We inch our way through the dark aisles of Movie Tavern, navigating to our assigned seats. This is one of the newer chains near Philadelphia, complete with plush reclining seats and food that is brought to us. My husband, my youngest daughter, my twins and I are seated next to one another. We munch on popcorn and sip on water while watching the trailers and hope the film will soon start.
The movie, Shazam!, is from the DC Universe and about one of the many lesser-known superheroes from that canon. Our motley group comprises our family and a bunch of serious ten-year-old girls with a few additional chaperones. The movie is a part of a birthday celebration for a friend’s child (also adopted). In the regular world, parents do not have to think too much about taking their children to an appropriately-rated movie. But, our family falls outside the bell curve. We are outliers. My husband and I are of Indian origin, our older twins are Caucasian, and our youngest was born to us.
Adoption touches our lives in ways big and small. We agonise over health history and openness. We also take time to think and research before taking our children to the movies. You see, triggers lurk everywhere. A tragic scene that hardly touches a ‘normal’ child could be a trigger for something deeper, a fissure that erupts into a geyser for someone who is dealing with trauma. Adoption is trauma.
I have done my research before the movie, looking up reviews and ensuring that it is appropriate for children. Before picking Shazam!, I had vetoed Dumbo after reading reviews that suggested it could be triggering for children who have experienced loss.
But, nothing had prepared my children or me for the scene where the young child who later transforms into the titular superhero, is separated from his birth mother. His relentless search for her as he shuttles from foster home to foster home, until he lands at a loving group home, and the eventual rejection by his mother have me weeping. Walking out of the movie, I want to ask my children questions about how they feel. I want to hug them, hold them tightly to my bosom and reassure them that it is okay, they are okay. However, it is neither the place nor the time to ask or act.
On the drive home, we mostly speak about how terrifying the villain in the movie was. In the week that follows, the movie and its underlying separation theme work itself into our conversations. Both my twins say they felt an unexplainable sadness during the film and could not understand why the mother rejected her son. They are also not able to verbalise the idea of group homes and the need for foster care. I talk to them during unguarded moments, on our walks, as they dress after their showers, as they eat breakfast. We agree that sometimes it happens that way, and it is not okay.
As a child in India, my exposure to adoption through mainstream entertainment was mostly stereotypical. There were predictable storylines: family saves a child from eventual hardship, adoptee as an adult feels immense gratitude and saves the family that took him in. I grew up thinking that adoption is a noble act, something one does out of the goodness of heart.
As an adult who battled with infertility, my reality has been quite different. Adopting my children saved me. My children gave me a life to look forward to, and I will eternally be grateful to them. I do not ever want them to carry the burden of gratitude, especially over a decision that they had no say in.
As a parent raising children who will one day be adults, I am vigilant about the impact movies and the media can have on impressionable minds. I am insistent on calling out incorrect narratives or interpretations, so they know what they are seeing and hearing is not what it is like in real life. I engage in conversation with them so we can hash these thoughts out and they can develop an attitude of questioning what they see. I hope that as adults, they can have a say in narratives that shape the public’s view of adoption and adoptees.
Some time ago, a friend shared a poignant advertisement for Oppo phones that did the rounds in India last Diwali. She forwarded it to me because she thought I would be moved by the themes of adoption and gratitude. I was stirred alright, but it was for a different reason. I let it sit for a while and realised what had bothered me were the messages carried in its essence — that adoptees need to be grateful and that their birth story is not really theirs. The adoptee is forever a child in the eyes of society. Their agency is taken from them at birth, never really to be reinstated at any point.
Then, there was a comedy sketch, When You’re The Younger Sibling, by Buzzfeed India from December last year in which a girl jokingly tells her sister, “We picked you up from the streets,” a comment on adoption that is commonplace in most Indian families. Most people who have not been touched by adoption will hardly notice it. It is the normalising of this kind of sentiment that stands out for people like me, who live with it each day of our lives. When mainstream media and films normalise the treatment of adoption as the ‘other’, as secondary and inferior to the traditional nuclear family, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes. Despite adoptive parents and advocates raising their voices, Buzzfeed neither took down the video nor did they remove that part.
It makes me wonder what it would be like if the creative heads incorporating themes of adoption into their works actually consulted those people whose lived experiences reflect the reality. Would we still see films, advertisements and memes talking about gratitude? Or would we instead talk about grief, trauma, lack of genetic mirrors, questions of identity, the relentless need to fill the gap that exists about birth families? Would we speak about the stigma, poverty and lack of resources that lead women (and men) to place their children for adoption?
Recently, a news article about an abandoned newborn baby, who was being pursued for adoption by two journalists from Delhi, went viral. On the surface, it is a feel-good story about a couple being moved by a child in distress and fighting red tape to adopt her. But, someone like me looks at that story and wonders how many prospective adoptive families or individuals were waitlisted ahead of the journalist couple. I wonder how this child would feel about her birth story being public knowledge as a grown up. Would she read the comments strangers have left about her birth family and grieve? Would she carry the burden of gratitude for she has been anointed ‘lucky’ by all and sundry? In the news, in movies, in ads, seldom are adopted people given a chance to shape the narrative. They are always a plot point, a convenient device to heighten tension or emotions, or they are an afterthought. Who should tell these stories?
A conversation with an adoptee and friend Rhonda M. Roorda, at an adoption conference, had us talking about the ongoing American drama This Is Us on NBC. She shared that she had been roped in to consult on the series, providing input on the lived experience of a transracial adoptee. Watching the show late one night after the conference, I could see what she meant. The scenes depicting reunions with birth relatives show competing emotions, each at odds with each other. It drives home the truth that there is no one experience that encapsulates what adoption is about.
Watching that show reminded me of our visit to my twins’ birth place. As we sat in the living room of the Airbnb and the birth mother of my children played with our daughters, the feelings ran the gamut from happiness to grief. It was tinged with unfamiliarity, awkwardness and the unyielding truth that this relationship was unnatural.
When shows on TV, movies on the big screen and advertisements on every medium include people whose experiences they portray, it changes the game for all of us. This is what inclusion looks like. This is the ideal we should all aspire to, so that someday my children can walk into the movie theatre and come out with moist eyes, not because they are triggered, but because they feel validated.