It is often said that it is different when it’s your own child - the crying, the pooping, the sleepless nights, the sacrifices. Would we make them for just anyone? Yet, an estimated 250,000 adoptions take place each year, and those are just the ones that made it into statistics. It is a remarkable act to take a stranger’s child into your home and the reasons for the decision are as diverse as the people who make them.
Adopting children has been around ever since humans started having children, or to be exact, started when some humans could not have children. Ancient religious books tell the first recorded case of adoption: Moses, a foundling, became the adopted son of the sister of the Pharoah of Egypt. He was brought up in the Pharoah’s palace and lived a life of luxury until he was “called” to be a prophet.
There are several reasons why people adopt other people’s children. Very often people who already have their own children also adopt other children. They just love children – especially when their own have grown up and they are no longer of childbearing age. In such cases the babies are given to them, either by their own siblings who have large families or by other people who feel they cannot keep the baby, perhaps because they must raise the child alone or because of financial constraints. Whatever the case, these babies are loved and cherished by the new parents. I have known cases where the adopted child looks after the mother and father in their old age and is very good to them – much more so than their own natural children.
Among the Malay community it is common for unmarried women to adopt children. The reason for having them is the same as for married couples: to have a family and for companionship in your old age.
Of course, the main reason is often infertility. Scientific advances have made it possible for women to conceive by the IVF method.
In Sarawak adopted children are referred to as “Anak Itik” (duckling). This is to hide from the child the fact that he or she is adopted.
In Malaysia adoption has always been very common, especially during the pre-family planning days when a couple could have ten to twelve children. Among the less affluent this was a big problem: too many mouths to feed. The only solution was to give away the children for adoption in the hopes of a better life for them.
Nowadays, it is even easier for couples to have their own biological baby through surrogacy. But the cost of these treatments can be prohibitive and the outcome uncertain. So adoption remains still the most popular and the easiest way for infertile couples to have children. Besides, in many cases, the unfulfilled drive to bring a child into the world often seems to trigger the selfless wish to provide a home to a child that has none. There can be no better foundation for parenthood than that.
In Malaysia adoption has always been very common, especially during the pre-family planning days when a couple could have ten to twelve children. Among the less affluent this was a big problem: too many mouths to feed. The only solution was to give away the children for adoption in the hopes of a better life for them. In fact, it was a widely held belief that the act of adoption could change a person’s luck – the childless would become fertile; the sickly would become well; the poor student would excel.
Chinese families especially tended to be large then and they usually gave away their girl babies, often even to Malay families. Malays loved to adopt Chinese babies, traditionally because of their fair skin, considered a mark of beauty. In days gone by when marriages were arranged, when a maiden was mentioned as a prospective daughter-in-law, the first question the young man’s parents asked would be: “Is she fair?” Thus dusky maidens would either be left on the shelf or would be chosen when there were no fair ones available. I personally witnessed this scenario which took place in Penang in the 1970s. My friend Fatimah was asked by her grandmother to find a wife for her cousin, Amin. A week later she said to her grandmother:
Fatimah: Tok, I have a candidate for Amin.
Thankfully, times have changed somewhat.
In Sarawak adopted children are referred to as “Anak Itik” (duckling). This term of endearment serves to hide from the child the fact that he or she is adopted. Of course, eventually when they become adults they can surmise, from their physical looks, that they are not their parents’ biological child. By then it does not matter, because the parent-child bond has been firmly established. Some adopted children are told earlier that they are adopted. One adopted child I know, who was told in her early teens that she is an adopted child, says that she is happy she was adopted because the birth parents have so many children and she would not have received many of the advantages she has if she had been brought up by them. She frequently says she is glad to be with the adopted parents.
Of course, there is a dark side to adoption. The trafficking of children can become big business for cartels or even a small earner for couples. Just a few days ago, it was reported in the newspaper that every year there are 18,000 babies born to teenaged unwed mothers. Also, in recent years there have been many cases of unwanted babies being abandoned or left for dead in public places. But this is why we, as a society, should make the public aware that there are many people who want to adopt babies and let them know how to go about it.
Adoption is a win-win situation. The parents are happy to have their anak itik. The children are lucky to be given a chance to have parents who treasure them; otherwise they would probably end up in an orphanage. The parents are blessed for giving a home to the unfortunate or unwanted children; while the children have blessings bestowed upon them for being given new parents who need and want them.
For as long as there are childless couples, in fact for as long as there are people and children without homes, adoption will never go out of style – till the end of time.
Rosenah Ahmad is an established writer from Kuching, most known for her notable work in the compilation of Datuk James Wong's Memories of speeches made at the Council Negri (from the hansard), 1960-2001.