The Ancestors and the Babies

Part I: Boys will be boys; girls will be mothers

A baby girl has been born to a young woman in India. She wants to keep her baby. She writes to me for help. The boyfriend will not marry her, a reversal of past promises. In India it is nearly impossible for a single mother to raise a child. She cannot rent a place to stay or get a job if her status is known. For the child it is impossible to come through childhood unscathed by the names, insults, bullying, and exclusion because no father is present. For now though the baby nurses peacefully, unaware of the forces suddenly focused on her existence. She has no idea how her birth has turned a corner of the universe into chaos.

The issue is SHAME, the loss of the girl’s family’s Houour, which includes the presumed anger and sadness of the ANCESTORS. I step back in wonder. “Is it really true that one young woman’s birth of a child has the power to undo generations of respect and standing in current times and even causing anguish for past generations no longer here? Can 2 kg. of human infant wreak such destruction on families and community? And is it true that if the baby’s father “mans up” and marries the mother the baby is no longer the source of family dishonor and the Ancestors can go back to doing whatever ancestors do?

Part II: The Voices in my head.

Mostly I hear adoptees talking in my head and mostly they are Indian adoptees. My daughter is an Indian adoptee which is how I came to be here in Kolkata to care for the girls rejected for adoption. She doesn’t say much, mostly because she has seen and experienced too much of the pain of women’s lives here. But others ask:

“Why couldn’t people help my mother keep me instead of adopting me?’ This is a frequent question I think of when faced with an unmarried mother who wants to keep her baby, The biggest barriers are not financial but social and now we are back to the family HONOUR and SHAME, and the wrath or sadness of the ANCESTORS — the ruination of generations by the arrival of a baby without proper papers! She will be banned from her mother’s home. Her friends will turn their backs. Others will simply be to afraid to help because then they too will be stained by protecting a baby who has no proper papers

The only way for a baby to have proper papers is to have a father who is married to its mother. In India, the choices for the baby are to be raised by a single mother which is almost impossible, and unlike the US she will not be able to find a place to live or a job, and will find that many schools will not accept her child. The child will be subjected to teasing, bullying and social exclusion. But the child will still have its mother.

The second option is adoption, domestic adoption in India where there are thousands of families on waiting lists for infants free for adoption. This may be successful in that the child is raised as a natural child of the family, or not. The child may be told, or maybe not told, or maybe have a sense of secrets about its origins or may be told by others. When the child discovers it is adopted it will also wonder why it was given up, why it was not loved, what it had done wrong. I hear these voices in my head because these are words told to me over and over by adoptees.

Am I against adoption, not at all. Sometimes it is the ONLY option, but the adoptive mother, including myself, is the child’s second mother. We may wish we were the first, just like the child may wish it bad been birthed by us. A solid identity must be built on truth, not half-truths or lies. We owe that to our children. And if it is difficult to us to manage emotionally then we are doubly obligated to sort it out and come to a comfortable place about our motherhood. Children read our emotions. They should not have to bear our pain.

I stand, holding the baby in my arms, wondering her future, feeling sad and impotent and torn apart but clearly not as much as this young college girl, now a mother, still hoping maybe the father will marry her, give her and the baby the papers, still hoping her family and community will accept her and her baby without the papers, and torn between what she is told will be a “better life” for her baby — but wondering how she herself will survive the pain of loss.

Part III: Why? Why? Why?

Whether one believes in evolution, or God, or Gods, or G_d, or a god force within all life, none seems to require that newborns come with passports or papers. We arrive naked, without accessories. Honor and Shame are about culture, about people making rules, about beliefs – because if papers or passports were required for new life, then why are babies born without them?

Why? Why? Why?

They Never Stop Waiting

They never stop waiting for their mothers to come back.  They cannot be with us because they are always 3 or 7 or 10 years old, sitting on a railway bench, or standing on a street corner.  “My mother told me to wait here until she comes back.”  And so they wait, or they go looking but they will not find her, yet they never stop looking.

Two nights ago, one of our girls left in the evening, in the pouring monsoon rain, thunder and lightning, barefooted, to find her mother.  She climbed a ladder and spread the rusted barbed wire, and was gone.  By midnight Seema Gupta and I were trudging through 2 ft. of water to get to the road, and then to the local police station. We had pulled together her files, written a formal letter for the police, and printed out recent pictures of her.  By 2 am we were back home.  The other girls were devastated and frightened for her.  We didn’t know why she had gone.  We worried especially because she is particularly vulnerable.  We each scanned the day for a hint, for what we might have said that set her off…. I think we each took her leaving personally.

The Officer came to Shishur Sevay at 9 am to search the premises and see how she got out.  He told us we need more cameras outside and a higher boundary wall.  He was worried about someone coming in as much as one of the girls leaving.  He interviewed us all. And he took it all seriously.  Being in our home, he was even more puzzled that she had left.  Few people really understand the children who wait forever.  Ten minutes after he left we got a call from another police station about a girl they had picked up in the night, asking whether she was ours.  She was.  She was safe.  She had given a false name.  She was now housed at the government home, and would be produced the following day at the Child Welfare Committee and we were to appear with all her papers and a copy of the police filing.  Dispositions would be made.  I wasn’t even sure what I wanted.

We all met in the Committee room.  She stood stoically near me and then began to silently cry.  I  asked her why she had run.  She said, “My mother,” and I understood.  For ten years she has drawn the same family picture, and told the same story about being left…. She doesn’t want to leave Shishur Sevay.  She just wants to see her mother, see if she is OK, tell her she is OK.  The children whose mothers have died are freer to move on, and they are not haunted by abandonment, or, “why was I left?”.  Today in the CWC room we also saw an adorable three or four year old who had been found sitting in the train station.  She was waiting.  Her mother told her to wait there and left with a man.  Her mother didn’t come back.  If a woman remarries the new husband usually does not want her children.  It is an ugly custom, and ugly how it happens because the children never stop looking.

A couple of years ago we talked with all the girls about searching, and put bindis on railway stops they remembered. But then they became unsure of what they wanted. They were also afraid of not having the security they have here.  So we put the map away and tomorrow I will take it out again.

Today we went back to the local police station to give them the reports, to withdraw the request, and for them to meet our girl.  She was frightened, but was so warmly received she relaxed.  And then the same Officer got on the phone and made calls to people in the town she remembers.  He will also help us with other searches.   She was also clear with CWC, and today, “My mother is Dr. Michelle Harrison, but I have another mother and I want to find her.  I just want to see her.”

We will try.  Maybe we will find a familiar place.  Maybe starting at the bus station she will recognize a road…. we will walk around.  The police will help us.  We have the support of the CWC now.  I used to tell the girls that one day we will hire a big bus and travel to all the places they remember.

What are my hopes?

  1. To find a place and people who are familiar or known to them or related to them, a place they can find again.
  2.  To know they have our full support in helping them connect with their past.
  3.  To help them sort out what they want and to see it as a long term process in which they may have differing feelings at different times.
  4.  To help them move back and forth in these worlds and to honour their decisions but provide safety and protection at the same time.
  5.  To help them find some peace of mind in weaving together past and present so they can move into the future.

This is the little girl I saw waiting on a corner in 2001.  I’ve never stopped wondering.  I hope she stopped looking.  She is a part of the history of Shishur Sevay.

lost girl 2001

 

Shishur Sevay Welcoming Scrutiny

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 10.45.08 am

I read this story this morning.  It’s good that the government wants to improve services and accountability of NGO services to children.  So I welcome this, and I also dread this.  What will be the reality of how this will happen?  Ultimately, will we be certified as “good enough?”  What will be the criteria.  We are a model and we intend to influence government care of orphans and other children in need, including the disabled.  We want to document and report, and be transparent in how this process occurs, if it actually does proceed.   This is the first I have heard about it.  I will report when we hear anything along the way.  I will be open about the questions that are asked of us, and our replies.

Even at present, our records are open.  Is our documentation perfect?  Of course not.  We will improve what we can.  But our children are receiving good health care; good nutrition; education; rehabilitation; respect; discipline.  Our official website http://www.shishursevay.org continues to update all of these and our important documents are being loaded into the site.  Here are the worries I have as we enter into a revised process of licensing:

  • We are under constant pressure to take more children.  I have refused on the basis that we cannot take more without lowering the level of care we give.  We cannot become a warehouse.  We won’t.
  • We do not receive funds from the government.  Such a contract would require us to take more children.  For those NGOs that receive funds, they often arrive 1-2 YEARS late, and cover only a bare fraction of the real costs.  Proper care for children with disabilities is expensive because it is labor intensive.   Otherwise they don’t survive.
  • Inclusion may be a problem in the new licensing.  We have been told more than once that we cannot have “normals’ with “handicapped.”  The rationale from the government was that the “handicapped” are dangerous to the “normals.”  This was told to us at the same time I had established a ZERO TOLERANCE of violence because children with disabilities can easily be silently abused and we had dealt with such a situation here.  So maybe this will be an opportunity for educating and influencing the government about disability and inclusion.

Well, it’s a new adventure, which may or may not happen.  It’s a great idea, more scrutiny, and I really do welcome it.  When people walk through the entrance here, I see their faces change.  It’s not what they expected.  The kids are all around.  Kids and teachers and office staff… all “underfoot.”  My office is always a bit of a mess because if anyone doesn’t know where to put something, it ends up in my office.  It’s also the reception area.  It is shared space.  All doors in the house have windows. Privacy can be dangerous to children and to the helpless and voiceless.

I like “common space”  When I was a kid I used to spend hours drawing house plans.  I studied magazines that in those days had construction plans for homes.  My designs were always the same….. a common space in the middle.  So I guess that makes Shishur Sevay the house of my dreams.  I was a strange kid.  I’m still a bit on the strange side.

One Baby’s Heart and So Many Questions!

Talking it over with Seema Aunty

Talking it over with Seema Aunty

Tuni is her name, but I added “Harrison” as I do for the kids with disabilities who have no surnames.  Having a chart read, “Baby Tuni” is not as good as “Tuni Harrison.”

Tuni is about seven months and has Down Syndrome.  At about three months of age she was hospitalized in a government hospital about four hours from Kolkata.  I don’t have records of why she was hospitalized, but we were told her family never came back for her and never responded to calls from the hospital.  That district has no facilities for children with disabilities, and was one of the children the Child Welfare Committee pleaded with me to take.  We picked her up last week, on Friday, the 19th of July.  I knew in taking a child with Down there was a possibility she would have other medical problems including heart disease.

Today I took her to Medica Superspecialty Center to see the pediatrician for a check-up and to start whatever investigations were in order.  Tuni was a charmer.  Yes, she has heart disease.  She was seen by the pediatric cardiologist, the same one who saw Ganga in the past.  He did a brief echocardiogram, enough to see that she has a “complicated heart situation.”  Tomorrow I take Tuni back for  a more thorough testing under sedation.  And then we will talk… as the doctor put it.

So much goes through my mind. Is it fixable?  What will it cost?  How will we manage it all?   I dare to even think, should we do it?  And then I get mad at myself for even asking.  I think about her family.  Maybe this is why they abandoned her.  Maybe they couldn’t afford treatment.  Maybe a mother is mourning. Or, maybe it was just the Down Syndrome… but they did put her in the hospital.  I hold no judgments any more.  This is a harsh place with harsh realities.  You don’t take a child to a government hospital unless you have no other alternatives.

This work has changed me too.  I now more easily see the person separate from the illness.  When I hold her and talk to her, I ask her, “What happened to you, Little One?”

Looking worried... with reason.

Looking worried… with reason.

Good night from Kolkata at 12:50 am.  I need to get some sleep before the day begins.  Lots on my mind….

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