Like brightly-lit cities that shine in satellite images of the earth, the Indian social landscape is being dotted by women who are shining examples of profundity and gumption. Their special achievement? Adopting children – as single women – in a culture that glorifies marriage, motherhood, blood ties and the heteronormative family as the ultimate traits of womanhood and ‘decent’ families.
While women who cannot bear children often endure great physical and emotional pain for years to have their ‘own’ biological children, these single mothers cut the physical, social and emotional chase with their revolutionary choices. They shake many pillars of social conventions and re-define belonging as something that can transcend the human obsession with procreation. In their book, a child – whether linked to your womb or heart – can make you a parent, and also that being a mother is not the only purpose of a woman’s life.
Single adoptive mothers seem to be mushrooming all across India. In cities such as Chandigarh, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai, there seems to be a slow yet steady increase in their numbers, acceptance and admiration. Many of them seem to have common characteristics: They are highly educated and accomplished professionals.
Dr Suma Ray is a 40-year-old scientist with a Ph.D. from the All-India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) and a post-doctoral degree from the US. She worked in Germany and the US, and returned to India to adopt a baby. She currently works with a leading biotechnology firm in Gurgaon, near Delhi, where she heads the Asia operations. Malini Parmar, the adoptive mother of two girls (siblings) in Bangalore, is a product of the Delhi College of Engineering and Indian Institute of Management-Kolkata; she worked with some leading corporate giants in India before she quit the private sector to start ‘Daughter in the Neighbourhood’, a Bangalore-based social enterprise that offers medical, social and emotional support to senior citizens through neighbourhood-centred activities.
Parmar spoke on adoption at TEDx, the local community edition of TED, the global conference that brings together the world’s most inspiring thinkers. Mumbai-based Amy Thanawala is a filmmaker and runs her own production house. In Chandigarh is Dr Charu Sharma, yet another single adoptive mother and a scientist with the Government of India, who has a Ph.D. and a post-doctoral fellowship under her belt.
Since many of these women are financially independent, their need to nurture and raise a child may perhaps win them easier social acceptability. Says Ray, “Adoption is a social taboo especially for single women. Yet, there are more women than ever before who are adopting. I myself know 10-15 single adoptive mothers. But reactions to them vary. It takes many kinds to make the world but I have been lucky. My daughter and I have received tremendous support from my family and friends.”
Parmar expected prejudice and bias but did not encounter it. “I spent time convincing my close family but expected a much colder/ruder response from my very conservative extended family in Himachal. But without exception, they loved the girls,” she says. Parmar even describes her life through the frames of BC or Before Children and AD or After Daughters! Sharma, too, echoes the same sentiment, “My brothers have a child each but the child who is loved the most in the family is my daughter. My parents have been my biggest support and pitch in to take care of their granddaughter.”
It is not just family members who stood by as support but also a much wider network. The PGCAI, or People’s Group for Child Adoption in India, has 750 online members who offer advice, encouragement and even mentoring as prospective adoptive parents move from the pre-adoption to post-adoption phases. The founder of the network, Nishank, 28, states, “I started the group in November 2007. At that point there were some online communities on Orkut, but very few national-level fora to promote adoption in India. While the PGCAI had started as an online group, we have tried to place emphasis on organising Adoption Meets in different cities so that people can meet in person and work on the ground.”
At one such PGCAI-organised adoption meet held recently in Delhi’s Dilli Haat, many adoptive parents turned up, including married couples and single women, with children in tow, both biological and adopted. The group had invited Laila Baig, Secretary of Central Voluntary Adoption and Resource Agency (CEVARA), which monitors CARA-recognised agencies in the Capital. While the kids had a field day, their parents discussed their concerns with each other.
Ray, for example, shared the immense difficulties and discriminations she faced as a single adoptive mother. She described how while trying to get a ‘tatkal’ (urgent issuance) passport for her daughter, she was informed that the scheme cannot be used for adopted kids, although there are no rules to this effect. Moreover, her daughter’s birth certificate states “adopted child” by the name of her daughter and “adoptive mother” by her own name.
When she complained to the government officer, the female officer apparently lamented that this “ganda (bad) case” had come to her. Sharma also faced problems while getting her daughter admitted to school, “Despite telling them that I had adopted my daughter, most insisted on the father’s name. They looked at me strangely. The school that finally agreed to take my daughter simply struck off the column that asked for the father’s name. My daughter has my surname.”
Being a single woman, Thanawala was shown the door by many agencies in Mumbai, “Couples are given preference over single women. When agencies in Mumbai and Pune failed me, I finally found my daughter in Chennai where I was told that she had no takers perhaps because she is dark-skinned and had a squint. Both these did not matter to me in the least and I jumped at the chance of having her.”
One of the most substantial reasons single mothers are spurned is their real or perceived ‘rejection’ of marriage. Since motherhood is placed within the institution of marriage, they are seen to sever and subvert the link between the two ‘sacred’ roles. But while most do not think being single has meant a major personal loss, some fear it may have an adverse impact on the growth and development of their children.
Thanawala shares how after her father passed away, her daughter seems affected by the loss and tries to make up by clinging to male relatives. Sharma thinks that while she may not feel the need for her former husband, who she had divorced soon after the adoption, her daughter feels the absence of a father figure. For Ray, though, “marriage was never a pre-requisite for motherhood…I earn decent money, look after my home and can do everything on my own. Though it may be good to have someone to consult it is sometimes easier if you can take all the decisions yourself.”
Adds Nishank of PGCAI, “A lot of kids are offered for adoption because they are born out of wedlock. Their mothers find it difficult to raise them on their own. So adoption by single women is also a way for the women to send out the message that they do not accept the stereotype of the woman being considered dependent on a male, to whom she has to first get married before she becomes a mother. It also helps in changing gender equations in our society.”
The most radical part of being a single adoptive mother is the proof that families can be created socially and not just naturally, that all it needs is the desire to nurture – not have a ‘maternal instinct’ – and that families can come in different shapes and sizes.