My heart was pounding as I watched the doorway, waiting for my first glimpse of the child who would become my daughter. My husband, Brad, and I sat in a small office in an orphanage in Pune, India. We had seen pictures and videotape of the child we were to adopt, but we had not yet touched her, nor had she laid eyes on us.
I found myself short of breath and actually gasped when she appeared, held in the arms of her caregiver, Rhana. My first thought was, “She’s so tiny!” Mahak, the name given to her at birth, was fourteen months old, but looked much younger. Rhana handed her to me and I quickly gave her one of the cookies I had brought with me, fearing she would cry at the sight of our strange faces. She barely whimpered and then sat quietly eating as Brad and I drank in the sight of her. Her head was topped with curls, and her skin was a beautiful, velvety brown. Her large, dark eyes, surrounded by long lashes, were alert and curious. As Brad held her on his lap with a look of wonder on his face, I suspected he was experiencing the same flood of emotions I was—nervousness, exhilaration, and an intense love for this precious child we had been longing to hold for so many months.
We began our adoption journey about one year earlier when we contacted Hemlata Momaya, MSW, director of the Bal Jagat Children’s World adoption agency. While Ms. Momaya’s agency helps people adopt children from many different countries, we wanted a child from India. Our decision to adopt from India was partially based on our interest in the culture. First, we knew it would be important to teach our child about the culture of her birthplace and believed that if we had a genuine enthusiasm and respect for the culture, this task would be easier. Second, I had spent some time researching the experiences of families who adopted internationally and was impressed with the reports of India’s orphanages. I had been told about the great affection that caregivers had for the children and how, as a result, Indian children usually bonded well to their adoptive parents. I also learned that drug and alcohol use is less common among women in India. I am a psychotherapist and specialize in working with children with a variety of mental health problems. Because of my experience, I am aware of the challenges for families with children who have difficulty with attachment or suffer the effects of maternal substance abuse. After discussing our limitations, Brad and I decided that we were prepared to parent a child affected by low birth weight and possibly malnutrition, but we wanted to minimize the risk of adopting a child with emotional difficulties.
About three months after sending our dossier to India, we received information about Mahak. She was just eight months old when we happily accepted her referral. We had the tiny black and white photo of her enlarged and framed, and we spent many hours talking about and planning for her arrival. We wanted to give her a first name that could be easily and correctly pronounced by Americans, but we also wanted to retain her birth name. We decided to name her Alisha Mahak, and already began thinking of her as a member of our family.
The wait for Alisha was difficult. Our agency worked hard to keep us informed of the progress and both Hemlata Momaya and her husband, Lal, made visits to India at different times to help move the paperwork forward. Finally, the word arrived that Brad and I had been given guardianship. We had the option to have Alisha Mahak escorted, but chose to travel to India instead. We wanted to minimize the time until we could hold her, and we also wanted to see her first home.
Traveling in India was an adventure and proved difficult at times, but we have no regrets about the decision to go. India is both beautiful and tragic, stimulating and overwhelming. We were fortunate that Mr. Momaya was in India when we arrived. He arranged our transportation and hotels and helped us file the necessary paperwork to obtain Alisha’s visa. Although the Indian people were friendly, communicating was sometimes difficult, and we relied heavily on Mr. Momaya’s ability to make our needs and desires known. His willingness to negotiate the details for us gave us the freedom to spend all our time getting to know our new daughter.
Alisha was quiet and watchful the first few days as we learned how to parent. She never had the fearful reaction we had expected, and we discovered she loved to be held. Of course, we were thrilled to cuddle her, and her small size made it seem more like we were holding an infant than a toddler. On our second day together, she began to smile and laugh. And within four days, her playful, bubbly personality blossomed.
We were given a tour of the orphanage on the day we took custody of Alisha. Our observations while at the orphanage confirmed what we had been told. The caregivers were very affectionate with the children. We saw them spontaneously kissing the children, holding them, singing and talking to them, and engaging in play. We were shown the room where Alisha, along with several other babies, had lived for over a year. The room was clean, neat, and lined with cribs (one per child), which could be rocked gently to soothe. Some of the cribs had toys hanging above them and there were other toys in a box in the room.The furnishings in the orphanage were sparse and the walls were bare and marred. There was no carpet or vinyl covering the concrete floors. Some of the things Americans would consider basic necessities were missing, such as air conditioners and refrigerators.
Despite the meager environment, the atmosphere was more joyous than impoverished. Beautiful, healthy children of all ages were playing in the open courtyard, skipping in and out of rooms, and peeking around comers to watch the Americans who came to take one of them home. Several children came up and kissed Alisha’s cheek, hugged her, and said good-bye. That display brought tears to our eyes, but we were not nearly as tearful as Rhana, the woman who had been Alisha’s primary caregiver. She sobbed against the shoulder of another caregiver, who comforted her. As I watched this woman grieving over the loss of one of her many children, I knew that the stories I had been told about India’s orphanages were true. Alisha Mahak had been loved in this place.
Alisha is loved in her new home, too. This precious child continues to bring us unexplainable joy. When she first arrived home, she greeted family and friends with outstretched arms. Now, a few weeks later, she has developed a strong attachment, and prefers to be held by her mommy and daddy. She has adapted amazingly well to the changes in her life and continues to thrive both physically and emotionally.
I look forward to the day when we can return to India with Alisha Mahak and show her the country of her birth. I hope to visit the orphanage in Pune, where we first held her and where Rhana cried when we left with our new daughter. If Rhana is still there, I bet she will remember our child. Perhaps they all will.