Last year, I left Lorenzo with my mother for an hour so that I could do a therapy session. We were visiting my parents’ house in Naples.

When I finished, I came out, and Lorenzo was in tears, screaming, Voglio la mia mamma, I want my mummy. My mother was in tears too. She made it clear to me before that she just couldn’t handle a child, her grandson, crying, and this time it was more obvious what was happening to her.

“He was asking for his mummy, I know how that feels.”

My mother lost her mother at the age of four. She was living at her mother’s family home, so she stayed there to be taken care of by her mother’s sisters, including her mother’s twin, who then died when my mother was a teenager. People didn’t call her an orphan to her face, but that is what she felt growing up: there was a hole inside of her that she could never fill, process, or do much with. Even if her father was there and had a long and eventful life, the two of them could never quite get over their loss.

Lorenzo’s cry, which is common for a child, hit a particular sore spot, reminding her of her loss and her own desperate tears.

Losing a parent or a caregiver is a big trauma in a child’s life. The extent to which this affects a child’s life growing up depends greatly on the environment in which they are raised once the parent has gone

A heavy burden

“When you see people stepping up to care for children, it happens in many different ways,” Charles Zeanah, professor of psychiatry & pediatrics at Tulane University, explained at a panel I moderated last week on reporting on orphaned children. “Some people feel very committed to the kids; they may have a pre-existing relationship with the children; they are highly motivated to do it. And sometimes, frankly, they do so quite grudgingly, they may have a lot of problems of their own. That makes a huge difference for a child — whether they are being accepted, treasured and cared for, or whether they are just another burden for the family to be tolerated at best. It plays a major role in the long-term outcome of the well-being of the kid.

The panel was inspired in part by the latest estimates of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A new international study believes that from January 1, 2020, to May, 1, 2022, nearly 8 million kids aged 18 and under lost a parent or primary caregiver to a pandemic-related cause. By including the death of secondary caregivers like grandparents or other older relatives, the number of kids affected rose to 10.5 million.

The largest burden was in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In Bolivia and Peru, one out of every 50 children lost one of their caregivers in roughly two years, while India had an estimated 3.5 million children affected by the loss of a parent or primary/secondary caregiver.

In last week’s panel, we heard from two journalists, Lucero Ascarza, from Peru’s platform Salud con Lupa, and Mythreyee Ramesh, from India’s The Quint, about how difficult it had been to report on this issue in two countries that were so deeply affected and where the resources available for orphaned children are already very low to begin with.

In Peru, a law is in the making to ensure that all orphans are registered and those who live in poverty can get access to a very small monthly pension. In India, there has been no country-wide initiative to help orphans. The state of Uttar Pradesh, however, has a small pilot programme that provides orphans with a small stipend as well as psychological support, which this great reportage in The New Humanitarian explains.

Children in care

Growing up, my mother was lucky. Despite the loss she could never overcome, she was raised by a loving family and didn’t have any financial problems. The trauma of loss still haunts her today, and she would have most likely benefited from psychological counselling, but overall she did well.

The problem, as Zeanah noted, happens when children become a burden for the family that welcomes them, or — worse — are placed in institutions. Worldwide, between four and nine million children are in institutions.

“We know that is an unfortunate intervention because it is so potentially harmful to their development. I am also struck that it is usually the countries which have the fewest resources who are most reliant on institutional care, which we also know is the most expensive form of care than having the children cared for in families,” said Zeanah, who is one of the co-authors of the groundbreaking research on Romanian orphans who suffered neglect in their early days in institutions. The work that Zeanah contributed to showed just how damaging the lack of love and play can have on a developing brain.

Trauma is distinct from neglect. Trauma comes from the presence of a threat and — if experienced in early childhood, especially in prolonged periods over time — leads to changes in the part of the brain that are involved in processing fear. But neglect, which means the absence of love, interactions and care, can have deeper repercussions: essentially orphans in institutions or uncaring foster families run the risk of not fully developing their neural systems for the lack of input.

“Psycho-social neglect in young children is the absence of input to the central neural system, which is essential for the brain to develop healthily. That effect is more pervasive across all areas of the brain compared to trauma. We know that the human brain is born anticipating certain types of input at certain critical periods, and when the input comes in before or after that sensitive period, it doesn’t have the same effect,” explained Zeanah. “When the needed input (language input, nurturing or cognitive stimulation), the child’s development can go wry.”

Zeanah opened the space to a very important question: why is it that institutions are still the prevalent form of care for orphaned children if they are the most expensive and the most dangerous for children?

I will come back to this issue again, as there is a lot more to understand when it comes to how children can be taken care of when there are no caregivers around. But in the meantime, I would love to hear from you, especially if you are in a country that has experiences that are worth looking at when it comes to orphans. You can leave a message below this story on the website, if you become a paying member.

What I’ve been reading

This is an extraordinary and tough story about a 12-year-old Indian girl who got pregnant because of repeat rapes and was then ostracised by her family. But years later, her child helped her find justice.

What I’ve been listening to

I loved this first episode of Terrestrials, a new show that introduces itself as Radiolab for Kids. Host Lulu Miller interviews Sy Montgomery, an author, speaker, and naturalist who has published books about many animals, including octopuses. And this is what the episode focuses on: just how clever an octopus can be, with its capability to change colours and outsmart predators, and even escape from captivity! The show is accompanied by original music by indie punk musician Alan Goffinski, and this week’s episode has one remarkable song about octopus kisses. Seriously. A great listen with slightly older kids too, but I will probably try it out on my 3 year old soon! Thanks to Boryana, a member of The First 1,000 Days community, for the recommendation.

What I’ve been watching

Last week I had a fabulous time at the Athens Planetarium, which has an incredible giant projection system, with my son and some of his friends from daycare. We went to watch Polaris, the Space Submarine and the Mystery of the Polar Night, a sweet, 30-minute animation that introduces children to the idea of planets. James, a travelling penguin from the South Pole, meets Vladimir, a bear, when he reaches the North Pole. They become friends, compare notes about the regions they call home and start asking questions about the world. They then embark on a scientific adventure to try and solve the mysteries about the poles’ darkness and light by reasoning and observation. I had never heard about this film because it is a 2015 production by the Saint-Étienne Planetarium in France: apparently there are educational films for children produced by planetariums around the world, and screened on their giant projectors. Can’t wait to catch the next one!

Who’s been inspiring me

I have recently discovered a trans couple in Brazil who have given birth to Noah. They have a lovely Instagram account (whose name I love, Transcendendo Amor, Transcending Love), where they very patiently answer questions about their relationship and their newborn child. In this video, for example, they explain that Noah was conceived naturally — just as the child of a heterosexual couple would be because both Roberto and Erika are trans but kept their biological reproductive organs.

What members have been saying

A committed reader to The First 1,000 Days recently wrote to say she was ashamed to be in touch because she could not afford a membership anymore, and she now felt like a free-rider because she still read me on a regular basis, and enjoyed my writing very much. I am sharing this here because I want to make sure that all you readers do not need to feel ashamed if you can’t afford to pay for my writing. Of course, I need support to make sure this project continues, but we all have personal circumstances that dictate what we can and cannot afford. Always remember that a great way to support my work is to share it with friends or on social networks, and encourage others who might be able to afford to contribute. 😉

With love and care, 

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.

Photo credits and alt-text: mohit suthar on Unsplash, boy puppet with an hat sitting on a red car toy

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