Thursday, February 14, 2019

Reflections on Instant Family

I finally got around to seeing Instant Family and I thought it was a good blend of accuracy and humor in portraying what foster-adoptive families experience.

Rather than give a complete plot summary, here are some scenes and themes I’d like to share which stood out to me in particular, as someone who has fostered and adopted children through the foster care system:

Fantasy Children vs. Reality Children- In a training class prior to becoming licensed foster care providers, members of the class were asked to do an exercise in which they drew their “fantasy” children on a chalkboard.  The social workers teaching the class instructed the foster parents in training to immediately erase their envisioned fantasy children and to prepare themselves for whatever comes next.

I think the theme of expectations versus reality is a universal one that almost anyone can relate to.  Sometimes the most difficult thing to do in life is to let go of our expectations, relinquish any perceived control of how we think things should turn out and accept- or make the best out of- what actually comes our way.

When applying the concept of control and predictability to fostering, I think many foster families or pre-adoptive couples may be set on only fostering or adopting children who are a certain age or gender (Or in the case of the movie’s character October, are looking specifically for a black, male, athletically inclined child who can get a full football scholarship, reminiscent of The Blindside).  It can be difficult to try to broaden preferences at the risk of getting out of one’s comfort zone and venturing into the unfamiliar.  However, Pete & Ellie did just that as they inquired about a teenager available for adoption- something Ellie initially openly verbalized against doing.

Foster Parents Supporting Each Other- The best source of support is someone who has been through the same thing or been in a similar situation; Therefore, I think that the best source of support and understanding for foster parents are other foster parents! 

Throughout the movie, Pete & Ellie meet in an adoption support group with other couples and individuals.  Although each couple’s reasons for wanting to pursue foster adoption was unique: some felt “called”, others were struggling with infertility, another couple was gay and thus couldn’t procreate, they all shared the desire to welcome children into their families.  It was humorous when the gay couple commented something to the effect of, “We’ve been trying to conceive for years with no success!”

I was particularly touched in one scene towards the end of the movie as the adoptive families had shared their personal struggles with each other and got to know each other better, when the gay couple announced to the group that their upcoming adoption would be official and the first people to go up and hug them was a conservative Christian couple, whom at the beginning of the training, showed through their body language, disapproval or discomfort about the gay couple adopting.

Once we take the time to get to know each other, it becomes evident that we all have more in common than we don’t have in common.

The Honeymoon Period- Speaking of holding on to a sense of “control” or predictability, I think some parents are under the false impression that if kids are well-behaved or turn out all right, then it is a direct reflection on their competency as a parent or caretaker.  Wrong! 

Pete & Ellie entered one of their support meetings with an attitude of “Hey- We have this under control- the kids aren’t acting out.  Things aren’t so bad!” and the other more experienced foster parents in the room were laughing or had smirks on their faces because likely, they had experienced the phenomenon referred to as “The honeymoon period” in which everything seems peachy-dandy with a placement.  The reality, however, is that a foster child’s behavior has less to do with structure and discipline of the home or parenting style, but everything to do with a mode of survival. 

Most people would think ‘It’s great that these kids aren’t acting out!” and admittedly, that is much easier than the alternative and it makes for a much more peaceful environment.  But it’s actually when the child starts acting out that they feel safe enough to do so.       
I recall the shock my husband and I went through when the honeymoon period ended with our first placement, who was typically a delightful preschooler.  When, after about three weeks of being in our home, he started being less delightful and talking back and complaining, we were worried.  I believe it was another more experienced foster parent that explained to us, even though it was hard, “That’s actually a good thing- he feels safe enough to be himself without the fear of any harsh consequences!”

Parentification- It was obvious that Lizzie, the oldest child of the sibling group Pete & Ellie were fostering, had taken upon herself the role of “parent” to her younger brother and sister, Juan and Lita.  It was interesting to observe the struggle it was for Lizzie to give up that parenting role and let her foster parents take over, especially when she knew her siblings better than Pete & Ellie did.  Equally of interest to observe was the conflict of loyalty Ellie felt with letting her foster mom be a “mother” to her without somehow betraying her own mother.

Ongoing Struggles with Adopted Children- I was very touched by the guest speaker the social workers invited to speak at one of the trainings the adoptive couples went through at the beginning of their training.  Brenda was an articulate and inspiring young woman who had a history of neglect and abuse, including being traded to her mom’s drug dealers for drugs, if I remember correctly. 

Brenda was accompanied to the meeting by her adoptive parents and spoke to the class about what it meant to her to be adopted as a teenager after spending years in foster care.  This young woman was so inspiring and I think that sometimes adoptive parents are under the impression that ‘There’s nothing LOVE can’t fix!” and that once a child is adopted it’s going to be the beginning of happily ever after.  The reality is that adoption does not erase the early experiences and traumas that a child had been through.  Neither will adoption erase a child’s genetics or predispositions. 

Later in the movie when Pete & Ellie are going through a rough patch with their teenage foster daughter, Lizzie, they seek out Brenda’s adoptive parents for some hopeful advice and direction. It was heartbreaking to hear Brenda’s adoptive mom share that her daughter was back in rehab when Ellie asks where she is. But I loved the mom’s retort to Ellie’s disappointment (the slap in the face was unexpected and humorous as well)!  Like a protective and loving Mama Bear, Brenda’s mom says something to the effect of “But look at where she came from and how far she’s come!”  A great reminder that unless we’ve been in someone else’s shoes we have no right to judge.  It’s also a good reminder that, as I mentioned earlier, no matter how stellar a parent is, adoption does not erase a child’s predispositions or former traumas.  This can be particularly frightening to accept when a baby or child is born addicted or exposed to drugs as addiction has such a strong genetic component, as well as when there is severe mental illness on one or both sides of a child’s family lines.

Conflicting Feelings About Birthparents- This is such a real struggle for foster parents!  Honestly, it’s one of the hardest things, other than the grief of reunifications, that I’ve had to deal with while fostering. 

At one point in the movie’s storyline, foster mother Ellie says to her husband, “She looks so normal.” regarding their foster children’s mother when they meet for a visit.  Ellie recognizes that their mom is just that- a mom who loves her children.  Yet it’s hard to think of someone who would endanger their children as “normal” or sometimes, even deem them worthy of having a relationship with their children.  After all, this woman set the children’s home on fire from a lit crack pipe!

But behind someone’s criminal history or case file is a person.  It’s harder to judge someone when you look them in the eyes and meet them in person.  I also think it was telling that the children’s biological mother was also a product of the foster care system as one of the caseworkers remarked, “She never learned how to appropriately care for her children.”

In another support group meeting Rose confesses to feeling guilty for wanting her kid’s biological mother to fail- especially after all of the work she and her husband have gone through to care for these children and open up their home to them.  I’ve been there and have felt guilty for thinking the exact same thing.  It’s such a difficult task as a foster parent to recognize that family preservation is the goal while also noting, “Look at what these kids have been through and look at the life we could give them!”

Overall, I would highly recommend the movie Instant Family to anyone over 13 (the PG-13 rating was appropriate) and I am grateful that the director chose to draw on his life’s experiences to highlight the crucial, yet often overlooked issues of fostering and foster care adoption.