Review – I Am Sam

I learned about this movie from my all things adoption group and I wrote an initial blog on July 19th titled I Am Sam. I promised to come back with a review and last night I actually watched the movie on dvd from Netflix. Sean Penn and Dakota Fanning are both remarkable in their performances for this movie.

It is easy to understand the attraction of this movie to the all things adoption and foster care group because the core story is the lived experience of many members of that group. Not so much having a mentally challenged (ie as the movie says explicitly more than once – retarded) parent but as in the Division of Family and Child Welfare taking a child or children from the parents. In fact, when my sons were young, I did worry that our parenting might be adversely challenged by so do-gooder. Thankfully, my sons are now almost grown (one is already 20 and the other one is 17) and beyond such concerns in our own family. It is also true to the lived experience of so many that foster parents often do eventually want to adopt a child placed in their care. However, the movie is enlightened to the trends now occurring in adoptionland that family reunification and in the case of this movie, an eventual recognition on the part of the parent that he is lacking something (a mother – the child’s mother abandoned the child to the father shortly after birth) brings into the resolution a kind of co-parenting solution that is satisfying to watch (I don’t think that saying this is a spoiler for this movie as the ending leaves as many questions as it answers).

The movie was very progressive for its time in the portrayal of people with a variety of cognitive disabilities. In fact, I recognized that I do know one woman who has effectively lost her children due to just such a challenge. The take-away message for me was how incredibly hard it is parent a child regardless of the circumstances. This is clearly portrayed in the contrasting and yet similar parenting challenges of the main character and his lawyer. Every parent needs support of some kind at some time or other.

In an LA Times review, the writer shares this story – “I’m smart enough to know when I need help, I ask for it,” a 46-year-old mother with a learning disability told me recently. She receives support from a parents-with-special-needs program. If she needs help with parenting skills of any kind, a parent counselor is just a call away. If she feels frustrated, she attends the program’s parents support group.

Also from that LA Times review, In one critical scene of the movie, Sam is questioned by state agency officials about why he thinks he has the ability to be a father. He responds, “It’s about constancy and it’s about patience. And it’s about listening and it’s about pretending to listen when you can’t listen any more, and it’s about love.” In the case of parents with special needs, we must provide the kind of support services that will offer practical help and an ear to listen. Parents with special needs benefit from help with tutoring, after-school activities, transportation, budgeting money and, like every parent in the universe, a little baby-sitting now and then.

The movie helps everyone who watches it to understand “that persons with disabilities have needs and desires just like everyone else,” as the parent with a disability mentioned above explained. “They need to take care of someone and love someone else.”

Emotional Toll

In the all things adoption group I belong to, adoptee voices are considered privileged. They are the ones who know what being adopted feels like. Sometimes adoptive parents or hopeful prospective adoptive parents come into the group. They struggle with the anger and pain that adoptees in the group express. There are also former foster youth who share their experiences and current foster care parents or hopeful to become foster parents come into the group as well.

Adoptees often express the emotional toll of trying to share their lived experiences with these other group members. Some who are not adoptees cannot take what they are reading and leave or become angry and disbelieving – surely they are the exception ?

If you ever encounter a “woke” adoptee (adoptees often express how it feels to have emerged from what they call the adoption fog when they believed the unicorns and rainbows version of adoption that the industry puts forth in pursuit of the profits they make facilitating adoptions), believe them when they express their struggles with feelings of abandonment, rejection, not belonging in the family they’ve been adopted into. Though most birth parents welcome a reunion with their “lost” child, not all of them do. These are more than sad for the adoptee experiences being abandoned and rejected all over again.

Saying The Right Thing

Who knew ?

Everything about adoption is complex and uniquely individual.  For over 60 years, I had no idea.

I gave birth to two sons – one at age 47 and one at age 50.  I don’t let the misperceptions that I am my son’s grandmother bother me too much.  Afterall, I am a grandmother, just not these boys grandmother.  I have two grandchildren, a boy and a girl.

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma.  Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma.  Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones.

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can rant and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.  This is the way we give an adoptee voice without judgement or push-back.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking.

If you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry.” or “This must really be hard for you.” or “I am ready to hear you without interruption.” Don’t say, “I know someone who was adopted and they are very happy they were.” or “You should be grateful to your adoptive parents.” And don’t say, “Your original mother must have been a monster.”

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to someone you know lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.