“How did Olivia respond to meeting her birth mother?” I’m frequently asked this question by people who know our story or have read my memoir, Mamalita. For many parents who adopted children internationally, a birth mother relationship is uncharted territory.
Each reunion experience is different. What is true for us may not be true for you; what is true for us today may not be true for us tomorrow, or next year. Our relationship with Olivia’s birth mother continues to evolve. The overarching element is love. And relief. Relief for Ana, knowing the baby she gave up is a healthy, happy, and loved 11-year-old girl. Relief for me, knowing that Ana placed Olivia for adoption — not without sorrow and loss, but with free will. Ana was sure that adoption to a family in the United States was the best choice for her daughter.
To connect with Ana, I hired a professional “searcher,” a Guatemalan woman I found through an online adoption group. The searcher approached Ana with discretion, under the guise of delivering an express mail envelope. Afterward, the searcher gave us photos and a report detailing Ana’s current living situation and her reaction to hearing from the couple in California who had adopted her baby — a welcomed and unexpected surprise.
In addition, the searcher facilitated our initial meeting in Guatemala, which I recommend. Reunions between birth and adoptive families can be awkward for everyone. Our relationship with Ana now feels secure enough that I navigate the logistics myself.
Language remains a challenge: Ana is an indigenous Maya K’iche widow, who lives with her two teen children, Luis and Dulce, and her own mother, Abuela, in a highland town north of Lake Atitlan. Ana’s first language is K’iche, with some Spanish. Luis and Dulce are bilingual K’iche and Spanish, while Abuela speaks only K’iche. My Spanish is rudimentary at best, and Olivia’s skill is developing.
We hug a lot. We gesture. We hold hands. The most effective way to communicate is via sketch pads. Like Olivia, her birth mother and half-siblings draw very well. Everyone depicts scenes from their lives, and passes them around. Favorite subjects for our Guatemalan family include birds, trees, and the facades and interiors of churches. Luis and Dulce call me their “American mom.” Ana refers to me as “little mommy.”
Since our first reunion, we’ve been visiting Olivia’s birth family at least once a year. To protect Ana’s privacy, we meet in a relatively large town on Lake Atitlan, instead of in her small village. Relinquishing a child is often viewed with shame in Guatemala, and we wouldn’t want to compromise Ana’s safety or reputation by making ourselves visible in her community. Someday, we hope to visit Ana’s home, but we will wait for her invitation and respect her timetable.
Meeting Olivia’s birth mother has answered many questions for Olivia. From visiting Guatemala, Olivia has witnessed firsthand the hardships faced by many in the country, especially poor indigenous women. At the same time, she has sat on her birth mother’s lap and felt her mother’s embrace. She knows that she is loved.
Though she’s far away, Ana feels like a real and familiar part of our family. “Your beautiful smile is just like Ana’s,” I tell Olivia. “You’re both artists.”
This past Saturday, as I drove our minivan into our garage, Olivia piped up from the backseat and said, “I have four moms.”
I put the car in park and turned off the engine. “Do tell, Olivia.”
“I have you, Mom, and Mama Ana. And I have Mateo’s birth mom, because he’s my brother, so she’s my mother, too. And I have Mary, the mother of God.” (We’re Catholic.)
“Four moms,” I said, “and we all love you.” Reaching over the backseat, I squeezed my daughter’s hand.