Monday, February 04, 2008

Book Review: Once a Mother: Relinquishment and adoption from the perspective of unmarried mothers in South India by Pien Bos

Pien Bos is an education specialist and anthropologist who worked in the adoption field before becoming a researcher in 2001. Once a Mother is her dissertation published resulting from two years of field work in South India with mothers, families and social welfare NGOs. Pien Bos defended her dissertation on January 10, 2008 for which she received a PhD with distinction from Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

The subject of the book is the mostly unheard “supply side” of the adoption equation: first mothers in India. The goal of Bos’ research was to fill this knowledge gap and document and probe the process of child relinquishment from the perspective of their mothers. In this respect, Once a Mother is equivalent to The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade in that Bos documents present-day relinquishment practices in South India which are in many ways reminiscent of the Baby Scoop Era in the United States.

Bos interviewed 36 mothers whose factual circumstances varied widely, both in their socioeconomic station in life as well as the circumstances of their children’s conception. Seven of these mothers had relinquished their child at least 15 years earlier. The other 29 were in the process of relinquishing. In addition, Bos interviewed 16 other mothers who decided not to relinquish and were raising their children on their own.

From her fieldwork, Bos developed three main findings:

1. Many mothers who relinquished their children considered themselves married, not unmarried.

The social stigma of unwed motherhood is generally assumed to be the primary reason why children are surrendered for adoption in India. However, Bos notes that many of the mothers she interviewed adopted a more flexible and informal definition of marriage, specifically the tying by a man of a “tali” to a woman without regard to other ceremonies and formalisation. The varying interpretations of marital status tended to be denied by institutions.

2. Blood bond in general, and the blood bond between mother and child specifically, has an extremely significant cultural meaning in Tamil culture. The cultural significance of motherhood, in combination with the meaning of the notion mother in its broader cultural sense implies that motherhood is irreplaceable and life-long. Despite the legal significance of relinquishment, mothers continued to view themselves as their children’s mothers who handed over care of their children to others, but not their motherhood.

Although care of the child was transferable, motherhood is not. According to Bos, “[b]iological mothers of surrendered children still felt and eventually claimed to be the only true mother, and this aspect explained feelings, hopes and eventual expectations after adoption, for instance with regard to possible future reunions with their children.” Bos found that some mothers tended to relinquish out of a sense of gratitude to the NGO for taking them in: “[K]eeping the baby would imply the breach of an informal agreement and some mothers also assumed they would be charged an amount comparable to adoption fees for reclaiming their child.”

Reunion with a surrendered child was a recurring theme in Bos’ research. For this topic, in particular, differences in the individual perceptions and processes of mothers emerged. Whereas one mother raised the issue spontaneously as a consolation after surrendering her beloved baby; for another, the idea of reunion appeared a worse-case scenario. Bos discovered that time was an influential factor in a mother’s attitude towards a potential reunion. Some mothers who took into account their circumstances decades after relinquishment did not immediately reject a future reunion. Married mothers in particular expressed a strong urge to meet their surrendered children again. Despite the interest of many adoptees and biological mothers in reuniting, Bos found that adoption agencies typically do not seriously cooperate in searching for biological families to the point of actively obstructing such searches. The people working for NGOs typically assume that secrecy is demanded to protect the lives of mothers, without regard to the circumstances of the actual mother sought to be traced.

3. The relinquishment process is the equivalent of a “fyke” (a funnel-shaped net used to trap fish) where women who enter the social welfare system upon an unexpected pregnancy are set on a single-minded trajectory toward relinquishment.

Bos writes:
“From the moment of admission in a licensed agency, the internal flows and
forces, determined by prevailing dominant discourses, isolation, hierarchy,
loyalties and money are pushing her deeper inside the fyke. She is trapped
until the day she signs a surrender deed. On that day, the mother is
released from the institution and the child receives the status of ‘parentless
child’ until it is placed into an adoptive family.”

Bos finds the discrepancy between the stated objectives of formal adoption rules and daily practices “shocking.”

Bos notes that the consequences of a premarital pregnancy and the decision to relinquish expands beyond the mother and also encompasses her family and community. Hierarchically, mothers are not in a powerful position owing to their youth, lack of money, education and opinion that they “went astray” through engaging in premarital sex. Like mothers in Western countries, particularly during the Baby Scoop era, Indian mothers are strongly influenced and at times completely overruled in their decision of whether to relinquish by family members and/or staff of institutions. “Counseling” of unwed mothers by NGOs typically means advising relinquishment; other options are more commonly explored in the case of married mothers. Some mothers acknowledged the desire to hand over the decision-making process to others, however, Bos met other mothers who revealed that they were manipulated and essentially forced to relinquish against their will. Bos felt that good communication between mothers and their relatives would be beneficial, however, during her field work she discovered that pregnant women or new mothers more often than not were isolated with limited contact with family since they were sequestered through institutionalization or hospitalization. Input in the decision-making process by relatives was often conducted outside the presence or prolonged time spent with the mothers themselves. Bos pleas for informed decision-making; a transmission of cumulative knowledge and sharing with mothers who did or did not surrender.

Bos does an excellent job of noting the inherent conflicts on the part of NGOs that engage in adoption:

“My conclusion is that people on the work floor, practitioners and counselors
working in or for NGOs work with extremely complicated dilemmas. They
balance on a continuum with the voice of their personal conscience, their
perception of acceptable and suitable solutions for women on one side and
financial responsibilities on the other. On the one hand, they need to act
according to the politically correct conventions concerning mothers and their
children; on the other, they need to ‘sell babies’ to adoptive parents to be
able to run their agencies. NGOs are trapped by the construction of an
adoption field where financial income and the placement of children in adoptive
families are intertwined.”
Although legal adoptions are painted as a non-profit endeavor, the fact is that adoption is a lucrative financial means to maintain a flow of money from adopters to licensed NGOs. Bos cites the deleterious impact institutionalization has on the health and welfare of children, and therefore acknowledges that the outflow of children from institutions into foster or adoptive family care can upgrade their lives. However, her research examines how adoption simultaneously “sucks children into residential care” by putting pressure on women to supply babies. Bos concludes that “adoption, as it is legally organized, induces a flow of children towards institutions.”

Bos’ thesis is valuable because it offers a unique exploration voices of the mothers we in the West do not have the opportunity to hear while simultaneously affirming common place present-day attitudes and procedures that conflict with ethical adoption practices.

Once a Mother can be ordered by contacting Pien Bos at The price is 15.00 euro plus postage.


Once a Mother: Relinquishment and adoption from the perspective of unmarried mothers, Pien Bos, ISBN 978-90-9022453-4, 2007

Indian women giving up their children for adoption affected by lack of information, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, January 15, 2008


  1. Thank you so much for this review! I am the very proud mother of Durga, whom we adopted in 2006. She has yet to ask any specific questions, but we will be as honest with her as possible when she does. She's from Pune, which is a little north of South India, I'm sure the reasons for relinquishment are similar. The orphanage papers said only that she was given up for "social reasons." This dissertation will help me be able to answer questions more intelligently, and for that, I am grateful.