A Complicated Privilege
At first, I was eager to assert my "real mother" status in my daughter’s eyes. Now I’m happy knowing I’m not her only one.
by Elizabeth Larsen
I first met my daughter in the lobby of the Westin Camino Real, the grandest hotel in Guatemala City. The night before, my husband, Walter, and I had soothed our nerves by running on the treadmills in the fitness center, where a polite attendant handed us plush white towels. Afterward, I wrote a series of letters to our daughter. Because children adopted from overseas usually have little information about their history, parents are advised to document the trip, creating an "adoption story."
Reading the journal now, more than two years later, it seems so self-conscious. "We’ve been waiting so long to meet you—almost seven months!" Gone is any sense of the surreal. I mentioned, but didn’t dwell on, the brutal poverty outside our hotel windows, focusing instead on how our two biological sons were looking forward to meeting their little sister.
There is one section of the journal, however, that strays from the boilerplate. "I feel so sad for your birthmother, since she is not able to raise you," I wrote. "But I believe now that I am your ‘real’ mommy." Reading those words now sparks a flash of shame.
Even though my daughter was legally classified as an orphan, she had two Guatemalan parents who were very much alive.
I remember being comforted by the Guatemalan social worker’s report; the baby’s mother, Beatriz, had made an informed choice to place her for adoption.
The truth is that I didn’t know Beatriz. And I was secretly relieved that this was so.
"All of these children need families"
Walter and I tried to do everything right during the adoption process. We’d heard of corrupt lawyers, fly-by-night operators who use online photo listings to lure parents, of baby stealing and baby selling. We chose one of the largest and most respected agencies, and faithfully attended all the counseling appointments. Although we agonized over the potential hardships for a Latina child raised in a white family, and the ethics of choosing the child’s sex, we were reassured at every step that what we were doing was a good and worthy thing.
"I just need to know that the child we adopt has no other options," Walter finally told our social worker. I can’t remember her exact answer, but it was something along the lines of "all of these children need families."
As we looked through our daughter’s paperwork, Walter and I noticed that her first, middle, and last names were exactly the same as her mother’s. We told ourselves this was probably a legal decision made for the sake of checkups and court appearances. I’d read that some adoptees believe their given name is a precious connection to their heritage. Our social worker said it was up to us to decide what was right for our family, so we changed her first name to Flora and made Beatriz her middle name.
When we asked about meeting Beatriz during our adoption trip, however, we were told that she had gone back to her village and wasn’t reachable.
Meeting Flora’s foster mother
A week later we flew to Guatemala City. I had been naked and sweating when I met my sons in the sterile glow of a hospital birthing room. Now I stepped out of an elevator onto rose-colored marble floors to face Flora’s foster mother, Maria, a stout woman with a six-month-old girl riding at her hip in a woven sling.
A translator dutifully repeated my questions—What time did Flora go to bed? How often did she nap each day? Did she eat solid foods?—but after Maria answered, she paused.
"She wasn’t told that this was your pickup trip," the translator told us. "She thought you were only visiting." Tears streaked down Maria’s cheeks as she adjusted the stroller’s back, to show us that Flora liked to take her bottle lying on her back. Then, her voice catching, she recited the prayer Flora fell asleep to every night. She explained that she and her husband tried to prepare themselves to say goodbye, but it was always hard.
When I asked Maria if she knew Beatriz, she smiled. "Muy linda," she said. "Muy carińosa." Very lovely. Very affectionate. That last word opened up a hopeful possibility: Had Beatriz spent time with Flora? The agency hadn’t been able to tell us, and the lawyer’s office claimed Beatriz didn’t have a phone.
Maria looked puzzled when I told her this. She held up her cell phone and gestured that Beatriz’s number was stored in her speed dial.
"Would she want to meet us?" I asked.
Maria shook her head. I think she said that it would be too painful for Beatriz.
Needing to find her
Six months later, on Flora’s first birthday, Maria called to say that Beatriz wanted us to know she felt she had made the right decision. Soon after, we heard from our social worker that Beatriz had visited the lawyer and wanted to see photos of her daughter.
Several months later, after another call from Maria, I sang to my daughter as I changed her diaper. "Flora Beatriz," I cooed. "You are one beautiful kid." Hearing myself say her middle name took me aback. Beatriz, I suddenly realized, had chosen it. And that’s when it finally sank in: Beatriz hadn’t made a "choice" in the liberating way that our post-Roe culture thinks about reproductive options. Like any woman in the developing world placing a child for adoption, she’d buckled under crushing financial or social pressure—perhaps even coercion.
Walter walked in, flushed and sweating from wrestling with the boys. His smile fell as he saw me crying. "Did something happen?"
"I think Beatriz wants us to find her," was all I could say.
Is it ethical for an adoptive parent to push for information about her child’s birth family? Or should that be a decision left to the adoptee? And what about the birth family’s right to privacy?
Susi’s e-mail flashed on my screen a month after we had hired her to find Beatriz. Operating by word of mouth, Susi has done hundreds of searches for birth families. Her e-mail relieved us of two worries: Beatriz had been hoping we would find her, and she had not been coerced into placing Flora for adoption. She thanked us for making it possible to watch her child grow up. She missed her, prayed for her, and wanted Flora to know that not a day passed when she didn’t think about her. She said that before the adoption she was a bubbly person. Now she kept mostly to herself.
I’d nurtured a vague notion of a faraway woman grieving for her lost child. But as soon as an image of Beatriz sobbing into her pillow materialized, my brain concocted a counter-narrative, a story in which she was healing from her loss. A story in which not having to raise the child I tucked into bed every night freed Beatriz in some way.
To most Americans, Flora’s adoption is measured entirely by what she gains—Montessori schools, soccer camps, piano lessons, college. But it no longer quite computes that way for me. To gain a family, my daughter had to lose a family. To become an American child, she had to stop being a Guatemalan child.
Walter and I are nothing if not grade-grubbing students in the super-parent classroom. We have a babysitter who is from Guatemala and speaks only Spanish with our children. She cooks us pepian and invites us for tamales with her family. A jade statue of a Mayan corn goddess stands on our living room shelf, and a woven huipil hangs in the hall.
Which is all very well—but the results can sometimes seem like a trip to Epcot. I hope that if Flora rolls her eyes at our jaguar masks and woven placemats one day, I’ll be able to smile. But what if the decision she most resents is the one we can’t rescind? You can’t exactly put a birth family back into a drawer.
Loving our daughter
Flora was two and a half when we returned to Guatemala City. Walter and I had decided it would be easier for her to meet Beatriz this young; as she grew up, she and Beatriz would figure out what they wanted from their relationship. But it was an uneasy compromise. Unlike our domestic counterparts, we didn’t have the benefit of longitudinal studies and books detailing best practices. There was no legal document to set out the terms of contact, only a tendril of trust spun from the fact that Beatriz, Walter, and I all loved the same child.
Susi had decided we should meet Beatriz at McDonald’s, because it would afford us some anonymity. It turned out to be the perfect setting for Flora, no stranger to the pleasures of McNuggets. In the lunchtime rush, few looked up to wonder why a blond gringa and a petite Guatemalan were clinging to each other and weeping.
When you meet your daughter’s mother, you don’t waste time with small talk. And at first, there was no need for talking, because Beatriz could not take her eyes off Flora.
"Hola, mi amor," she said as she bent down.
Flora frowned and turned away. "I want Daddy," she said.
Walter picked her up and kissed her cheek. "Sweetie," he said. "This is Beatriz. She’s your Guatemalan mommy." Flora buried her face in his shoulder. Nervously, we tried to draw her out. But Beatriz told us not to worry.
With Susi translating, Beatriz told us that she was deeply depressed for a year after the adoption was finalized. She got through her pain by turning to God. She loved being in the hospital with Flora and visiting her in foster care. She assumed that she would never see Flora again, and she was still in shock that she had. She took obvious delight in how healthy and happy Flora was. She told us the names of all of Flora’s relatives, and explained that Flora gets her dimples from her uncle.
Somewhere along the way, Flora smiled at Beatriz and lobbed a toy onto the table. Beatriz laughed.
"She’s kind of a tomboy," I said.
Susi and Beatriz looked puzzled.
"She likes to play boy games with her brothers," I continued. Flora was dressed for the occasion in a freshly ironed dress and white patent-leather sandals.
"She doesn’t like dresses," I added. "She prefers to wear pants."
"Oh!" Beatriz clapped. "Just like me!"
"And she is very attached to Walter."
"That’s just like me, too!" she continued. "I loved my father more than anyone."
Then I blurted it out, sobbing. "I’m sorry we changed her name."
"Don’t worry," Beatriz said. "You’ve given me more than I could ever have imagined." Her gratitude was unsettling, unnecessary, overwhelming.
Many adoptive parents describe their connection with their children as something destined by a higher power. "God brought us to each other," they’ll say. I understand why we want to think that, but the reality is, Flora is my child because something went wrong. To believe otherwise would mean that God intended for Beatriz to suffer and that we got to add a girl to our family because we could afford the price.
At the end of our third hour together, all of us—save Flora—looked shell-shocked, but no one wanted to leave. Beatriz asked if I worked. I said I was a journalist and that one day I hoped to write about women in Guatemala, and other countries, who place their children for adoption. I told her that we don’t hear much about these mothers. Beatriz nodded. "Please write about me," she said. "Please tell the Americans how much I love my daughter."
Loving an adopted child is easy. In fact, Flora’s adoption was, in some astonishing way, more powerful than giving birth to my sons. To fall so deeply for a daughter who has no genetic link to me made me realize that we are hard-wired to love the children we are given to raise.
Raising an adopted child is, however, a complicated privilege. Walter and I could not turn our backs on Beatriz’s poverty. After trying, unsuccessfully, to find a nonprofit that would help us sponsor her somehow, we finally decided just to send her money through Susi, so she could finish her education.
What I do know is that I have never felt more like Flora’s "real" mother than when Beatriz and I were holding each other at that meeting. And that’s not because Flora so obviously saw me as her mommy. It’s because I now understand I’m not her only one.
Elizabeth Larsen is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Wondertime and Utne Reader. This piece was excerpted from a longer article that ran in Mother Jones magazine. Read the full article on MotherJones.com. Reprinted with permission from Mother Jones magazine, 2007, Foundation for National Progress.
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