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Blankets in the sky
How do you build a relationship of trust when you adopt older children who have been abandoned or rejected? A mother who has been there and done that tells her story.
Don't dead people feel cold sitting on the stars, Amma?' asks my eight-year-old worriedly. Pat comes the answer from her know-it-all younger sister: 'They have blankets, stupid!' Reassured, she snuggles up to me and we continue to gaze at the constellations, over-the-top in their luminosity in the inky sky. The accursed load shedding has its blessings too. We are often to be found out on the roof, braving the bitter cold, bathing in moonlight until the dew drives us indoors. Star-gazing, lessons on gravity, or any night-time activities are connected with death, and the occupants of the galaxies. 'If the earth turns around, and the stars turn too, why don't dead people fall off?' 'When my mother meets your mother, will they talk only about us or other things?' For me, mourning the loss of my mother who had died unexpectedly three months before the girls came into my life, it was particularly comforting to picture my own gregarious mum swaddled in a shawl, perched on a star, chatting with the girls' mother.
Having grown up in an institution where most of their friends had lost one parent or both, my daughters view death less as a finality than just one stop on life's journey en route to an afterlife. For children who have seen bereavement at close quarters, they are full of good cheer. With a dramatic slash of podgy fingers across their throats, they indicate that someone or the other has departed from this world.
Trying to sleep off a looming headache one afternoon, I hear whispers and jostling. The sheet covering my head is slowly peeled away. 'Are you going to die?' they ask matter-of-factly. Even as I wonder whether to proffer the standard adult lie, 'No, never!' or enter into a philosophical discussion about the transitory nature of life, they zoom to the heart of the matter. 'Who will make our breakfast then? And lunch?' As I reel off the names of potential cooks in their lives - their father, aunt, grandfather, friends, cousins, grandmother - they visibly relax.
My daughters' faith sweeps away doubts and doomsday predictions about the difficulties of bonding with older adopted children. Their optimism and belief in human goodness is irrepressible, despite all that they've been through in their short lives. It takes a while, though, to build lasting trust. They have been through several upheavals already, and it is some time before they can believe that this is real and forever. They stick together;they are a unit - blood sisters. They are often mistaken for twins - close in age, and similar in looks. The illusion of sameness is heightened by the standard issue 'mushroom' haircut of children's institutions, and reinforced by their insistence on wearing the same clothes. They are inseparable, and intensely protective of each other. I am fiercely attacked if I scold one of them, the other immediately springing to her defence, a belligerent pair is better than one. Walking into a room oozing paint from every crevice, or gum splattered on my computer, I am rarely able to find whodunit.
Punishments are consequently joint, and they stoically accept collective culpability. If one storms away from the dining table in a sulk, I can be sure that food will be smuggled to her by the other. A few months later, they begin to bicker. Quarrels erupt about everything. Anything becomes contentious, and we are urged to take sides. Always a test, always the trick question: Who do you love more? Whose painting is better? Saying 'both' is not allowed. Already dealing with two hurricanes whooshing into my life of solitude, the constant high pitched squabbles begin to get to me. Until a psychologist friend drops in and observes, 'Ah good - they've begun to fight. They are more secure, they can loosen their hold on each other, now that you're there to hold them. ' I swell with pride, smirking inside: I'm doing a good job of this mothering business.
The complacence is fleeting. Building relationships with five- and six-year-old children is not difficult. But it's easy to forget that they are little people already, with strong personalities, quirks, insecurities and strengths.
Other differences are more obvious - the stark cultural, social and class divides. But these are the less consequential differences that people harp on, often making non-issues seem larger than they need to. 'Are they your real children?' I am asked. As real as children can ever be, I answer, to their dissatisfaction. Others say with envy, 'Oh, so you skipped the years of sleepless nights and washing nappies. '
Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and nieces and nephews embrace them unreservedly, delighted to have children around when those of my contemporaries have grown up and sallied forth into the world with blissful teenage indifference. The girls' generous affection is contagious, their enthusiasm for meeting people unfailing. Despite the insecurity of the first few years of life, they are open and trusting for the most part.
But abandonment and rejection hang like a very fine mist, sometimes blowing away, at others forming dark clouds. Some would argue, including my psychoanalytically inclined husband, that the feeling of abandonment is almost inherent to the human condition : 'Everyone feels abandoned at a psychic level, ' I am told. But for children whose biological parents have died or left them with distant family members or institutions, being dumped and passed on from one reluctant relative to the other is a stark reality. It is one that permeates their being in ways that cannot even be imagined. For girls, being unwanted is the default setting, it would seem. But for adopted girls, ironically, loss and rejection from one side and being warmly embraced from the other go almost hand in hand. With the knowledge of having been cast off by their biological families, they are enveloped, soon after, by the deep desire of adoptive parents to nurture. Indeed, adoptive parents live with their yearning for children for many years before it can become a reality.
For adoption and foster parenthood is by no means easy. Adoptive parents have to furnish all manner of proof that they are worthy parents, and prospective single parents, especially single men have an uphill task convincing agencies of their worthiness as parents, which is gauged by income, assets, and 'stability' of relationships. Equal rights and access to adoption for openly lesbian, gay or transgender individuals are not even on the horizon. Inter-country adoptions are tangled in miles of red tape, and laws about adopting more than one child of the same sex have only recently begun to be reviewed and amended. Undoubtedly, there is a flourishing illegal trade in babies and children, and poverty is often a factor pushing families to relinquish their children, not always with their consent. Stories abound of impoverished parents sending their children to 'schools' only to find, a few months later, that they had been given in adoption to a family outside the country. Yet, the tightening of procedures is not always in the best interests of the children or genuine parents. It is a moot point as to how many child traffickers or traders in babies are deterred by the increased bureaucracy. For children with special needs, every extra day in an institution hardens physical, emotional or academic challenges, making any remedial interventions that much more difficult.
One is constantly reminded of the imbalance in the parent-child relationship, much of it predicated on inequities that I fought against as a feminist activist: wealth;access to resources;articulation;superior strength and (in the beginning at least), better skills at manipulation. When the injustice of it is flung back in your face, the balance tilts, often for the better, giving the child a fairer chance in the equation. After a particularly bitter squabble about a very serious matter - whether they should wash their hair that day or the next - my unyielding tyranny is exposed.
'Get lost, ' I yell. 'No! We won't get lost, ' two pairs of heels are dug in. 'If you want, you go. This is our home, and we're staying here. ' I rejoice. Acceptance! I joyously call up my husband, to tell him about their assertion, just two months after they've come: this is their home too. A little bewildered over this sudden change of mood, they ask, puzzled, 'So do we wash our hair today or tomorrow?' Back to fundamental questions.
They bring you back to the basics all right. During a particularly turbulent political period we have no choice but to make our way across a disturbed land. After a bumpy five-hour drive during which both kids wanted to pee and throw up every half hour, we change from bullock carts to tongas and then cycle rickshaws. Braving the intense midday heat, they scream with delight 'Yay!' The journey is not tiresome anymore, and we proceed to spot cattle egrets and ducks in the paddy fields, waving to children paddling in the streams.
Journeys are magical moments. In buses, we lurch along pot-holed paths with stupendous views of the mountains, sucking candy, trying to keep nausea at bay. But cop-assengers are incredibly goodnatured about children puking over them, clucking in sympathy and sharing the little black plastic puke bags that characterise bus journeys in the mountains. We spend leisurely days trekking among the mightiest peaks in the world, the highest and most barren cold deserts, the girls chasing sheep and helping to bathe baby yaks. We stand on the shores of the Arabian Sea, waves lapping our feet, watch the sun rise over the Bay of Bengal. Long train journeys across the Subcontinent are wondrous days in limbo, eating, playing cards, sleeping and staring out the window. We love where we're coming from, we're excited about where we're going. And we enjoy the ride in between.
From the book 'Of Mothers and Others', edited by Jaishree Mishra, published by Zubaan, and supported by Save the Children
Andromeda Nebula is a writer and mother being raised by two superstars.
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