Rose and Pete Newton* loved life with their beautiful daughter, Lily, and they couldn't wait to adopt again. This time, the quest to complete their family took them further afield…
It took a couple of years for our second adoption application to be approved: we had to go through the same fingerprinting, interviews and referrals process as we had before. We had to demonstrate why we were good parents to our daughter and deserved to be parents again.
We longed for Lily to have a baby brother or sister, but our adoption counsellor, Madeleine, said fewer babies were being put up for adoption where we lived in New Hampshire, USA. While that was great for overall humanity, it was sad for our family.
Adopting from other states was out of the question as it would have cost $20,000 and money was tight. Madeleine suggested extending the search to other countries, which in some cases can be cheaper. We said yes immediately.
Another countryWhen you adopt a baby from abroad, you need to be willing to immerse them in their own culture. We didn’t want a child from a war-torn area for obvious reasons and sadly, we wanted to avoid countries such as Russia, where a lot of the babies have foetal alcohol syndrome.
After a lot of discussion, we chose India, which Pete has a strong connection to through his Buddhism and a close friend who spent time there and taught him a lot of esoteric stuff. I’d never been there, but felt I would be able to embrace India as a culture: its colours, vibrancy and intensity all appeal to me. Plus we both love Indian food.
Safety in numbersOne night, I was reading a newsletter from our agency about international adoption. It suddenly occurred to me that if we adopted an Indian child they would always look different to the rest of our family.
It didn’t seem right that our adopted child would be surrounded by white people, especially when there are sibling groups available for adoption. So why not adopt more than one child? Lulled by wine, Pete agreed.
The next day, I called the agency before he could change his mind.
Three’s companySix months later, Pete came rushing into the restaurant where I worked. The adoption agency had emailed him passport-sized photos of two little kids, a boy and a girl. Wow, I thought, we’re adopting twins.
All we knew about the children was that they’d been in the orphanage since they were 10 days old. They’d come from a hospital, but whether they were born there or had been left there, no-one knew.
It took ages to sort out all the paperwork and it was frustrating knowing the twins were in the orphanage but we weren’t allowed to go and get them. Eventually we were given the go-ahead, so I booked our plane tickets. Three seats going out and five coming back.
Passage to IndiaOur flight was delayed by 20 hours because of fog. It was maddening: we were on our way to adopt our children but we couldn’t get to them. Halfway through our journey, during a stopover in Dubai, we got chatting to an Iranian man. When we explained that Lily and I were American, Pete was English and we were on our way to adopt two children from India, he said: "Isn’t it great that we can be friends despite our different roots."
There we were, a multinational family, on our way to become even more multinational. It seemed a very heady moment, especially after 9/11: perhaps we can all be friends if we can understand that there really are no borders.
The orphanageThe next day we arrived at our destination. Jet-lagged and weary, but so excited about the prospect of meeting Lily's new siblings. The hotel we were staying at was a former hill palace that had been turned into an ayurvedic retreat. It was monsoon season, so one moment it would be beautifully sunny and the next the heavens would open.
Nestling deep in the jungle, the orphanage was built around a circular courtyard, in the middle of which was a tree. Scattered all around the tree on the cobbles were children’s shoes.
Although they were expecting us, the director – the only member of staff who spoke English – was off sick. In sign language, they told us to wait and five minutes later they brought in two tiny children with huge dark eyes and close-cropped hair (to deter lice). They took one look at us and screamed. Alpha and Jesusa were two-and-a-half years old, but looked at least 12 months younger: they were still in nappies.
They clung to their ayahs [child-minders] tightly and wouldn’t let go. The ayahs tried to give them to us so we could cuddle them but the twins didn’t want anything to do with us. We knew the fact they’d bonded with their carers was a good sign (many adopted children struggle to form close relationships) but we still found their reaction upsetting.
Every other child in the orphanage wanted us to pick them up and play with them, but no matter how hard we tried to engage Alpha and Jesusa, they didn’t want to know.
Second thoughtsThat night in the hotel, with Lily sleeping between us, Pete and I lay awake, wracked with indecision. Were we doing the wrong thing? We were about to take two children away from everything they knew, to a country where things were falling apart and the weather often inhospitable. During our short stay there, I’d grown to love India. I could see that in Kerala – where the literacy rate is 98 per cent – they could have a good life. It was a fine orphanage: the women clearly cared deeply about their charges.
We didn’t know what to do. Then the sun started to rise and we heard the haunting sound of the muezzin calling people to prayer, which we’d never heard before. Simultaneously, the church nearby started playing Bollywood music over the loudspeaker so we could hear it echoing up through the hills, while a rooster began to crow. We said to each other, this place is bonkers. We loved the craziness; it seemed like a sign that the twins were meant to be with us.
Time to goThe next day, Alpha and Jesusa were no happier to see us, so the ayas indicated that we should give them their lunch. So, to the accompaniment of Teletubbies – which was playing on a TV suspended from the ceiling – we sat the twins on our laps and tried to feed them teaspoons of beetroot, red rice and dried fish. Nothing worked and at one stage one of the ayahs slapped Alpha on his cheek to make him chew and swallow.
In a flash of inspiration, I began to sing Twinkle twinkle little star – which the children must have recognised from the Teletubbies – and all of a sudden they sat up and began to eat. That finally swung it for us: we realised that the one thing we could give them was family. They’d be part of a family that eats together.
Waiting in the courtyard, we looked up through the stairs to see an ayah dressing Jesusa in a dress we’d brought for her to wear. I'd imagined her being excited about having a pretty new outfit, but she didn't seem to care. She gazed down through the bannisters, looking at us as if we were taking her to her death. Staring at us with those big brown eyes. She must have been so scared: she was far too young to understand what was happening.
Saying goodbyeThe giving-away ceremony took place in the little chapel attached to the orphanage. All the orphans and their carers stood in a semi-circle while words were said and sung.
Even an ayah whose day off it was had made the effort to come and say goodbye, and she was weeping. Much later, I realised how difficult it might have been for her to travel there through the jungle. I don’t know where she lived or how she got there, but she was determined to say goodbye to these two children and it was so, so moving. Every adult and child hugged and kissed Alpha and Jesusa, then they put him in Pete’s arms and her in mine. We were crying but the children just held on to us. They seemed to realise there was no going back.
A family of fiveIn the car driving back to the hotel, the twins fell sound asleep on us. We lay them on the bed, climbed on with them and we all fell asleep together, in the damp heat of the afternoon with the monsoon pouring down outside. It felt blissful to me: it was our first time as a family all together in one big bed, with Lily curled up at our feet.
Holding onAt dinner time, one of the waitresses came over in her beautiful sari, and held out her arms to Jesusa. I tried to pass her over, but she clung onto my neck tightly and refused to go.
"We never see that," the woman said. "Usually the orphans are happy for us to hold them. You’re their parents." We thought: now we are. They’re starting to accept us.
Why we changed our children’s names
If the twins’ birth names had been less unusual – or more obviously Indian – we wouldn’t have changed them, but we wanted them to have names that felt as if they were part of our family and didn't identify them as any particular race or nationality.
The process was surprisingly straightforward. First we called them Jesusa-Jasmine and Alpha-Alfie, so they could get used to the idea and gradually they ‘became’ their new names. We’ve retained their birth names as their middle names, so when they’re older they can use them if they want to.
Homeward boundFrom that point, there were no real hiccups. The twins were ours, there was no question about it. They didn’t shy away from us: they let us change their nappies, dress and feed them. Best of all, they were completely enamoured of Lily and copied whatever she did.
They appeared to love everything about their new life, from the clothes we gave them – they marvelled at their Gap pyjamas appliquéd with butterflies (Jasmine) and a truck (Alfie) – to the thrill of having their own toothbrushes. At the hotels en route we were astonished by how quickly they got used to sleeping in 'our' hotel room, using the elevator and playing in the hotel pool.
I can still picture them, two days after leaving the orphanage, waiting by the elevator in their little bathing suits, holding hands and beaming. I have no idea what they were thinking, but they seemed happy.
Speaking the same languageWe’d been advised not even to try to speak the twins’ native tongue – Malayalam – because they needed to learn English straightaway. We simply talked to them a lot and encouraged them when they tried to repeat what we'd said. At first, Alfie and Jasmine obviously had no idea what we were saying but we had to start somewhere.
In one of the hotels, we met another couple with a little girl they’d adopted and they told us about Indian adoption. Apparently Indians prefer to adopt lighter-skinned children. As the twins are quite dark by Indian standards, it’s possible that’s why they hadn’t been adopted earlier.
A sense of déjà-vuOnce we were home in New Hampshire, our family of five felt complete at last. Six months later, we visited Pete's parents in England over Christmas. The twins were almost three and could speak a little English. Flying out of New York, Jasmine saw a woman in a sari. A strange expression passed over her face, as if she'd had a moment of recognition, but she couldn’t speak English well enough to say what it meant. Perhaps she thought the woman was her mother. I don't suppose we'll ever know what she was thinking, but she knew the sari-clad female had something to do with her.
Getting to know themDuring their early days with us, the twins were so compliant and docile, it seemed as if they could be moulded. In retrospect, it’s clear they were simply biding their time, waiting to see what was going to happen to them and working out whether they could trust us.
Within a few months, their real personalities came to the fore. Alfie is very determined and incredibly intelligent: I think he’s a genius! Jasmine is very sweet. She’s an amazing dancer: not long after she came to live with us, we were playing some music and she started doing Indian movements with her hands and pointing her feet out. She looked like a little Indian goddess. We have no idea where she got that from; perhaps they danced at the orphanage, or maybe she saw it on television. We’ll never know, but it doesn’t really matter. They’re darling children, all three of them, and now we have the family we always wanted.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.
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