Updated: Sep 17
This blog presents the experiences of Nisha*, a young, professional, independent woman in her twenties. She was adopted as an infant to a well-educated, affluent and loving family. While in the adoption practice the voices of adopted children are less heard, Nisha’s story can help us to understand some of the unspoken vulnerabilities of adopted children in the context of the rise of adoptive family practice in India. Nisha’s experience is part of the broader study on “Illuminating adoptive family practices and display in India”, where she volunteered to participate and share her life story with the author.
The parallel narratives in adoptive family
Nisha is the only child of her parents, attended elite schools, and graduated from a prestigious college. Fondly remembering her early childhood in Canada*, Nisha said, “there I had a lot of freedom” and the family then moved to India “I had a very smooth childhood but there were a couple of things that happened. That is I don’t look like my parents”. When she was barely 4-5 years old and not aware of her adoptive status, one day she overheard her grandparents’ conversation. Nisha says, ‘My grandfather and grandmother always adore me, always. But I was a troublemaker. My grandfather na he called me ‘Shudra’. Like he was talking to my grandmom in the kitchen and then I overheard them. I heard him saying that she is a Shudra. She is like this, she is like that.”
As a child, it was her first encounter with the word ‘Shudra’. Being a curious and sharp child, as she says, “I went to my Mom and asked what is Shudra? She didn’t know that I heard it somewhere. So she explained it to me. Then I was upset. I said my grandfather does not like me and that stayed in my mind”. ‘Shudra’ is considered the lowest caste in the caste system, an exclusive phenomenon highly characteristics of Indian society, interwoven into the Hindu faith and daily livelihood. It is seen as a form of institutionalized inequality puts people into endogamous groups and different social strata (Medora, 2007). The term ‘Shudra’ if used, for instance, to comment on anyone, is considered not only derogatory but also culturally insensitive and offensive. This was the first time Nisha experienced emotional ambivalence about her family, thinking that her grandfather who she thinks loves her perhaps doesn’t. She remembered her parents interacted with her grandfather, telling him, “you can’t say such things around her” and after that she never experienced any unpleasant comments or behaviour. Such utterance appears to challenge adopted children’s sense of legitimacy (Jones & Hackett, 2010) and acceptance in the adoptive family, despite the display of love and affection. Adopted people and some adoptive parents who participated in my research, echoed this sentiment, stating that sometimes people pretend to be nice but express their displeasure subtly.
Was that a one-time incident for Nisha? No. She knows that several people talk behind her back that she is from a different religion. Although Nisha ignores these as rumours, but such narratives continue to affect her. She remembers an unpleasant experience that took place just a few months before our meeting. This time it was her grandmother, whom she is very fond of and who is also fond of her. Nisha says, “One day my grandmother suddenly told me, ’The hospital you are from, you are adopted from...is only for the women who...who knocked up.’ She used the term knocked up. My grandmother. That just hit me in the face”.
Nisha’s experience of her adoptive family life indicates that even though love is openly expressed towards her but displeasure still exists and is expressed behind closed doors and sometimes abruptly, expressed verbally or through behaviour. Such verbal, behavioural indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, reinforce the dominant notion of familial relationship that is socially and genetically connected and undermine the adoptive kinship. Even though adopted children in their everyday family activities and interactions experience being integrated in the family they are adopted into, but yet they are not fully accepted.
The changing version of negative stereotypes
Once Nisha went to the school and interacted with other children, she experienced exclusion. She was teased and bullied by her peers in school. Nisha says, “There is something about me that used to bother them and they used to call me names like Adivasi, dark. I was always told you are dark, you are black, you are this, you are that”. Being judged and stigmatized for skin colour, physical features, and non-resemblance with adoptive parents are often a case with adopted children that highlights the non-biological nature of the adoptive family relationships. Further, the comment ‘Adivasi’, a group that is lowest in the social hierarchy in the Indian social strata, excluded in the caste system, again amplifies the social discrimination. Such reactions reifies marginalization, and labels adopted children as different or less than equal.
However, Nisha has been vocal about her adoptive status since she learned about it. Nisha says, “I used to tell anyone that I am adopted and I am very happy. My parents love me so much. I was very stupid. I don’t know what I told”. She was then very young to make sense of the dominant stereotypes of adoption pervasive in society. Although she is very vocal about her adoptive status, perhaps she realized it was unnecessary to tell everyone that she is adopted. However, as an adult, when she revealed adoptive status to her colleagues, they reacted with disbelief and rejected her claim. “They are like झूट मत बोल। ऐसे थोड़ी होता है? Don’t lie. Don’t make a case. They were so terrified”. It was difficult for Nisha to convince her colleagues to accept the adoptive status. Perhaps her image as a confident, independent, professional woman from an upper-middle-class family does not fit into her colleagues’ preconceived notions of adopted individuals. Such skepticism is not concerning whether Nisha is adopted or not, rather, it is, more about people’s understanding of negative stereotypes and societal portrayal of adoption. (Garber & Grotevant, 2015).
Her story is similar to other young adult adopted people and adoptive parents who revealed their adoptive status and experienced rejection. Nisha’s narrative reinforces the social stereotypes, fragmented information and knowledge gap about adoption. In such circumstances, it becomes challenging for adopted people to negotiate public assumptions, prejudices, and find a delicate balance between disclosures and holding back information to avoid creating an awkward situation for them.
Birth parents imagination and openness in adoption communication
Interestingly, the rejection and acceptance tug-of-war does not settle after disclosure. Once people accept the adoptive status reluctantly, the next question that often surfaces is, “Would you like to know about your real parents?”. Even though adopted people have no clue of their birth parents as India follows a ‘closed adoption’ process but people seem to be curious about it. Well, it’s not only just people, Nisha too feels the curiosity regarding birth parents. “I have never wanted to know but I am bit curious about it sometimes”, she says. Nisha has had relatively open communication about adoption in her family and as a child she used to ask lot of questions to her mother about birth parents. Later, she often converses about it with a friend. “Sometimes I think like, aarey कौन है यह लोग? What about if I see them in public, I wouldn’t even know they are my parents. Then my friend cracks a joke and says that she’ll tell me if she sees someone who looks like me, I will tell you”.
Nisha’s curiosity and questions about birth parents resonate with most of the participants' stories, though not all. However, the degree of openness in communication varies widely .. Nisha has her imaginary script in mind about birth parents and perhaps would like to meet them once, just to know who they are. But she says “It is never going to happen in India, as my mother says ’such things are possible in America, in stories and movies’”.
She hugely appreciates the adoption process in the Western countries that gives the space to birth parents. “Like when you see in abroad, suppose I am expecting a child and I don’t want to keep the child and put the child in adoption. If some couple wants to adopt my child, they can come to meet me. It’s so open. It’s so open over there.” The openness in communication between the adoptive family and the birth family is something Nisha feels need to be valued and considered in adoption practice in India. “There are so many options and its so wonderful. Do you want to know about your child – photos or information? Would you like to see your child after your child is adopted? There everything is so crystal clear and it’s so cool. But here it’s not like that at all. I wish India changes”. She seems to underscore that the adoption practice in India, which is a closed, parent-centric, and one-sided affair needs to be changed.
Points to ponder
Conversations about adoption in India are limited. Whenever there are any, they are often focused on the abandonment of children, delayed adoption procedures and occasionally, the perspectives of adoptive parents. To a certain extent, this focus is understandable as adoption is largely an unspoken topic in India. While statistics on adopted children in the country are difficult to obtain because of multiple laws and contentious procedures, we do know that every year more than 3000 children are adopted in India by Indian parents under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (CARA). Although the trend has fallen by a third in the last ten years, but in the wake of changing policy and procedures of adoption in 2015, India has witnessed a sudden surge in demand for adoptable children. However, in the entire process and narrative around adoption, the voices of adopted children/people are rarely heard. The views and experiences of adopted people could be useful in shaping policy and practice development.
In the absence of real-life experiences of adoption from the perspectives of adopted people, Nisha’s story perhaps opens up an avenue to think about how realistic the adoption policy in India is. In recent years, the government attempts to promote adoption with a positive ‘happy ever after family’ narrative. It is evident in some of the promotional visuals of Central Adoption Resource Authority (CARA) pronounce as “ख़ुशी गोद लीजिए, डर नहीं “। [adopt happiness, not fear]; “इन मासूम चेहरों को ज़िंदगी की फ़्रेम में लाइए, तस्वीर ख़ूबसूरत बनाइए” [bring these innocent faces in the frame of life, make the picture beautiful].
While the promotional effort might be responding to the adverse situation of children in institutional care by providing them a supportive and secure family environment, however, the broader question that remains to be pondered over is that whether the policy narrative is in sync with the narratives of adoption practice? Does the policy recognize the familial and social challenges faced by adoptive families? To get an insight into the complexities of adoptive family lives and provide appropriate support, the policy may need to view the statistics and stories together. Failure to recognize the stigmatized social position of adoptive families would continue to shape public opinion about adoption and practice. Interventions at various levels - structural, public, and self - involve appropriate and skilled pre and post-adoption support services, education, and greater public awareness about the negative and positive experiences in adoption are essential to ensure adoptive family lives are acknowledged and valued. More importantly, openness in adoption communication is another area that needs to be emphasised both in policy and practice of adoption in India. Though Nisha's story is not representative, it could still be drawn that adopted people's voices are important in themselves and should have the space to engage in the policy and practice dialogue. The current policy reform that claims to adhere to the best interest principle contradicts the best interest dictum. It promotes adoption with procedural changes, in a 'closed' model, adult-centric approach, and does little to address the social prejudices. Without addressing the structural challenges, by promoting adoption, the policy would continue to foster the family's dominant notion connected biologically and display the adoptive family as a 'less valid' social institution.
CARA – Central Adoption Resource Authority
Garber, K. and Grotevant, H., 2015. “YOU Were Adopted?!”. The Counseling Psychologist, 43(3), pp.435-462.
Jones, C. and Hackett, S., 2010. The Role of 'Family Practices' and 'Displays of Family' in the Creation of Adoptive Kinship. British Journal of Social Work, 41(1), pp.40-56.
Medora, N., 2007. Strengths and Challenges in the Indian Family. Marriage & Family Review, 41(1-2), pp.165-193.
*Name and place changed to protect the privacy of the individual
Sushri Sangita Puhan, a Chevening and Chancellor's International Research Scholar, is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, UK. Her research explores to illuminate the adoptive family practices and display in India, in a time of evolving socio-cultural environment and contentious policy change. She has twelve years of experience working as a development practitioner.