Book Review: Mother Mother by Jessica O’Dwyer

Mother Mother – Jessica O’Dwyer (Apprentice House Press, 2020)

I received an e-ARC of this book thanks to the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own. It is on sale now.

When Julie and Mark embark on adopting a baby from Guatemala, they have no idea of the challenges they will face. After an initial adoption falls through, they are matched with an infant boy. Bureaucracy, red tape, and the closing down of adoptions from Guatemala, however, means that years pass before Juan Rolando is officially adopted and comes to live with them in San Francisco. For four years, they fly back and forth, visiting him in the confines of a hotel for a few days at a time, attempting to bond with a child they hardly know. After their adoption is finally completed and Juan Rolando is officially their son and an American citizen, Mark and Julie hire a searcher to find Juan’s (who has renamed himself Jack) birth mother, hoping to fill in the gaps of his health and medical chart. The search instead reveals that Jack’s biological mother is not the woman they were told and that his documents were forged. This is a secret that Mark and Julie keep to themselves, unsure whether or not Jack was an infant given up voluntarily or purchased from his mother by manipulation.

The story focuses primarily on Julie who has a successful job at a small art gallery although she is turned down for a promotion early on in the book. O’Dwyer does well at portraying the tension between Julie’s career and her goals in the art world versus her role as a mother. Mark is a doctor, a research scientist, whose job adapts very little to his new role as a father whereas Julie is the driving force behind their adoption, reworking her days and her career around her role as Jack’s mother. It isn’t hard to see the fractures in their marriage growing.

The book covers quite a bit of time, around a decade, and moves forward quite quickly through the characters’ lives. Toward the end, after a major reveal, we jump forward a whole year and are told only through exposition what the fallout of that reveal has been. While this provides a wide-ranging view of this family and the many facets of adoption, it also made me feel distant from the characters and made it more difficult to sympathize with them. I never felt like I really understood Julie or her motivations and so I never particularly cared what happened to any of them.

O’Dwyer’s bio tells us that she is the mother of two children, adopted from Guatemala. So I have to assume she knows what she’s writing about. The world of international adoption is well outside my realm of expertise and I have no trouble believing that it is a long and painful and expensive road to travel to parenthood. I think international and cross-cultural adoption is a complicated and complex topic. Some of that is touched on in Mother Mother but it was never clear to me what Julie’s own feelings were and whether or not I was supposed to view her as the villain or the hero of the story.

Julie loves her son wholeheartedly. When she befriends another adoptive mother, she is horrified when that mother eventually rehomes her two daughters. At the same time, Julie learns that there is a very real chance her son was either kidnapped or taken from his family under false premises and she and her husband choose to keep this a secret, never investigating further. As well, they make very little effort to keep their son connected to his Guatemalan heritage. While still undergoing the process of adoption and visiting him in Guatemala, they learn Spanish but make no effort to keep it up when he arrives in the US or to encourage him to maintain his first language. They never take him to visit Guatemala or attempt to connect him with Guatemalan-Americans. There is one scene where they take him to a Guatemala restaurant. Later, they attend a camp for families with children adopted from Latin-American countries, which is nice but run entirely by white folks so not at all the same as helping him maintain his connection to his heritage. When Juan, surrounded by white children at school, wants to change his name to Jack, they never even discuss it with him or encourage him to retain his birth name.

Intersecting with all this however is the story of a young woman named Rosalba. Through her we learn more about the long and vicious civil war in Guatemala. We are given a glimpse of the poverty and struggle of a Guatemala woman and how she might end up in the position of giving away a child. While I would have liked to spend more time with Rosalba, I appreciated the nuance this gave the story and the glimpse it provided of Guatemala itself.

As I said, adoption is complicated and international adoption probably even more so. I don’t feel like I’m in a position to comment on the rights or wrongs of it and, as a parent, I can’t imagine the pain and struggle faced by mothers both biological and adoptive. Overall, I would have liked Mother Mother to take me deeper into the emotional territory of it all when, instead, I felt like I was skimming over the surface. This is a book that feels like one I should have cried over but instead found myself not feeling particularly emotional at all. O’Dwyer has also written a non-fiction memoir about her own experience of adoption and I’m interested now to see what her perspective there might be.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Mother Mother by Jessica O’Dwyer”

  1. Ehhh, I think this book would leave me feeling….weird. They know Juan’s mother likely had her son taken from her, but they don’t care? What kind of unethical people are these? The story could have been more tense if there were sections from Juan’s birth mom’s perspective.

    1. Yeah…it wasn’t quite the exploration into adoption I hoped. While I can understand the drive for parents to do everything possible to keep their child with them, it makes it hard to root for Mark and Julie because their behaviour is pretty unethical. Plus there’s kind of a colonial overtone to it, like he’s better off because now he lives in the US.

    2. There was a Lifetime movie called Losing Isaiah about a black mother who is a drug addict. She puts her baby in the dumpster while she’s high. He goes into the system and is adopted by a nice white lady. When he’s 3, his mother wants him back because her life is together and she wants to know what happened to the baby she essentially lost. The movie sets you up to totally scoff at this black mother and pity the white mother, and even as a kid I felt awful about that. How did I know? It’s an interesting movie. Given that this book didn’t work out, the movie might be of more interest to you.

    3. I’m positive I’ve seen that movie. It looks so familiar when I look it up! I can’t imagine raising a kid as my own and years passing and then another woman coming to claim them as her own but at the same time the system definitely favours white middle-class families and there’s a lot more we could do as a society to support women who want to keep their babies but struggle to.

    4. I re-read the movie synopsis, and I guess the moms decide to co-parent somehow, but I don’t remember the movie going like that. I just remember thinking there was a clear race and class issue going on.

  2. Ugh my heart aches for everyone involved in this, there is never an easy answer or black and white path to follow. Sounds like her memoir may be more effective-some people just write non-fiction better than fiction.

    1. That’s my feeling too re: memoir vs fiction. It’s definitely a heartbreaking situation no matter the perspective. I once heard an adoptive parent say that she needed to remember adoption always comes out of trauma, even infant adoption, and it’s always complicated.

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