On Friday night, I climbed into bed next to Katie for story time. Although she's a big kid who enjoys reading chapter books to herself, Katie still loves being read to at night. We are currently making our way through Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.
The book is told from the point of view of fourth-grader Peter Hatcher, who suffers endlessly at the hands of his misbehaving baby brother, Fudge. I remember reading the series of books about the Hatchers many years ago, and now it is fun to see Katie hanging onto every word.
In Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Mrs. Hatcher repeatedly indulges and mollycoddles younger son Fudge while expecting big brother Peter to act much older than he is. She is actually a pretty crappy parent who has no consistent approaches to discipline and alternately tricks, bribes and threatens Fudge into compliance.
(Hmm . . . I guess that makes me a crappy parent sometimes too, because I've been known to employ such techniques in moments of desperation with Annie Rose).
Anyway, I was reading aloud from the chapter where the mother unfairly blames Peter for one of Fudge's accidents, and I glimpsed ahead to Peter's narration in the next few sentences:
"She loves Fudge more than me. She doesn't even love me anymore. She doesn't even like me. Maybe I'm not her real son. Maybe somebody left me in a basket on her doorstep. My real mother's probably a beautiful princess. I'll bet she'd love to have me back."
I made a split second decision and chose not to read the above paragraph at all. Katie was lying next to me, happily listening, and I was not about to read those words. Instead, I sort of improvised and pretended to be reading as I said:
"I was really angry. That was so unfair of Mom to blame me for Fudge's accident! How could she do that? She acts like she loves Fudge more than me. I felt really upset."
Should I have censored the book? Am I protecting Katie too much from unpleasant innuendoes about adoption? Maybe, but I just couldn't bear to read the book as it was written, because it promotes the false stereotype that only your "real" (i.e. biological) parents love you completely.
Many children's books build these types of dialogues into sections where a child feels upset, and I think it does a disservice to the families built through adoption. I wonder how other adoptive parents and adopted children feel about this.
The very next day, I confronted another myth about adoption while watching a children's movie.
Katie came down with a fever on Saturday, and she wanted to sack out on the couch in front of a DVD. She chose Despicable Me, and Annie Rose and I hung out with her to watch it. My expectations were pretty low going into it, and to my surprise, I ended up falling in love with Gru, the grumpy villain who is the show's hero.
Yes, of course there is a but.
Early in the movie, Gru adopts three little girls and tricks them into participating in his plot to steal a shrink ray from his rival, Vector. Gru tries to remain emotionally removed from the girls, but their earnest personalities win him over.
Gru's scientific assistant insists that the girls are a distraction to Gru, who is working against a tight deadline to shrink and steal the moon, so Gru returns the girls to the orphanage.
And this is where my anxiety kicked in. Adoption with give-backs? That is not exactly how it works, folks. Kids don't come with a gift receipt. They don't have an exchange policy. If you adopt a child, your child views you as her parent. Forever. Anyway, I resisted the urge to talk with Katie about her thoughts until the movie was over.
As expected, Gru becomes depressed without the girls and realizes that they mean more to him than anything else. When Vector kidnaps the girls, Gru willingly gives up the moon in order to rescue them.
The oldest girl, Margot, calls him out on his behavior. "You gave us back," she states, deeply hurt. And Gru acknowledges that it was the biggest mistake of his life, reaches for Margot and fervently promises to never let go of her again.
The next scene of Gru reading a book that he wrote to the girls is so touching that I actually started to choke up, corny as I am. In all honesty, I enjoyed seeing the changes in Gru, but I was still concerned about the portrayal of adoption as a reversible option.
"Katie, what did you think about the fact that Gru gave the girls back?" I asked.
"Well," she pondered, "it must have taken place back in the days when people could do that. But people don't do that now, do they?" she asked.
"No," I reassured her, not wanting to get into the distressing case of the mother last year who returned her adoptive son to Russia. That was a rare extreme, and there was no point mentioning it to a first grader.
"But then he realized it was a mistake to give them back," Katie continued. "I was so happy when he took them back that I wanted to cry."
"I did start to cry," I told her, smiling.
Annie Rose interrupted, "I was so happy when he took them back that I wanted to die."
"Well, I'm glad you didn't die," I told her.
Later that night, Annie Rose and I were snuggling in her bed. Out of the blue she said, "We won't give Katie back."
"No, never ever," I responded.
"Never ever infinity times infinity ever," Annie Rose added.
I thought it was interesting that Annie Rose had abstracted what was happening in the movie and applied it to our adoption of her big sister. It made me realize that I should consider how misrepresentations of adoption affect both my older girls, not just the one who was adopted.
I was so busy worrying about how Katie would feel that I almost missed Annie Rose's anxiety. Adoption affects the whole family, and the messages we receive from the media affect the whole family too.
One more reason to urge responsible portrayals of adoption by authors, screenwriters and playrights.