More often than not, television, movies, and many novels get adoption wrong.
The entertainment industry takes the easy path cluttered with damaging stereotypes or portrays the experience solely through the viewpoint of one member of a three-part relationship. In the past year alone, I’ve addressed how The Avengers used adoption as the punch-line in a joke and how Glee conveniently ignored adoption laws and practices so the birth parents could attempt to “take back” their child. The worst offender was October Baby, which vilified birth parents, excused atrocious lies by adoptive parents, and suggested adoptees should be grateful, and you know, just get over it.
So it was surprising to find myself watching a television show that actually appears to have given some real thought to getting it right. Last week, I sat down to watch Private Practice (Yes, I watch the show. Reserve your judgment. It now starts Benjamin Bratt, and his beautiful face makes up for any redundant plot, dry dialogue, or yammering platitudes attempting to derive some universal life lesson from the struggles of rich, beautiful, California doctors.)
There’s a reason Miracle on 34th Street is my favorite Christmas movie, y’all. Anyway…..back to the point.
The recent episode, “Apron Strings,” addressed adoption from various angles, and while it wasn’t perfect, I feel that the writers tried to get out of the box. Television and film seem to vacillate between two extremes, either portraying adoption as a source of constant drama or painting it as a perfect institution. Adoption can be beautiful, but it is also bittersweet. For all members of the triad, at times, there’s uncertainty, pain, loss, fear, and doubt. Adoption is a lifelong journey that doesn’t end the moment the baby comes home.
So in this episode, we had…
The Adoptive Parent and Open Adoption
Last season, a main character, Addison, adopted an infant boy after a long struggle with infertility. At the time, as is typical, the show gave little air time to the specifics of the adoption process. Mounds of paperwork and toilet-scrubbing in preparation for home study visits don’t make for good television, apparently. ( I mean, I look amazing while cleaning house, but everyone can’t pull that off. I get it.)
I wasn’t a fan of how the baby basically appeared out of nowhere, as some uninformed individuals are already under the impression that adoptive parents just go to the “baby store” and that adoption is so easy. (Insert violent retching sounds here.) However, the show did reference some preparation and social worker visits, and sometimes, things do move rather quickly. In our case, we submitted paperwork in December and brought Ellie home early the following February. We found out that her mother chose us a few days before she arrived. I’m sure to many of our friends and family, Ellie did seem to appear magically.
In any case, this episode revisits the circumstances of Addison’s adoption of baby Henry when the child’s birth mother, Judy, decides she wants to be part of his life. We learn that Addison agreed to an open adoption (yay!) with monthly visits, but Henry’s mother hasn’t seen him for eight months or so. I LOVED that the show addressed open adoption, which is much more realistic in today’s world and almost always better for the adoptee.
I also appreciated that they mentioned Addison sending regular e-mails and pictures and being open to monthly visits. While many classify their adoptions as open, I think when parties still correspond through the agency, use first names only, and limit visits to once a year or less, that’s semi-open at best. A commitment to true openness needs to reflect trust and effort. Every circumstance is different, and I understand the fears and uncertainties, but adoption openness has been such a positive thing in our lives. Ellie’s birth family and I exchange text messages, e-mails, and phone calls. They visit our home for play dates, and we meet them all over town. We see them every month or so, and we trust them implicitly. Our relationship with her mother is a bit more complicated, to be sure, but we remain committed to as much openness and visitation as works for her.
Overall, they did a fair job of showing some of the fears adoptive parents have in an open relationship. For example, Addison says, “What if she hates me? What if she thinks I’m doing a terrible job?” Later she blathers, “He’s advanced in all milestones, except peek-a-boo, but we’ll get there...” Even now, in my letters to Ellie’s bmom, C., I find myself listing her accomplishments and anecdotes of her brilliance. It’s not that I feel I need to prove anything, but I suppose there is an underlying feeling of wanting C. to think we’re doing a good job.
Of course, I wasn’t a fan of when Addison totally lost it and verbally attacked poor Judy in a highly emotional moment of fear, but considering her character, it was believable. There isn’t a script for interactions, and triad members are human. Adoptive parents make mistakes. Birth parents make mistakes. The point is to keep moving forward.
In the end, Addison apologizes to Judy and asks her to be a part of Henry’s life. The two sit down for pie, and we’re left with the impression that their relationship is going to work.
The Modern Birth Mother and Extended Family
The show did opt for a teenage mother (many women who choose adoption today are in their 30s), but they branched out by bringing her mother into the plot. Adoption doesn’t just affect those immediately involved. Adoptees have grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and other birth family. Those people can experience grief just like the birth mother and father and may want to be part of an open adoption relationship. And really, can there be too many people to love a child?
Ellie’s grandmother, aunts, and cousins are wonderful people, and we’re so blessed to have them in our lives. I look at her aunt and see her smile. I look at her cousins and wonder if she’ll be athletically gifted like them. Ellie will have the comfort of relationships with people who look like her, and any questions she has will have immediate answers.
In this episode, I think they did a particularly good job with the first visitation between Addison and Judy. It was polite, but awkward….both parties nervous and unsure of how things should go. I hurt for Judy as she clearly struggled to find her place. I’m glad the show at least attempted to acknowledge Judy’s loss; she says, “You know that thing where you’re afraid you forgot something? ….All you can think about is that you forgot something. Since I gave Henry to you, I feel like that all the time.”
Judy is portrayed as sweet and loving, but I did get nervous early in the episode when she started coming on strong—asking to visit two days in a row, bringing her mother unexpectedly, showing up unannounced at Addison’s workplace— I thought, “Oh crap. Another Lifetime Original mom snatches adopted baby movie? Great.” It made her seem immature and a little frightening, especially to adoptive parents who may be considering open adoption.
Ellie’s birth family is incredibly considerate. They always schedule visits weeks in advance and let us know ahead of time exactly which family members will be there. At this point, I’d be fine if they brought 72 first-cousins to meet her, but when we were getting to know one another at the beginning of this process, I appreciated their courtesy.
The Adult Adoptee
More often than not, adoption stories involve chubby-cheeked, cuddly babies. But adoptees grow into adults and form their own opinions about their experience. The adult adoptee is rarely heard from in film. While some adult adoptees seek out relationships with their birth families, write about adoption culture, and bravely fight for adoptee rights, others seem to have no interest in that aspect of their lives.
I once worked with a man who said he viewed being adopted no differently than someone who was born by C-section; “it’s just how I came to be with my family.” At the #dotMom conference I attended a few months ago, I heard from a young woman who was adopted internationally as a small child. As part of a panel, she spoke highly of adoption and now works in the field. She said while she respects her birth family, she has no desire to find them. “My parents are my parents,” she said.
I’ve read comments from some bloggers who refer to these adoptees as “drinking the adoption Kool-aid” with the general opinion that their issues just haven’t surfaced yet. But while I relate more to the adoptees who are influenced by and interested in adoption, I don’t think the opinions of the others are less valid. In other words, I don’t think there’s one universally”correct” response for an adoptee.
In this episode, adult adoptee Cooper expresses strong feelings about Addison’s situation. He says, “You don’t give a kid up and then hang around confusing everybody.” Other characters quickly chastise him and express other views. (Granted, he seems to have some anger and unresolved issues early in the episode, and I wonder if the show plans to return to this storyline.) However, near the end, he peacefully explains to his son that while some adoptees want to find their birth parents, he just doesn’t. “Blood doesn’t make a family; love does,” he says, and I do agree with that sentiment.
In perhaps the most heartbreaking story, “Apron Strings” includes the story of Vivian, an elderly woman dying of cancer. We learn that in 1954, during the Baby Scoop Era, Vivian gave birth to a baby at age 15 in a Catholic maternity ward. Her child-like voice breaking in pain, she shares that she never got to hold the child as her mother told the nurses to take the baby away. “I had a baby, and they took her away from me.”
The Baby Scoop era was the time between 1945- 1972 in which maternity homes heavily coerced mothers into closed, stranger adoptions. With the sealed record laws of most states, many adoptees and birth mothers remain unable to locate one another.
It’s clear that even though Vivian became a successful surgeon, she suffered unspeakable loss. Before her death, she narrates a beautiful letter to Addison, who promises to find her child. I’m putting the clip here.
And while it breaks my heart, I think the show made a wise choice to show Judy sobbing in the background as Addison rocks Henry. The mother who makes an adoption plan for her baby doesn’t love any less than the woman who chooses to parent. She selflessly makes what she hopes is the best decision, sacrificing her own desires and instincts for her child. Vivian says, “You didn’t have one mother; you had two.” As an adoptive parent, it’s my job to honor and respect my child’s other mother.
Overall, I think the episode did a good job of showing that many different people are affected by adoption in many different ways. If you caught the episode, I’d love to know your thoughts.