A few weeks ago, my husband and I sent out an announcement about the adoption of our daughter, Swarna. We attached a photo of her wearing a bright red dress covered in bunny rabbits, a gift from one of her grandmothers. In the photo, I am holding her above my head, and her lips are curved into a gleeful, toothless grin.
The responses to the announcement showered us with love. “Such a happy baby!” They said. “What a wonderful new family,” they said.
“Your daughter,” they said, “is lucky.”
There are many words I would use to describe our daughter. Tough. Resilient. Determined. Silly. Cuddly. Stubborn.
When my husband and I decided to adopt, I did my research. It was important to me to participate in a process that respected maternal rights. In Western nations, foster care systems often remove children from their families in the name of child protection. While well-intentioned, these separations are frequently rooted in racism, patriarchy and xenophobia. We adopted from India partly because my husband and I are both Indian — he was born and raised there, and I am from diaspora — but mostly because its public adoption system has strict rules that protect the wishes of the birth family.
In India, birth families voluntarily surrender children. After they give the child to a government-certified home, they have 60 days to rethink their decision and are allowed reclaim the child, no questions asked. I felt that we were working through a procedure that, although imperfect, was doing its best to do right by birth families and children.
It wasn’t until I brought my daughter home that I began to realize that even in a system that theoretically takes into account the rights of birthparents, the decision to give up a child is, more often than not, the culmination of an unsuccessful fight against intersecting forces of oppression.
Our daughter, for example, is from Jharkhand, a state with some of the worst maternal and infant mortality rates in the country and one of the lowest sex ratios. In Jharkhand, there are 947 girls for every 1,000 boys. The area is plagued by violent conflict, and sexual abuse of women by combatants is disturbingly common. The state has a substantial indigenous population that suffers from severe health and educational disparities, not to mention curtailed civil liberties and little or no access to justice. Put all these factors together, and it is difficult to imagine that Swarna’s mother did not face intense pressure to give up her daughter against her will.
I don’t know the story of my daughter’s birth family. On good days, I imagine her mother making a choice that she could live with. But on most days, I admit that it is unlikely that Swarna’s birth family made an empowered choice to give her up.
It’s a strange thing, raising a child who wasn’t born to you. During this first month with Swarna, I think of her birth mother every day. Like many adopted children, Swarna has been racing through developmental milestones she should have hit months ago. Every time she does something new — giggles, recognizes herself in the mirror, sits up straight, pulls herself to a stand, takes tentative steps — I think of her birth mother. I think of her when our pediatrician tells us Swarna has gained weight, or when friends remark on how much she smiles. I think of her when we struggle to give Swarna medication, or when she wakes up terrified and clings to me, scratching my arm nervously with her tiny, sharp nails.
Sometimes, I even have conversations with Swarna’s birth mother in my head. I tell her, “Our daughter is so tough, and so smart. I wish you were here to see her.”
Or, I say, “Swarna has been through so much. You have too. I’m holding her because I love her. If I could, I’d hold you too.”
Most often, I say, “I am doing the best I can. For you, and for our daughter.”
Always, I think of her as our shared daughter — mine, my husband’s, and her birth mother’s. Always, I wonder how I would feel if our positions were reversed. How I could ever give up this delicious, complicated child who fills my days with a kind of joy and terror and exhaustion I have never known before. How many safety nets I would have to have fallen through to be at the point where I was unable to care for my child.
Swarna is not lucky. I am.
I’m the one the Indian government screened and deemed fit to be a parent. I’m the one who has a supportive husband, two Ivy League degrees and a flat in Delhi. I’m the one with a salary in American dollars that pays for the health care and the bilingual nanny and the stay-at-home-mom time that has gotten Swarna through the physical and emotional trauma of her placement in our home.
My husband and I love Swarna. I am sure she knows it. In less than a month, she’s gone from a timid, wary, nervous baby to a bubbly, babbly, active little girl. Her anxiety still ebbs and flows, but at this point, it mostly ebbs. I believe she feels safe, comfortable and happy. I believe that if her birth mother saw her, she would be relieved.
But I do not believe that I am doing a better job raising Swarna than her birth mother could have done. I do not believe that I deserve to be a mother any more than her birth mother does. And I do not, at all, believe that my daughter is lucky.
I believe my daughter and her birth mother experienced trauma that I will never have to know because of my privilege.
Out of the three of us — me, Swarna and Swarna’s birth mother — I’m the one who made a choice.
I’m the one who got what I wanted.
This knowledge fills me with questions. What does it mean to raise the child of a woman whom I have never met but who, most likely, faces an intersection of oppressive forces that I will never face? How do I raise a child in solidarity with this woman? What can I do to ensure that in the future, women like her are not faced with a matrix of impossible choices that results in their inability to keep hold of their precious, beautiful children?
One day, I will discuss these questions with my daughter. Maybe she won’t have answers. But I hope that I will love her and protect her enough that she will feel safe enough to tell me what she thinks. I hope that she will have better ideas than I have.
Mathangi Subramanian is an author of books for children and young adults, and an expert in educational policy, both nationally and abroad. She currently lives in India, where she freelances.
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