet her son’s needs. There is also a heartbreaking back story that takes place in Guatemala during its vicious civil war years.

I enjoyed this book and Julie’s frank transformation from me-me-me to him-him-him. I think you will, too.

Along These Lines

guide to living in open adoption

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Her first book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life. Her second book, Standing Room Only: How to Be THAT Yoga Teacher is now available in paperback, and her third book, Adoption Unfiltered, is now available through your favorite bookseller!

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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