Nandini Sengupta – Babies from the Heart

Random Reads returns with Nandini Sengupta’s piece on how knowing the rules before making up the mind is a good way to prepare for the journey as an adoptive parent. Topping it up is an exclusive excerpt from her book- Babies from the Heart.

Recently, the niece of a close friend of mine, called to talk to me about the hows and whys of adoption. Like us, they are a DINK couple who wanted to adopt a baby girl. Since they are based out of Mumbai and Dubai, they had no idea where to go, who to talk to and what to do. So, they decided to talk to me and asked me everything from which agency to approach, how to get a handle on the new rules of adoption just released by the government, how long the process would take and what to do to prepare themselves for the baby. The long phone chat reminded me of the time when my husband and I were going through those same feelings of confused excitement. In a sense I relived those early days as I explained the new rules of adoption and the process that prospective parents now need to go through before they can take their baby home. Imagine my delight when the lady in question messaged back two months later to tell me that they had, in fact, become proud parents of an adopted baby girl.

Parenting is and always will be an intensely personal experience. But adoptive parenting has a community side to it which is crucial too. Given that there’s no set script to follow – unlike biological parenting where your mother or grandmother can tell you exactly what to expect while you are expecting and how to handle the baby once she’s born – in adoptive families parents need to borrow cues from other adoptive parents, who’ve been there, done that and can hand-hold you through the whole maddening, exhilarating and utterly amazing journey of parenthood. Often these discussions can also clear cobwebs.

A week ago, I had a long chat with a close friend on the issue of adoption fees. My friend argued that she’d never heard to anyone having to pay anything more than a small amount towards the legal fees and court charges and that included us. She had never heard of the newly constituted child care corpus fee which is now compulsory. She argued that as a single parent her friend would find it difficult to cough up the Rs 40,000 CCC fee and argued that the fee would probably be collected only by agencies in metro cities, not in smaller towns. I had to spend more than hour trying to explain to her that the rules had changed since we became adoptive parents and those rules were now standard and effective across the country, metros or otherwise. It was a difficult discussion because her financial situation would mean my friend’s acquaintance will probably not qualify to become an adoptive parent but getting to know the rules before you make up your mind is a good way to prepare yourself for the journey ahead.

An excerpt from Babies from the Heart:

Baby Comes Home

If the legal paperwork and to-do lists have left you huffing and puffing, take a deep breath. Things will escalate to an entirely different level when you actually bring the baby home. There is the infrastructure to set up and make functional, there are medical issues to deal with, there is the sheer amount of time to devote to the new addition to the family. Add to that the considerable paperwork that needs to be taken care of as the baby passes into foster care and the constant stream of friends and relations who will simply drop by to say hello to baby and you’ll have more than enough on your plate.

The biggest problem we faced before baby Kiki came home was the incredibly short notice the agency gave us to get everything in place. In our case, we got less than a week between the home study and bringing baby home, and most of that time was spent taking her to two sets of doctors for some basic medical tests. So rushed were we that we in fact opted out of a series of more detailed medical tests, which would have told us that the baby had a health problem. As it turned out, less than a month after she came home, we had a traumatic medical emergency on our hands.

Emergencies of different kinds can arise in the case of biological babies too, of course, but for adopted infants the level of preparedness on the part of the parents in dealing with them tends to be on the lower side for various reasons. Keeping a few basic things in mind can go a long way in preventing such situations or defusing them more promptly.

Setting up the Home for Baby

I still remember that completely crazy weekend in -February when I took time out of my paper’s Budget edition -preparations to shop for our baby. My husband and I drew up a list and we shared the items in an effort to do things more systematically. But with both my mother and mother-in-law stuck in Kolkata for medical reasons, we had no one to guide our frenzied shopping. Result: when baby came home, we realized we had simply bought the wrong stuff.

First-time parents do tend to go completely overboard while shopping for their baby. With so many brands and such beautiful stuff on display, it’s hard not to give in to your temptation to buy pretty frocks, colour-coordinated shoes, princess baby cots, and fancy strollers. Trouble is, a lot of that stuff may look pretty but they can be fairly useless for a small baby. Take baby Preeti’s parents Probir and Madhumita. Like us, they got barely a week between their first glimpse of the child and bringing baby home. And like us, they committed some retail faux pas. ‘When we went shopping for baby clothes, we picked up stuff that was completely unsuitable—like sweaters with hoods and jumpsuits,’ says Madhumita. Making an infant wear complicated clothing like hooded jumpers or rompers is the mother of all bad ideas. Babies don’t like being pulled and arm-twisted into fashion wear—in fact they have no sense of either fashion or wear. They burp, spit, barf, and pee constantly so it helps if you choose clothes—frocks, tees, jumpers, pants—that are easy to put on and easy to take off, preferably in instalments. That way if the upper is wet, you can change only that and so on. In other words, tops, tees, sweaters, or frocks should be front open, baggy with simple loop-on buttons, and pants should have drawstrings or elastic bands. Moral of the story: don’t go by those cute rompers and squeaky toys—get your basic infrastructure up and running first.

Given how badly first-time parents can go wrong, it’s always a good idea to involve friends and family in the preparation process. In Preeti’s case, she was saved by Probir and Madhumita’s wider circle of friends and family who ‘made the whole moment of the baby coming home easy’, says Madhumita. One friend sent a cot-load of stuff that her one-year-old had outgrown, including a Jerry mouse stuffed toy. Another brought some handknitted sweaters and a handknitted shawl. Still others brought home crucial paraphernalia like cloth nappies, cot sheets, vests, bibs—‘All stuff culled by expert mums who knew what we would need,’ remembers Madhumita.

In hindsight, that help is actually crucial. Not only does it make the child feel wanted and special—some of these handmade gifts endure and make for great babyhood -stories—they also help prevent boo-boos at your end. For example, we realized, after Kiki came home, that in our enthusiasm to buy pretty things for our child, we missed out on a crucial item of baby infrastructure—a flask. In Shonali’s case, it was her mother who came home armed with the humdrum items that first-time parents tend to overlook—two flasks, one for hot water, one for lukewarm, an electric kettle, lots of baby bed sheets, oilcloth, nappies, and a sterilizer!

Buying baby stuff also means you need to check if products meant for cooler climates work in India. For instance, we bought tins of diaper rash cream which simply did not work on our baby. Reason: the cream was too heavy for a muggy and hot climate like ours. Finally I took my mother’s advice and switched to coconut oil. Kiki never had a problem with nappy rash again, though the zinc creams sat on our baby shelf for a full year before we threw them out.

Similarly, some baby gels we bought in the UK proved too oily for India. And the princess cot we chose disintegrated after a year, when baby refused to sleep in it. Ditto for a stroller which could be turned into a rocking crib. By the time she was seven months old, and ready to go ‘out’, Kiki refused to lie down on the cradle stroller and we had to junk it for a lighter version in which she could sit up.

Many of these mistakes are made by biological parents as well. But for adoptive parents, the chances of such bloopers are more likely because we get very little time to get the infrastructure up and running. Biological parents get nine months to prepare themselves and the infrastructure, and the entire extended family chips in, knowing pretty much when the baby is due.

In Kiki’s case, we received some excellent help from the ped who gave us a list of basic baby medicines that we needed to keep handy for midnight emergencies. These included a paracetamol, a nasal drop, a colic pain drop, a skin ointment, and something to take care of vomiting. Besides, by the time my mother and mother-in-law came over, Kiki was old enough for us to also try some home remedies like basil leaf and honey for coughs or ginger and honey for nausea.

Having an older or more experienced relative—mother, mother-in-law, or even sister/sister-in-law—around can be the biggest infrastructure support you can arrange before or immediately after baby comes home. But getting good help—either domestic help trained in handling newborn babies or paramedical staff like ayahs recommended by the ped or the hospital to which he is attached—is equally important. If you have no option but to try out a nanny not attached to a medical establishment, you need to do a thorough investigation into just how skilled they are. For instance, we opted for a nanny highly recommended by our friends who assured us that she’d handled newborn babies before. But after Kiki came home, the nanny panicked saying her last assignment involved a pair of toddlers and she didn’t really know much about bathing, handling, burping, and cleaning a two month old. We fired her and took our paediatrician’s help to appoint someone from the hospital for two months by when I was more confident of handling the baby myself.

Unlike biological mothers, adoptive mothers don’t get help from the medical establishment on how to look after the baby once she is born. In Raising Adopted Children, Lois Ruskai Melina writes, ‘Learning how to care for an infant is built into the process of getting ready for the birth of a baby. Childbirth preparation classes focus not only on breathing techniques during labour, but on how to bathe and feed a baby.’ But adoptive parents don’t get this buffer and agencies focus on the process of adoption rather than childcare.

That’s also why preparing the infrastructure is so crucial for adoptive families. Remember, both the baby and her parents will need to go through a period of major adjustment before they ‘take to’ each other. And having expert advice or help around can help make sense of some of the muddle.

Though the biggest help can often come from fellow adoptive parents. For instance, Kiki’s first couple of days with us was a trying time—she was cranky and battling a slight cold and we were new to parenting, perennially exhausted, and wondering if all this was ‘normal’. It was only when we swapped notes with other adoptive parents that we realized the baby was probably used to different sights, sounds, smells in her nursery and the alien surroundings made her antsy, which made us confused and tired in equal measure.

Sometimes adoptive parents, in trying to do things their way, come up with novel solutions that work beautifully. Take Probir, a tech-savvy gizmo geek who turned his daughter’s daily routine into an assembly line. There would be bottles lined up, and nappies, toys, wipes, and bed linen—all close enough for the tired parent to reach out and grab whatever they wanted without having to look for them. The assembly line worked particularly well at night, when Daddy had feed duties. The baby’s feed times were measured and documented with meticulous precision so that Probir knew exactly when baby Preeti would cry for her feed and where he would find the bottle, water, and formula.

Getting Ready for Baby, Physically and Mentally

Infrastructure is only a small part of getting ready for the baby once you’ve cleared the adoption process. The much bigger and more critical element is preparing yourself physically and psychologically for the process. Parenting isn’t easy. It can be, and often is, mentally and physically extremely taxing. Given that many adoptive parents, like us, are older and therefore physically less agile than those in their twenties, the physical strain of parenting isn’t anything to sniff away. And yes, unlike -biological parents, adoptive parents don’t get nine months to prepare themselves for the baby. Typically agencies give anywhere -between a week and ten days to complete the formalities and place the child in foster care once the home study and profile match are complete. So be prepared for exhaustion, confusion, a feeling of losing control, fear, anxiety—in short, the whole nine yards.

I still remember how Kiki’s first night at home was spent bawling at regular intervals of about one–two hours. I spent the entire night rocking her, giving her feeds, and cleaning her up. Next morning, when my mother called bright and early to check on how I was doing, I was cross, sleep deprived, exhausted, and cranky. My mum chuckled and said, ‘You’re not the first mother to go without sleep at night. This too shall pass.’ My husband’s colleagues
offered examples of their own kids, many of whom
settled into a regular night’s rest only in toddlerhood.

The agency told us Kiki was on demand feed and was to be given 3 ounces of formula mixed with tepid water every three hours. Yet when she came home, she seemed to require more than that and I wasn’t sure if increasing her feed so quickly would upset her digestion. Adoptive babies often are hungrier than usual, not because the agency does not look after them well, but because a sense of security and undivided parental attention improves their appetite. Shonali and Arun, for instance, saw their -three-month-old baby demanding more frequent feeds almost immediately. ‘She’s one hungry baby,’ says -Shonali, wondering, like me, how frequently she should up the amount of feed. That’s also what Probir and -Madhumita experienced with baby Preeti. ‘She used to be desperately hungry all the time and would often hold on to the bottle with a look that seemed to say, “THIS IS MINE AND NO ONE CAN TAKE IT AWAY FROM ME!”’ says Madhumita.

In our case, Kiki’s improved appetite coincided with some colic pain and loose motions so I had to actually slow down the tempo and gradually increase both the quantity and timings of the feed. Getting the temperature right was another hiccup—it took us a couple of days to figure out just how tepid the baby wanted her milk to be. We also tried, desperately and unsuccessfully, to change baby’s sleep timings. The first month at home, Kiki would stay up the entire night and go off to sleep in the morning. Advice from parents and parents-in-law encouraged us to get her to stay up in the daytime so she would sleep at night. It didn’t work. Why? Because adopted children take a while to get used to their surroundings enough to change their institutional habits. Till they get acclimatized to their new home, they tend to cling to the routine they were used to. Eventually Kiki did change her sleep cycle. By the time she was five months old, she would sleep soundly through the night and wake up at six-thirty in the morning.

While going through those first couple of days of adjustment, I would often be wracked by guilt. I would wonder if the baby was crying because I didn’t know how to hold her or wasn’t doing something right. I was convinced I didn’t qualify for the job and so was doing it badly. Parenting is the only job for which you don’t have to take a test and flash a degree. But after a decade and a half of reporting and newsroom antics, I was convinced I wasn’t passing muster.

To be honest I did make many mistakes, some of them grave. For instance, I accidentally nicked baby’s cuticles while trying to clip her nail when she was five months old. And I think I allowed her to be taken to the park a wee bit early—at three months. I have also given her a way higher dosage of paracetamol when she had a slight fever because I took the instructions from the paediatrician on the phone. That last boo-boo scared me so much—we spent the entire night sitting up and watching her breathing—that I decided I would not take any instructions on the phone till I was confident of and attuned to her medical routine. Within a year, though, I was so used to what the doctor prescribed for basic problems—cough, cold, fever, tummy ache, loose motions, skin rash—that I would often give her a dose and then check with the doctor later who would simply say, ‘You know what to give her. Try that, if she doesn’t improve call me back.’

Adoptive parents do tend to go a little overboard with precautions. In a way it’s necessary because adopted children are often underweight and deprived of that biggest nutrient and immunity builder—breast milk. Also they take a while to get used to the new surroundings and sometimes even different temperatures and climate. Take baby Lily, Eron and Pritha Vaughn’s little girl. A sunny child, she quickly adapted to her new environs except in one respect. In the agency nursery, she had been confined almost entirely indoors so when she came home and was taken out to the garden, she was completely ‘blinded’ by the bright Delhi sun! It took her a while to get used to the idea of a sunny outdoors but when she did, the next step—getting used to a cold and snowy Washington DC when the couple moved—was much easier. In fact, she simply loved the snow.

Shonali on her part decided she would wait for a while before giving the baby her first bath at home. ‘I am not a very baby person,’ she says. ‘So I was really scared. I didn’t know what temperature would be right for her.’ This kind of dilemma, even in the smallest of actions, is typical of adoptive parenting. You simply don’t know enough (a) about parenting and (b) about the infant’s earlier circumstances. So both baby and parents take a while to get used to each other.

Psychologically, the sudden arrival of the baby can and does have an unsettling impact. Like me, Shonali, an independent, career-oriented person, had to grapple with the loss of personal freedom and choice once baby came home. In the first couple of months, the mother in particular is completely homebound—no gymming, no coffee with gal pals, no work, not even some me-time in the form of a favourite telly show or a book read. It can leave you exhausted, cranky, and guilty—all at the same time. What helps is if the couple make this a way to bond. In Probir and Madhumita’s case, that’s how it turned out. ‘It was all a first for us—potty, pee, crying ill health…’ Madhumita remembers, but with a hands-on husband who wanted to be a part of the entire process, never once grudging the loss of sleep or the exhaustion, it became a great joint effort.

In the process, the couple discovered their own means to handle Preeti—their first baby steps in parenting as it were. Probir got a baby alarm and Preeti would sleep when he turned it on. That, plus her favourite Jerry mouse toy, gave the tired couple the occasional nights of undisturbed sleep. In Kiki’s case a favourite pillow and a stuffed toy—christened Woofus the Bow Wow—did the trick and soon we realized it wasn’t difficult to get baby to sleep at the same time that we did. Similarly her tech-savvy brother-in-law got Shonali a baby monitor with night vision cameras that he connected to their laptop. That way, once baby went to sleep in the bedroom, the couple could take a break and watch a film or TV show in the drawing room with one eye on the monitor to check if the baby was lying on her back and if everything was okay.

Medical Records and Tests

One of the biggest complaints that adoptive parents have—and that includes us—is that the current rules in India do not make it mandatory for the agency to disclose the biological mother’s medical record. This can be a huge problem if the baby gets some infection that is dormant and does not show up in clinical examination, not to mention genetic and other disorders. Adoptive parents are typically given a basic health chart by the agency which includes HIV, TB, and a couple of other tests, along with birth weight and basic vaccines given at birth. But there’s no way of finding out, for example, if the birth mother or the extended biological family have any genetic disorders, psychological problems, inherited diseases like diabetes, asthma, or even a history of cancer. This is a huge lacuna in the process that can come up throughout the child’s lifetime as medical bolts from the blue.

Most adoptive parents face some form of medical scare—some not serious, others full blown. In our case, just a month after baby came home, she suddenly developed a form of virulent, raging pneumonia that required her to be put into neonatal ICU. The doctors tried a number of antibiotic families and wanted to know if the biological mother had TB or suffered a history of drug resistance. We had no clue. In the end, the treatment progressed through trial and error because we simply did not know whether the infection came from one of the caregivers at the agency or from the biological mother. In effect, the paediatrician and his team had to function with a medical blindfold.

That’s why it is very important to do an extensive -series of tests before the baby comes home. Many parents don’t get into that because they are rushed for time and feel it’s tantamount to some kind of screening process. In reality it’s necessary because that way you’ll be prepared for any medical emergency that may come along. If you know the baby already has some congestion in the chest, the doctor can start the treatment immediately and you won’t need to wait till it blows up into an emergency.

Take Preeti, Probir and Madhumita’s little girl. The test report that the agency handed out simply did not ‘look right’. The couple consulted a paediatrician of their choice who did all the tests—including TB and HIV—and got all the vaccine shots all over again. Like us the couple first went to a ped recommended by the agency but were not happy with his very basic clinical examination. Referring the baby to another ped threw up some potential hearing problems. The doctor suggested a BERA test to check if the problem was serious. The result was positive and the couple then spent the next several weeks going to a number of functional specialists, none of whom gave any conclusive diagnosis. It was only when they took the child to their family physician that the possibility of something as simple as ear wax came up. In the end it turned out to be wax but the anxiety derailed the couple’s personal celebration. In hindsight, Madhumita says that the agency’s fact file and the referred doctor’s medical certificate were both useless. In our case, we were hobbled for choice since the agency does not allow would-be parents to take the baby to a doctor too far away. Being Gurgaon residents, the doctors we trusted were too far from the agency for us to take the baby to them for a check-up.

Coming back to the medical angle, it’s a good starting point to repeat all the tests, particularly TB, HIV, Hepatitis B, BERA hearing tests, eyesight and -neurological tests, chest X-ray, a liver function test, and anything else the doctor may suggest. In Shonali and Arun’s case, the first baby they were offered had a congenital CMV infection for which the doctor suggested a torch test. Also, even if the baby is very small when she comes home, the agency gives a set of basic vaccines like BCG and polio drops. But it is always a good idea to repeat all vaccines. That way the parents know for sure what the baby has been vaccinated against and are prepared for any emergency. The best option is to quickly find a good paediatrician, preferably someone who has handled adopted kids before, and get him on board immediately. Once the ped takes over he can then make allowances for the gaps in baby’s medical history and treat her accordingly.

At any rate it’s always a good idea to get an opinion other than from the ped referred by the agency. In most cases, the medical examination is a proforma routine procedure and if you want more details you need to get an independent opinion. Eron and Pritha, for instance, took their baby for a thorough check-up to the Apollo Hospital instead of the clinic suggested by the agency.

The biggest worry that adoptive parents nurse is the fear of the unknown. Take Jayanti whose biggest fear after her adopted daughter came home was of losing her. ‘Doctors said these children come from deprived backgrounds so a lot of diseases are likely, including TB, HIV, schizophrenia, and my biggest fear was “Will I lose my baby?”’ remembers Jayanti. Like Madhumita, she too feels some degree of disclosure from the agency is critical and can save a lot of trauma both for the child as well as the parents.

Of course even the basic medical information that some agencies offer is way more than what is available in the case of abandoned babies. Children adopted from ‘homes’ or found abandoned in public places come with zero medical history. The adoptive parents won’t even know if the birth was normal or a Caesarean birth. They will have no means of finding out if the birth mother had any medical problems and what kind of infections the baby may have faced till she was adopted. Even the birth weight, in those cases, is unknown and if your baby’s circumstances are similar to that, it’s best to keep the ped in the loop from day one and let her take the baby’s treatment and care forward, including the diet chart and vaccine schedule.

Paediatricians say most birth defects occur due to -rubella or German measles, CMV, syphilis, encephalitis, parvo virus, and sometimes chickenpox. In obvious cases like Down’s syndrome, the defect shows up early enough for the doctors to be able to diagnose it. In some cases, such as metabolic imbalances, the baby may not ‘look’ in any way different but again a trained ped will be able to take a call. What the peds can’t track till the child is old enough to show behavioural changes are psychological problems and then too they may mimic teenage tantrums.

Battling Institutional Care

Most adopted babies are underweight. Partly because the mother may have faced some health or nutritional problems during pregnancy and partly because institutional care, no matter how good, can never substitute for the kind of single-minded attention the baby gets at home from her parents. When Kiki came home at two and a half months, she was tiny—weighing just under 3 kg. It took us around four months to get her to plump up.

Eron and Pritha had a similar experience. When baby Lily came home, she was really scrawny. But three months of concerted care later, she turned into a ‘Sumo wrestler’. The best thing to do is to trust the ped with the food chart and slowly increase feed times and quantities. Of course, if you’ve adopted a slightly older child, the weight gain may be slower because the baby takes longer to get over the undernutrition in the initial months. For example, though perfectly healthy, baby Preeti was never as chubby as Kiki became in her infancy and it took her parents some focused effort—including strict adherence to a diet chart—before she started gaining weight and hit the ‘normal’ weight range. Meanwhile her parents went through some tense moments particularly when her teething was also delayed. It took a jocular remark by the paediatrician—‘Have you ever seen a toothless toddler?’—to finally put them at ease. Later they realized it was more of a genetic trait rather than a health issue.

Adoptive parents need to be extremely patient with their child’s growth chart. The weight gain may not be rapid. The general growth may be slow. But as long as the baby’s metabolism is all right, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. Rushing it could cause tummy
upsets and colic pain at best—something that we faced with Kiki—and liver problems at worst. Also, many adopted kids—like their biological counterparts—are born with some kind of jaundice and in the absence of breast milk, getting them to come up to scratch isn’t easy. Typically, very small infants can shake off their institutional routine within a month or two and quickly gain weight. With older babies, that schedule is longer though they too eventually shake off their institutional baggage. My experience is that introducing solids early on is a really good idea because (a) it relieves colic pain and other tummy problems; (b) it substitutes the nutrition that the baby misses out on by not breastfeeding. I introduced solids the day Kiki turned four months old and her weight gain happened immediately afterwards.

Maternity/Paternity Leave

Can adoptive parents expect maternity or paternity leave? Our experience as well as that of a number of adoptive parents in our wider circle of friends convinced us that this issue is typically handled by different employers on a case-by-case basis. Government employees are entitled to 135 days of leave if they adopt a baby ‘upto one year of age’, as per a Government of India memorandum dated March 31, 2006. According to this notification, adoptive mothers with ‘fewer than two surviving children’ will get 135 days of child adoption leave for adopting a baby of up to one year of age.The memorandum also says that ‘the maximum period of one year leave of the kind due and admissible (including leave not due and commuted leave upto 60 days without production of medical certificate) will be reduced by the age of the child on the date of adoption without taking into account Child Adoption Leave’. Which means if the child is two months old at the time of adoption, the mother can claim up to ten months’ leave while a six-month-old baby will fetch her mother up to six months leave and so on.

A further update issued in 2009 extended maternity leave for adoptive government servants to 180 days and offered 15-day paternity leave for adoptive fathers ‘within a period of six months from the date of adoption’.

Advocate Geeta Luthra says the Maternity Benefit
Act (1961) offers umbrella benefits to all mothers but there is still no specific enactment for adoptive mothers
in the private sector. ‘The government can, if it wants, -introduce relevant enactments covering both public and private sector, as in the case of prevention of sexual -harassment in the workplace,’ says Luthra. ‘But so far, nothing of the kind has been forthcoming.’

As a result, those working in the private sector often need to negotiate for their maternity leave. Some companies have a liberal policy under which parents—both adoptive and biological—get a certain number of days of paid leave. In my case, for instance, my employers were extremely considerate and allowed me the usual three-month leave and some flexi-timing till Kiki was about one year old. But there is no law that mandates maternity or paternity leave for adoptive parents. And the parents are often left at the mercy of their respective HR departments. Many companies do not have a special policy for adoptive mothers and sometimes, when a policy is in place, it is the result of individuals fighting for their rights.

Take the case of Madhumita, baby Preeti’s mother. When Preeti came home, Madhumita was working for a reputed consumer durables company with MNC salaries and employment terms. But it had no special policy for adoptive mothers. As a result, Madhumita had to be content with just forty-five days leave—an extremely short time to set up the infrastructure and allow the baby to get acclimatized to her new home. In Shonali’s case, her employer, a global IT giant, too did not have a policy till a colleague fought for and got her three-month maternity leave. Moral of the story: the HR policies of private -companies are privately driven and don’t come under government HR policy. So if your company does not have a policy in place, fight for it. And yes, don’t -forget to enlist the help of other adoptive parents in your workplace. Madhumita, for instance, is quite clear that though she couldn’t fight for her own rights, she would fight for anyone else in her organization who faces the same problem. So don’t think you’re alone—you never know from where you could suddenly get help.

When it comes to paternity leave, the policy gap is even worse in India. Though an established trend overseas, the concept of paternity leave, even for biological parents, is not common in India. However, here too
organizations can and do offer some leave depending on how liberal their HR policy is though nothing concrete is mandated by law. In our case, for instance, my husband got around fifteen days off which proved to be very handy for us. Either way, there’s no harm asking for leave and checking with your HR team if it is possible because adoptive parents need to take care of a lot of paperwork and other infrastructure issues, and bonding with the baby happens best when both parents are involved.

In most countries in the West, both maternity and parental/paternity leave for adoptive parents is mandatory. Paternity leave can extend from seven days to much longer, depending upon the country and the length of service. Hopefully, as the number of adoptive parents -increase in India, both maternity and paternity leave will become mandatory in our corporate culture as well.

Bonding with the Baby

In the weeks after Kiki came home I would often be wracked by feelings that had little to do with motherly love. The biggest constant was doubt—I would wonder if I, an independent and career-minded person, would ever be able to take to my baby ‘like a mother should’ and, more importantly, if she would take to me. I still remember that poignant prayer service that the sisters at the Missionaries of Charity (Delhi chapter) conducted for us in their chapel before we took our baby home. They sang some well-loved hymns—both my husband and I, being convent school products, it brought nostalgic tears to our eyes—and prayed that baby Ekta, as she was called in the agency, would be happy with her new parents. For my husband, it was a moment when his whole life flashed before his eyes. He was overwhelmed with emotions and couldn’t stop crying. As for me, I was scared stiff. I knew I would now have to look after this cherubic little creature and every action or word from me had the potential to enrich or damage her character. The enormity of it all hit me right between the eyes and left me completely gobsmacked. Oh God, I wondered, how will I ever be a mother. I don’t know how.

That feeling of being overwhelmed, of not knowing what to do and how to do things, of always second-guessing my emotions and wondering if I would have felt differently if I were a biological mother are all, I realized, quite normal. In fact, a lot of that jumble of emotions is faced by biological mothers too and not all those feelings are particularly motherly. So if you’ve just brought your baby home and are going through those same -emotions, -wondering just when that magic moment of perfect bonding will strike you and your child, relax. It’s all part of the parenting experience. And this too shall pass.

When I started sharing my feelings with other adoptive parents as part of researching for this book I was astounded at how many of them admitted to the same emotions. I realized I would have managed my feelings much better had I exchanged notes earlier. Like me, many adoptive mums I spoke to were perennially exhausted the first couple of months of parenting and sometimes felt angry with the baby for being cranky and keeping her awake all night or not allowing her even a minute of me-time. These feelings of anger and frustration are -immediately followed by self-doubt. ‘Am I a bad mother? Would it be different if my baby was biological?’

The truth is, biological mothers too face many of these emotions but often without the guilt that adoptive mothers burden themselves with. It takes someone like -Jayanti, who has both adopted and biological children, to put it all in perspective. Pronnoy and Jayanti’s biological son came three years after they adopted their baby girl. A late pregnancy, Jayanti’s experience was not quite the stuff of films. In fact she was so unwell that despite breastfeeding the baby, she didn’t feel any sense of bonding with him till much later. ‘It wasn’t a great -experience,’ she remembers. ‘I was tired after the childbirth, ill, -exhausted from feeding the baby all night and changing nappies. There was no time to bond.’ The bonding happened later, she says, when the baby was big enough for her to cuddle. In fact, she bonded much quicker with her adopted daughter. That experience with biological motherhood convinced Jayanti that the difference between -biological and adopted is more in our heads than anywhere else. ‘Who says genes come through the blood, they come -flying through thin air,’ she says.

Of course in many ways the adoptive experience is a little more difficult than the biological one even if one takes into account the pregnancy difficulties. The adoption process can be sudden enough to throw all your plans into disarray. Shonali’s first reaction, when the agency told her she could take her baby home was, ‘What happens to my pricey gym membership now…shucks, I just paid up.’ In hindsight, these small, irrelevant worries seem laughable but when you’re in the middle of it all, they seem important enough. In due course though, the bonding kicks in and nothing else matters. For some, the moment is almost akin to baptism by fire. For others, it’s less gut-wrenching. In our case, the bonding happened really and truly when our baby was in the ICU battling a galloping pneumonia. When we came back home from the hospital after she was admitted, it hit us that we would now give anything for another sleepless night of baby bawls and hourly feeds. In a sense that crisis made us realize how precious this gift was and we will never forget that lesson in our lifetime.

With baby Preeti and Madhumita too it was ill health that forged a special bond. As she rocked her baby’s cradle all by herself while her husband ran around to collect more test reports, Madhumita would often ask Preeti, ‘Where’s Jerry (her favourite soft toy)?’ Every time the baby looked up at Jerry mouse dangling on her crib, Madhumita would utter a soft hurrah—in her heart she knew her baby could hear her voice no matter what the BERA tests said.

Adoptive mums almost always remember their ‘moment’ when the magic actually kicks in. It can be something as simple as a grin from the baby or something she says when she’s older. For Shonali that moment was when her baby rewarded her with a gummy, toothless smile. ‘Suddenly it’s all worth the while and nothing matters—not the exhaustion, not the lack of privacy, not the total disregard for your personal well-being,’ she says.

For me, long after that gut-wrenching moment of truth in the hospital, came my personal reward when Kiki, now a toddler, suddenly gave me a hug one evening and said, ‘Mamma, I lub lou.’ Can anything beat that feeling?

  Nandini Sengupta is an adoptive parent based in Pondicherry. She is a journalist by profession and has worked with The Economic Times, first in Kolkata and then in Delhi, for fifteen years and is currently working with The Times of India. She and her husband adopted little Kiki in Delhi and moved to Pondicherry in 2010 in search of an alternative milieu for themselves and their child. Babies from the Heart is her first book published by Random House India this September and is available in stores for Rs 299. Find out more about this title-


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