( By Nilima Mehta )

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In Case You're Wondering

  • Which children can you adopt? Who are the birth parents?
  • How do heredity and environment influence the child’s development?
  • How should you introduce your child to relatives, friends and neighbours?
  • How should you ‘tell’ the child about adoption?
  • What should you do when the child ‘searches’ for roots and identity?

Not flesh of my flesh
Nor bone of my bone
But miraculously
my very own.
Never forget for
a single moment,
You didn’t grow
under my heart,
But in it.

by Fleur Heyliger

A PARADOX IN INDIAN SOCIETY is that, on the one hand, it greatly values fertility and motherhood within marriage, but on the other, it totally rejects and ostracises the unwed mother and the child born out of wed-lock, to the extent that the mother is compelled to give up her child for adoption.

Most of the children given up for adoption are born to young, unwed mothers who are unable to keep their children because of the stigma attached to those born out of wedlock. In western society, this may seem an unusual reason for relinquishment because single parenthood and unwed mothers are more accepted. But Indian societal norms being different, the unwed mother would find it difficult to bring up her child against the odds.

Many unwed mothers come from conservative, protected and traditional backgrounds, and are naive and vulnerable. They are often victims of circcumstance and get involved in relationships that result in unwanted pregnancies. The pregnancy gets advanced either due to ignorance about available options or the hope that the putative father will marry her. When this does not happen, the only alternative is to carry the pregnancy to full term, secretly, and then give up the child in adoption.

Some other reasons for giving the child up are desertion or death of one spouse, inability to care for the child due to socio-economic pressures, and birth of an unwanted girl child or a child with medical problems or some kind of handicap.

The social service departments of state and municipal hospitals contact adoption agencies when they have a mother who wants to give up her child in adoption. Obstericians in private hospitals and clinics are also informed so that they contact a child welfare agency or institution in the same situation. Private adoptions are discouraged.

The social workers then meet with the biological or birth parents to discuss the plan of action. It is important for the social worker to help the mother emotionally handle the situation, and the goal should be to prevent her from abandoning the child. Ideally, the child should grow up in her biological family, seeking the help of support services where necessary. Only if this is impossible should the option of adoption be considered.

Once the decision to relinquish the child is final, there is a legal document to be prepared. This is the Document of Surrender ( see Annexure 6). The Document of Surrender is signed by the relinquishing legal guardians of the child; the mother, if the child is out-of-wedlock; the father, if his wife has died; both, if the couple is married; or the grandparents, if the parents of the child have died. This is usually done with witnesses present and the social worker explains and interprets the contents of the document.

One very significant aspect of the Document of Surrender is that it is confidential. An assurance is given to the mother/father/parents/grandparents that their identity will not be disclosed under any circumstances and hence this document becomes a confidential record, to be kept in court custody. This, of course, has future implications in terms of the grown-up adoptee’s search for her roots and identity (see page 38).

At the time of relinquishment, attempts should be made to get as much medical and social history as possible, so that this information is available for later use. How much information the institution is able to maintain on the child’s background depends on the circumstances of abandonment and the way in which the child came to be in legal custody of the institution.

Besides children who are relinquished by birth parents, there are also abandoned children who can be adopted. These children are left in public places, taken into police custody and finally appear before the Juvenile Court or Juvenile Welfare Boards, as per the requirements of the Juvenile Justice Act, 1986 ( see Adoption and the law, page 54) Only when enquiries to trace the parents or guardians have failed is the child declared destitute. The destitute child can then be offered for adoption.

Sometimes, the child is declared destitute and committed to a certified institution or orphanage; such children may be given in adoption with the permission of the particular state government which is the child’s guardian.

The focus all along may seem to be the birth mother, but this is because it is she who most often makes the adoption decision. (Occasionally, the father relinquishes the child when he is left a widower and is unable to cope with the parenting role.) The emotional trauma of the birth mother is serious. Even though hers may have been an unwanted pregnancy, the nine months of gestation creates a bond between mother and baby.

In India, the women are often not very articulate in expressing and sharing their anguish over abandoning their child. Because of the social pressures on her, it is with a sense of relief that the birth mother agrees to let someone take over the responsibility of her child; her apprehensions are more related to keeping her identity secret. She experiences the reality of adoption and relinquishment only much later and it is then that she feels the ‘loss’ of her baby. The follow-up and rehabilitation of the birth mother is usually done by the hospital social workers. She is encouraged to reflect on the likelihood that she adopted child will try and locate her birth records, and she is told that she can leave a letter or a small token for the child, if she wants to do this.

As adoptive parents, you may want as much information as possible on the biological mother and all efforts are made to maintain a detailed medical and social history of the birth mother.

It is sadly ironical that the infant so traumatically separated from her unwed mother is the same child that brings immeasurable joy to the adop- tive parents who have been so eagerly awaiting her.

How do heredity and environment influence the child’s development?

The ‘nature versus nurture’ discussion is one that professionals have had for decades and their unanimous conclusion is that it is neither nature nor nurture separately, but both together that contribute to a child’s personality development and growth.

One apprehension you may have, once you have decided to adopt, concerns the background of the child that you will be making your own; while heredity provides the ‘potential’, it is the environment that the child grows up in that moulds and maximises this potential. If a nurturing and stimulating environment is provided along with maximum opportunities for development, this enables both the physical and personality development of the child.

Physical characteristics like skin, hair and eye colour, height and structure are determined by heredity, as are predispositions and susceptibility to certain illnesses. Knowledge of these latter can be gained through a complete medical assessment of the child prior to adoption. The agency gets as much medical background as possible on the birth mother, as well as the type of delivery and the baby’s Apgar Score (cry at birth) which is said to give a fair indication of the child’s future brain development. Several tests are also conducted, such as the test for HIV ( the AIDS virus), Australian Antigen ( Hepatitis B) and VDRL ( see Annexure 6).

On the other hand, behavioural patterns, personality traits, mannerisms - these are all ‘acquired’ through a process of socialisation, identification and role modelling.

To generalize, physical characteristics are more likely to be inherited while personality traits will be the result of upbringing. Research has shown that height depends to some extent on heredity, but undernourishment can stunt a child’s growth while good nutrition can help a child grow to her full potential height.

Most of the personality characteristics which make people seem pleasant or unpleasant are a result of their upbringing or nurturing. The child who is brought up in a neglected, unloved and emotionally deprived environment will blossom in a happy home; even the child’s appearance will be transformed. She will start resembling the people who take care of her. She will adopt your expressions, gestures, behavioural patterns to such an extent that strangers might even remark on the resemblance between you and your adopted child.

Most of the characteristics which make people seem pleasant, likable or unlikable are a result of upbringing and what they have imbibed through role modelling. The values of caring, concern, justice, honesty, integrity are all learnt from parents and they are attributes of the mind and personality which are created, nurtured and learnt through environmental influences.

Often, what parents believe to be inherited characteristics are actually acquired from their environment; there is a resulting confusion over what is thought to be the dangers of heredity. For example, if a person falls into thieving ways, we do not believe that his or her child will be a thief by virtue of heredity. A child learns to steal if she lives in an environment where she is exposed to stealing of if she has negative, deprived life experiences. The point is, we may not inherit specific skills, habits or behaviour. These are learnt and acquired as we grow up. But we are born with certain characteristics which may develop positively or negatively, according to our environment and upbringing.

You, as adoptive parents, may have so much apprehension regarding your child’s background that it is very important for you to clarify what is inherited and what is not. Unless you understand this, you may be unrealistic or unsympathetic of your child’s behaviour when she is going through disturbing, though normal, adolescent phases. Your tendency might then be to attribute the child’s negative behaviour to her genetic make-up; you might feel helpless, or try to absolve yourself, at the time, of your responsibility to the child.

Infant research has reinforced the importance of environmental influences on a child’s personality development. Despite being of a lower socio-economic background and born to illiterate parents, for instance, adopted children were found to be leading very successful lives. They had not developed characteristics of their biological parents, but had imbibed the standards, values and attributes of their adoptive parents.

While the contribution of environment and upbringing to a child’s personality is thus determined, heredity cannot be ignored. Even an ideal environment can only develop what is already present in an individual. No amount of coaching or pressure can develop in a child an artistic or musical talent that did not exist in the first place, and it is important for ambitious parents to keep this in mind. As parents, whether adoptive or biological, you might have unrealistic expectations of a child.

What about the adopted child’s level of intelligence? Psychologists and social scientists believe that a child’s basic intellectual ability is inherited, but whether this ability is fully realised or not depends entirely on the environment. Most people donot use all the intelligence they were born with. Apparent intelligence is the result of educational exposure and social learning. Sometimes people from deprived, non-stimulating environments may seem very dully, even though they are not actually so. It is hard to accurately predict a child’s intelligence, but heredity does play an important role in this area.

Those prospective adoptive parents who come from intellectually superior backgrounds may expect higher-than-average achievements from their child. Sometimes these expectations may be higher than the average potential of the child and this could lead to disappointment. Hence, it is very important to be realistic and practical in your expectations. Each child is an individual in her own right and should be considered and accepted as such. Destitute children certainly need adoptive homes and families that will give them opportunities they might not have otherwise had, but to live in the shadow of unrealistic parental expectations is unfair to any child. It is as likely that an adopted child will ‘perform’ as it is that a biological child will, but it is important for you remember that your child may develop very differently from what you expected or wanted. A successful adoption is not an adoption without problems, but one in which you have learnt to accept and resolve difficult situations.

Related to this, you might have an important question in your minds; "How much greater are the risks and difficulties related to having an adopted child compared to the risks of having a biological child?"

We can look here at some of the advantages. You, as adoptive parents, are making deliberate choices - the choice of when to adopt, of the sex of the child, and of her physical normality. In comparison, biological parents take risks concerning their child’s physical handicaps; often they do not even know very much about their own family histories.

All through our lives, our inborn genetic tendencies and the external environmental influences that surround us act and react with one another to produce our personalities and make us what we are. So we can safely conclude that most adopted children will develop as well as birth children would, given the same environment and opportunities for growth.

How should you introduce your child to relatives, friends and neighbours?

Adoptive parents often seek counselling on how to discuss their adoption plans with relatives and friends. What to say, how to say it and when, are some of the questions that emerge.

If the adoptive parents are themselves comfortable and confident about their decision to adopt, they will not experience much discomfort, or suffer inhibitions or embarrassment from the thought of sharing with relatives and friends their intention to adopt a child. One fear is that other people may form harsh opinions based on ignorance, and then try to discourage the adoption. This would be very disheartening to adoptive parents who are themselves ambivalent about their decision.

However, it is important to share your decision to adopt with your immediate relatives and close friends, because when people around you feel involved in the process, they might be supportive, and very likely accepting and welcoming to the adoptive child. A couple may choose to restrict the information they share. With attitudes becoming more liberal, society is becoming more accepting of adoption and it should be easier to share the joy of adoption with your friends.

How should you ‘tell’ the child about adoption?

In the context of adoption, ‘telling; does not imply what you think it implies. The principle underlying the telling is that a child accepts her ‘adoptedness’ in a way directly related to the degree of comfort that the parents themselves experience in their own status as adoptive parents.

The process of adoption is an intense emotional experience for the adoptive parents. In the same way, sharing the fact of adoption with the child is also a very sensitive experience, and sometimes causes the adoptive parents much anxiety. The main questions that arise in their mind are :

Do we have to ‘tell’ our child?

If we do, then when should we do so, and how?

The right time and the right manner in which to talk about adoption with your adopted child varies from family to family, and is also dependent on the child’s emotional maturity.

Ideally, the ‘story’ of adoption should start as soon as possible - when the child is around three years old, and certainly before the child begins school. Then, for the child, the story of her adoption and her left with her parents unfolds just as she is beginning to understand reality. It is important for the parents themselves to be comfortable with the fact of adoption, only then are they in a position to talk about it without inhibition or apprehenshouse with so muchion. The word ‘adoption’ should be used around the frequency and so comfortably that the child sees it as synonymous to being loved and wanted.

Adoption is choosing a child who is to be yours for life. One adoptive parent puts it this way - "To be our very own for always". As such, a child can be helped to understand that being adopted is something that makes her loved and wanted and it is another way of building families.

It is important that adoptive parents themselves explain the fact of adoption to their child, or else the child is likely to find out at a later stage from an outside source; family happiness and security cannot be built on an untruth or when there is fear of discovery. For a child to learn this personal information from an outsider or unrelated source can be quite traumatic, and so it is best if the parents themselves initiate a discussion with their child and share the fact of adoption.

But how exactly to share the fact?

All that the very small child needs to know at first is that she became a part of the family through adoption - just the way her mummy and daddy came together by marriage. A child cannot really begin to understand adoption until she learns where babies come from and that she was not ‘born’ into the family, but was ‘chosen’ to be part of it. Therefore, when she starts asking questions - she will probably be between the ages of three and six - it is important to give simple and truthful answers.

A suggested response of some adoption agencies is: "For a long time we wanted a baby just like you. We were lonely and our house seemed empty. Then, a person who knew where there were some babies who wanted mummies and daddies helped us find you. You were so lovable and beautiful, just as you are now. You were the very baby we wanted, so we brought you to your new home, to be our very own forever."

What you say is not as important as how you express the feeling behind your words. If a child senses that her parents are tense and anxious about the subject, she may tend to close up and not want to talk further on the matter. Some parents have used their photo album or a life book to explain the story of adoption.

Telling about adoption is not a once-and-for-all affair. It is a gradual process, which needs to be handled over a period of time. Very often, one can get tempted to complete the entire sharing of the truth in one session, but this is not really recommended. In fact, the most appropriate and natural thing would be to give the child a big hug and kiss when you are happy and the act is spontaneous, and say: "We are so glad we adopted." This way the child begins to associated the word ‘adoption’ with love and a sense of belonging.

As the child grows older and learns how babies are born, an inevitable question is: "Mummy, was I also in your tummy?" If you say no, the child might ask: " Then whose tummy was I in, and why didn’t she keep me?" In most cases, the adoptive parents are not fully aware of the birth mother’s reasons for relinquishment, so here you could say: "There are many reasons why parents can’t keep their children. I don’t know the real reason, but I’m sure they had problems and couldn’t look after you and wanted you to have a happy home."

The child must be helped to understand that the woman whose tummy she was in gave her birth and that you are her ‘real’ mother now and for always - and that now she is part of your family. In this manner, she will develop a sense of belonging to you as her parents. Experience has shown that when a child grows up knowing these essential facts, they become as much a part of her as any other factual information.

Most adoptive parents feel so close to their child and love her so much that it is hard for them to remember that she was not born to them. One mother said, "I need to be reminded that I did not give birth to little Neha." In these circumstances, the parents sometimes wonder if it is really necessary to share the fact of adoption with the child ; many parents rather dread the ‘telling’ and wish it were not necessary. However, the whole process has a very deep emotional meaning for both the parents and the child. But for the ultimate welfare of the child, sharing the fact of adoption is an integral part of the adoptive process.

What should you do when the child ‘searches’ for roots and identity?

This is such a sensitive aspect of the adoption process that perhaps no one can offer the perfect advice. There are two points of view - both diametrically opposite and equally strong. One is that the adopted child has a right to search for her roots and identity and the other states that it is the biological mother’s right to keep her secret and have the confidentiality of her abandonment preserved.

Besides the question of which right is the greater right, the social worker’s code of ethics and her responsibility to keep confidential the records of the birth mother further adds to the complexity of the child’s search for her roots and identity.

The third corner of the adoption triad, namely the adoptive parents, also become very anxious during this search because it threatens the security of their parental ties and takes them through the trauma of acknowledging the existence of another set of parents.

But the focus of concern of the past - the child - is still the principal concern in the present. She is the only one among the three parties who had no voice during the arrangements of her adoption - she signed no documents and she pledged no confidentiality! The social worker must give the same attention to the child as she did before and counsel her to sort out the questions: "Who am I? Who were my parents? Why did they give me up?"

In the Indian context, this issue has still not taken on the complexity that it has in western society where there is more stress on individuality and on the personal right of a child for access to information. In India, because of the conservative and traditional nature of society and family ties, the need for secrecy and confidentiality is dominant and the adopted child quite often does not even know of the fact of her own adoption!

With the social stigma attached to unwed motherhood in India, the single mother who gives up her child prefers to do so in total annonymity so that later no one can trace her. She would like to leave the past behind her, get married and settle into a new life. She probably pushes out of her consciousness the reality of her abandonment and does not expect anyone to trace her in the future. She often needs assurance about her identity being kept completely confidential. She sometimes does not even want the three month reconsideration period that is offered to her for thinking over her decision. If, 20 years later, in the light of all this, the adopted child goes back to trace her, this might totally disrupt her new life. Is this fair to her? On the other hand, the argument goes, the adopted child might sense a void in her life if she knows nothing about the person who gave her birth. Is this fair to her? Is it fair that a grown -up adoptee should have what one describes as a missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, a missing link in the chain of life which, until traced, leaves the person with a sense of incompletness.

Adoption agencies in India have a sealed and confidential record system whereby there is no access to the relinquishment document and it remains a property of the court. For it to become possible for the adopted child to trace her biological parents, the law will have to change. There will also have to be a change in the process of relinquishment where the birth mother will have to be told that her child might trace her in the future. Also possible in the future is that adoptive parents face a situation where the natural mother seeks her rights of keeping some contract with her child.

An adopted child’s search for her roots has far-reaching implications in the lives of all involved in the adoption process. A balanced view needs to be taken to arrive at some kind of compromise. For the present, it might be sufficient to say that when the child grows up, she ought to be given information related to her birth mother’s social background, circumstances and reasons for abandonment, without revealing the identity of the mother. We need to protect all the corners of the adoption triad, so that there is no unhappiness involved for anyone who is part of it.

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