I think it’s wonderful but why would you want to do it? Do you get money from the government?
I’d heard these questions before. The tone and words may change, but not the incredulity.
The boys were past the age when their countrymen were likely to adopt them so their orphanage sent details overseas to seek a family. Whether fate or God brought us all together I don’t know. I hate to think it was simply chance.
Two little boys had lost their first family. Domestic stress and poverty had weakened the bonds between their parents. Their mother was banished, along with their brother and sister. The boys’ misery was compounded when their father, having taken them by rail halfway across India, abandoned them at a station platform while they slept.
The children clung to each other at the local orphanage where they were taken by police. The head of the orphanage, ‘mother’ to 300 orphaned and abandoned children, told me how she remembered Madhu as he carried Sadan and cried constantly for the first few months. He slept with his baby brother and cared for him through the day.
One day the boys were called to the office and shown our photos. ‘They are your new mother and father,’ Madhu was told. He argued. He knew what his parents looked like, and we weren’t even the right colour. ‘You will be going on a plane,’ he was told, but was offered nothing about Australia and he had no real understanding of adoption.
When Barry and I married, I already had a two-year-old daughter, Alix, and Barry was the father of four teenage children. Barry became Alix’s adoptive father and we then had a baby daughter, Briony, together. Though we already had a fairly large family, we felt there was room in our lives and our hearts for more children. Barry’s daughters and son were approaching adulthood and our home felt rather quiet with only two children.
We already loved each other’s children, so we felt confident about our ability to love children not born to us. We also felt we’d rather look at parenting children who didn’t have a family, rather than have more children ourselves.
So when Alix was seven and Briony three, we brought home from Korea our five-month-old son Haden, a chubby little boy who was always smiling. Two years later we adopted two-year-old Joel, from Taiwan. Joel had waited for a family for some time because he was born blind. A few years later we decided we would like to adopt again, so we started looking for other children who were waiting for parents. That is when we heard about Madhu and Sadan, and felt hopeful they might like to join our family.
With guardianship granted and passports issued Alix, now 13, and I arrived in India at the beginning of the hot season. Within a few weeks the international news would talk of the numbers dying in the heatwave.
Sights and smells assailed my senses in those first few days. I knew of the poverty and expected it, but I still felt shocked. But I was also amazed by the dignity and strength of character of the people, given their circumstances. How could a family living in a slum under cardboard and black plastic still smile as we walked past? Most people were helpful and friendly, and the country fascinating. Although I was a woman travelling alone with my daughter I didn’t feel threatened or in danger, despite my relative wealth.
We arrived at the orphanage in the heat of the afternoon and the boys were brought to meet us in the office. They were much smaller than I expected and obviously scared. Sadan, a five-year-old boy smaller than a two-year-old, was lifted onto my lap. He sat there stiffly, and it took a lot of effort to raise a weak smile from him. Madhu wouldn’t look at us and soon burst into tears.
So these were my sons; boys I had daydreamed about for more than a year since I had first seen their photo. I longed to hug them and kiss away their tears, but I had to put my feelings on hold and take things at their pace. This was a profound moment for me, but I could see they had no idea what was happening, or what they should do.
I was told I could take them but I decided to visit over a couple of days to make it easier. Eventually we had to leave and I put two scared little boys into the taxi with me and returned to our hotel. The boys sat on the floor of the hotel room, the gifts I had brought for them untouched except for a packet of Smarties quickly eaten by Sadan. Practicalities had to be taken care of and the boys stood in the bathtub as we tried to wash out their lice. It took a couple of days to convince all the little critters to curl up and die.
Madhu and Sadan slept on the double bed next to me, their arms wrapped tightly around each other in sleep. I lay quietly next to them, studying their faces and taking in their unfamiliar smell. They were obviously closely attached to each other and I wondered whether the two of them would ever be able to form that kind of attachment to me and their new father.
It choked me up to know that if they hadn’t found a family they were due to be separated. To avoid complications with the teenage girls, boys can stay in the orphanage only until they are nine or ten years old. Madhu was allowed to stay longer because his adoption was in progress. What a tragedy it would have been if the brothers had been separated after already losing the rest of their family.
As they lay peacefully sleeping, I wondered what other traumas they had already experienced and whether they would be able to accept the love of a new family.
We stayed in India another three weeks, seeing the most famous sights and meeting some lovely people. The boys spoke no English and my halted attempts at their language were usually unsuccessful. Necessity expedited things though, and in a couple of days the boys learned what they considered the essentials: chocolate, Coke, dinner.
Sadan was toilet-trained in so far as he knew when he needed to go, and he would squat where he was. Toilets were totally unfamiliar and there was no way he was going to sit on one of those! They were good only for entertainment, and he would flush it and laugh for a good half hour at a time. He was comfortable using a field or ditch but in the city it seemed the hotel or restaurant floor would do. After a couple of embarrassing incidents I put him in disposable nappies for the duration of our trip.
As he sat playing on our hotel room floor one hot Delhi afternoon, Alix and I heard Sadan talking. He hadn’t spoken a word in the time he had been with us, so this was a special moment. I assumed he’d been quiet because of the stress of leaving the familiar orphanage and being placed in my care, and when I had mentioned his silence to a carer I was rather abruptly told he didn’t have any problems.
As Sadan pushed his toy cars around the floor we could hear him talking to Madhu in long, excited sentences. Several months later, when Madhu had sufficient English to explain, we learned that Sadan had stopped speaking the day the boys were abandoned and had remained mute in the orphanage, despite Madhu’s attempts to get him to talk. We recognised Sadan’s speaking as a turning point at the time, but we didn’t realise the pain that had held his voice silent for more than two years.
It was at this time Sadan decided he liked having a mum after all. He demanded to be carried everywhere, and would refuse to move if I didn’t have him in my arms. I was grateful that he was such a tiny little mite. It felt lovely to be able to hold him as we spent our last days in India.
Madhu stayed nearby but preferred to hold our Indian guide’s hand when we were out. I told myself it was probably because he attracted less interest from passersby than he would holding a white woman’s hand, but I longed for him to let me closer.
The boys were wonderful on the trip home. The excitement and novelty of flying was marred only by Sadan’s total refusal to wear a seatbelt, and Madhu’s 4 am air-sickness.
Once home they settled quickly. Madhu left the airport with his arm around his newly met Korean brother, Haden. It was instant mutual attraction. Madhu, with Haden in tow, walked around our home in amazement, opening the fridge and pantry, and turning on taps and drinking water that didn’t need to be fetched from a pump or the river.
Madhu slept happily in his new room but Sadan refused any separation from me. He would only sleep on my bedroom floor so he could still see me in the lounge room in the evening. His terror at separation was easily understood, and he became my constant shadow for the next year. We nicknamed him ‘the Klingon’, as he was always clinging to one of my legs.
The boys surprised us all by quickly becoming two individuals within the family. We had expected them to remain a tight little unit within the family for some time, but Madhu immediately handed over all care of Sadan to his new dad and me. His trust was awe-inspiring. How could a young boy, abandoned by his parents and handed to strangers, trust so readily?
At his introductory English class Madhu’s teachers commented on his gentle nature and ready smile, and he won the hearts of all he met.
After some thought we decide on ages and birth dates, a new concept for children who didn’t know how old they were. They each had their first-ever birthday party within a couple of months of arriving home. We had to show them how to unwrap presents and blow out birthday candles, but they got the idea quickly. Madhu suggested two birthday parties a year would be a good idea, to make up for all the birthdays he’d missed!
Sadan smothered me with affection and contact from the start. Madhu took much longer. At first he was resistant to affection and would reluctantly accept a quick kiss goodnight on his forehead, but only because I insisted.
A few months after we arrived home I was sitting on the sofa watching the evening news. Madhu turned to me with his arms spread apart and asked, ‘Hug, Mummy?’
I seemed calm while we shared a hug but my smile was a mile wide. At last I was able to hold my big boy in my arms. His hug dissolved all my fears that he might never allow me close. Madhu gave me a shy kiss on my cheek, and leapfrogged out to the kitchen. Less than a year later this same child jumped into our bed each morning and insisted on a ten-minute hug before he could face breakfast.
Madhu had an innocence that belied his life experiences. He had worked as a child labourer in a quarry for the early years of his life, breaking rocks with a sledgehammer and carrying them to a machine that crushed them into gravel. He still has the scars from accidents.
This child had known a hunger we had never experienced. One evening at dinner he told us in vivid detail how he used to catch wild birds and rats, then cook and eat them. The other kids sitting at the dinner table turned various shades of green. ‘Why?’ I asked stupidly. ‘Because I was hungry,’ Madhu explained.
One time the children were watching television and Madhu recognised Christopher Reeve from the Superman video they had seen. I told them about his riding accident and that he couldn’t walk. ‘He not fly either?’ Madhu asked. The conversation became more confused when a clip of Elvis was shown. ‘That man’s a famous singer but he’s dead now,’ said Dad. A look of pure astonishment was on Madhu’s face. ‘If he dead how he move?’ he asked.
Madhu brought home a poem he wrote at school on the computer. It was typed on a piece of paper cut in the shape of a heart. ‘Peace - by Madhu. Peace is not fighting and helping people. Don’t cut trees. My Dad at night does work. I love my Dad and Mum.’
My little boys have borne so many losses. Their history, including all evidence of their first family, is irretrievable. With my help Madhu has written a life-story book to safeguard his memories and to assist his little brother who was too young to remember. No baby photos exist. We cannot tell them who they look like, or how tall they might grow. There is no knowledge of their real ages or birth names, save their first names, which Madhu knew and they have kept. Their birth parents and siblings are forever lost to them.
We were aware of the controversy of removing children from their birth country and culture for inter-country adoption. Children who have no say and who have already lost so much are taken from everything familiar to live in a foreign land with strangers. It is far from a perfect solution and should be considered only after any hope of restoring the child to their birth family or relatives is exhausted, and there is no permanent family or other suitable means of caring for them within their country.
Inter-country adoption continues to be the subject of impassioned debate but I believe we don’t always separate out the issues of adoption from those of abandonment. Sadly, abandonment has all too frequently been the lived experience of our children – and any child who has lost his original family may well feel abandoned. Adoptive parents can provide love and security but we can’t erase the pain of our children’s original loss.
For my sons it was the only alternative to a childhood of institutionalisation, separation, and then, too young, being released on the streets alone. We cannot change this but we can give them a family, a place to belong, love and security, and we will help them rebuild a sense of their own identity.
Sadan no longer sleeps on our floor. He is now in his own bedroom but his little brown body is curled up to mine, fast asleep, every morning when I wake. He grew like a weed, making up two years’ growth in the first seven months and increasing six shoe sizes in that first year!
Madhu’s life-story book is special to us. The last page is written in his own words:
I am happy in Australia. I like it because my house is good and I like having a fridge and good food. I like to go to school and play games on my computer at home. I like to do my chores and get pocket money. I like going to the shops and playing with Lego. I like my Mum and Dad. They are a good Mum and Dad. I am happy because they love me all the time.
Now, if I can only work out how to put all this into a few short sentences, then maybe I could answer that lady’s question: why would you want to do it?
I wrote this story in 1996, the year after Madhu and Sadan became our sons. In 1998 I travelled back to India with 13-year-old Briony, and we brought home our youngest two children, Akil – then five years old – and his three-year-old sister, Sabila. Their adoption completed our family.
Madhu was aged maybe ten when he became our son, and he is now a young adult. In 2001 I travelled through India with him and he was able to see that his birth country was a magnificent place, filled with many generous people.
Sadan is now in high school. He has serious learning disabilities, but tries harder than any child I know. He frequently brings home merit and achievement awards. His teachers ring to tell us what a pleasure he is to teach. He is also a pleasure to parent.
Our boys came to our family as older children with unknown histories. We knew they were considered a ‘risky’ adoption. However, they have brought us more joy, love, and fulfilment than we could ever have imagined.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem