Adoption Documetary
PBS’s Point of View aired Wo Ai Ni (I Love You) Mommy, a documentary about a family adopting an 8-year-old from China this week.

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.
Child: No!!!
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