Damaging narratives (spoilers)
I saw Instant Family at a screening last Tuesday night. I am a transracial, transnational adoptive parent. I am also a scholar and have done some studying of adoption from a critical perspective. That means that I try to spend more time listening to the stories and voices of adopted people than speaking about adoption myself. I believe the least told stories are the ones everyone needs to hear most, and that I can use my voice to point in that direction. This film will be released tomorrow and I am writing to offer adoptive parents a different lens through which to view this adoption story.
For better and for worse, this movie is about us. I enjoyed watching it. I felt affirmed by seeing much of my experience reflected back in the story on the screen. So many parts of this movie reflected my own experiences as an adoptive parent. The initial hope and terror of considering adoption. Being supported but misunderstood by friends and family at first. Meeting a child who already had a history, a personality, and preferences that I needed to learn. Bumbling through the inevitable clashes and behaviors. Big hits and big misses. Feeling elated one minute and totally incompetent the next. Dark times of wondering if I’d be able to carry on. Joyful, connected, loving, and thankful times together.
My feelings, my process, my experiences, my struggles, my joys, my fears, my foibles, my successes, and my interpretations about adoption. They were all on the screen before me in living color with all the feels and a happy ending.
This movie was made by adoptive parents for adoptive parents. The adoptive parents are the center of the whole story. All the other characters in the story serve as foils to spotlight the goodness of the parents in various ways. The kid’s foster parents are cruel, neglectful, and in it for the money. Several of the other adoptive parents at the agency trainings have significant flaws making Pete and Ellie look amazing. The young adult adoptee who tells her story to the prospective adoptive parents makes them feel good about helping other kids and being loved like she loves her parents. Her adoptive parents, later, provide a pivotal pep talk for Pete and Ellie when they are at their most discouraged. Pete and Ellie’s extended families make insensitive comments and are awkward around the kids, which appears intended to make them look solid and racially competent in comparison. The kid’s mom has few, if any lines, and is depicted as being not only silent but unable and unwilling to parent them. The social workers, while not afraid to tell Pete and Ellie the hard truth (often hilariously) also provide a kind of official endorsement of their success as parents.
The adoptive parents are the heroes of this film. This is something that most of the people I talk to have never really questioned. Adoptive parents are considered heroes, saints, and saviors in our culture. When someone praises us directly we say, “oh, no, they saved us.” Or, “ten loads of laundry a week sure doesn’t feel heroic.” A reader might question the claim that Pete and Ellie were portrayed as saints, since they clearly struggled, made mistakes, sought help, and tried again throughout the movie. I would argue, however, that the parent’s struggles portrayed in the movie were due to the difficulty of parenting the (troubled, difficult, vulnerable) children, and that once they met the children’s needs and overcame the challenges, the perception of their parental heroism and saintliness was even greater.
The movie tells the white parent’s story of adoption. It’s the white parent’s story of adoption that gets told over and over and over and over and over again. Another way of saying this is that it is the adoptive parents and professionals whose voices are privileged in the cultural conversation about adoption. The story about adoption that is told in the movie centers around the white adoptive parent’s needs, desires, and fulfillment. While it adds some real life struggle and pain, it still significantly reinforces the already blaring single story about adoption in our culture. Sure, there are many and various stories about adoption and this is just one of them. But this one is the loudest and it drowns out all the rest.
What is a white adoptive parent to do? How can we learn to see perspectives and realities besides our own? It helps to acknowledge that being favored by the loudest story creates deafness to all the other stories. Believe what people say about their own lives, especially when it differs from our perceptions and expectations.
Take turns focusing on the different characters in the film, and imagining how the movie might be different if it had focused specifically on their experiences. Lizzie? Juan? Lita? Their mom Carla? Would the movie still be in contention for heartwarming holiday comedy of the year?
Early in the film, Pete draws this analogy to foster/adopt: “We flip houses. This is what we do. We find things that need fixing and we fix them.” Look and listen for lines and scenes that reinforce Pete and Ellie as hero saints and the children as damaged.
Look for places in the film where minorities perform a nearly magical service for Pete and Ellie. Notice Karen the social worker and Mr. and Mrs. Fernandez who provide the random pep talk. Why are their only roles in service to the white adoptive parents?
Lastly, resist the temptation to villainize anyone who says anything “bad” about adoption. Truly hearing voices and stories that challenge our perceptions takes conscious effort, repeatedly, over time. Cultivate humility, determination, and tolerance for discomfort.