I read this statistic, which runs at the end of Barb Lee’s documentary, Adopted (2008), and started counting in my head: ten cousins, two college roommates, one graduate school friend and two colleagues who are adopted, plus four other friends who have adopted children themselves. Two of my sons’ four cousins are adopted. Yes, indeed, I am one of that 60%, and my life is certainly richer for it, but watching Adopted made me think that perhaps I take these riches too lightly.
Adopted tells the story of two families. First we meet Jennifer Fero, a thirty-two year old Korean woman adopted as an infant by an Oregon couple who experienced secondary infertility after having a son; the second storyline follows John and Jacqui Trainer, a New Hampshire couple who decide to adopt from China after their own long struggle with infertility. The two families are at opposite ends of their adoption journeys. Jennifer is finally confronting the grief she has felt her entire life over being given up for adoption, and is pushing her elderly parents to recognize her complicated mix of feelings: gratitude for the family they gave her, sorrow at the family she lost. The Trainers, meanwhile, overflow with optimism as they receive their referral and journey to China to claim their daughter. They acknowledge the losses she has already suffered (first her birth mother, then her Chinese foster mother) but life with their toddler is still simple; “if she has an underlying issue,” John Trainer says, “she’s not making it known.”
It’s not hard to like the Trainers. They’re earnest and loving, somewhat rueful that they couldn’t have biological children — “I thought we’d make great babies,” says Jacqui; “Awesome babies,” amends her husband — but they’re ready to move on. Jacqui was studying up on adoption regulations in different countries, weighing the pros and cons of each, when, Jacqui recalls, John said, “‘Let’s do China,’ and I said, ‘OK.’ It just felt right.” Jacqui is excited but anxious before they travel to China; she feels sad for the birth mother, and acknowledges that her child’s birthday will always be a grieving day for the birth mother. But everything goes well in China, and their daughter, whom they name Roma XinPei, adjusts so well to life in New Hampshire that Jacqui’s collection of books on attachment issues gathers dust: “she’s made it so easy.” Both John and Jacqui acknowledge that more difficult days may come, that she may well face racism in her homogeneous community, that she may still grieve for China, but are confident in how to manage it: “the thing we can do is just give her as much love as possible.”
Jennifer Fero asserts that love is not enough. Her parents, like the Trainers, are well-meaning and kind, and they describe their decision to adopt as lightly as the Trainers chose their adoption country. As Judy tells it, her husband said, “‘Let’s get a baby girl from Holtz [the adoption agency]’ and [she] said, ‘Sounds great!'” Judy still remembers picking their daughter up at the airport more vividly than birthing her son. She sighs, “We’re just a family. After about the first three or four days, she was so much a part of us and has always been, and I never thought of her as anything else but my daughter.” But Jennifer isn’t satisfied with her family’s easy acceptance because, to her, it glosses over the question — one a biological child never has to consider — of why she had to be accepted in the first place. Now faced with Judy’s imminent death from cancer, she’s struggling to deepen their connection.
We see that Jennifer Fero is well-loved; her older brother teases her fondly but also pulls her into a hug and tells the filmmaker, “That’s far enough for her today,” when an interview gets difficult. We see her enveloped in big family gatherings, where she offers her bemused uncle some squid salad, and says lightly, “It’s the food of my people!” And we see that she loves her family deeply, too; she has taken leave from her job to live with her frail parents, cleaning their house and adjusting what she cooks depending on the answer to the question, “How’s your stomach, Mom?” Love isn’t at issue here; it’s never in doubt. As Jennifer says, “People keep asking me what I want in these conversations that people don’t want to have. I want my whole identity, my whole life. It is not rejection of the family, it’s just being authentic and real.” It’s what we all want for ourselves, of course, and while I don’t think Jennifer would claim that adoption makes this impossible, adoption can make this trickier. “Everyone has a birth story, and my birth story starts at the Seattle Airport. My life began before that; why haven’t we talked about that before?” She regrets that the little girl she was didn’t have the words to express her confusion about her adoption, but now she’s grown and articulate, ready to talk. It’s a conversation the Trainers anticipate having with their little girl whenever she is ready.
The couple is full of optimism about what the future holds, yet they can’t help but look a little naive after we’re exposed to Jennifer Fero’s smart, searching questions. It’s unfortunate — we’re all naive about the challenges parenting brings (I don’t think any of us would become parents otherwise!) — but perhaps it’s unavoidable. The film doesn’t emphasize the contrast between the two families, though, and I felt equally compassionate toward them both. So Jennifer remarks of her parents’ reaction to her probing, “They’ve started their journey; they just don’t know it’s their journey yet.” And then the film cuts to the Trainers packing for their quite literal journey, trying to figure out how to fit so much clothing and food into the bags they’re bringing to China. Yet even this act is a little fraught, as Jacqui frets that the clothes won’t fit her daughter, her mother-knowledge “not intimate yet.”
Jennifer’s parents, both suffering from cancer and increasingly frail, allow both the filmmaker’s camera and their daughter to seek this intimacy. Judy Fero, although grateful to Jennifer’s birth mother, doesn’t particularly want to think about her, and admits to no curiosity about her life: “I don’t want to be curious about it,” she finally says, exasperated, “I want you all to myself.” “You’ll actually get more of me,” Jennifer responds, articulating each word slowly and carefully, “if you imagine that I was connected to someone else at one time.” It’s hard to sympathize with Jennifer in scenes like this; her mother is dying and still she pushes. But in the same moment I think, her mother is dying, and she wants to connect. My ambivalence moves me toward more sympathy.
Adopted has made me think differently, more sensitively, about my adoption connections. Before I met my adopted cousins, my family lived in Japan, where I was born, and when my older brother and I squabbled, the worst thing he could say to me was, “We didn’t have you when we came to this country; I’m not sure we’re taking you home.” I would look at his fair hair and delicate features, which, I now see, resemble our grandfather, and would say the meanest thing I could imagine in response: “You don’t look like the rest of us; I think you’re adopted.” I cringe now at the four-year-old version of me who said that; I wonder what stew of fairy tales and Disney even put this negative impression of adoption in my head. When I was a bit older, I “knew better” — I didn’t mention the fact of their adoption with my cousins; most of the time, honestly, I didn’t think about it. But now I realize that wasn’t quite the right response, either. I think about nine year-old Jennifer Fero, who had questions she couldn’t articulate, and little Roma XinPei Trainer, who might grow into some questions of her own, and am grateful for a film that doesn’t try to offer any easy answers, but shows a couple of close families who keep themselves open to whatever questions may come.