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We were watching TV one night barely paying attention to the commercials when the Instant Family trailer came on. There’s a part in it showing a little girl calling Mark Wahlberg’s character ‘dad’ and the wife chasing behind her wanting to hear a ‘mom’. That caught my attention immediately. They had made a movie about foster care!
Foster care is an incredibly personal topic in our household as my husband entered the system at 8 years old and was in until he aged out at 18. We also have been working on pulling our house together, so that we can actively pursue a foster parent license. We both enjoyed the movie so much in theaters that we had to purchase a copy as soon as it was released on DVD to support the film.
In honor of its DVD release, I thought it would be cool to turn the blog over to my husband, Kyle, so he could share a bit of his story, a small review of the movie, and why it’s so important for quality representations of foster care to be shown in mainstream Hollywood.
So without further ado, I’m handing the rest of this post over to Kyle!
Instant Family sets the stage with Pete and Ellie Wagner realizing that for all of the stuff they have in life, they don’t have children. Not only do they not have children and the fulfillment they can bring, but they realize if they were to have a baby they would be old parents when the child grew up. Pete makes an off handed remark about just adopting a 5 year old, leading Ellie to look more into the process of adoption on Adopt US Kids. After seeing the photo lists of kids needing a home they go to a foster care orientation, and end up deciding to take the plunge and open their home to a sibling group of three: Lizzie, Juan, and Lita.
And then…the chaos ensues. Without wanting to give away too much of the movie, I wanted to set the stage to discuss more in depth aspects of the movie.
In my experience, this movie got a lot right.
Everyone Wants a Baby
At the beginning of the movie while Pete and Ellie attend the foster care orientation meeting, the most profound secondary character makes her appearance. Brenda, a former foster child who was later adopted, shares her story with the group. Not only was she a catalyst in getting Pete and Ellie to make the final decision to open their home, but she also shares a true to life representation of the struggles foster kids face. Her story made me cry. Perhaps more profound, though, was the fact that she was portrayed as a human being. Foster kids face higher than normal rates of drug addiction, incarceration, prostitution, teen pregnancy, and many other things that get in the way of a fully productive, healthy life.
Brenda was placed in foster care because of her drug, abuse and neglect filled home. She was an older foster child, and found it difficult to feel wanted. But then she was adopted by a loving family. I also know what it is like being an older foster child. The conversation is always about what you will do when you leave the home. Most of your childhood being controlled by someone else, now you have total control thrust upon you. My last foster mom, affectionately know by everyone as Gram, (short for Grandma, due to her advanced years), took me in at age 16 when no one else wanted to bother. After a few months of adjusting, she was the most stable and loving home I had in years. She’s the kind of woman they don’t make anymore: first person to scold you when you do wrong, first to come to bat for you when you’re being wronged, and first shoulder to cry on when you need it.
It was because of Gram I was able to be motivated to make it to college. My bond with Gram is unbreakable, as there is no greater loyalty found on Earth than that of a foster child who has formed a long lasting loving connection. Brenda’s story made me cry because of how far life can take you from your darkest to your brightest. Gram hasn’t always been happy with me, but she has never not loved me, and I never earned that love. She’s just that kind of amazing person. She has never done me wrong, even in the slightest.
That’s what a loving foster parent should be. Every time I think of the issues foster kids face, I think to myself “Everyone needs a Gram”. I cannot tell you how sad it is to hear about former foster siblings who are now on drugs, in jail, pregnant or now having their own kids in foster care. Transgenerational foster children are the epitome of a failed society. The love my Gram has shown me has given me motivation by fearing what she would say if I made the wrong choice. There are countless sad stories foster kids can tell. But nearly every happy story begins with “There was this adult who cared about me too much to let me fail. They gave me tough love when I needed it, dragged me out of self pity and was there with me every stop on the road to success.”
Signs of Abuse
Another character I identified with was Juan. The middle child in the sibling group Pete and Ellie take in, Juan is a timid, panicky, apologetic, sensitive tween. Many of his moments on screen have you scratching your head with “Why are you apologizing? You haven’t done anything wrong.” As a foster kid, I can understand his feelings. Most children never have to worry their parents will stop loving them and take them to a government office to get rid of. Foster children don’t have that luxury. You can be moved anytime for any reason. When you do something wrong, you over analyze and stress about stuff, thinking “I’m sorry, please don’t hate me. I like it here.” Another obvious aspect of his timidity is his fear of being abused again. When a someone makes a sudden move towards an abuse victim, an involuntary response can often be to flinch in order to protect oneself.
As an example of this timidity, I find that I have anxiety surrounding food. Many foster kids share this anxiety to some extent or another. Since there has been little stability in our lives, we are often unsure of the social etiquette on how to ask for food from those you can reasonably expect to give you some (parents, spouses, relatives, etc.). There have been numerous times in my life that I have told new foster parents that I wasn’t hungry when I was, simply because I didn’t want to inconvenience them and have them hate me. After all, how would you feel asking a stranger on the street for food? That’s how foster kids can feel daily, even after becoming adults.
The last thing I wanted to mention was a touching moment between Ellie and Grandma Sandy, Pete’s mom. Ellie asked Sandy “You know we love you, right?”. Grandma Sandy responded with “No, but that’s me, not you.” It can be extremely difficult for foster kids to make connections and ever feel wanted. As Grandma Sandy said elsewhere in the movie, “You get told you’re a piece of crap so often, eventually you start to believe it.”
Tying in a little bit with my last point, many times foster kids learn to ask for as little as possible to avoid being burdensome and therefore moved, yet again. You assume that everything you do will unduly burden someone else, which leads to feelings of perpetual guilt and worthlessness. There were definitely signs of this in Juan’s character. Grandma Sandy, while the movie doesn’t go into much depth on her background, has also had to overcome this. The feeling, the inner voice that says “No one could ever love you. Your own family doesn’t love you. No one in the world wants you.” For those of us old enough to remember Blockbuster video, you feel like a rental: No late fees, bring back whenever you want and exchange for a better one.
While these feelings are strong, they can and must be overcome. A wise man once told me “Your feelings are very real. That doesn’t mean they’re true.” The most loving thing a foster parent has ever told me, made even better by the fact that she said it while I was having a bad day, was “There is nothing you can say or do that will ever make us stop loving you.” I cried when she said that, and she cried with me, and that gave me not only the feeling, but the quiet knowledge that everything was going to be ok. They didn’t hate me; quite the contrary. They loved me through the hurt and the pain.
I greatly enjoyed the movie Instant Family. I feel that its importance lies in the fact that it shines a light, a positive, illuminating light, on foster care. Foster care is an invisible problem for those who are not directly involved or know someone who is. Many people would rather send pity and well wishes, without ever seriously considering doing something. Sympathy and pity are all foster kids ever seem to get in society. We don’t need that. We need loving foster homes so the state can make placements that make sense and work for everyone. There are children all around the country in abusive and neglectful homes that the state doesn’t want to take because it has nowhere to put them except for a group home.
The more positive, real attention can be shown on foster care, the more people will feel compelled to act. As a brief shout out, the show This Is Us has done a fairly good job with the character Deja, and showing what her life was like before living with Randall and Beth, and after being taken in by them. Brenda Fernandez, Deja, and Juan, are all portrayed as real people. Not ‘little future felons’ or ‘damaged goods’, but as real people who have been through unimaginable, unspeakable tragedies. They struggle every day for a ‘normal, stable life’, whatever that is.
There are 500,000 children in foster care in the United States, and likely tens of thousands more who probably should be. Please, if nothing else, take 10 minutes and look into the foster care system. Honestly consider donating, volunteering, mentoring, or best of all, becoming a foster parent and/or adopting. The foster care system is in desperately short supply of foster parents, made even worse by the growing opioid epidemic nationwide. And buy the film, as the more money it makes will motivate Hollywood that much more to make more like it, and shine a light on the foster care system and its struggles to recruit people.