//How a slum child from India changed my life

How a slum child from India changed my life

By HELEN WEATHERS , Daily Mail, (UK) on 5th October 2006

As top nutritionist Jane Clarke slaved over the elaborate food preparations for her daughter Maya's fourth birthday party she had a fleeting moment when she thought: 'Why do I have to be me?'

How much easier it would have been to throw crisps into bowls and stick candles into the additive-packed icing of a shop-bought cake — but Jane knows too much about food and cares too deeply for Maya to do that. Not that she is one of those irritating, holier-than-thou food fascists obsessed with organic oat cakes.

Indeed, she even let Maya's 12 excited guests eat cake with, whisper it, butter cream icing. 'It was exhausting preparing the food from scratch. There were crustless sandwiches, hedgehogs made from pineapple and cheese on sticks, jelly boats and a handmade butterfly cake with cream and fruit in the middle to slow down the absorption of sugar.' says Jane.

'It was a real treat and all the children ate the lot. That night Maya threw her arms round my neck and said: "Thank you Mummy for such a gorgeous party." That made all the hard work worthwhile.' Jane's twin passions are her daughter and good, nutritious food, the latter being used to restore the health of the sickly child she adopted – as a single parent – from an Indian orphanage two and a half years ago.

'It amazes me that this child who came to me aged 15 months, malnourished, suffering from rickets and weighing just 5kg has now blossomed into a stunningly beautiful child, tall for her age and healthy. She was like a seed just waiting to be watered.'

When we meet, it has to be said that Jane is a walking advertisement for her nutritional philosophy, which she now plans to share with Mail readers through her new food columns, which start next week. Although she will be 40 in November she looks ten years younger.

A trained dietician and cordon bleu chef, Jane is the author of the bestselling series of Bodyfoods books and was nutritional consultant on Jamie Oliver's groundbreaking series Jamie's School Dinners. She runs a thriving private practice offering nutritional advice, having started her career in the NHS.

A regular on radio and television, the author of Yummy! Every Parent's Nutrition Bible, she joins the Mail as a columnist – answering readers' questions in Good Health on a Tuesday.

She is passionate about trying to improve the nation's health and tackle obesity by, among other things, fighting against junk-food advertising before 9pm and urging manufacturers to restrict the amount of refined sugar in every day foods, in much the same way the food industry has cut back on salt and transfats.

Since becoming a mother, Jane says that her passion for good food – learned as a child watching her mother Pat and great-auntie May cooking – has turned into 'a fire in the belly'.

And her quest to adopt overseas, she says, has turned her in to someone prepared to knock down barriers – and there were many before she was able to bring Maya home to North London.

'It was exhausting, emotionally draining and deeply upsetting,' she says,' but I have always had a deep yearning to be a mum and now I have Maya I am so thankful that I didn't give up. She has transformed my life.'

Jane has known from her mid-20s that she could never have a biological child of her own. The middle child of three, born to teachers Pat and Brian Clarke, at 15 she developed endometriosis which affected her fertility. The condition – where cells normally found in the lining of the uterus spread to other areas of the pelvis causing inflammation, pain and scar tissue – was so severe she finally agreed to a hysterectomy at the age of 25.

'There was nothing more the doctors could do for me,' says Jane. 'I'd undergone so many operations and was in such pain I'd have to be hospitalised for one week out of every four. I had no life and to restore my sanity I reluctantly decided to have a hysterectomy, having held out for five long years.

'I knew my chances of having my own biological child were already very slim with the endometriosis, so it seemed pointless hanging on because there was no cure. I remember asking the doctor before the operation if my eggs could be harvested but I was told no and I'd just have to get used to the idea that I would never have children.

'Having a hysterectomy so young was a devastating experience for me and it took me five years to get over the loss.'

However, Jane never gave up her hope of becoming a mother, and in her 30s she started to think about adopting a child, on her own – if necessary – for Mr Right had so far failed to materialise. She yearned for the experience of nurturing a baby, but knowing her chances of achieving this in the UK were virtually nil due to a shortage of babies, she decided to look overseas.

At 35 she applied for an assessment through social services, a gruelling and expensive process, to determine her suitability to become an adoptive parent. This was complicated by her status as a single, white woman who wanted to adopt a child of a different skin colour, from India.

'For me it was important to adopt a baby, I wanted that experience and I chose India because I have always felt a deep connection with that country,' she says.


Jane still bristles when she remembers the humiliating approval process, which cost around £3,000 and without which it would have been impossible to adopt overseas.

On one occasion two of her closest married friends were asked if they'd ever thought Jane had had affairs with their husbands; on another she was told by social workers that her tidy, minimalist home might be construed as evidence of a 'controlling' nature.

'It was appalling,' says Jane, who bit her lip at the time rather than jeopardise her chances. 'The presumptions these social workers made about me were insulting. These people who were deciding my suitability as a parent I considered to be highly unsuited to social work.'

On November 12, 2003, Jane was finally approved, but her subsequent search for a daughter would prove to be soul-destroying. She'd assumed the Indian authorities would open their doors in welcome, but she was wrong.

More than 50 letters sent to orphanages went unanswered and follow-up phone calls by Jane were met with suspicion and curt refusals even to entertain the idea of a white, single woman becoming mother to an Indian baby.

Frustrated, but determined to prove her commitment, she flew to India that December. Orphanage doors were routinely closed in her face and those that did let her in made her question whether she was doing the right thing.

'In the first orphanages I visited, in Calcutta, there were 200 to 300 children in each,' she recalls, 'The stench was overwhelming and there were 20 children pulling at my clothes, just reaching out for anything. They're so desperate for love, to be touched. When I'd been to six orphanages like that, I thought I didn't have the strength to carry on.'

One orphanage finally offered her a healthy baby, only to change its mind the following day and suggest she take a child with special needs instead.

When she held this three-year-old child, suffering from HIV and with water on the brain, Jane knew she didn't have what it took and walked away depressed and disappointed in herself.

She was on the verge of giving up when in February a different orphanage told her they had two babies available for adoption. When Jane held the first, a premature girl, she felt nothing, but when five-month old Maya was brought in with her 'chocolate button' eyes and tentative smile, Jane knew she&#39
;d found her daughter, telling her: 'It's you and me in this life.'

'From the minute I saw Maya I fell in love. This was my daughter and I was her mum. That's the way I felt. It was like a lightning bolt. Before I saw her I thought I'd have to learn to love any child I adopted, but I was wrong. With Maya it was instant,' she says.

'Some people think it is impossible to love a child in the same way you would love your own biological child, but I know that I couldn't love Maya any more than I do. We were meant to be together.'

It would be another ten months before Jane's adoption of Maya was rubber-stamped by the British and Indian authorities, during which time her daughter's health declined and she succumbed to repeated chest infections.

This Jane witnessed during many heart-breaking visits to India to see Maya and over which she felt powerless. Then, when Maya was 15 months old, Jane received the call to tell her she could take Maya home. At the handover, which was captured on video, an overjoyed Jane wanted to run out of the orphanage with her daughter without looking back.

She admits, however, that her first night as a mother, comforting Maya – suffering from fever and raging diarrhoea – as she screamed and whimpered through the early hours was a baptism of fire.

'I am used to hard work, but I was totally unprepared for the sheer exhaustion caused by sleepless nights looking after an ill child. It was very tough,' says Jane.

'The huge sense of responsibility I felt for this tiny child was overwhelming and there were moments when I thought: "Have I done the right thing?"

Up until the day we left India I hadn't been able to cry. I couldn't let myself. I had to be strong, but as I walked towards the airport gate the enormity of what I was doing finally started the force of tears to flow. I was taking Maya from her homeland.

'However cruel life in India had been, she was still leaving everything she had ever known in the arms of a woman who kept saying "I love you" in her ear…but I was a stranger.'

Back in Britain Jane set about rebuilding her daughter's health, replacing cow's milk with soya, after discovering Maya was lactose intolerant, and she has thrived. Today, she is a bubbly, exuberant, intelligent, fiercely independent, happy four-year-old. She has just started school, which Jane proudly says she loves, but motherhood has not all been plain-sailing.

'One mother asked: "How much did Maya cost you?" which I found extremely tactless. I didn't just go out and buy her like some doll, there was an instant bond the minute we met. I'm her mummy and I feel no different from any other mummy, although I can't share their birth stories or laments about stretch marks.'

Jane's mother Pat helps out one day a week and it brings Jane endless delight to see them together having once feared she'd never give her parents any grandchildren.

'The other day at school one little girl said "Maya doesn't have a daddy," and I told her "Now who do we have in our life who is like a Daddy?" and she was able to say my father, her poppa, and several male friends who utterly adore her.

'I am very well supported, but there are times, when we are at loggerheads, when I miss not having a partner. Every time Maya has the screaming ab dabs in the supermarket I ask myself "What have I done?"

'There is the added complication that when I carry her kicking and screaming out of the shop, because I have a different skin colour, people look at me as if I'm abducting her,' she laughs.

'There are times when she rejects what I have cooked, which – being a nutritionist – is like a kick to the solar plexus, but you can't take it personally. She can be very fiery and when she shouts, "I don't want you", it cuts me to the quick, but then she will put her arms around my neck another time and tell me how much she loves me and the stressful parts of being a mother are forgotten.'

Then, there is the thorny issue of inter-racial adoption. 'Of course, I am anxious about how she will feel as she grows up and whether she will want to meet her birth parents. In India it is considered shameful for a child to be put up for adoption and it is illegal for adopted children to trace their birth parents, so Maya will never be able to do that.

'But I do know about them and about her history which I will share with her when she is old enough. The most important thing for her to know is that I love her and that she is special because I chose her.'

Jane would love to adopt another child, but she would not consider doing it again alone. 'I don't believe in shielding your child from your emotions and I happily cry in front of Maya, so knowing how emotionally draining it was last time I couldn't put her through all that.'

For now, however, Maya is her inspiration for spreading the message of good health through nutrition. As a parent, Jane knows how difficult it is to protect your children in this age of junk food and television.

She says: 'Parents use food as pacifiers when kids don't really need or want it, but also because there are so few healthy choices in our food outlets. Bottled water is so expensive and who wants to pay 50p for a bruised apple?

'I want to show them there is another way. There is so much misinformation about diet and we have a whole generation of parents who don't know how to cook.

'I want to show them it is just as easy to give your child a boiled egg and toast as it is to put a ready meal in the microwave, to make your own pasta sauce rather than open a jar. What I really want to do is inspire them to eat well.'