The morning after watching Instant Family, I sent this text: “as much as I liked it, it has messed with my head some. I’m a little stabby today.”
Reading online reviews did not help with the stabbiness (let’s be honest–do online reviews ever help?). People were completely divided, and as per Internet social norms, were hiding behind their screens in order to spew their more-or-less extreme points of view regarding the film. Mostly these fell into two broadly defined camps.
A great movie. Heartfelt. Shows the hard sides of foster care and adoption, yet not afraid to laugh. Actors did great. Would watch again with mother-sibling-daughter-BFF.
A politically correct mess. Ungrateful brats. Mom talked over everybody all the time. Parents didn’t even know why they wanted to adopt.
Been there done that
If you are or have been part of a foster or adoptive family, this may all sound kind of familiar, whether or not you’ve seen the film. These two camps represent two of the main ways others respond to our families. We are either heroes or we are demons. Our kids are either survivors or–you guessed it–demons. The way I see it, if the movie looks like a mess to those unfamiliar with our reality, then it’s probably getting something right. All family life is messy. Adoptive family life–at least mine–has a way of becoming its own particular kind of mess.
What Instant Family got right (in no particular order)
(Side note: I doubt it’s a coincidence that Camp 2 saw most of these as flaws.)
Lita, the youngest, screams at the top of her lungs for a significant chunk of her time on screen. Guess what? My eardrums will be glad to inform you that children who have suffered early trauma are totally capable of this. It is horrifyingly real (and not, I might add, “bratty” behavior as our culture typically understands it).
Juan, the middle child, is accident-prone and hypersensitive. He both sobbed over the slightest mistake and literally shot himself in the foot (with a nail gun). I spent most of the movie exclaiming that my youngest was the perfect, terrifying mix of Lita and Juan.
Lizzie, age 15, made me glad we adopted my eldest when she was 6. Even so, we had just about every one of those fights, only milder. I can’t imagine raising a daughter who’d had 9 additional years to harden herself against the world. Wait. Thanks to this movie, I can.
There are days you can’t articulate why you adopted. Heck, you might not even know your own name! There are days when like Pete (the dad, played by Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (the mom, played by Rose Byrne), you want to quit. Those are not good days. Those are not proud days. But they happen. The fact that Instant Family went there may be incomprehensible to some, but it made me believe it that much more.
Of course Ellie talked over everyone. Do you have any idea how hard it is for we foster and adoptive moms to make ourselves heard? By anyone? We spend hours, days, years whispering, then talking, then yelling into the void. We’re fighting for our children’s lives, and it makes us a little crazy that no one seems to hear. It’s no accident that ATN was created by parents who needed a place where they’d be heard.
There were jokes! I know some viewers felt like they were forced, but let me tell you this. We trauma mamas and papas have learned that sometimes, we just have to laugh. Even a forced laugh will do. Otherwise we’ll lose our minds. Pretty much every parent I’ve met on this incredible journey has to some degree developed a marvelously warped sense of humor. Every. Single. One.
So…why did I get a little stabby?
I think it’s because it felt so real. During one of the courtroom scenes, I exclaimed half in tears, “There’s no happy ending for these kids!” My companion, who has not been down this road, was confused. This film is part comedy, after all. I explained: either the birth mom was going to abandon them on the spot…again…or she would regain custody and fail. A big part of me wanted her to succeed, but the movie wasn’t setting things up that way. It was obvious that we’re supposed to root for Pete and Ellie. It’s just that when you’ve seen with your own eyes what can happen to kids who lose their birth parents…
Then there is also this. I’ve been Ellie. My kids have been Lizzy and Juan and Lita. (It’s been a while, if ever, since we had a Pete.) I like remembering our fun and loving moments, our little inside jokes. The rest of it? Not so much.
Finally, there were those online reviews. They get at the heart of what I, as a writer /adoptive mom, want to do. I want to tell our story in all its chaos and all its beauty. I hope families like mine will know that I see and hear them and that they matter. But I also want to write something that helps the rest of the world to see, to believe our stories and believe in us. If I could just tell it right, maybe others would extend a little compassion to hurting families, even a helping hand. Yes, our lives might look like a mess. Perhaps an unreadable mess. But I don’t think they have to be. If Instant Family tells us anything, it’s that there is more to our kids…and us…than that.