Kolkata, (WFS) - Nilanjana Gupta and her husband brought their new daughter home with much love and anticipation. When a child comes home, families need to make some adjustments, and the child herself needs some adjustment time. But Gupta, who teaches English at Kolkata's Jadavpur University, was not eligible for maternity leave. Her little daughter is an adopted child. However, when the Guptas had their son - a biological child - Gupta had no trouble getting maternity leave.

This is a situation that has been troubling members of Atmaja, an association of adoptive parents in Kolkata formed in 2000, of which Gupta is the Chairperson. "Maternity leave is not just meant for the mother's health, but also to help her be near her child. So why are we, adoptive mothers, denied this facility?" she questions.

In March 2006, the Central government finally passed an order extending to adoptive mothers the maternity leave of 135 days that biological mothers are entitled to.

But the leave can be availed for by adoptive mothers with fewer than two surviving children, for an adopted child upto one year old.

The government order (392 KB)

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Subir Mukherjee, a founder-member of Atmaja, reiterates her point: "Despite all the mental preparation, when an adopted baby comes home, there are special adjustments that need to be made. The child may be used to a certain schedule or a particular caregiver at the adoption centre, and these things may now have to be changed. This means that the adoptive mother needs maternity leave just as much as the biological mother."

Thus, since 2003, Atmaja began a sustained campaign demanding recognition of this right. And in March 2006, the central government finally passed an order, "on having considered the justification" by Atmaja, to extend to adoptive mothers the maternity leave of 135 days available to biological mothers. So, now, "adoptive mothers with fewer than two surviving children" are entitled to a 'Child Adoption Leave' (CAL) on adoption of a child "up to one year of age". As per the order, CAL shall not be debited against the leave account. Atmaja had demanded CAL irrespective of the adopted child's age because older children often have a tougher time adjusting to the new surroundings. However, the government did not concede this point.

It was, in fact, the realisation that adoptive parents often face peculiar problems that led to the setting up of Atmaja as a voluntary, registered, community-based organisation. It is a member of the Mumbai-based Indian Federation of Adoptive Families' Association, and has over 70 members at present. The name 'Atmaja' means 'born of the soul' - suggesting that the womb is not central to a parent-child relationship.

As a support group and forum for adoptive parents, these are Atmaja's stated objectives: ensure well-being of adopted children and help protect their rights; help parents in the pre-adoptive stage; work towards rationalisation of laws regarding adoption to ensure the best interests of the children and parents; and promote social awareness and consciousness about adoption in society.

A crucial area of Atmaja's work is counselling adopting families. Adoptive parents sometimes have to face hostility from members of the extended family; sometimes a sibling creates problems for the adopted child. Relatives and friends often do not understand why a family with a biological child would want to adopt. All of this can create social problems too. Counsellor Ritu Pathak says that parents also suffer from anxieties like "Can I bring up the child properly?" or "Will society accept my child?"

Sometimes, these anxieties so overwhelm adoptive parents that they even want to return the child to the centre. The Sisters at Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, a major adoption centre, have experienced this often. This was one reason they actively supported the creation of Atmaja when it was still an idea, says Gupta. Members of Atmaja, therefore, are stern with those who harbour such thoughts. Mukherjee cites the example of a parent from Chandannagore (near Kolkata) who wanted to send back an adopted child. "Isn't it inhuman? When you take home a child, you take on the responsibility of bringing up that child. How can you abandon him or her when it suits you? It should be punishable by law," he says.

'To tell or not to tell' - that is one of the biggest anxieties with adoptive parents, probably due to the scores of movies that show children running off to look for their biological parents. Counsellors, on the other hand, feel that children need to be told about the fact of adoption, though parents have to decide on the 'when and how'. Hiding it will only cause harm, they say. Counsellor Josie Joseph, an independent professional, suggests that parents can hold their own relationship up as an example for the child - both parents are from different families and not related by blood, but are now bonded together with love. The child is the 'chosen one', they can say.

The central government order on maternity leave is a big step forward in the recognition of the adoptive parent-child relationship. Atmaja members, though, believe that there is much work that needs to be done. To begin with, Mukherjee points out, this order has to be adopted by the states to make it truly effective. Also, all districts should have adoption centres in order to make adoption and registration a less stressful process for potential parents. "Why do they have to come to Kolkata for the formalities?" he asks.

Mukherjee and his colleagues also say that archaic laws on adoption need to be amended, and this is the area that they are planning to focus on next. For example, only Hindus can adopt according to prevailing personal laws (which are community/religion-based). He cites the example of a couple - Muslim man, Hindu woman - who had wanted to adopt but could not.

Clearly, though Atmaja has a long struggle ahead, it has already lent a helping hand to many an adoptive parent. (Women's Feature Service)