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International adoption: One mother's motivation to find her children's birth families
Leceta Chisholm Guibault
In May 1996 I attended an adoption workshop in Toronto called "Limited Birth History in International Adoption: Impact and Management Strategies for Adoptive Families."
It was strongly suggested that if you travel to your child's country of birth, start asking questions immediately. It is understandable that you may be overwhelmed when you are united with your child and may just want to get home, but that is the time to find out all you can.
Ask to meet birth parents. If not possible, ask to meet birth relatives. Ask for a photo of birth parents. Follow up on addresses in documents. Ask many questions of foster parents or orphanage workers. Take as many photos as possible, of everything and everybody. Write down addresses of anyone who may be helpful in the future if your child decides to search.
So much can change if you wait 18 years to obtain information. It can mean so much to your child if you can show you were interested in his past and that it is important to you. It isn't enough just to say, "I don't know". You have to try.
That workshop gave me the push I needed to come home and prepare a short letter and photos of my children to send to Guatemala and Colombia to addresses I found in their documents, in hopes of making contact with their birth families. I had always felt that I would try to make contact when my children were much older but then I became worried that the information available to me might be outdated and useless in 18 years.
I prepared small albums of photos and used my Spanish phrase book to try to let my children's birth families know what I felt would be comforting. Their birth children are alive, happy, healthy, intelligent, loved, etc. I certify mailed packages to my daughter's foster mother (she was with her for five months), and to her birthmother in Guatemala, with addresses I found in the court documents. I also tried to contact my son's birth family in Colombia.
For the first few months, up until Christmas, I ran for my mail every day. After Christmas I was starting to give up hope of ever hearing from the families that gave me my precious children. I was taking comfort in the fact that because the mail was certified and it hadn't been returned that just maybe it had arrived and the families were unable to write back. I had imagined my packages arriving at their destinations and when opened I knew that the photos would be instantly recognized. Comfort to the dear souls who surely must be wondering daily . . . where are they? Are they happy? Healthy? Warm? Loved? Are they even alive?
Often when I meet a birthmother here in Canada I ask them what would have made the years more bearable after placing a child for adoption. Every time the response is the same . . . "A photo, maybe the reassurance that my child is loved, warm, healthy, happy . . . " I owe this much (and more!) to my children's birth families. Peace of mind.
My daughter celebrated her sixth birthday on Feb. 28. One week later a letter arrived in the mail from Guatemala. It was from her foster mother, Morena. My daughter has always asked a lot of questions about her, partly because our agency had given us photos, once a month, of Morena holding Kahleah in Guatemala while we waited for her arrival. At this age, Kahleah puts more importance on Morena in her life than her birthmother because in Kahleah's words "Angelica gave birth to me, but Morena took care of me and loved me for five months!"
When we received the letter from Morena it was evident that Morena loved her. She was thrilled to hear from us. She adored the updated photos and news in Kahleah's life. She sent Kahleah a birthday card and five never-before-seen photos of Kahleah while in Guatemala. In each photo she is lovingly held by Morena or her foster father Benjamin in the back yard of their home, surrounded by gorgeous tropical flowers.
Also included were two pages of hand and foot prints taken of Kahleah at four months, and a sheet listing her weights and measurements for her first five months. Morena tells us about her family and says that she kept a pair of Kahleah's baby shoes. She will send us one and keep the other until they meet again. She tells us that she also kept clippings of Kahleah's baby fingernails! She sent all her blessings and said she knew that God's angels would take care of her. A wonderful birthday gift!
Ten days later, while looking through my mail I noticed a letter addressed to me postmarked "New Jersey". I don't know anyone in N.J. When I opened the envelope I pulled out a two-page letter in Spanish. Not understanding Spanish or why I would receive a letter in Spanish from N.J., I looked in the envelope again. I started to cry when a small photo fell out of a seven-year-old little girl with the exact same face and beautiful big brown eyes as my three-year-old son. I knew this gorgeous child had to be my son's birth sister. This was another letter I had been waiting for.
I immediately phoned a friend of mine that moved here a few years ago from Ecuador. We got together that evening to translate the letter. It was Tristan's biological maternal grandmother who wrote the letter. (She gave the letter to the niece of a friend who was visiting Colombia from New Jersey, asking her to mail it when she returned to the U.S.).
Tristan's abuela thanked me a million times and blessed me two million times for giving her news about Tristan. She said, "Thanks to you, we know he is alive!!!" She named all ten of Tristan's aunts and uncles and mentioned cousins and other family members. She wrote, "I would like Tristan to know that we love him a lot and that we will never lose hope that one day we could know him, because we are also his family. That even if we are far away, always we are going to wait for him. Salutations to you, giving you one and one thousand thanks for taking care of Tristan and giving him love and tenderness. Always remember that even if a letter comes late, it still will arrive. We don't want to lose communication with you. May the Virgin Mary be with you. Please take care of Tristan. We love him very much, as much as you do."
It will be my ongoing pleasure to share with my new extended family all the joys this child brings to my life. I have friends who ask if I feel in any way threatened by this contact. No way!!! I am blessed, and in turn is Tristan. For Tristan it means more love in his life, although he is a little young to understand right now.
I can't wait to write back knowing that my son's Colombian family will be waiting by their mailbox as anxiously as his Canadian family. I have so many questions (where did he get that great hair?) and stories to share (he loves that Latino music!).
I will send to my new family a guarantee to love, cherish and share this gift child of "ours" and a promise to return to Colombia in the future, when Tristan is ready, for a huge family reunion fiesta!!!
Leceta is mother to Kahleah (Guatemala, 1991) and Tristan (Colombia, 1994). Leceta and husband Jean and family live in Joliette, near Montreal.
Leceta Chisholm Guibault is a board member of the Adoption Council of Canada and the Federation of Quebec Adoptive Parents, and moderator of the email list Canadians-Adopting (groups.yahoo.com/group/canadians-adopting).
Leceta notes that since writing this article in 1997, so much has happened, all of it positive. She has since received numerous birth family photos and letters from Tristan's birthmother (the first one was from his grandmother), biological siblings, aunts and uncles. On July 2, 2004, Leceta, Jean, Kahleah and Tristan left on a three-week trip to Colombia and Guatemala.
First published in Adoption Helper No. 32, March 1999.
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