Recently I went to see the movie “Mother and Child” with hopes of viewing a positive and enlightening movie about adoption. The movie has three main story lines which eventually merge together. One story involves a woman, played by Annette Bening, who placed a newborn girl for adoption almost thirty years prior and has been haunted by it since. The second story is about her daughter, played by Naomi Watts, who was placed for adoption and how she is coping with her life. The third story follows a prospective adoptive couple, attempting to adopt a newborn. It focuses mainly on the wife, played by Kerry Washington, and her transition from infertility to adoption.
So was the movie a positive one that I would highly recommend to those in the adoption community? No. Was it still entertaining enough that I’d recommend it with the caveat that the adoption parts are not accurate? Not exactly. I don’t think I was alone in not fully enjoying the movie as when it ended I heard more than one wife around me turn to their husband and say, “I’m sorry I brought you to this.”
Spoiler alert: I will be mentioning some key points of the story so please stop reading if you don’t want to know.
I’ll start with my thoughts about the prospective adoptive parents, since I am an adoptive parent myself. I thought the wife, Lucy, was portrayed quite well. She was beating herself up because she was unable to conceive a child through infertility treatments. She was frustrated with the adoption process, but understood that it included necessary hoops you had to jump through. Lucy’s mother, played by S. Epatha Merkerson , said some hurtful comments to her daughter, yet was always called out on them and educated by Lucy. Most of these scenes were realistic and I could relate with them from my own infertility past.
I was offended by the way the the husband was portrayed. It reminded me of the character played by Jason Bateman, in the adoption movie, Juno. In both movies, the husbands were neither interested, nor invested, in the adoption process. Also in both movies, the husbands end up leaving their wives because they are not wanting to pursue adoption. I have met a plethora of husbands who spearheaded their adoption process. Along those lines, most all husbands, once they are in the adoption process, are just as excited and involved as their wives. I am disturbed that these two recent mainstream movies, which show a couple adopting has the husband and wife on different pages and then the husband permanently leaving. In my experience, my husband Paul was with me every step of the way and as anxious as me to become an adoptive parent.
The Adult Adoptee
I know quite a few adults who were adopted. They were from the time of “closed” adoptions, with little or no information about their birth family. I have asked many of them if their adoption effects their every day life and I always receive a “No” as an answer. In this “Mother and Child” movie however, the woman who was adopted from birth, has major emotional issues which effect her daily. She cannot form any close relationships, cannot hold a stable job as a lawyer, is so terrified of becoming pregnant that she traveled to Mexico to illegally get her tubes tied at a young age, and generally is a pessimist and cynical person.
Are these characteristics due to her being adopted? Or are they due to her upbringing by her adoptive mother, whom she said she did not get along with? It’s never stated as a fact that she’s an emotional wreck because she is adopted, but it’s strongly implied. When she is asked about her adoption story, the woman rattles off the few facts she knows of her story and complains that her birth mother has never tried to find her. You could feel her resentment and anger through the movie screen.
This is not how my friends who were adopted as infants act. The adult adoptees I know live normal lives with normal relationships. Perhaps they have some emotional issues, but doesn’t everyone to some extent? Many of these adoptees do think about their birth mother but they say they don’t hate her for not finding them. They understand that at the time of their placement, the adoptions were closed and kept secret. There may be valid reasons why there has been no contact, such as the adoption too hard for their birth mother to discuss, the birth mother does not know about birth family registries, they may have died or they don’t want their current family to be upset with them for placing a child for adoption in the past. The adult adoptee in the movie only assumes it’s because her birth mother doesn’t love her and has forgotten about her, which is not the case.
The Birth Mothers
There are two birth mothers in this movie. Besides the main one that Bening plays, there is another who the prospective adoptive parents work with. She is a young woman who had already turned away many adoptive couples, because she did not like them. While interviewing the couples, she was very direct and to the point with her questions, such as “Do you believe in God, a higher power?” She has outrageous requests, such as “I need to spend a few nights at your house in order to see where my baby will live. I also need to meet all of your close friends and family before I make my decision.”
I have worked with four different birth mothers and none of them would ever be so rude as the one in the movie. In the past eight years at my monthly Adoption Support Group, I have yet to hear a story about a birth mother interview even somewhat close to the movie. In the adoption community, I know a few birth mothers and none of them have expressed their desire to act demanding in the interviews. If I were a prospective adoptive parent and saw this movie, I’d be terrified of ever meeting a birth mother face to face. I think that is sad because meeting a potential birth mother should be an exciting, not frightening, occasion.
The main birth mother Karen, (Bening), begins the movie as a miserable single woman, who takes care of her elderly mother. She blames her mother for sending her away as a teenager during her pregnancy and being forced to place her baby girl for adoption. It seems as if Karen never worked past these feelings of regret and feels unworthy to have anyone be friendly to her because of this. She pushes away anyone who shows interest in her life.
Eventually after Karen’s mother dies, she allows herself to be happy and enjoy life. By now she is in her 50’s and finds love with a co-worker, played by Jimmy Smits. He becomes her husband and encourages her to seek out her daughter. He tells her something along the lines of, “Wouldn’t it better to find out where she is now and that she’s happy, rather than keep imagining that she’s miserable and mad at you?” I liked this line as I think it was an encouraging statement. It was something anyone who is putting off searching for any lost loved one may need to hear, to give a gentle push to begin their search.
The only adoption moment in this movie I liked occurred between this birth mother, Karen, and her new adult stepdaughter at a family picnic. The stepdaughter gives a little speech about how love, not blood, creates a family. This moment in the movie almost seemed out of place as it was a positive message about adoption and the families it can form. The rest of the movie contained miserable people, who were drowning in their sorrows due to their experiences with adoption. This stepdaughter seemed to be the small ray of light, through the dark cloud which was present throughout the movie.
At the end of the movie there was a scene that was supposed to be a happy one but completely upset me. Remember the prospective adoptive mother, Lucy? At the end she is presented a situation for adopting a newborn. The adoption worker, a nun, happily tells her that the baby has no family who can lay claim on the baby because the birth mother died during birth. The nun is ecstatic, telling her that there is “no one, and I mean no one” for this baby. Wasn’t the point of the movie to show how having no involvement with the birth family, or no information leads to an unhappy situation for all those involved? If so, why should be we thrilled when the adoption which takes place, is so very similar to the closed adoption which precipitated the movie? I found this to be very infuriating, as I don’t know of any prospective adoptive parent who would be over-the-moon to hear that their new baby’s birth mother died and had no other family.
You can probably tell that I was not a fan of the movie. I am still glad I saw it though because I want to know how Hollywood is portraying adoption. This seems to be main way many people learn about it. I understand that there must be drama and conflict to make a movie more interesting, and perhaps this is what makes a movie about adoption not very realistic. Adopting a child is emotional and can be dramatic at times. But it’s mainly fantastic, amazing and beautiful. This unfortunately is not what makes a great screenplay that attracts the A-List actors and actresses. Yet if they created a more realistic adoption movie, I know that I, along with many others in the adoption community, would be first in line to see it.
Danielle I. Pennel
Three Yellow Roses