The Lost Children: An Adoptee’s Story

Interview by Anjum Choudhry Nayyar with Shaaren Pine

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adoption

Shaaren as a young girl

We’ve talked about adoption on masalamommas through the eyes of two couples who were waiting to have a child of their own, but couldn’t conceive and fertility treatments didn’t pan out. Through open adoption these two couples were able to have a child and they both share their challenging journeys as women and wives. But what happens to the child who is adopted? What is their journey like? What is their transition like?

Shaaren Pine is living this journey.  She was a newborn when she was brought to Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity in New Dehli in 1975.   She would later be adopted by a non-South Asian family in the United States.  Today Shaaren is a mom to her own biological daughter and she said her journey through motherhood has been significantly impacted by her own childhood story.

Here is her story in her own words. A big thank you to Shaaren for sharing her very personal story with our readers with adoptees, first mothers, or anyone who is considering adopting .
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There are very few adoptees who don’t think about where we come from, and who don’t mourn what we have lost through adoption. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t have happy childhoods, or good families, it just means that adoption is a traumatic, lifelong experience that is rarely recognized as one.

I am no exception, and have wondered my whole life, in varying degrees depending on my age, about…me.  About my parents, my family. My story.

Up until my daughter was born, I was the only person in the world I knew I was related to.  My daughter (now 6) loves hearing her story, which always begins before she was born. “You knew in your head and your heart that I was going to be a girl, right, Momma?” she asks. “Yes. I knew in my head and my heart that you were going to be a girl,” I answer.  She smiles and nods. This is the way her story is supposed to go.

Her story, like most non-adopted people, begins before she was born. She loves hearing how my husband and I met and how excited we were to be having a baby. That she used to get the hiccups at least four times a day when I was pregnant and that she was always jumping around too much for the sonographer to get a good look. I love that I can share these things with her. Her face lights up when I tell these stories and I can see how important hearing them is to her. They help her figure out who she is, how she sees herself, her sense of belonging. These stories give her a place not only in our family, but in the world. She has come from somewhere.

I also know how important these stories are because I have no story of my own to recall.

Shortly after I was born, I was brought to Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, New Delhi, in August of 1975. That is literally all the information I have about myself.

I was raised in a small, white town in New England by white parents. On the one hand, my childhood was like many other kids – friends, school, sports, vacations. But on the other, growing up brown in a white place was extremely challenging. My family, like many other well-meaning families, lacked awareness about the issues that kids of color face in these spaces, as well as knowledge about how help develop in us a positive racial identity, or how to embrace our browness in a place that only valued whiteness.

Despite this, I grew up, went to college, and headed off into the world. Because I value diversity, I chose Washington, D.C. to be my home (in 1997), and it has remained so ever since.

Shaaren and her daughter

Shaaren and her daughter

There is something about having a child and getting older that stirs up a lot of old feelings. As I said before, I have spent different amounts of time and energy thinking about being adopted, depending on my age. Sometimes, I am able to put it on the back burner, and other times, not so much.

In 2012, I happened to see my Indian passport and other documents. Both stated different birthdates, different spellings/mis-spellings of the name my adoptive parents gave me, and worst of all, the typically forged birth certificate listing my adoptive parents as my first parents. All this new-found lack of information sent me into a tail spin (rivaled only by my adolescence!) and I set about trying to find other Indian adoptees to ease the pain.

It took a couple of months, but miraculously, I found several other Indian adoptees. The four I’m closest to are all from Missionaries of Charity (different locations).  We are all women, we all have no information about our origins, we are all around the same age, and we all have children around the same age. I’m truly not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t found Kripa, Rebecca, and Sumitra.

They had all decided to do genetic testing through 23andMe to find more information about their roots, and I thought that would be a great idea. Even if the results proved inconclusive, I could not know less about myself than already I did, so what did I have to lose? Not only would I learn valuable medical information (how many times have I had to answer all doctors’ questions “Do you have a family medical history of …x?” with “I’m an adoptee. I don’t know my family medical history.”) but there was also the not-so-impossible possibility that I could find relatives!

genetic; testing

Waiting was hard. But finally, after two months, my results started coming in.

First, I found out that I’m 99.7% South Asian. It was flabbergasting, really. On the one hand, I literally could not be more Indian and yet, without context, culture, language or religion, what did that even mean? Indian? It felt more like “Undian”.

Because my orphanage had been in the North, I had always assumed that that’s where I was born, or where my family is from. And even though many families migrate, it turns out that my genes are from the South. I couldn’t believe it! More pieces of the puzzle were coming together.

I have found a couple distant cousins (all with family in the South) and very valuable medical information. Along with this, the process of admitting how much adoption has shaped my life, connecting with other adoptees, and, for the first time, owning my own narrative, has made the last few years truly life-changing.

Not all adoptees feel the same way about everything – we’re as varied as non-adoptees are. Thankfully, though, I have found so many adoptees who do feel similarly to the way I do, that I no longer feel as isolated as I once did.

 

How did not knowing your family history affect you as a girl growing up?

I think in general, it made me sad. Not looking like anybody and not being from somebody was really difficult. All my friends looked like their parents. My sister looked like my parents (she is their biological daughter). My brother and I, while both from India, are not related and don’t really resemble each other. I longed for that feeling of family that can only come from biology.

Every birthday was a mix of happiness and extreme sorrow. I missed my mother, even though I had no memory of her. Family discussions about genealogical  history or previous generations were traumatic because none of the people being talked about were my history. Class projects or assignments on family trees were painful – having to claim a different family as my own made me feel fraudulent.

 

What was it like when you got pregnant?

Shaaren, her daughter and husband

Shaaren, her daughter and husband

I had spent my whole life taking care of other peoples’ children (I started babysitting when I was 11, plus, I worked in the Infant room of a child development center for almost ten years after college) and I knew I wanted to wait until I was absolutely ready to have a baby. So, when that day came, we were overjoyed when we found out we were pregnant.  I actually had a very difficult pregnancy, but, I knew with every fiber of my being that it would all be worth it.

Pregnancy, though, is always a time for reflection. I didn’t worry too much about what kind of mom I would be, given that I’d cared for hundreds of infants and children over the previous twenty years, but the process of growing and having a baby solidified in me that babies and mothers should not be separated. I think it made the reality of my separation from my mother that much more traumatic.

 

 

How has your identity affected your relationship with your daughter?

I had to outsource this question to my husband, because I am not objective.  I feel (and he agrees) that we seem to have a much closer relationship than most, which is likely a result of me being an adoptee. While any birth will change a woman, Ara’s birth healed some of the deepest cracks in my soul. I should add that it is not her job to heal me, and it is unfair to place that weight on a child. Or anybody, for that matter. But the fact remains, her existence has helped me deal with my adoption.

She is my world. Of course, she is still only 6 and I am not naive enough to think that our relationship won’t have ups and downs like any relationship, but, we are everything to each other.  I also didn’t anticipate that my adoption losses would be hers, as well. She asks about and wants to know her brown grandmother and her brown cousins, and it is sad for her that I can’t produce them. And, she lacks (half) a medical history, just as I do.

As she gets older, it has been amazing to see some of the characteristics that we share that are not physical. Like, both of us being highly empathic (a trait science now knows is inherited). Things like this offer me a glimpse of what my parents might be/have been like.

 

What are some of the misconceptions about Indian adoptees in your opinion?

Compared to the large number of adoptees from other countries, there are very few Indian adoptees, so I’m not sure there are misconceptions about us, specifically. But, for adoptees as a whole, I think there are many misconceptions related to adoption.

Here are a few myths:

  • that adoptees/infants are blank slates and that genes don’t matter
  • that adoption loss isn’t traumatic
  • that a “colorblind” approach to transracial parenting works because love is enough
  • that adoption is a win-win for infertile couples/kids who need homes
  • that adoptees have been rescued/should be grateful
  • that kids in orphanages don’t have parents/family
  • that when adoptions aren’t going well, there is something wrong with the adoptee
  • that poverty is an acceptable reason for a child to be adopted

 

What kind of support do you get with the other adoptees, how has it made your journey easier?

 

  adoption; babyEven though the four MOC adoptees who I am closest with are all over the country (Rebecca in Washington, Sumitra in Minnesota, Kripa in South Carolina and me in DC) just knowing they exist has eased the pain of feeling so alone for most of my life. I know I can pick up the phone and any one of them will not only be there, but will understand exactly what I’m going through. Or, even more, they’ll know what we all went through growing up and are now processing as we move into parenthood/middle adulthood.

They have formed several groups, including Lost Sarees for Indian adoptees in the U.S.

I’ve also found a very supportive community of adult adoptees (adopted from many countries) and it has been incredibly empowering. Even though we don’t all live in the same places, the similarity of our experiences growing up is uncanny.

While in the past, adoptive parents have largely controlled any discussion surrounding adoption, increasingly, adoptees are claiming our own narratives and changing the discourse. And rightfully so, as we are the only ones who live adoption. We are the only ones who lacked choice in the matter and we will never NOT be adoptees.  Most of us aren’t against adoption, but do think it should be the absolute last resort. Many are working towards supporting family preservation and making adoptions more ethical.

 

When you found your cousins, what was that like? 

Thanks to 23andme, I found several very distant cousins, meaning we share great-great-great-great-grandparents. They are all in the US (23andMe doesn’t do testing in India) and one was even an adoptee herself! Despite not being able to give me any recent family information, knowing they exist confirms that I have roots in this world. It’s an amazing feeling!

 

You mention as we get older, knowing where you’re from makes a huge difference.  Why do you think parents who adopt should help their adopted children find their birth parents? Would it have made a difference to you as a child growing up in retrospect?

For me, because of my age, and a lack of record-keeping at the time, I don’t believe there is any information about me to get, and I am not optimistic about finding my first parents. But for younger generations, I think adoptive parents should go to the ends of the earth to help their children find out where they came from.

Secrets, lies, or lack of information only cause pain. Our information is part of our story, it’s part of who we are, and we are entitled to it. Withholding this information, information that every other human being is allowed to have, is unfair to all adoptees, but especially adult adoptees.  When adoptive parents and families don’t acknowledge our first families, our countries of origin, or our losses (of culture, religion, language, family), they aren’t really acknowledging us because we are all these things. To deny them is to deny us.  One of the ways I’d encourage adoptive parents to help their children find their roots, is to do genetic testing. It’s relatively inexpensive, and will give adopted children and adults a look at who they are and where they’ve come from.

And, I’d encourage South Asians to do testing, as well. There aren’t very many South Asians in the 23andMe database, and there are so many of us searching to find our roots, to find our families, and to find ourselves.​

 

Have you ever considered adoption? Are you adopted? How does it affect you as a mother today? Share your feedback below, she’d love to read your feedback!


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There are 19 comments

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  1. Ambaa

    This topic is so relevant to me right now! Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

    My husband and I are experiencing infertility and I’m nervous about pursuing adoption. If we were to adopt, it would be from India. While we are not genetically Indian, I am Hindu and we have a very strong community of mostly Desis. But even with so many Indians in my life, I still worry about inter-racial adoption and the effects it would have on my potential children. I wouldn’t want to cause them more harm.

    Do you think that if you had been adopted by parents of Indian heritage it would have been a better experience or a very different experience?

    • shaaren

      I’m sorry about your struggles with infertility.

      As for your question, I’m not sure.

      In some ways, not having everybody immediately know my story (had i been adopted by people who looked similarly to me) would have been liberating. And, you, having dealt with many of the same racial/ethnic/color issues that a possible child might deal with is intensely helpful. That being said, it still doesn’t take away the loss and grief and trauma that many of us feel as adoptees. Domestic, same-race adoptees often face the same feelings of disconnect, even though they resemble their parents.

      Either way, if you decide to pursue adoption or not, I have heard that seeking therapy for your own loss/grief/pain is crucial. The pain of infertility is huge and should be acknowledged and worked through, regardless, but especially when bringing a child into a family.

      I hope that didn’t leave you more confused!

  2. Erin

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I adopted two of my children transracially and I really appreciate being able to read about the experience of transracial adoptees.

  3. kim lehman

    Thank you for sharing. People like you have helped people like me keep those sensitive issues alive for our trans-racially adopted children. I want my boys to know where they came from, remember their stories, and have contact with family back home. Because we adopted much older boys we never gave it a second thought abut making sure they kept ties back home.
    You are right, some people do think my boys should just be thankful and they are, I a recent television interview they said they were thankful for their parents love. But to have everything stripped away from you culturally, and then handed 3 squares and new jeans does not add up to the loss. Our prayers are that our boys experience some love and childhood that were missing out on. That they grow to do whatever God calls them to do. I cannot take the place of their bio mom, but I can guarantee that I am an answer to their dying mothers prayers. I know she prayed for her son to be love, and that I do. I work hard to make sure they know I have no intention of trying to steal their identity or minimize the pain of their loss. But I want to help them grieve in a way that leads to healing. I keep them in contact with other adoptees from their homeland so they can share and experience those connections.
    But I do thank you for helping to make sure others know the importance of allowing our adopted children to mourn their losses, identify with others and have connections and to keep their culture alive. I also want to thank you for a carefully thought out post. I think you know that some times we adoptive parents learn along the way but that does not minimize our love our kids. My heart aches for my boys losses and heart aches.
    God Bless!

  4. Michelle Wilcox

    Thank for your sharing so honestly. Both of my children were adopted, each under very different circumstances. I am curious to have an adoptee’s perspective on an issue related to my son (age 4.5 now). Our son’s birth mother chose us from profiles provided by our agency, and we met with her for an hour or two the day after his birth. She had been reluctant to meet us at all, but had been urged to do so. She was a delightful young woman who we would have been more than willing to have an open arrangement with. However, she had been adamant throughout the process that she did not want that. We do not know anything of the circumstances of our son’s conception except that he is not the child of his birth mother’s husband. He also has two half-sisters. So I understand why his birth mother wants a closed adoption, and respect her choice. We do/will share with our son what information we have (including medical of course) in an age appropriate way. We have sufficient information to find her at anytime should our son want to, but I am reluctant to discuss such things until he is old enough to have a better understanding of the ramifications of contacting her. You clearly feel strongly that adoptive parents should help their children find their birth families, but does that alter in the face of birth parents who would prefer not to be found? Where does it leave a young adoptee to contact a birth parent who says, “go away,”? I do hope someday she has a change of heart and wants all of her children to know her and each other, but until then I sometimes feel at loss as to what to do (fully aware these are not likely to become serious issues for several years yet).

    • shaaren

      Thanks so much for reading!

      I’m glad you’re open to sharing your son’s story with him, in an age-appropriate way, of course.

      While there are some mothers who prefer no contact, statistically speaking, I think it’s somewhere in the 4% range? She very may well be one of the 4%, however, having had a baby myself, there are a number of things that a woman is going through after giving birth that could make this less likely. It’s an emotional, hormonal, life-changing time, regardless of the number of children one has had previously. And that’s even without the added emotion and grief of relinquishing! I’m not saying that women can’t make decisions during this time, I’m just saying that what she said on that day may not be what she feels now. It may be, she may not want contact, but I firmly believe, that human beings, as a matter of right, deserve to know where they come from. Shame, stigma, and embarrassment are not reasons to deny somebody this human right.

      Of course, there is a difference between knowing from whom one has come, being able to connect and ask questions vs and being in reunion. Meeting one’s family could be short-term, and being in reunion is an ongoing relationship. I believe we all deserve the former, and hope for the best with the latter.

      It took me a while to respond because I was asking some friends in reunion for their thoughts. I am not in reunion, sadly, so I have no experience in this. One woman shared that being in reunion is a whole complicated, amazing, devastating, completing experience, in and of itself. They fear secondary rejection (what you worry about with your son), but have also come to realize that so do their mothers. Their mothers fear rejection because they relinquished. It may have been that fear talking the day you met your son’s mother.

      Or it may not have been.

      While it will be awful if your son is secondarily rejected, I still believe that knowing the truth is better. It is tempting to protect adoptees from our own realities and stories, but when we grow up, we think these things anyway. And, we may search for answers without you. The true gift an adoptive parent can give is to be open to this process, to share the pain, and to ease the burden of our own stories. It is too much for many of us to do alone.

  5. Lesli Johnson

    Thank you Shaaren for sharing your story. Part of knowing who we are is knowing where we came from – tough for an adopted person who doesn’t have access to their early information “pre-adoption.” I was adopted at 3-1/2 months and don’t know much about those first few months of my life. I also have a falsified birth certificate. Like you, I don’t think about my adoption daily, but certain things are definite triggers. I now work as a therapist, specializing in adoption and issues related to adoption. I look forward to sharing your article with my clients who were adopted and also their adoptive parents.

    • shaaren

      Thank you so much for your kind words!

      And yes, it’s very hard for us. What makes it worse is that nobody understands that it’s hard for us.

      I’m so glad that you’re able to help change adoption discourse and give voice to adoptee loss, grief, and pain in a way that many have not heard before.

      Thank you!

  6. maya

    Thanks for sharing. I’m adopted as well. I’m in my late twenties. Growing up with white parents was hard the racial remarks not fitting in at school& everything in between. Is there a test that India does for genetics to trace family history & find relatives? Like everyone you I have limited information. I’ve always felt I never belonged even now. It’s like a piece of me is missing. And all the emotions that go with is still hard to process. If I could just find one sibling or someone who knew my family it would give some answers. Alot of questions but no answers like all adoptees face. Thanks.

  7. CM

    Interesting article, thanks. I’m a parent of an adopted 14 year old Indian girl who tries to offer, but not force feed, opportunities for her to investigate her heritage. No interest from her whatsoever. Shopping, boys, school sports, and all of the other usual interests of adolescent girls seem to keep her brain cells too occupied to consider anything that Mother India might provide.

    We do talk about her adoption, why we chose to adopt from India, why her birth mother might have made her choice, whether it might be possible for her to reconnect, and the difficulties of growing up with Indian skin tones when your parents are white. With these issues, she does express interest and deep feelings, sometimes positive and sometimes negative.

    But when I say “Hey daughter, there’s a FB group for Indian adoptees.” She replies “Yeah, whatever, Dad.” Then again she’s 14. Maybe she’ll take a look when I’m not around.


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