My daughter told us the other night of a time in middle school when she shared with two teachers her complex feelings about being adopted. Yes, I really love my family, she reported as they nodded sympathetically. But also, she continued, being adopted sometimes sucks.
The sympathetic nodding ended.
Oh, you don’t mean that! one teacher told her. The other tag-teamed: Look where you ended up. Your parents are awesome! (why thank you).
My daughter was mad at the time about her feelings being invalidated, about being told she should feel differently than she feels. She was angry that someone who doesn’t know adoption first hand corrected her about her actual experience.
As far as I can tell, neither of those teachers — one in her 30s and one in her 50s — has a direct connection to adoption. So how are they qualified to speak so authoritatively on it?
You Don’t Have to Be in Adoption to Know Adoption. Duh.
Everyone knows about adoption, right? We see it in the movies and we see it on TV and we see stories about the movies and TV shows in People magazine while we wait at the hair salon or dentist.
You know, if the movies and TV shows got adoption right, people would have a better idea what it’s like to actually live in adoption. Historically, though, the media have not gotten it right. The media have gotten adoption flat out wrong by showing incomplete slices of it, by perpetuating stereotypes, and by reducing multidimensional complexities to 2D simplicities.
Hollywood has mostly painted adoption in black and white terms. Childless couple finally gets their baby (good!). Baby gets a stable home (good!). Birth parent wants baby back (bad!). Birth parent or adoptee wonder about the other (weird! move on!). The Either/Or mindset has been bolstered by Hollywood because, duh, everyone knows you need only one set of parents, not two.
So it’s no wonder that these two teachers could see only that if you end up with good parents, its all good! It would be as if the social studies textbook covered only peace treaties and not wars. Or if the chemistry textbook covered only chemical bonding but not entropy. Yes, the coverage may be accurate, but not at all complete.
But maybe Hollywood is changing.
This Is Us Dives Deep into Adoption Complexity
Last month after I’d previewed the Fall season of NBC’s This Is Us, I invited my teens wanted to watch it with me. We binged in the weeks before Christmas, and the kids were into it for many reasons, the adoption story line being only one of them.
As I did the first time, I wept again while watching episode 9 — more than once. I got choked up at scenes that take the viewer from the simple Either/Or mindset to a more labyrinthine Both/And heartset. Like these:
- Dad (Jack): “It kills me that our son will always have this hole, not knowing who his parents are.” Mom (Rebecca): “WE’RE his parents.”
- When Randall, inadvertently on mushrooms, tells his dad he’s just a replacement for his dead baby. And Jack’s response? OMG.
- When Rebecca tells birth dad William (whom she has known all along) that Randall has been asking about him and wants to meet him. William gets excited and begins talking about all the ways he wants to share himself with his son. When he comes out of his reverie, Rebecca has vanished.
- When Randall lists all that his mother, Rebecca, robbed him of in keeping William from him. Then when Jack tells Randall to look more deeply at her, and he sees Rebecca in a more complete and complex way. OMG.
- Jack and Randall’s initiation at the end of martial arts class, otherwise known as the push-up scene. OMG.
- The voiceover during the push-up scene as William reads the letter Rebecca sent him about her verdict on meeting Randall. OMG.
- When Randall confronts Rebecca about the secret she kept from him for 36 years, he shows an unexpected emotion — empathy. OMG.
See? All complexity. Happy and sad, heartbreaking and heartsoaring at the same time. People doing wrong things but not because they’re bad people. People doing the best they can dealing with their own past hurts, demons, and fears.
It’s as though the writers of This Is Us are using Rebecca to represent the Either/Or mindset we are evolving from, and Jack to represent the Both/And heartset we need to move toward. Both Rebecca and Jack love Randall deeply. One is more affected by fear and insecurity than the other. One constricts in the presence of fear, and one is able to be expansive in it.
We are all called in adoption to decide which will be our orientation.
New episodes of This Is Us resume Tuesday evenings on NBC next week.
Lion: Of Course You Root for the Boy to Find What Was Lost.
My daughter didn’t relay the middle school conversation to us until Family Date Night last week. We’d just seen the film Lion and were talking about it over dinner.
Once we got it out of the way that Dev Patel is ohmygawdsocute!, our daughter started talking about the less obvious parts of the movie.
“People think adoption is all wonderful,” she explained to us. “They don’t get that even if you get a new pretty good mom*, you can still miss what you lost.”
To my knowledge she has never read an adoption blog post, not mine and not any of yours. These thoughts originated in her, as they do in so many adopted people.
My son agreed that people have a really hard time understanding that adoptees can hold lots of people in their hearts at the same time. “Do people really think that he’s just going to forget that he once had a mom and a brother that he loved so much? Or that, if he gets them back, he’ll no longer love the people who raised him? That’s just dumb thinking.”
The storytelling in this film is exquisite. The tear-jerk moment comes, predictably, at the end of Lion. But there was another that got me again, unexpectedly, during the credits. It was a Both/And moment in which the real original mom and the real adoptive mom (not the actresses) embrace the real Saroo.
I’m a sucker for people in adoption having it all.
* at this stage of parenting, I’ll take even such a lukewarm compliment.
Here is the real Saroo (Lion in Hindi) on 60 Minutes.
More on Lion from the Adoption Community:
- Adoption at the Movies: Lion Movie Review for Families
- Donaldson Adoption Institute: Lost & Found in Lion
Lori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.