Finding the Birth Mother
By Ellen Guettler
Susi is an educated, bilingual Guatemalan hired by adoptive parents who wish to locate their Guatemalan children's birth mothers. Occasionally she will set up meetings between the two families. But most often she'll travel throughout Guatemala, often deep into the countryside, to knock on the door of a woman who hasn't received news of a child she placed for adoption years before.
Susi has conducted 193 searches. She says 160 of them have been successful. Her observations about Guatemalan women who place their children for adoption are based on her own searches.
Susi received a threatening phone call from a Guatemalan adoption lawyer during one of her searches. Now she prefers not to use her last name.
Adoptive parent Laurie Stern has been gathering information about Guatemalan adoptions since she adopted her son Diego in 1999.
This interview was conducted by Laurie Stern and producer Ellen Guettler.
Susi: I like to tell the story of the first search I did. I had an address, I knocked at the door, a woman opened the door and she was the birth mother. She was happy to receive news of the child and that was it. I thought, this is going to be a piece of cake. Only one other search has been as easy as the first one. Almost two hundred other searches have been very difficult.
Ellen Guettler: Why so difficult?
Susi: Some of the women live in remote areas, so that makes it difficult. I did a search in a Guatemalan town near the border of Belize. We had to walk for over three hours in mud up to the knee. I lost my shoes on the way there. We approached the town, there were only a few houses, and when I approach the family and asked for the woman I was looking for, the woman had a seizure.
Luckily all of her family knew about the adoption. This is common when these birth mothers live in remote areas. It's difficult for them to travel somewhere [alone] to have the baby and come back. So often the family knows. In this case the whole family was very happy to know about the child. And very important medical information was obtained. This woman is receiving help for her seizures through a program in her area. And now the adoptive family knows about the seizures for the child's medical history.
Laurie Stern: Why did you start doing this work?
Susi: This was a way to do some work for Guatemalan women. At first I was a little hesitant. I have to admit that I shared the Guatemalan public opinion about adoptions. I didn't know anything about adoptions, I just knew that foreign people came and took our children away and nobody knew what happened with those children.
[Adoptions are] seen here as a trade. A lot of people see it that way. It's like a business where people get rich through selling children. Giving a child in Guatemala, it's harshly judged by people. It's seen as "only animals give children in adoption." So [women who place their children for adoption] are loaded with shame, loaded with guilt. Most of the community does not know about the adoption, which makes it difficult to look for somebody without giving information.
Stern: So, what is the story you tell about why you're in town?
Susi: I make it obvious that I'm bringing a big envelope, like a FedEx or courier; a lot of Guatemalans have relatives living in the U.S. and they receive family money that comes every month. It doesn't call that much attention if I tell them that I'm bringing an envelope that comes from the States with pictures and a letter for such-and-such person. That's how I get directions to where they live.
I did a search in a town close to the border with Mexico. I found the birth mother, who had remarried recently. She had a one-year-old baby in her arms. When I approached her she was with her husband. I asked for her - it definitely was her. But I had to act like I had the information mixed up because it was obvious that the husband didn't know about the previous child. I was looking straight into her eyes for some hint of recognition and she wouldn't give it to me.
I didn't know what to do. Should I leave and tell the adoptive family that I found her but I couldn't talk to her? I couldn't get her to walk with me because the husband was there and his presence was very strong.
My husband was with me and he took her husband aside and started talking about the weather. I could very briefly talk to the birth mother. She just moved her lips, like He doesn't know.
I said, that's okay. I took the album outside because I wanted her to see that her daughter was fine. Her child was now eight years old. I said this is the couple who is sending the letter and the pictures. They're sending this because they want you to know that everything is fine, that all of them are healthy. I could sense she was grateful for it but I could not leave the album.
And I try my hardest, but sometimes it is impossible without putting the birth mother in jeopardy. Sometimes I know that they are married to abusive husbands who would beat them. Because of the machismo [in Guatemala], they would beat them hard. [The husbands] think maybe [the women] could give a child they have in common now, they would give that child away too. That's the fear some men have.
Stern: So, in what way is making contact with the adoptive families helpful to these women?
Susi: I think it helps her to heal. To relinquish a child is very difficult. [Guatemalans] are family people. We always remain close to family. So to give a child away is a big thing for a woman. [The birth mothers] don't know what happens to these children. When I visit and they see pictures of their children, they see first that they are alive, that they are healthy and most of all that they are loved. It's incredibly healing. I've seen birth mothers cry in emotion, happiness, in pain, in shame, in guilt… a lot of feelings come together in that moment and it's a healing experience.
Stern: But I've met birth mothers who show no visible emotion upon seeing a child they relinquished. What do you make of that?
Susi: My experience is not with mothers that are relinquishing children in the moment. My experience is with birth mothers who have relinquished a child years ago, sometimes eighteen or nineteen years ago.
I think birth mothers accept their fate. They made a decision and they know there is no going back on that decision. Not because they cannot take back their word, but because they know they don't have economic means to provide for the child. They didn't have it six months ago and in six months their economic situation won't change. It's a decision that they chose. Nobody forced them. What forced them to make the decision was the poverty.
Stern: Is it possible to generalize about the motivations and circumstances of these biological mothers?
Susi: Their common background is poverty. Most of them come from very poor families, without access to education or job opportunities. Some come from indigenous communities and maybe they have migrated to Guatemala City. Many girls in rural areas agree to have sexual intercourse with a man because they believe in his promises. He promises to marry her if she goes to bed with him, so she does. Somebody asked me once, but then why does she keep doing it? First it's because she has no sexual education to prevent children. Second, it's because she keeps believing. She thinks things will change a second time.
You know, women here don't make plans for adoption. They are forced to give children in adoption because of poverty. They don't say, "I will give the second and fourth child…" no. They don't plan their lives. They live their lives as it comes.
Machismo is a big component in the birth mothers' history. Also religion has a lot to do with it because there is no child prevention, no sexual education, so women don't know they can have a sexual relationship without a child being born from it.
Stern: Can you make similar generalizations about the adopting parents who have contacted you?
Susi: I think they have a profound love for their children. At the beginning I didn't know you could love a child that wasn't your own the way they do. But I see they have the same goals and desires for their children as I do for my biological children. Because of that love, the adoptive parents know how important a birth mother connection will be for their children - to have questions answered. I have seen how incredible it is when children see their facial resemblances with their birth families and how important that seems to be for them.
Usually these dark-skinned children are with white families and it's the hint that they do not biologically belong to those families. When the children travel to Guatemala, they see that there are a lot of dark faces here and they recognize themselves in those faces, they have a sense of belonging somewhere. Having a connection with the birth family gives the child a full picture of who they are.
Guettler: Why do you make it a policy to not talk with adoptionlawyers and to keep your searches secret?
Susi: I'm interested in building a relationship of trust with the birth mothers. Also, in one of the first searches that I did, the only address shown on the papers was the foster care provider, but it was shown as the birth mother's address. I went to check that address and I found not the birth mother, but the foster care provider. And she became so nervous and she didn't know the birth mother.
That was in the afternoon. It was eleven at night when I received a very threatening call from the lawyer- not to mess with his things and to stay away from the birth mother and the foster care provider. That's why I don't contact lawyers. I see my work as risky. It could be dangerous.