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More power to single parents who adopt

Veena Naregal | Updated on November 06, 2020 Published on November 06, 2020

Credit   -  ISTOCK.COM

Ahead of World Adoption Day (November 9), a single parent retraces the unique joys and challenges that arrive home with the child

* Adoption agencies and official bodies such as the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) need to acknowledge that, as a category, single-parent adoption affords unique and specific challenges

People often remark that Indian families have changed greatly in the space of a generation. My daughter and I are nearly 40 years apart. Our story, I guess, is a living testimony to that change.

If only my daughter could have met appa. Oddly, that thought always conjures up for me the image of an optician, who shuffles lenses in combination to give you the sharpest possible focus on the present. I guess this association is because, more than anyone else, appa and ajji, my maternal grandmother, showed me how families can love... no surprises that ajji doted on appa, her son-in-law. It is uplifting even to imagine what it would have been like had they both been around when A came home in 2009.

Ajji lived with us briefly for a year or so before she passed. I was in my early 20s, not yet married. Petite, fine-boned, flashing her eternally winsome, dimpled smile, one morning she told my sister and me, “Young people should live together before deciding to get married.” With her characteristic nod and chuckle she added, “What’s the use of finding out later that you won’t get along?”

Invariably, friends who hear this story remark how ahead of her times my grandmother was. Indeed, ajji had adapted in remarkable ways as she grew older. Yet I cannot bring myself to agree. To see her as ‘ahead’ of her times is perhaps to miss the point entirely. For one, none of her seven children would even imagine themselves thinking those thoughts, leave alone articulating them. Six of them, including amma— another family dynamo standing tall at 4’11” — are highly educated. So while it is true Indian families have changed, we know so little of the ways in which they have changed, beyond the most obvious parameters — dwindling size, dispersed structures and so on.

It was not easy losing appa way too early in 2001, in difficult circumstances. Things would be different after appa was gone, I had known. My marriage of 15-plus years had ended around the same time. Friends whom I spent time with between 2004 and 2008 recall my conversations then were often about my need to adopt, about wanting to recreate a sense of family.

In my heart I felt it easier to connect with a baby daughter but decided to leave the gender slot blank while filling the adoption application forms. My niece, aged eight then, had beseeched, “Aww! masi, girls are so boring, please ask for a boy.” I thought to myself, if I were giving birth, would I not just wait to see if it is a girl or a boy?

******

Sitting in the cab beside Urmila, returning home from Delhi airport with my baby, I recall thinking about appa and ajji. My mind raced over the events of the past few days; it was hard to believe Urmila was holding A, all of four months, fast asleep with fiercely shut eyes and bunched-up fists — to fight the dirty Delhi air, I could have sworn — and entirely oblivious to the additional names she had acquired two days earlier to preface the one her birth mother had given her before leaving the care home. The lady judge who signed the adoption deed had been an absolute gem; for the rest, the entire process spanning eight months, interactions with two adoption agencies, endless discussions with friends and several family conversations had been like a roller-coaster ride in parts. But all that now lay behind.This was for real.

For so many reasons, I had chosen to adopt from Pune. I didn’t feel adequately at home in Delhi to consider approaching agencies here, particularly as a single parent. Deccan is where the family hailed from; where school vacations were spent with grandparents and cousins; where I’ve spent many years visiting libraries and archives, and making friends as a professional researcher. Pune had also been the first stop for appa and amma starting their lives as a young couple in the early 1960s. After Bombay and London, Pune was the city I felt closest to.

Not having family in Delhi would be a challenge, I had known. But friends and colleagues had come through splendidly as I prepared to file papers; my employers had graciously agreed to my request for additional quarters for a caregiver for the child; I also had 11 weeks of maternity leave. Palna DCCW, the care home run by Delhi Council for Child Welfare that had helped with my home-study report, had assured me that I could call them for any immediate SOS, big or small. For the rest, I remembered what Anjali had said, engulfing me in her warmest hug: Your daughter will teach you.

Palna proved as good as their word — they helped me approach Urmila when the Pune agency called to confirm I could come meet the baby. Urmila worked with Palna; sitting beside her in the cab, I recall feeling an enormous wave of gratitude wash over me, as we both looked at the baby resting on her shoulder.

Urmila stayed with us for a week after we returned home, by when she was — I think — reasonably confident that I could clean, feed and change the baby. It didn’t take long to begin to love the rhythm of pacing everything out for the day and week, of planning for tiptoe baby steps of my own to learn all the new drills of feeding, massage, naptimes, time in the park, keeping inventory: Regularity was my new mantra, everything now needed advance plotting and serious planning. As that sunk in and I savoured the transformation that my home and days underwent, over the next year or so I found myself exclaiming often in genuine amazement: No one told me it would be this easy!

******

What can I say of the 12 years that have breezed past? So many priceless memories as we have learned to travel together — my favourite is of returning to Delhi after we had spent half a year in Edinburgh when A was four. She had no English when we’d left Delhi, so we really lucked out that she had a young Urdu-speaking caregiver at the daycare there. By the time we returned, A was bilingual — but who could have known she’d return speaking Hindi with a hilariously heavy Scottish accent that could have taught Tom Alter a thing or two.

Adoption stories had been part of our afternoon/bedtime reading routine for a while. We snuggled one winter night to read a story about a bird who had to ask her friend the Wise Owl to take her little one far away to be looked after by another bird family. A terrible storm had knocked to the ground her nest, babies and the branch that was their home.

As I held A and read, I sensed she had grown progressively still and quiet. I looked down to see huge tears rolling down her face. I put down the book, held her and asked what the matter was. Putting her little hand where her heart was, she indicated where it hurt. Clearly, the story had touched a deep chord. She was fighting back huge sobs, but I felt she was perhaps more moved than perturbed, and she slept peacefully.

I didn’t bring up the matter the next morning, waiting to see if she remembered, as I watched her prancing around the room on waking up — as she always did. A few minutes later, continuing to dance, looking at herself in the mirror, she said (in Hindi), “Mamma, A [referring to herself] is so silly.” (So fascinating how little children speak of themselves in the third person...) I asked why. Without turning around, she explained, “A is so silly she cried listening to a story.” I asked her to explain; a bit impatiently she stopped, turned around and said, “Last night, A got so sad reading the story, thinking it was true.” I was stunned — at four-and-a-half she had already magically learnt to discern, process and articulate the distinction between a story and herself.

Having often accompanied me to seminar rooms in many different cities, it wasn’t long before A was as avid a traveller as appa would have liked me to be at her age. Metaphorically, too, it makes us proud; travelling has taught us to take many things in our stride... the ubiquitous questions, for instance — overt or covert — about Father’s Name, Occupation, Designation, what-have-you. In social situations, we have now learnt to exchange quick glances when we see this coming; in private, we even joke — [ayyo, tauba, horror, what else can you expect from a single mum?!] — about getting boyfriends.

******

But the real crux lies beyond these personal reminisces. In India, a vibrant discussion about single parenthood is still waiting to emerge... it is a given that a single parent needs to be several things and everything at once — breadwinner, caregiver, career role model, nurse, chauffeur, mentor, entertainer, errand-girl.

And yet, apart from broadly emphasising the need to share the fact of adoption with the child early, adoption agencies in India offer little by way of counselling support to PAPs [prospective adoptive parents].

Sharing the adoption story to ensure self-acceptance for the child is a core responsibility; however, at one level, that only skims the surface of the challenges faced by single parents.

Directly, a single-parent situation translates into two major consequences: A huge pressure on time for a single parent, and a constant feeling of battling a backlog that could stretch into years. Also, the emotional safety network for parent and child is much narrower. This has a direct correlation on the sociability dividends available to a single-parent family as compared to an average middle-class two-parent family.

Most crucially, all the pressure upon the parent means they usually come across as super-busy, or perhaps even always stressed. When relaxed and leisurely parenting seems just wishful thinking, this is absorbed by the child as an endemic fragility of their support structure. For an adopted child this can only compound their feelings of previous abandonment. As these children grow, this could manifest as avoidance behaviour or a profound need for more attention, all with long-term effects.

For starters then, adoption agencies and official bodies such as the Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) need to acknowledge that, as a category, single-parent adoption affords unique and specific challenges. Social policy on single-parent adoption requires not just its own specific regulation, but also counselling and support across institutional, public, social and familial contexts.

Our weaknesses are our strength, appa often said. The single-parent experience is an important mirror for us collectively as a society. Enabling single-parent adoption for both single men and women has certainly been a step in the right direction. We are now poised to strengthen and build further upon that, as we consider how we will regard single-parent adoption over the next few years — and contemplate what kind of society we wish to become.

Veena Naregal is a Delhi-based academic

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Published on November 06, 2020
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