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POV on PBS: “Off and Running”

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Mondays this month of September, 2010, PBS is airing adoption-themed programs on Point of View (POV). The first was named “Off and Running” and is the story of an AfricanAmerican girl adopted by a single white mother who later joined with another single white adoptive mother of a bi-racial boy; still later they brought a Korean boy into their family unit in New York City.  Avery, the protagonist / adopted person and her brothers are being raised in a Jewish home, attending Hebrew school.  In her search for identity, Avery has developed her athletic ability and wins at track meets; she is often the only African American in her social group, but begins to meet others at her track meets. 

When Avery begins to ask questions only her birth mother can answer,  Avery reaches out through the adoption agency to establish contact by letter with her birth mother; this brings more questions for Avery to ask. Alas, her birth mother slows in answering more letters.  Neither of Avery’s adoptive moms recognizes Avery’s need to question in order to understand herself. Instead, the adoptive mothers turn inward and express inadequacy, suggesting to Avery that she has been ‘too intense’ in her questions.

Through years of advocating for communication in adoption, I have heard the complaints of adoptive parents who faithfully send photos and letters to the birth mother, then express anger at the birth mother who does not respond. It has puzzled me, too, so I have asked birth mothers why they stop writing. More often than not, I get an answer that shows they too are stuck in their emotions. Seeing their child happy relieves the guilt but also triggers the recognition that they are missing out on significant moments of the child’s life. “It feels different from what I imagined it would.” Many of the birth mothers feel inadequate to explain their emotions on paper; they may not have a comparable level of education to that of the adoptive parents. Some birth mothers have not had cameras to record their other children’s early years. They measure themselves against the adoptive parents and come up short in their own minds and believe they have much less to give to their child.  The birth mother does not recognize that her gift of life is truly the beginning of what she has to offer her child.

Adoptive parents often misinterpret this as lack of contact as lack of caring. They turn in their unresolved grief and snap at the adopted person: After all I’ve done for you, you want to hear from HER? The one who didn’t want you in the first place?

Unresolved grief on the part of all sides of the adoption is, in my opinion, at the root of the misunderstandings. Seldom do two people (let alone the constellation of people involved in an adoption) reach the same level of understanding at the same time. We as adoption educators are unable to prepare adoptive parents and birth parents for this part of their future; our initial contact is focused on how to handle the information when the child is small.  We give book lists to suggest ways to educate themselves.

Thankfully, there are books to help adopted teens cope with the search for self.   EMK Press has “Pieces of Me:  Who Do I Want to Be?” edited by Robert Ballard, composed of art work and writings of teen adopted people.  “Kimchi or Calimari” is a novel by Rose Kent for teens wherein a Korean adoptee struggles to feel a part of his very Italian adoptive family.  Surely if we can expect a pre-school child to understand the metaphor of a baby bird that falls out of its nest and gets carried to another bird family on the back of the Wise Old Owl (in “The Mulberry Bird: An Adoption Story” by Anne Braff Brodzinsky and Diana L. Stanley) we can count on a teen to read a book about another teen struggling with his cultural identity issues and make the leap that these questions that Avery asks are normal. 

And isn’t ‘normalizing’ adoption one of the gifts we as adoption educators can give to our worried clients?  I look forward to the next installments of POV this month!

Movie Review: Mother and Child. Written and Directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

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I wanted to see Mother and Child a second time before writing about the movie, to test my memory before recording my observations here.  I got so much out of the post-movie discussion with my friend Linda after seeing the movie once, that I wanted to see and discuss the movie a second time in the company of other friends, some of whom are birth mothers, to get their unique take on it.  We planned a party; six of us would attend the movie together, and discuss it over lunch.  Alas, it had too short a run in Phoenix!  We missed it by one day. 

From interviews on NPR with writer/director Rodrigo Garcia and from the website for the movie, I knew that the writer started out to make a movie about relationships of longing, not necessarily an adoption movie.  After interviewing a few birth mothers and adopted persons, as well as adoptive mothers who longed for a child to love, he knew that in adoption, he’d found a subset of relationships to highlight the soul’s longing for its own missing piece. 

The end result — though Mr. Garcia probably didn’t intend for it to be — amounts to a visual demonstration of the changes in adoption practice over the last forty years.  This feat of showing change is accomplished by juxtaposing three characters and their stories: a grown birth mother, an adult adoptee and a prospective adoptive mom.  

Karen (Annette Bening) is a frustrated fifty-ish, never-married woman who fantasizes about the daughter she placed for adoption when she herself was 14.  As the daughter’s 37th birthday approaches, Karen tells her elderly mother of the impending birthday.  Her mother looks at her daughter with a blank stare, reflecting the societal judgment common to birth mothers in the years of adoption secrecy.  Karen turns to her constant companion, a notebook where she records her thoughts in a never-ending Dear Diary entry to her absent daughter.  At work as a physical therapist at a Los Angeles nursing home, she notices and is noticed by a newly hired physical therapist, widowed Paco (Jimmy Smits) whose efforts to befriend her are rebuffed by Karen’s extreme over-reactions.  Karen, at this stage of the movie, is stuck at 14 in her emotional development, a not-uncommon side effect I have observed in some teen pregnancies.  Karen’s transformation to adulthood gives the actor a wide swing of character development, which she does with believable grace and ease.  As her relationship with Paco grows, he encourages her to begin a search for her daughter.  With Paco at her side, Karen cautiously approaches the adoption agency that took her baby for placement, where Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones) explains that she can write a letter to her daughter to be placed in the file. If her daughter contacts the agency, she will be given the letter; otherwise, the case cannot be opened.   Karen hesitates (also a true-to-life reflection of beginning searchers). The significance of the support she gains from Paco helps Karen in her evolution, and allows Jimmy Smits to show a rare soft side of the masculine role in the adoption community.  By the time she does bring her letter to the agency, a mature Karen is ready to face the future. 

The second story line involves Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) as an aloof, self-assured attorney interviewing for a job with the head of a large law firm (Samuel L. Jackson as Paul) in her home town of Los Angeles.  When he asks for details about her personal life, she tells him her father died when she was young, she has no current relationship with her mother; she is adopted and therefore knows nothing about her background.  In a twinkling, she reveals just enough for the viewer to suspect she is the daughter born to Karen.  She soon reveals a flip side to her over-bearing professionalism, as she revels in vindictive sexual promiscuity (another legacy of the secrecy era of adoption: the adoptee with no information may assume her mother was ‘of loose morals’ and therefore, follows suit). Nearing her 37th birthday, Elizabeth decides to start a search for her birth mother.  She visits the adoption agency, where Sister Joanne tells her, as she told Karen, to write a letter to go into her file.  “It works!”  Sister Joanne insists; indeed, as an adoption agency worker for 30 years, I can confirm that such letters can lead to matches!  When Elizabeth returns to the agency, a different worker accepts her letter.   And again, I can confirm that the matching of letter to file is an art that sometimes stumbles, as the process does in this story where a misfiled letter causes a delay that is significant to the plot.

The third story line, the adoptive mother’s longing for a baby to love, is shown through the character of Lucy (Kerry Washington), who with her husband Joseph (David Ramsey) interviews with Sister Joanne to discuss their need for a child to love.  Sister Joanne sets up a meeting between Lucy and Joseph and a 20 year old pregnant woman, Ray (Shareeka Epps) who is searching for the right family to raise her unborn baby.  At her bakery, Lucy is badgered by her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) who struggles to accept this new style of adoption.  Nevertheless, the mother pulls it together to become her daughter’s main support as she faces the unknown future.  Ray is clear, when they meet, that this is serious business:  she will pick them only if Lucy answers her pointed questions truthfully.  Lucy has been carefully framing her demeanor to help them get a baby; finally she drops the effort to make Ray like her, and answers with the bald truth.  The couple leaves the interview sure they’ll not be chosen, but a call from Sister Joanne soon informs them that Ray has chosen them to be parents for her unborn child and invites them to the hospital for the delivery. 

What follows weaves these three stories into one, reflecting the serendipity of life.  Race and ethnicity is an unspoken theme in this movie and, as one reviewer has noted, the movie weaves white, Hispanic and African-American characters without joke or innuendo and (to that reviewer) is ‘the elephant in the room.’  To the contrary, it seems to me that this movie accurately reflects today’s melded communities and models tolerance in a positive way.  Indeed, acceptance of difference, whether race, personality, aptitude or attitude, is integral to the world of adoption.  

To prepare for writing this review, I read other posted reviews of Mother and Child.  Most negative reviews were penned by males who decry the piteous, thin portrayals of men in the movie and declare this a ‘chick flick’ thereby dismissing the power of the issue of adoption.  Indeed, if I were to make changes to the characters portrayed, I would have fleshed out the role of Joseph, who states:  “Lucy, I don’t want to do this; I want a child of my own.”  I would have stuck with Joseph until he discovers, much to his amazement and to his wife’s relief (and like many couples I’ve worked with), that he is up to the task of loving a child not born of his blood line.  And, we don’t need another adoption movie with a prospective father who, like Jason Bateman’s character in Juno, bails out of the adoption, pre-placement!

One more thing about the way the movie looks on screen:  the colors are muted, the sets seem to be real places, the over-all feel is one of authenticity.  The dulling effect is subtle, and contrasts with the highly emotional issues dealt with in the movie.  This is Los Angeles without the glitter; it is the busy ‘burbs without adornment.  None is needed.  The issues are real.  Rodrigo Garcia has, I believe, accomplished his goal of making us aware longing for ‘the other’ of these relationships. 

I still wish to see the movie a second time, and it is unfortunate that this appears to be a movie with limited distribution.  I pledge to post the DVD release date on my blog when I learn it.  When the DVD comes out, I know there will be a screening party with friends, colleagues and adoption circle members – including birth fathers, adopted men, as well as adoptive fathers and significant others.    I invite readers to hold your own screening parties and share your impressions here.  If you write about this movie on another blog, let me know and I’ll cross-reference-link to your blog.  We’d better plan a late night for our screening parties; there will be lots to talk about when the movie ends!