Out of Ethiopia
Kate Gautreau was in her mid-30s when she decided to leave her marriage and relocate from the Bay Area to her home state of New Hampshire and start a new life. So began her adoption journey, one that would ultimately take her to Ethiopia—and her baby girl.
Q: How old is your daughter, and what is her name?
A: My daughter is 10 years old. Her name is Tes, which is short for “Tesfanesh,” her birth name. It means “You are hope” in Amharic, the native language of Ethiopia. I loved the name Tes, so it was perfect. I adopted her when she was almost two. We’ve been together for over eight years. Last fall when she turned 10, I thought, “10 plus eight. We’re at the halfway mark!” I felt a panic. I know she’ll always be my daughter, but [we’ll reach that point where] we’re not going to be having dinner together every night.
Q: The good news is things will get worse. She’ll make you nuts when she’s a teenager. It’s God’s way of preparing you for the separation.
A: She got her hormones early. I thought, Oh, my God. We went skiing, and she yelled at me all day. That night she wanted to sleep with me.
Q: What made you decide to adopt as a single woman?
A: Tes was my 40th birthday present to myself. I’d been married from my late 20s to my mid-30s. He didn’t want kids, and I did. I had to go my own way. I did not want to be 40 years old resenting him. We divorced. I left the [San Francisco] Bay Area, moved back to New Hampshire, and bought a house.
I gave myself time to get my feet on the ground. I went inward for a while. I was alone but OK in my loneliness. I needed to be there for a while—to reset my goals. I kind of knew I wasn’t going to meet that person to go the distance with. So a week before my 40th, I locked in with an [adoption] agency (Wide Horizons for Children in Massachusetts), picked the country of Ethiopia, and went for it.
Q: Why Ethiopia?
A: I attended a meeting about the different countries and programs. I looked at the photo book of each of the programs and fell in love with Ethiopia. The kids were sleeping together, eating together in a communal circle. There was no isolation. The kids were happy and filled with joy. That was it for me.
Q: Do children from Ethiopia tend to be healthy?
A: My personal opinion on Ethiopia is only the strong survive. It’s extreme third-world poverty.
When I adopted, Ethiopia was an emerging program. Wide Horizons is big, and I was in travel group 36. I knew I needed a healthy child. I worked full time. I didn’t have the luxury to be home for a child with special needs. Ethiopia was one of the programs that allowed single women to adopt a healthy child.
Q: Why are Ethiopian babies put up for adoption?
A: It could be loss of parents. They have malaria, typhoid, giardia—which can kill you. They don’t have medicine. AIDS isn’t an issue in Ethiopia as a whole. Ethiopia was never colonized. [The country] protects its borders well. But in the late ’80s [the country] had a huge famine that nobody really talked about.
Q: Is Ethiopian adoption a tremendous amount of work?
A: It was easy. Because Ethiopia was an emerging program, it didn’t have a lot of problems yet. Now there are very few Ethiopian adoptions. The country clamped down. All it takes is one bad experience. At one point, the country closed the program completely. I think it’s open again but with tight controls. There are very few kids coming through.
Q: How long did the process take?
A: Fast! Eleven months from start to finish. I put in for zero to 18 months, but [the agency] had an influx of toddlers and I thought, That’s not so bad: walking, talking, sleeping through the night. So I switched. There were maybe 25 toddlers who became available, and Tes was one of them. I saw her picture and just knew it.
Q: What is Tes’s backstory?
A: She was with her mom for almost a year and a half. Her father died before she was born, and her mom had two other kids, so she put Tes up for adoption. Tes was at the orphanage for about six months.
She had a severe case of giardia; it’s third world, plus she was malnourished. Still, all of her growth measurements were in line, and the doctors said she was healthy.
Q: What was it like meeting her for the first time?
A: There were about eight babies adopted that week. We had a travel group of around 16 that came from all over. My dad came with me. We arrived at night. I’ll never forget. It was dark and drizzling, and she was sleeping. I dropped the bags, went in, and there she was. The nanny said, “Pick her up,” but I said no. I just wanted to watch her. I rubbed her back and cried.
Q: Did you sniff her?
A: Oh, yeah . . . I had sent a photo book ahead of time. The nanny showed her pictures of me every day. For two months before I got there, they’d tell her, “Your mama is coming.” So when I walked in the next morning, she looked at me with a confused expression. Then the nanny said to her, “This is your mama. She’s here today.” Tes put out her arms and went straight for me. I took her, and she wouldn’t let me put her down. She didn’t look back. I was her mom.
Q: What language did she speak?
A: Her first language was a very remote tribal language; then Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia; then English. I had a handful of Amharic words when I met her. They said she wouldn’t speak Amharic, but she understood. She picked up English right away. She was with me for six weeks when I put her into preschool. Two months later, Labor Day weekend, she was holding a flag. She looked up at me and said, “I pedge fag, I pedge fag, I pedge fag. . . . ” She was trying to say, “I pledge the flag.”
Q: How does one prepare for the trip and the experience?
A: It happened fast. You bring the basics. She was already potty trained. (They don’t have diapers, so kids learn quickly.)
Part of the program was going to meet the birth family. If parents were alive—an aunt, uncle, grandparents—you’d meet them. So that was the focus. I was going to get my daughter but had this whole other trip planned once I got there. It was great. I could ask her family questions and take photos.
Q: What was it like meeting the birth family?
A: Tes didn’t come with us. It was a seven-hour car ride—very remote, very primitive—mud huts, thatched roofs. We had a translator. It was a short visit but very emotional. It was just my dad and me, the birth mom, and her father—who did most of the talking. She was so sad, and I thought, Why am I doing this? Why am I taking her child when I can just support them?
Tes’s mother had to give up Tes because Tes was ill with giardia and parasites, and there was no treatment available locally. I could see her father sensing what was going through my mind, and he said, “It’s important that she go with you.”
Essentially, in giving Tes up, her mother gave Tes life.
We have subsequently gone back for visits. It is more joyous. We have a contact who delivers letters for us annually, and we are very involved with her birth village school.
Q: When you go back, is Tes able to communicate with her birth family?
A: That’s the one thing that’s tough. Amharic wasn’t her first language. In Boston there are plenty of Amharic-speaking people, but I don’t know anyone who spoke [the tribal language Tes spoke].
Q: When did it sink in that you were a Solo Mom?
A: When I held her for the first time.
Q: What resources did you have after you brought her home?
A: My folks were great. They came to the house to take care of her if I had someplace to be. When she got older, she’d stay with them. Their house is on a lake, so we spend a lot of time there in the summers and winters.
Q: Did adopting a child from another culture present any problems?
A: We have a strong Ethiopian community. That year there were probably 20 local families who adopted from Ethiopia. Nine years later, we are still tight. I found them through a Yahoo group started by my agency. We connected a month before I left.
Q: How do you keep her culture alive?
A: We have [Ethiopian] restaurants in Maine and Boston. I cook some Ethiopian food on occasion. With our local adoption group, we get the kids together often. We have Ethiopian New Year’s in September. There’s culture camp. . . .
Q: Did you feel a shift in your community when you became a Solo Mom?
A: Totally. Coming back from the West Coast to the East Coast was hard, since so many people were married. But I was OK just being in my silence. The people who matter are there for you. You definitely find out who your friends are.
Q: How did this experience affect your love life?
A: Oh my God. I rarely treat myself but recently went for a massage. It was a male masseuse, and I thought, I don’t remember the last time a man touched me. When she was younger, Tes was always my priority. Now that she’s older, I feel we are at that point where I can go on a date.
Q: What advice do you have for single women considering adoption?
A: Adoption can be loaded with sadness for kids. What child should be relinquished from his or her mom? But with Tes in my life, I’ve experienced such joy. I’m definitely the lucky one. Any single woman out there who wants to be a mom and things just aren’t stacking up for the “traditional” approach should go for it!
Q: What about yourself are you most proud of as a Solo Mom?
A: The strength within me. In my 20s, I didn’t have the guts. But now I’m doing it.
Q: Favorite solo-parenting tip?
A: After your kid goes to bed, make dinner [for the next night]. You can be with your kid the two hours you’d normally be worrying about what to fix that night. You just have to pull it out of the refrigerator.
Connect with other Solo Moms who’ve adopted in our confidential community of Sisters.
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 18, and William, age 14.
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