‘Her father had told her when she turned twenty-one, the whispered confession that robbed her of her self. “But who am I?” she’d said. “You’re you. Same as always. You’re Nell, my Nellie.” She could hear how much he wanted it to be so, but she’d known better than that. Reality had shifted by a few degrees and left her out of sync with everyone else. This person she was, or thought she was, did not really exist, There was no Nell O’Connor.’ (62-63)
Kate Morton beautifully captures the story of adoption and fostering with a little bit of mystery and intrigue through four generations in her novel,‘The Forgotten Garden.’ We follow two characters in search of the same truth generations apart. The main story Morton tells, is about Nell, who was found unaccompanied onboard a ship to Australia from England in the early 1900s. Nell finds out she’s adopted on her 21st birthday party when her father tells her, her adoption story. Nell’s parents had struggled with the decision of hiding the truth or telling Nell how she came to be a part of their family, but her mother had strongly felt Nell didn’t need to know. Her father however, felt telling her was the right thing to do but he didn’t know it would tear his daughter apart. Nell’s father, Hugh, loved her so much that he even ‘caught himself wishing it on one of the other girls instead. He cursed himself then for acknowledging he had a favorite, even to himself.’ (8) Nell’s adoptive parents loved Nell like their own and couldn’t imagine the affect knowing the truth would have on her.
Nell was 4 years old when she was found but she had no memory of who she was or where she came from. She easily forgot about her long journey and came to believe that her adoptive family was her birth family. When Her father had said it didn’t matter to him and his wife where Nell came from. ‘She’d tried not to let it matter to her, either, but the truth was it did.’ (63) On her 21st birthday party when Nell came to know of her adoption, her life ‘systematically dismantled’. (63) She left her job, moved out of her parents’ home and broke off her engagement to the love of her life. She felt that no man could value her since her birth family had considered her ‘disposable’ and had ‘discarded her.’ (63) Not knowing who her birth family was also affected her relationship later on when she did get married and became a mother. Nell blamed her disconnect with her daughter on her own birth family as well. She considered herself a ‘terrible mother, of course her daughter couldn’t stand her, it was in the blood, she hadn’t deserved children in the first place. No matter how warm Lil (Nell’s adoptive mother) had been, Nell came from a tradition of bad mothers, the sort who could abandon their children with ease.’ (64) Nell found a way to connect herself with an imagined birth mother in the most bitter aspects of her life as she couldn’t forgive her own abandonment even if the outcome had been one of a loving family.
When I read this story I couldn’t help but see it through the light of Islam. How could this identity crisis be prevented by Islamic practices? I am just learning about adoption and foster care, and also unlearning a lot of misconceptions that have been passed down culturally. With my limited knowledge, I understood that hiding the truth of a child’s birth is not a recommended practice. I also, knew about the adoption story of Zayd bin Haritha by the prophet Muhammad PBUH. I knew that Zayd bin Haritha (May Allah be pleased with him) was a slave and was later freed and adopted by the prophet Muhammad PBUH. Muhammad PBUH treated him like a son to the point where Zayd bin Haritha was called Zayd bin Muhammad until the revelation came that prohibited the practice of calling adopted children by a name other than their birth family’s.
This incident is narrated by Abdullah bin Umar: We used not to call Zaid bin Haritha the freed slave of Allah’s Apostle except Zaid bin Muhammad till the Quranic Verse was revealed: “Call them (adopted sons) by (the names of ) their fathers. That is more than just in the Sight of Allah.” (33.5) Sahih Bukhari
Since I knew this story, I knew that the knowledge of one’s birth family is very important in Islam and wanted to further investigate this matter. I went on to research this subject and was amazed to find a digest by Muslim Women’s Shura Council, Adoption and the Care of Orphan Children: Islam and the Best Interests of the Child. This is what the Shura recommends in order to prevent identity crisis in adopted children:
“In order to protect the sanctity of the adopted child’s connection to their biological family, and the natural rights that follow, the Shura Council advises against hiding the adopted child’s familial background. Withholding this information from the child could lead to identity crisis and confusion. The adoptive parent(s) should inform adopted children of their status with due consideration. The knowledge of biological lineage is also important in protecting the child’s right to inherit from his or her biological parents’ estate. In cases where the child’s background is not known, parents should adhere as closely to open adoption practices as possible under the circumstances, integrating the child to the fullest extent into the adoptive family.”
Muslim Women’s Shura Council also says that there is an exception to the naming practice. They say that in the case of a ‘founding,’ which Nell was, you can give the child the name of the adoptive family. This document also dispelled some other misconceptions propagated by cultural practices which I will explore in the future.
So, I learned that in order to prevent an identity crisis, the Islamic recommendation is to tell your children who their birth families are and where they come from. A non-Islamic article I read, by Kenna Shumway, ‘5 ideas to Help Your Teen with Identity Challenges‘ further reiterates this. Shumway draws on her own experience as an adopted child. She says that she wasn’t able to talk about her birth family with her mother which strained their relationship. Now as an adoptive mother herself she leaves the lines of communication open. She advises parents to be approachable and answer children’s questions. Shumway also stresses the importance of telling and retelling the adoption story throughout the child’s life which mirrors the Islamic recommendation as well.
Now we understand that a key component in preventing an identity crisis in adopted children is telling them their adoption and story and instilling pride in them about who they are. SubhanAllah what we are beginning to understand now as a prevention of identity crisis, Allah SWT commanded us to do in order to be fair to the adopted child. Indeed Allah is Al Adl!