By M. Sophia Newman
In this village, Ghanaians wanted an African adoption, which they said meant temporarily placing a child with people they knew.
It is a sunny day, and I am in Kolkata searching for a person I would lay down in front of train for. I’m on my way to an orphanage to make a decision about my future as a mother.
When I arrive at the orphanage, I see a sparkling clean, bustling place. The sound of children singing floats into the courtyard. A nun walks in and out of her office, meeting with couples—women in silk saris, men in Western suits—one by one.
When it is my turn, she does not invite me in, but rather stands in the doorway. “What do you want?” she asks in a warm but blunt tone.
* * *
It wasn’t an idea I came up with myself.
The suggestions began in the Middle East when I was nineteen. People would point to their children, saying, “Take him with you.” Take this boy or girl before violence strikes. Take them to America.
I thought an armed conflict motivated the request. But later, in rural Ghana, I met a mother who was dizzily in love with her month-old baby—who nonetheless asked me to take him to live in the US. “This is better,” her mother insisted. In South Asia, too, strangers occasionally offered me their children.
For eleven years, I made polite refusals. But I wondered: if all these people believed international adoption was best, did that mean it was?
In 2010, I looked at my nephew—then half the age and twice the size of a boy I knew in Africa—and considered that he had safe playgrounds, good healthcare, and plentiful nutrition. The African boy had none of that.
I sketched a manifesto. I’d adopt a girl, the gender more often unwanted. I’d speak her mother tongue, circumventing the troubling lack of a common language some families face during adoptions, and adopt in a region where I’ve worked, so I could understand my child’s background.
That is, if I ever decided to adopt.
Deciding depended on what adoption means.
Closed adoptions make it harder to understand who the biological parents are. But my Googling turned up a single characteristic shared by most: they are alive. Four of every five adoption-eligible, orphanage-dwelling children have at least one living parent. It was a far cry from the motherless infants I’d envisioned.
Perhaps that’s unsurprising. The people who had offered their children weren’t dead, either.
Why were they eager to give their children away? When I was unable to understand Ghanaians’ requests, I started asking them questions. What they said was not what I expected.
Adoption is a word with two definitions. Western-style adoption—severing a parent-child bond and permanently placing the child with new parents who the natal family doesn’t know—was unfamiliar in this village. Ghanaians wanted an African adoption, which they said meant temporarily placing a child with people they knew. The idea was to allow parents to manage difficulties by getting help from wealthier community members—not to sever family ties. In fact, they assumed parents and children would eventually reunite. (In India, too, leaving a child in an orphanage is often a temporary method of coping with poverty or crisis, not a way of relinquishing parental rights.)
What they were requesting made sense. In the Ghanaian village, a single mother of three kids befriended me. J.’s* family lived in a single room with no running water or kitchen. When I took the eldest girl (aged 12) to the capital, she marveled at the flush toilet in a restaurant we visited.
J.’s salary was a dollar a day. “When you come back,” she told me, “I will build a concrete house with two rooms, so we all can live together.”
Her other ambition was her children’s education. She was frank about wanting my help. In local custom, aunts, neighbors and others helped raise children together. In local parlance, the word “mother” often indicated any woman of a particular generation in a given social group who took responsibility for young lives. “You are their mother too,” she once said, not cajoling me, but stating things as she saw them.
* * *
In the orphanage courtyard, I tell the nun I’m curious about adoption.
Sister doesn’t pull her punches. Kolkata was once synonymous with poverty, she explained in a mix of Bengali and English words. But with the Indian middle class growing, adoptions are more frequent and systematic. Most are now domestic.
She doesn’t mention my race, but I know national adoption laws favor people of Indian origin. I’m at the back of a line—and it sometimes grows so long the government stops accepting new applications.
Since I’m alone, the nun does emphasize that her Catholic order condemns single parenting.
“Thank you,” I say.
Outside the orphanage, I revise my manifesto. The orphanage had girls from a region where I’ve lived, who speak a language I know. But there are other criteria, too. India’s shift to a formalized system would disconnect my child from her natal family. I’d never know if her parents’ motivations or their understanding of adoption. And if they did not understand the arrangement they were making—well, what then?
Walking away, I sigh with resignation.
* * *
This ending, it turns out, is typical. One in three American women has considered adoption, per a US government report. Just two percent follow through.
Then again, adoption is a word with two definitions.
There is a certain family in an African village with whom I’m still in touch. Their situation fits my criteria: two of the children are girls; I’ve stayed in their region (and their house); and we share a language (English). There’ll be no bureaucracy, no corruption, and we can reunite whenever we want.
The $40,000 cost of an international adoption equals the wages J. could earn herself in a full century. That money would end the family’s penury, provide them education, and even permit the eldest girl to immigrate to America with me. It also means I can provide her son—who was once twice as old and half as large as my nephew—nutrition and a suitcase of toys.
Instead of lying down in front of a train, maybe we can play with a model one together.
After all, I am their mother too.
M. Sophia Newman is a freelance writer working with Pacific Standard Magazine and Beacon Reader to return to West Africa to cover stories on disease, food insecurity, and the family she knows. Subscribe here: beaconreader.com/