The PBS show Point of View aired the documentary “Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy” by Stephanie Wang-Breal about a New Jersey family adopting an eight year old from China. I thought the documentary was fascinating and provocative. I thought the comments and internet chatter about this film were even more fascinating and provocative. Unlike many commentators, I am not so quick to judge the family or the film.
Donna and Jeff Sadowsky had two teen sons by birth and a 3 year old daughter adopted at 14 months from China. The documentary starts pre-adoption when they have decided to adopt an eight year old Chinese girl, Fang Sui Yong, with a repaired club foot and unspecified disabilities to her arms (the Chinese doctors called her condition “dropped wrists”). Fang Sui Yong was abandoned at age 4, and as is the case with many Chinese orphans with special needs, she was being raised in a foster home rather than an orphanage.
First, I should say that I am grateful to the Sadowskys for allowing this documentary to be made. Apparently they thought about the decision to be involved for many months before agreeing. I can understand their hesitancy. Films, including documentaries, tell the story that the filmmaker wants to tell, which is always only part of the story, and may well not be the part that the subjects would want to tell. Many many hours of film are recorded and the filmmaker cuts out most of it leaving only the parts that make their point. It takes guts to allow your life to become the subject of someone else’s story, and I appreciate their bravery.
The focus of Wang-Breal’s documentary was on the transformation of Fang Sui Yong to Faith Sadowsky and the resultant losses and gains. I think she did a masterful job portraying the difficulties of incorporating an older child into the family without a common language. By the time a child is four or five, we mostly parent through language, and the child mostly interacts with their environment and parents through language. Without a common language, we have to revert to an earlier way of parenting, and the child has to revert to a younger form of behavior. It is awkward for both parent and child. This film captured that awkwardness well.
The film also portrays well the tone deafness of the Chinese adoption workers when introducing Fang Sui Yong (now known as Faith) to Donna for the first time. “Tell your momma you love her”?!? Faith doesn’t even know this stranger, how can she love her? Who does it benefit to have this rote phrase repeated as if the child is a trained animal? Certainly not Faith and certainly not Donna. “You are now Faith. When your momma calls you Faith, you answer.” “Here’s all your things from your foster home–doll and hair clips” said while shoving everything into a plastic bag. There is likely no great way to pull a child away from everything she has ever known and thrust her into a new life and new identity, but clearly this wasn’t the best way. Donna alone seemed to grasp that this meeting was traumatic to Faith and alone seemed to have empathy for her.
I was very impressed that Donna ignored the Chinese authority’s admonition to not contact the foster family. Perhaps she didn’t know that she wasn’t supposed to contact them or perhaps she just ignored that advice. She may well have felt a little threatened by Faith’s obvious love for her foster family, but she put Faith’s needs above her fears. I wanted her to ask the foster parents more questions that would help her get to know Faith better in order to aid her transition to her new life. Maybe this happened off camera. I hope so. (We have a list of questions to ask foster parents at our site.) What clearly did happen was setting the stage for maintaining contact with this important part of Faith’s life, which is no small feat.
I am curious what type of preparation Donna and Jeff received about older child adoption and what type of support they received when they returned home. From experience, I know that no amount of pre-adoption education can fully prepare you for the reality, but it can help you keep things in perspective by reminding you that the feelings both you and your child are having are normal. It seems that the Sadowskys could have used this perspective.
I, as well as most viewers I’m sure, cringed at the scenes of Donna reviewing English flashcards over and over with Faith while still in China. Faith quickly bores with repeating the names of strange foods (hamburger, salad, bagel). Donna, no doubt feeling anxious about the lack of a common language and wanting to speed the process of being able to communicate, gets irritable. I so wanted to take her aside and tell her that these early days together could be much better spent just enjoying and getting to know her daughter through shared experiences. First, nouns are not taught best through flashcards. The important nouns will be picked up quickly through living. Within seconds a child will learn the word for ice cream or ball when shown the real thing. Second, nouns are not what Faith and Donna will really need to communicate. The important language of relationships can’t be learned through flashcards and can’t be learned quickly. Better this time be spent enjoying each other, learning Faith’s likes and dislikes, and having Faith teach Donna some Chinese.
Once home, Donna’s anxiety about Faith’s lack of language continues. Three weeks home, she complains that Faith is “not trying” to learn English, when clearly the child is doing the best she can. Within the first month, the film shows Donna telling Faith on a number of occasions that she must tell her how she feels; when it is totally unrealistic to expect this degree of fluency from Faith at this early stage. Donna uses far too many words when talking with Faith, with the hope that more words will mean more understanding. She rejects the idea of hiring a translator because she fears Faith will “use it as a crutch”.
I think the film portrays accurately some of the typical bumps when incorporating an older child into a family. Life is topsy-turvy and each family member is thrown off kilter. Older brother Jared (was I the only one who found him to be totally charming—I just wanted to hug him every time he appeared on screen) worries about Faith; Dara, the three year old, struggles with negotiating a new sibling relationship; Jeff, the dad, wants everything to calm down; Donna is stressed with her new daughter’s “hissy fits”, sibling rivalry between her girls, Faith’s apparent lack of work ethic, and adjustment to life with four kids. That is the reality of new adoptive parenting in all its ugly glory. It’s messy and painful, and it gets better.
I am surprised by the harshness of the criticism of the family and especially of Donna. Yes, they could have done a better job during this transition period. Most of us could. But most of us don’t have our less than stellar moments at one of life’s most stressful times of captured on film, which allows us the luxury of amnesia. I chuckled when Donna walks into the “apology trap”. Oh come on, we’ve all been there even though we know the futility. I remember well one face off.
On one side of the ring –Mom, 30 something, armed with more degrees than you can shake a stick at (including one in early childhood education), and mad as hell.
On the other side of the ring –Child, 3 years old, armed with a will made of iron, and mad as hell.
Me: Say you’re sorry.
Me: I mean it. Say…you’re…sorry!!
Child (with a gleam in her eye because victory is near): “I’m sorry. (Said with a tone that is practically screaming “Screw you!!!!!!!!!!”)
Me (in utter frustration and disbelief that I walked into this trap, and totally unable to extricate myself, so I might as well complete the humiliation): That doesn’t count; you have to say it like you mean it.
Thank goodness no one was filming.
Faith is a spunky child with a healthy mix of caring, sweetness, laziness, obstinacy, and silliness. She was raised from age 4 to 8 in a loving foster home and was adopted by a lovingly imperfect family. It is no surprise that 1 ½ years later, she is thriving. I felt a mixture of feelings at the end. I was happy and not surprised that this family traversed the early transitional bumps and came out on the other side with love and adjustment. But I was sad that Faith no longer was able to communicate with her foster family. Again, commentators seem to feel that the family should have prevented Faith from losing the Chinese language. Ah, if only it were so easy to do. The film implied that the Sadowskys enrolled Faith in Chinese school or in a martial arts class with a Cantonese speaking teacher. They may have made other attempts to maintain her fluency in Chinese. The line of how hard to push language is hard to find. It simply isn’t that easy unless the child is totally motivated and very few 9 years have that motivation.
I felt the part of the film with psychologist and adult adoptee (adopted from Hong Kong) Dr. Amanda Baden could have been introduced better. Were the Sadowskys consulting with her about a particular problem or just general advice? I know it is the way the film was edited, but I have a particular problem when anyone talks about all adoptees experiencing something (loss, cultural confusion, gratitude, etc). I know from interviewing many adult adoptees and from reading the available research that adoptees are not a homogenous group. Blanket statements are useless.
I enjoyed “Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy”. It wasn’t a feel good movie, but it was a realistic movie that made a very specific and fairly limited point. I was left wondering what can be done to help Chinese foster families adopt and what can be done to help better prepare children, families, and the Chinese adoption authorities for older child adoptions.
To read another good review of “Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy”, go to China Adoption Talk. I love her blog in general and appreciated her take on this movie and the subsequent Q & A with the filmmaker.
Image credit: Steve Woolf
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ArtLoveLife: Keep in mind that this family adopted an 8 year old. While adopting an older child can be wonderful, it is a different experience than adopting an infant or baby.
None of us is perfect. This film is a good example of the fairly typical adjustments when adopting an older child that doesn’t speak the language of the family. There is much we can learn from what the Sadowskys did that we could improve and some that we should emulate.
Dear Adoption Advocate: And to think that all along I thought I was hard hitting. Now I find out I’m just a pansy _ss. RATS. I’d much rather be hard hitting.
I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think the Sadowsky family is a lot like most families–they did lots right and some wrong. Fortunately, kids don’t require perfection to grow and flourish. It’s a darn good thing too!
The thing that stuck out to me the most was the relationship with the foster family and how the loss of Faith’s Cantonese spoke volumes to them. The statd she needed to learn her Chinese.
It focused me on the issue with my ongoing contact with my son’s foster family in Guatemala. He came home before he was 2, but understood Spanish. I knew enough to get us through the first few weeks and months as needed and thankfully for us, his foster family speaks English. but our times talking are a sturggle to find the simple words to explain what we are saying and I lapse back to English very quickly. This scene with the foster family and Faith has really galvanized me to get my son and I in Spanish classes as soon as possible as we prepare to travel back to Guatemala to see his foster family. I woul like for him to have the ability to speak with them – even simple sentences – without it being in English.
Malinda, you raise an interesting point about language. I strongly encourage all adoptive parents to learn the language of the child they are adopting (assuming it is not English) regardless of the age of the child, but especially if the child is verbal. However, it is one thing to learn the rudimentary language necessary for basic communication (Are you hungry, what do you want to eat, put on your seat belt, I love you, I’m sorry, etc), and another entirely to learn a language well enough to communicate on a deeper level and certainly on an emotional level. (Tell me what’s wrong, why are you crying, you need to share that toy with your sister because we only have one and it’s the rule of our house, you can have a turn after your sister has had a turn, I know your sad and confused and scared, etc). It is unrealistic to achieve this degree of fluency for most parents, especially in a language as hard to learn as Chinese.
I have no idea how much Mandarin Donna and Jeff learned since this was not shown by the filmmaker. There were certainly times when Donna could have tried to talk with her in Chinese and she didn’t. Obviously Faith understood some Mandarin. The parents should have tried their best to communicate with Faith any way they could and basic Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese) would have helped. But even if they had studied Chinese for a year pre adoption, I doubt they would have been able to have a conversation with her about what she was feeling and how they could do to make her feel better. Sometimes you just have to intuit things and just patiently be there through the pain.
Jennifer, thanks so much for reminding us that we can buy the film! I can’t believe that I left that part off. I would have to have the filmmaker and the production companies permission to post it on our site, since it is their property. I suppose I could ask. Does anyone have any contact information? Send it to me at dawn @ creatingafamily.org.
Randi, I don’t disagree that they could have done a better job. There were points where I wanted to reach through the screen and talk with them. However, I suspect that someone following any one of us around with a camera would find moments where we all could have improved. I’m not necessarily being critical of the filmmaker because I think that it’s inevitable that she is selecting footage to make a point.
Thank you for your compassion. I’ve read a number of reviews of this documentary, which I wathced last night. They all seemed to know the answers, but here you are as an expert admitting that it isn’t all that clear. I feel better knowing that I don’t have to be perfect. I read your recent blog on Life’s Guarantees (Or Lack Thereof) about parenting as well. I like your approach and your humor. thank you. BTW, we are adopting a son, age 9.
This is the best review of this documentary I’ve read. Thanks.
What is it like to be torn from your Chinese foster family, put on a plane with strangers and wake up in a new country, family and culture? Stephanie Wang-Breal’s Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy is the story of Fang Sui Yong, an 8-year-old orphan, and the Sadowskys, the Long Island Jewish family that travels to China to adopt her.
I can’t believe you went that easy on the film and the family. I thought you would be all over them. They didn’t follow the advice you give in your book on transitioning home or the advice you give on your show. I love you show and we download it to our ipods each week and then sometimes talk about it between us. That’s why this review surprised me. You are way too nice, although I wouldn’t call you a pansy _ss.
So easy for people to be Thursday’s afternoon quarterbacks, isn’t it. I haven’t seen the documentary and not sure I am up to fielding the 80 million questions the kids might have or deal with the equally likely “Mum, this is boring, can’t we watch a movie instead” while watching it.
I agree with Dawn that movie maker was working an angle and that the viewers are seeing only part of what went on. I would hesitate making sweeping generalization about the adoptive parents.
And as a person who has adopted older and internationally, I would do some of it differently if I had to do it again. I’m sure the parents of Faith have their own regrets.
Lain- As the parent of four, I would absolutely do a few things differently. Who wouldn’t with the benefit of hindsight? The funny thing is that we don’t know how things would have turned out if we did things differently. With that new hindsight, we might decide that the way we first did things was the best way. (Boy, that was a convoluted statement.) I’m curious, what would you do differently?
Lain- As the parent of four, I would absolutely do a few things differently in parenting them. Who wouldn’t with the benefit of hindsight? The funny thing is that we don’t know how things would have turned out if we did things differently. With that new hindsight, we might decide that the way we first did things was the best way. (Boy, that was a convoluted statement.) I’m curious, what would you do differently?
We haven’t adopted and in fact are just beginning to think about it. I watched this film when you posted the link because I thought it would be a good introduction to adoption. I thought this family showed a great deal of love for Faith and it was inspiring. Then I read all these comments and feel kind of depressed. What I thought was a wonderful example of loving adoption lots of people think is a disaster. I’m not sure I could have done any better so maybe I shouldn’t even try.
The only reason I chose to focus on the language aspect is because I adopted my daughter through Foster Care which is different than international which is different from domestic infant adoption so I’m not going to judge the family’s intentions….we all have made our mistakes and I’m glad we could see this documentary.
Ok I need to make one comment on the language deal!
I am not a native English speaker. I spoke another language for 6 years of my life before beginning first grade (ah those days where most kids didn’t go to Kinder LOL)
When you are ESL it is COMMON for your first language to go by the wayside for a few years. You will neither be strong in your first language nor your second language for about 2-4 years and then things change. I am now very fluent in English and also in my native tongue, but if you would have heard a tape of me at age 8/9 my English sounded ESLish and my 1st language was almost non-existent
so I find all the comments about shaming the Sodowsky (sp?) family about her first language to be very misleading about how language developement takes place when you introduce another language that young. And now I’m a speech therapist so there ya go….language development is my passion.
I can’t believe you of all people let this family off with such a pansy _ss review. They did nothing right and you should have taken them to the rail on this.
I watched this film and have been following the comments here and on your Facebook page. As a mom of a child adopted at 9, I’m not so quick to judge or throw stones. I think the family did an OK job. As you said Dawn, it’s a messy process and this shows it in it’s “ugly glory”.
I agree with Amy & Kathleen, but won’t belabor the points they’ve made!
On the mom-speaking-Chinese front? Yes, I’ve also heard that mom learned Mandarin, not Cantonese, and agree with Kathleen’s point that a teeny bit of research would have had her learning Cantonese.
But the filmmaker, who did the translating, only speaks Mandarin! How is it her Mandarin was sufficient to speak to Faith, but mom’s wasn’t . . . .
While they will only be streaming “Wo Ai Ni Mommy” for a few months, you can purchase the DVD on PBS’s website.
Here is a link to purchase the documentary DVD: http://www.woainimommy.com/buy.php
I’m not super technologically savey, but I’m sure once you own the DVD, it would be possible to upload it to your site somehow Dawn.
I do think there were a lot of mistakes made, but better to learn from others mistakes than repeat them. As I’ve already mentioned, along with Dawn, Kathleen, and Amy, I think actually being able to -see- the process is an instrumental learning tool.
Dawn, we just simply disagree. Do I think Donna was being intentionally hurtful or ugly? No. I think she was determined to parent this older child exactly the same way she parented her bio and infant adopted children. IT IS NOT THE SAME. Have I made mistakes, of course. I can clearly remember after Jessica had been home about 1 1/2 years a time when her punishment was going to her room (by this time she was going to her room alone – previously she was sent to her room as punishment with ME laying on the bed beside her (eyes close) as she had her fit…ohhh good times ;-). But I was angry and instead of just putting her in her room I closed the door. Her fit changed, you could hear her anger become sobs, more pleading, anguished, heart breaking sorrow…a bit the way Faith was sobbing alone by the car. I made a big and clear mistake, she was not ready for that type of separation yet. What I did in anger was wrong, what I did in response was scoop up this child, not walk away. Would I have wanted a film crew there?…no, but I didn’t invite them in.
There are things I don’t fault Donna for – she did try to learn Mandarin before she went to China – her daughter spoke Cantonese…while she claims her agency (the same one I used) didn’t tell her this, it would only have take a tiny bit of research to find out that her daughter lived in a Cantonese speaking province. We knew very little Mandarin (go to bathroom, are you hungry, yes, no, thank you…those type of things) it is not as important as you would imagine if you willing to “listen” to your child…something Donna was not doing as she continued to declare “I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me”. If you use a gentle tone your child will “listen” to you as well. I’m not a big advocate of getting a translator. For us, our daughter refused to speak to strangers in China anyway. Very well meaning people would try to speak with her in Chinese and got nothing back.
I think meeting the foster family in China was very brave. We did that – it is scary. In our case our daughters foster family was a very high ranking person and that added to our stress but it was important for Jess to see that her foster parents were OK with us well. It eased the transition as I am sure it did for Faith.
I think we saw a good example of the lesson you were teaching your daughter (natural consequences) in the “marker argument” between Faith and her mother. Clearly you had not seen what happened before but Mom was rightly standing her ground and giving alternatives…you can use crayons or pencils, not markers. Bravo. Faith is clearly acting out in anger not heartbreak.
So while I think she did some things right – I couldn’t imagine a better example of how not handle most of the early transition. And for that reason I STILL believe this will be a valuable tool to teach adoptive parents of older children what not to do…especially while still in China.
I agree that it could be such a valuable education tool for prospective and waiting parents adopting older kids. From what I’m being told, however, it will only be online for a few months. I hope they allow it to stay online permanently somewhere. We’d love to have it permanently archived on our site. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and your wisdom. I know it will help those folks reading these comments!
I just finished watching the documentary online. As someone who’s currently waiting for a referral from Korea, I was really interested to see what the adjustment period could look like—books are great but can only do so much to prepare you. I thought the documentary was excellent, if hard to watch. Faith’s grief and sadness was so palpable, and I found myself getting frustrated at the (seeming) lack of…compassion’s not quite the right word…awareness? of this on the part of pretty much every adult involved.
One thing that really stuck with me was the whole language thing. I couldn’t help but wonder/worry about what would have happened if the filmmaker had not been present to translate! How on earth would the mom have communicated with Faith? And (this may sound judgmental, but I don’t mean it to be) what was the mom thinking, not knowing at least enough Mandarin/Cantonese to communicate basic things with Faith? I understand that learning a new language is hard, but still, it seems like the least she could have done was to learn enough to get by for the first few months. I wonder how that would have facilitated the transition….would it have made certain aspects easier on Faith and on the family?
Amy, one of the reasons I’m not willing to say too many negative things about the Sadowskys is that I think we are indebted to them for being willing to let someone film them during what is probably one of the most stressful times of their lives. I think it is a great way to educated prospective parents on what this transition period might look like. The film captures Faith’s grief and confusion so well. It also captures the rest of the family in transition.
I was also struck by Donna’s imploring Faith to tell her how she’s feeling and tell her what’s wrong. Many adult native English speakers would have trouble finding the requisite emotional language to express such complex feelings. In many ways, I doubt Faith would have been able to express this in Chinese. I doubt she had any idea what labels to attach to an experience so alien and so traumatic. Donna wanted Faith to surmount the language barrier, yet she did not try to do her part by learning even a small amount of rudimentary Chinese.
This 76 minutes should be shown to every adoptive parent of an older child as a cautionary tale of what NOT to do. My critical view hasn’t changed despite all the protests of this just being 76 minutes out of hours. No child should have experienced these 76 minutes, while the flash cards were a stunning example of lack of compassion the scene of poor Faith slumped on the ground next to the car sobbing ALONE while her mother WALKS AWAY declaring there are some things she’s not going to put up with was unconscionable. Being in her face with long diatribes in English about how I can’t help you if you don’t talk me is horrific…English language learners don’t have the ability to vocalize their feelings in such a way….did she have a flash card with a broken heart on it? I am assured that Faith is a healthy thriving girl and that is great – but the Faith at the end of that 76 minutes looked like a soul resigned to her fate – not a joy filled child.
Kathleen, I also wondered about the scene by the car where Faith was sobbing on the ground. I wanted more information about what preceded that scene. Was this a case where Faith had been obstinate all day and was trying to punch her Mom’s buttons? Was Faith unable to carry the books or simply didn’t want to. In the end, Donna seemed to think that she really wasn’t able to carry them because she apologized. I also can’t remember how long Faith had been home when this scene took place. At first, you give the child every benefit of the doubt and simply seek to connect and nurture the child. But as time goes on, parents start getting to know the child and know when to hold the line and when to give in. I have no doubt that without the proper “back story” any one of our actions as parents could be made to look cruel. Just this morning, I refused to help one of my kids pack for a weekend away even though my refusal ended up making her late for school. Although not actually crying, my daughter was plenty upset. If a camera caught me sitting at the kitchen table not helping while my daughter ran around in a panic, I would look like a cruel heartless mother. If however the camera had caught our discussion last night about needing to pack ahead of time, the perils of waiting until the last minute, and my offer to help get her started, then my actions this morning would have looked like a parent who was letting life’s natural consequences teach her dearest daughter a good lesson.
At the end of the 76 minutes, I thought Faith looked like a well adjusted happy silly little girl. She was assuring her foster sister in China that she shouldn’t be afraid of being adopted and that her new family would be good and would love her. Faith’s apparent adjustment is the primary reason that I can’t be too critical of the Sadowskys. Yes, they made some mistakes, but fortunately most kids can handle mistakes. Especially if there is also plenty of love along with the imperfection.
I was one of the viewers who originally took a more critical view of these parents and their way of handling this adoption. You are always so fair to people, and I’m not. I agree that some things were probably left out, but from what I saw these parents did a bad job of helping Faith adjust to the US. They expected her to do all the changing.
When one of Dawn’s status updates announced a PBS special on international adoption, I was delighted, and immediately clicked on over to the website to give the documentary a watch.
A little background information about myself: my boyfriend Kevin and I are 23-years-old, and hope to adopt internationally someday. After dating for a while, we discovered we both felt a passion to adopt since we were small children, and this eventually lead us to stumble across Dawn’s “The Complete Book of International Adoption”. The two of us are continually searching for new information on the subject, to expand our knowledge and prepare ourselves for the future, as well as advocate for awareness on all things international adoption (Suggestions of other documentaries, films, and reading materials’ are welcome). Thus, I thought “Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy” would be a wonderful learning tool to add to our collection.
I would like to begin by saying that I cannot explain my gratitude to the Sadowsky’s for sharing their life (warts and all) with the rest of us. I may not have experience adopting as of yet, but I know enough to know I would not have the courage to let someone film me during the process. And although not all of the moments we were privileged with seeing were “perfect”, it was these moments that were most instrumental in gaining wisdom (and for that I am appreciative).
It is my hope and belief that this film will cultivate a greater awareness in the general public surrounding the topic of international adoption, and as I know it already did for two people, engender confidence and knowledge before walking the adoption trail so many have traveled before us. And I think, that’s what it’s all about.