Interview by Anjum Choudhry Nayyar with Shaaren Pine
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 .
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.
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!
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?
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?
Even 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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