' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Adoption from India: 'Second' mother now runs orphange there

Monday, April 19, 2010

Adoption from India: 'Second' mother now runs orphange there

Our story from an American woman's quest to find the truth of her children, adopted from Ethiopia, resonated with a friend of ours, Dr. Michelle Harrison, an American woman who runs an orphanage in Kolkata, India. Before she did that, she adopted a child herself from India. We first became acquainted many years ago over the issue of using progesterone for PMS. I was a magazine editor and writer, and as PMDD (the designation for severe PMS) was the bane of my life, I was more than a little interested in finding out how to control the worst symptoms, and letting other women know. Michelle wrote Self-Help for Premenstrual Syndrome: Third Edition and I ended up interviewing her and quoting her. She was in Boston, I was in New York. 

Fast forward many years. We connected through Facebook and the blog; Michelle was involved in the Baby M case, befriending the surrogate mother, Mary Beth Whitehead, in 1986, and she posted here before: More on Baby M from a psychiatrist who defended her mother, MaryBeth Whitehead. We have never met face to face, but I feel as if I know Michelle. Here is her story, and her reaction to the previous posts about a family going back to Ethiopia to find the truth about the two children they adopted:

By Michelle Harrison

I have so much respect for the family who has adopted from Ethiopia, whose story has been told here over the last few days. (For the whole story, click on all three above links.) All I say for "this family" because I include the 17-year-old who went in search of truth for the children in her family. Yes, this story resonates for me in so many ways. 

I am the mother of a 25-year-old whom I adopted [from India] when she was two months old, from IMH in Kolkata. When I was in the process of adopting, I admit I was relieved I wouldn't have to worry about her mother showing up to reclaim her. But when my daughter arrived, that changed. I remember when she was a year old, on her birthday, wishing I could find her first/birth mother for her to know how her daughter's life was. The only information I had was that she was born to an unwed teenage mother and abandoned at birth in a nursing home. Twenty-five years later all we know is that we don't really know anything, because so many papers were faked, so many babies were switched around, so much money changed hands, and so many lies were told to us.

In 2000 when my daughter was 16, we went to Kolkata to visit the orphanage and allow her to get to know more about her Indian culture. She was keen to understand; I was eager for her to meet people in India who were working to improve lives. Through my work as a physician, I had contact with women doctors who ran a hospital in Kolkata. In retrospect, the next few years became a nightmare as we were victims to a scam perpetrated by the orphanage people, including their US representatives. 

We were told by the head of the orphanage that they had found her birth family. What joy! How amazing! You can understand our elation. I had just been through a year of surgery, chemo and radiation for breast cancer, and at the time thought I might be dying. I was more vulnerable then than I might have been, I wanted answers for her.

We believed we were getting the truth. The head of the agency told us they had found her family, and they concocted a tale of faked documents supposedly written when she was adopted to hide her real family. To make the story more believable, the woman who said she was her mother had been one of her caretakers, and we always had a picture of her. She had nursed my daughter. In time, the woman even produced her own child as a twin. So for a period of time we believed that she had found her first family--a mother, a twin sister, younger siblings, aunt, grandmother...and I bought a house for them to move to more suitable quarters, and paid for the education of the other children. We wanted to believe.  The whole story was a big scam and many people conspired to continue it, like the staff at the orphanage saying to my daughter, "Are you going to visit your mother today?" After nearly a year of believing this woman was my daughter's mother, as my daughter was learning Bengali, and she began to overhear things that didn't make sense. The story simply unraveled.

We came to realize that everything we had been told were lies. I later learned the staff had been threatened with firing if they did not perpetuate the scam. Several motivations were at work:  the orphanage had a reason to get these people [the fake family] off their payroll, including pensions due; their lawyer later told me they wanted to "get the old lady [the aunt] off their hands."  This same lawyer had taken part in the scam, as I gave him money to care for the family. Years later he would have the audacity to say, "I could have told you the truth, but you didn't ask me." But why would I  have asked for the real truth? He was the lawyer for the orphanage and I assumed he was telling me the truth. 

When the falsehoods were revealed, we confronted the agency, and we made several trips back to India. DNA testing proved there was no relationship between this family and my daughter. She has survived the emotional turmoil all this caused, but not without scars. Our relationship has survived, though I worry about a day when she will confront me as to how I could have been so stupid as to believe the lies. I wanted answers for her, yes, but I feel as if I truly failed her.

As I became aware of the lies told to us, I thought there must be other lies too. I investigated on my own, learning what I could about adoption in Kolkata. I now believe that--with only a few exceptions--adoption from and in India is a dirty, corrupt and lucrative business, behind a facade of humanitarianism.

Ten years later I live in Kolkata where I am mother to 12 girls who had been rejected for adoption. My home is called: Childlife Preserve Shishur Sevay, which is Bengali for "in the interests of the children."
Michelle Harrison and her family in Kolkata

I am still haunted by the question of the children who have not been adopted, for their lives are not good ones. "Orphan" is a term of shame. Marriage prospects would have been almost nil, especially with no dowry, and no family. They would not have been able to read. And while it is easy to romanticize "culture," for the abandoned children on the street, or those institutionalized, there is no "culture" as we think of it. Our girls had never even been inside a Puja pandal (a place of worship during the holidays). Orphans are outsiders, period. No one claims them. Nothing good awaits a young woman with no education, no family and no place to go.

I have also been haunted by the question of whether I had done the right thing in adopting from India. (My daughter thinks I'm nuts as this is NOT a question in her mind, especially after being hit with the reality of what her life in India would have been.)

Eventually, I came to live in Kolkata to open an orphanage for children who were too old, or too dark, or too handicapped for adoption. I wanted to see what I could do for them, without their losing their homeland, and culture. If they had been adopted into the US, the adjustment would have been horrible. And their futures here? They had none. The children have been with me for three years, orphans to whom I have become " Mummy." I have taught them how to read and write, something that would almost certainly have not been possible if they had not come to live with me. I am clear that I while I "mother" them, they have/had mothers before me, and they are to be honored always.

My girls with disabilities?  They would have NO chance here in India. Children in their situation would be far better in a country that is serious about rehabilitation. The resources simply are not available here. The professionals are not here in any significant numbers. For Kolkata, rated internationally as 17th among 17 cities in which to do business, everyone who can get out, does. I dream of being able to bring interns/teachers from the US, and I am educating the girls in English so this might be possible. Here with me, they know they are loved and cared for.

The story of the courageous family of the Ethiopian children told in the last couple of blog posts is really how it should be. We should know why our children have come to us. And they should know. The Second Family has the responsibility to get the information about the First Family at the time of the adoption, because often too much time passes to pick up the trail. And children need to know before "age of maturity" where they come from, why they are here, who are/were their people, their first families. 

As a mother I feel it is/was my responsibility to help my child understand who she is and why she is here--and to give her a true story about her life rather than allow her to have the fantasy that every adoptee has otherwise. Adopted people don't stop wondering who they are, or where they came from, just because the Second Family does not talk about it and does nothing. There is no "neutral" about searching, or asking questions, because saying one is "neutral" but doing nothing is simply keeping the door shut--and giving that message to the adoptee. That is not being neutral; that is actively saying: I can not deal with the truth of your life.

I cannot think of any other area of raising a child where we say: they will deal with this alone when they are grown.  That IS the rent-a-child mode. We adopt a child with a history, and that becomes part of OUR family history. Personally, I love the terms First Mother and Second Mother because they describe reality. I would truly love to be first mother for my child, but am not. She would love to be First Child, but she is not. She has an older sister who came before her. This is reality. Facing truth, speaking in real terms, has kept us close as a family.

Courage and integrity, the words that come to me over and over as I think about that family who went to great lengths to find the truth of their children's First Family, and their journey. 
Michelle's website is: http://www.travelingcloud.typepad.com/shishur_sevay/ and here is a book that is a collection of essays that examines the ramifications of trans-cultural adoptions.


  1. What an amazing story - kudos to Michelle for her incredible work.

  2. Wonderful pages you have here. I'm so glad I found you! Ditto what Margie said, and also kudos to you, too.

  3. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story! It's amazing how one little action can change the rest of your life.

  4. Michelle, you are a beautiful person...truly beautiful!



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