A mom’s a mom, and genetics can’t explain it

A mom’s a mom, and genetics can’t explain it
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First Published: Fri, Nov 21 2008. 12 03 AM IST

With open arms: In a nation of one billion, only 3,175 children were adopted in India in 2007. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
With open arms: In a nation of one billion, only 3,175 children were adopted in India in 2007. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
Updated: Fri, Nov 21 2008. 12 03 AM IST
It has been a question that I occasionally wonder about: Can you love a child that is not your own? This question has a very simple answer as legions of parents who adopt children so triumphantly prove; and that is a resounding “Yes”. After my first child was born, I fantasized about adopting a second. My husband and I even talked about it. What held me back was my worry that I wouldn’t be able to love the adopted child as much as my own. My husband held the opposite view. He believed that “after the first 5 minutes or one month or however long it takes you to get to know each other, there will be no difference”. A sanguine view from a sanguine man. 
With open arms: In a nation of one billion, only 3,175 children were adopted in India in 2007. JUPITERIMAGES, INDIA
For a variety of reasons, including the fact that I got pregnant, we didn’t adopt. But then again, I think it takes a special kind of person to pursue adoption, to have that generosity of spirit to take a little stranger into your home and heart. A woman I know, who lives in Bangalore, doesn’t think so. She delivered a daughter and then adopted a son, mostly because of how Indian adoption laws are structured, she said. It is easier to adopt a baby who is of a different sex from the one you already have. Leela (not her real name) doesn’t think the fact that she adopted a child is special. What’s so difficult about loving a child, she asks. He is a gift; we are the ones who are blessed, she says. I admire the ease of her convictions even though I disagree with her. If adopting is a no-brainer, why don’t more Indians adopt? 
Indian adoption statistics are hard to come by because they don’t always account for licenced adoption agencies operating under various state governments. The numbers are abysmal, though. The Central Adoption Resource Agency (CARA), under the ministry of women and child development, states that 3,175 Indian children were adopted in 2007. A pitifully small number in a nation of one billion. Even allowing for the percentage of babies in our population, something is wrong with this picture. Compare this with an estimated 120,000 children being adopted annually in the US since the 1990s. One study of adoption statistics by K.S. Stolley estimates that “between 2% to 4% of American families include an adopted child”. Which leads, once again, to my question: Why don’t more of us adopt?
This piece began as something else altogether. On a recent flight, I read a quote by a grandmother who said that grandparents were more “effective” at soothing babies because they didn’t have that emotional, visceral reaction to the sound of an infant’s cry. It made sense. My stomach turns when my child cries but I don’t have the same intensity of reaction when another baby cries. If anything, I am mildly irritated by non-stop wailing from other babies, particularly on long-haul flights.
I started wondering if there was some neurological reason why this is so; whether parents are somehow hard-wired to be affected by their child’s screams. After going from website to website and writing breathless emails to scientist after scientist, I got in touch with Nandini Singh at the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar. She pointed me to a study done by some Tokyo researchers who used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyse the brain patterns of mothers when their babies cry. The study concluded that there is a spurt in brain activity when mothers watch their children in distress.
 At first, I was excited by the conclusion of this study and was going to delve deeper, to see if I could find a name for these brain circuitry changes. Or maybe, certain hormones were triggered by the sound of your child’s cry. A few days later, I stopped and decided that the whole thing was hogwash.
Maternal instinct isn’t hard-wired to the brain. It is, like most beautiful things in life, easily, and sometimes painfully, acquired. A mother’s reaction to her baby’s cry has less to do with biology or genetics and more to do with emotion, specifically love. And love can come. Ever noticed that adopted mothers react with the same tizzy when their child cries?
It is in this roundabout way that I came to the whole notion of adoption. Another catalyst was the readers’ reaction to my earlier column on acquiring a puppy. While I had meant it to be a light-hearted tongue-in-cheek piece, several readers set me straight. A dog’s love is one of the few certainties in life, said one. Another reader named Shalini said that unlike humans, dogs never judge you or leave you. Several readers said that loving a dog was like loving a child. So, here, in another roundabout way, is my apology for that column: I didn’t mean what I said.
As I write this, my puppy, Inji, is sleeping at my feet and I can honestly say that she is a part of my home and heart. Coming home to her wagging tail is the highlight of my day. Even though I am not an emotionally reticent person, I feel strangely sheepish (sort of like Robert De Niro in Meet the Fockers) as I say: I love this puppy.
If, as readers say, loving a dog is like loving a child, maybe Shoba Narayan won’t be a bad adoptive parent after all. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Nov 21 2008. 12 03 AM IST