Print edition : October 28, 2016

The maternity ward in the district hospital at Sangareddy in Medak, Telangana. Photo: Mohd Arif

Maneka Gandhi., Women and Child Development Minister. Photo: V. Sudershan

The country needs “parental leave” legislation that will take into account the diverse ways in which families are built and support them.

“I HAD to give up my job as a senior manager and go on leave without pay for three months because my company did not have a policy of giving any maternity leave to adoptive mothers. When I returned to work three months later, it became clear to me that I could not cope with the demands of my job and my new baby (who was eight months old when we adopted her) who was suffering from severe separation anxiety every time I got ready to go to work. I quit,” said Ananya (name changed), who worked at an IT company in Bengaluru.

The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, recently introduced in Parliament by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, would be good news for women like Ananya, who would be assured of 12 weeks of paid leave should this Bill become law. A progressive move in the right direction, the Bill aims to increase the maternity leave for women from 12 weeks to 26 weeks. It also seeks a mandatory provision of creches at establishments with 50 or more employees. The Bill has its heart in the right place, or so it seems at first glance. Is it really as progressive as it claims to be? Does it guarantee all women maternity leave of 26 weeks? Biological mothers get 26 weeks of maternity leave, while adoptive mothers get only 12 weeks.

Adoptive mothers

The Bill discriminates between biological and adopted children with differences in the duration of “maternity benefit leave” granted to biological and adoptive mothers. The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act of 2015 states that through the process of adoption, the child becomes the lawful child of his/her adoptive parents with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities that are extended to a biological child. So then, does this not imply that the adopted child has the same right to his/her parents’ time that a biological child has?

All children have physical, emotional, psychological and social needs, regardless of whether they have been born into their families or adopted. All children need parents to spend time caring for them. All parents need time to bond with their children, to understand their multiple and complex needs and respond to them accordingly. To say that some parents need 26 weeks while others need only 12 weeks is legally discriminatory as well as against the principles of child development.

Megha, an academic, says: “The lack of parity in maternity leave is not justified. Are adopted mothers half-mums? Will I give my adopted child lunch but not dinner? When a child comes home, everything changes. The amount of effort or time that goes into raising a child is independent of how he/she arrived. From an emotional standpoint, I would argue that adoptive mothers need time to bond with their child, and if they are stressed about going back to work, this is not going to go smoothly. It’s almost as if an adoptive mother has to pay a penalty for not procreating. Denying equal leave to an adoptive mother reinforces the prejudice that adoption is an unusual route to having a family.”

While biological parents have the advantage of a lead time of nine months of pregnancy to prepare physically, emotionally, financially for the birth of their child, adoptive parents have to be prepared to deal with uncertainties relating to very fundamental aspects such as the child’s age, gender, health history and needs and previous history of trauma of institutionalisation.

As Dr Shobha Srinath, Senior Professor, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, puts it: “Bonding, which is the close relationship between the parent and the child, is a complex process and develops over time and shared experiences. In the case of a biological parent, this process starts to occur soon after the mother discovers that she is pregnant. But there is so much uncertainty associated with adoption that the adoptive parent can start bonding with the child only after certain adoption procedures are complete and the child is given to the parents. The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, allows only 12 weeks of maternity leave for adoptive mothers. The process of bonding requires more time and proximity when the child is adopted, and hence, it is vital that no differentiation be made while according maternity benefits.”

Birth parents may also have in-built advantages accorded by biological processes such as breast-feeding and family acceptance and social support, while adoptive parents have to invest time to create the psychosocial bonding with the child while battling stereotypes and prejudices in their families and in society. As Dr Shobha Srinath says: “When a woman is pregnant, generally family and friends help her prepare for a newborn. In the case of adoption, uncertainties remain regarding the age of the child that will be given to the couple, and most families do not get much time for preparation.”

In many ways, for biological parents, the process of parenting in terms of actual interaction and bonding with the child starts at birth or even earlier. For adoptive parents, the parenting process actually begins when the child is placed with them. Therefore, for adoptive parents, 26 weeks of leave from the date of placement with the family would just about be the start of a life-long process of secure attachment. Also, it is required to offset the life-long impact of early institutionalisation and separation from biological parents.

Institutional care

Dr Preeti Jacob, Assistant Professor, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, NIMHANS, highlights another crucial factor that cannot be overlooked—the psychological background and circumstances of adoption. “Children who are adopted often come from deprived psychosocial environments and may have experienced institutionalisation. Given these risk factors, one can argue that adoptive mothers need more, not less, time with their children.” It is important to remember that the longer a child is in institutional care, the greater is the time and parenting attention that a child needs to meet his/her development milestones. The older the child is at the time of adoption, the greater is the parents’ need for time to nurture the child. The three months provided by the Bill are not enough. The Bill only covers women in the organised sector. This means that while women like Ananya, who worked in the IT industry, would have benefited, many others would not.

Even the “organised sector” does not recognise the needs of women such as Rinku Naren, a successful IT professional who married a colleague who had a four-year old biological daughter. She was not granted maternity leave because she was not pregnant. Having to cope with the demands of a new marriage, a new home and new motherhood have not been easy. So what would this legislation mean for women who become mothers when they marry men who have children? The justification for introducing the amendment has been, rightly, that it is time to acknowledge that maternal care during early childhood is crucial for the growth and development of the child. Curiously, however, the proposed legislation seems to provide less than the adoption leave already granted by the Central government. Current adoption leave rules for Central government employees provide 180 days of maternity leave for mothers who adopt babies under one. While the assumption that a child who is adopted after the age of one has less or no need for maternal care points to a constrictive mindset, the current government rules provide more leave than what the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act does.

What about fathers?

The Bill also refuses to acknowledge that fathers have a role to play in the lives of their children. Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi reportedly said of paternity leave: “I will be happy to give it, but for a man, it will be just a holiday, he won’t do anything.”

Sudhindra Subbarao, an adoptive father, said: “I was on an assignment in France and had to leave things midway and travel back for the adoption procedures and custody. I left my apartment, my client engagement and had to trade off the role I was playing in France to be back in India and take care of my child. While I didn’t quit my job, the long break I took will impact my future role, salary and position for sure. The Minister commenting that men would use paternity leave for holidays is absolutely disrespectful of all those fathers doing their parental duty.”

Sukumar Puvvala, a prospective adoptive parent, said: “As a first-time parent in my 40s, I will not be able to rely on anyone, other than my wife, to bring up our kid, especially in the first six to 12 months. As a software professional, I’m aware that my peers in India are often forced to work late hours. Often, they are forced to work late and leave home early in the morning just to avoid a terrible commute.”

He added: “I can only talk about experiences that other adoptive parents have shared with us. Depending on the circumstances of the adopted child, bonding may take a long time. Most parents mention that the first six months are crucial to earn the trust of the child. Some parents have even cautioned us not to surround ourselves with other family members during those first six months.”

In modern, nuclear families, it is the couple that does most of the parenting work. Fathers are not just another pair of hands, they play a crucial role in the lives of their children.

Some other questions also remain unanswered. Mothers who already have two children but want to add to their family through adoption are also given only 12 weeks of leave, provided the baby is under three months. Does it not seem logical that parents with more children would need more time to care for their children? Are not the older children entitled to receive care and attention from their parents as much as the newer additions to the family? The logic behind a family with more than two children requiring less time to settle in a new addition (through adoption or pregnancy) is tenuous.

Children without families or anyone to care for them (defined as children in need of care and protection, under the Juvenile Justice Act) are the responsibility of the state. Families who adopt should be encouraged and motivated to partner with the state in taking on this huge responsibility of caring for its children. Should not the state be promoting, facilitating and incentivising adoption instead of discouraging people who are willing to adopt by providing maternity leave of just 12 weeks?

It is important to remember here that care in a family is the best possible option for a child. The impact of institutionalisation on young children separated from their biological parents has been studied and researched extensively. Many studies have shown that children who have been through institutional care have to deal with a range of physical, emotional, social and behavioural difficulties through various developmental stages, sometimes for life. However, studies have shown that love, care and safety provided by positive parenting in a nurturing family significantly mitigates these effects. Children with institutionalisation in their histories do go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives. This kind of nurturing starts with the time to bond and build trust. Twelve weeks is too short a time to build such a foundation.

To encourage adoption

An average of around 3,500 babies are adopted every year in India. A telling fact that shows how deep our social prejudices run and how cumbersome our child adoption procedures are, despite there being a population of over 11 million children on the streets without families. Even if the Bill were to actually grant the same provisions of maternity and paternity benefits and parental leave to adoptive parents, not more than 5,000 to 7,000 people would benefit. Was that really such a hard thing to do?

To start with, the Bill needs to include a few more “amendments” for it to be truly progressive and make a difference in the lives of people (men, women and transgenders) who wish to take on the responsibilities of parenting.

Can we hope for a parental benefits legislation that is more inclusive, non-discriminatory and truly progressive? We could start by calling it “parental leave” and not “maternity leave” and recognise men as parents. This new law could get in line with other Acts and rules that already exist and grant all kinds of parents the same legal rights that are given to biological parents. We need legislation that seeks to equalise, help change regressive mindsets and are aimed at ensuring the best interests of all children. Above all, we need legislation that provides support to make parenting the joyful and fulfilling process that it can be.

Kalpana Purushothaman is a counselling psychologist working with children and adolescents, mostly from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds. She is currently doing her doctoral research on mental health of children in conflict with law.

Sangitha Krishnamurthi is a special educator, financial management expert and avid blogger.

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