My thoughts on Instant Family as an adoptive parent

An adoptive parent's thoughts on the 2019 film, Instant Family

Let’s be fair. A significant chunk of my excitement at being offered preview tickets to see Instant Family was having the opportunity to actually go to the cinema. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve done that since my son came home three years ago.

(This from someone who used to occasionally go twice in one day. Or on my own between university lectures. Back in another lifetime.)

So there I was. Out of the house. After dark. On a weeknight. Going to a recently refurbished cinema where I discovered the seats even reclined. As the opening credits rolled I remember thinking that the film had better be good or I might just fall asleep.

Well, it certainly kept me awake – and overarchingly that was because of very good reasons.

At times, I almost felt like I needed to pinch myself. There were people like me up on that big screen, and famous Hollywood actors no less! Personally, I loved the way the film showed their journey to adoption as exactly that, a meandering path that sparked from a random comment and grew into an idea that ultimately became a life-changing decision. (A journey very like my own.)

I struggle to think of any other film that depicts adoption like this. I was glad that this story was different from all the ones that show adoption as a choice following the experience of infertility – not that adoption isn’t an absolutely valid choice for many after such a difficult and painful path, but it is not the only reason that a family might pursue adoption and it is difficult for everyone when it is assumed that it is.

I really, really liked the characters of Pete and Ellie. They seemed genuine. They were honest. They were naïve. They made mistakes, they were willing to learn and they did their best. Ultimately, they loved the children – even when this meant the possibility of needing to step aside if their birth mother was able to care for them again.

That bit was hard. I felt their pain. I was deeply glad of the line, “We didn’t take her kids, the courts did”.

But I was also so grateful that their birth mum was not presented as a monster – she was shown to be hurting, struggling, battling, loving. With typical adopter guilt and lots of other conflicting emotions, I wept for her and the loss she was experiencing. I am so glad they honoured her story too.

The social workers were also very likeable – as I have known so many great social workers to be. They had real character and real heart. Obviously it gave me an extra laugh to see the same two social workers at every stage of the process from information event to training to approval to family court, but that aside, I’m glad that they were three dimensional characters too.

For me though, the likability and honesty of the adult characters was far outshone by the three children at the heart of the film. Here were children just like my own and like others I have known through my dear friends who foster.

And as hard as it was to watch at times, the film so excellently portrayed children who were living with the after effects of trauma. It showed how troubled they are, how vulnerable they are, and how precious they are.

While I so appreciated that this was the case, I didn’t always find it easy. Heart-wrenching more like. For the most part it was handled well, and the laughter (it is a comedy, after all) came at the expense of the various adults around the three children. But there was one moment where it felt like the entire cinema around me was chuckling at a little boy’s mishap and I was holding back a sob at the memory of a different child that I once knew.

I found the ending hard. It was lovely, but it just felt a bit too neat. No meltdowns over leaving the house, no arguments over what shoes to put on, no battles over who gets to sit where. And a final scene full of smiles that perhaps does echo what many families experience when things are finally settled – mine included – but even then, celebrating can still feel challenging, as I wrote about here.

Thankfully, though, the film did feature a secondary story of an older adopted child, now young adult, whose ongoing experiences showed that things are not easily fixed and the outworking of trauma is lifelong – whose adoptive parents were committed to her through every challenge. I was so glad of that depiction that showed how adoption is not a straightforward happy ending.

So – would I recommend the film?

For the most part, my answer is absolutely yes. If you don’t know much about fostering or adoption, or you’re thinking about it, or you want to better understand and support care experienced children, it’s a huge, loud, definite YES! Go and see it right now! Be inspired, and maybe even challenged to find out more.

If you do have personal experience of fostering or adoption, then my yes is more hesitant. I need to be honest that for some people it might just be too painful. If things are a challenge for you right now, you might want to protect your heart and use your precious night out for something a bit more light-hearted and distracting. As adoptive parents and foster carers, self-care needs to take priority sometimes.

What about taking children who are care experienced? Well, firstly, completely practically, I was a bit surprised by the 12a certificate the film has, given the amount of strong language. There was a LOT of swearing. And I don’t *think* my shock was solely because I’m more used to watching PJ Masks or Pixar films.

If you’re thinking of taking children to see it, whether or not they are care experienced, you might want to consider this. My small one isn’t even six, let alone twelve, but as a former youth worker I know I wouldn’t want my young teens hearing quite so much bad language.

That aside, I can’t issue a blanket yes or no to whether you should take your adopted or fostered children. As always, it depends on where they’re at and what their triggers are. If you are mostly able to communicate and talk about things openly, then it could be a great conversation starter – and I know there will be some young people who will feel a similar affirmation I felt by seeing someone just like them on a cinema screen.

But obviously there will be others for whom it shines a spotlight on trauma and reopens old wounds – especially the parts when the children interact with their birth mum and how her story intertwines with theirs. And particularly, when she is ultimately unable to do what is needed to be able to have her children returned to her.

I’m afraid this is another one of those times when we as adoptive parents and foster carers will have to make the decision based on our instincts and hope for the best. One thing I will say, if your adopted or fostered child does want to see it, make sure you see it too. We all know it’s harder making sense of things when we don’t have all the information.

All that being said, I am absolutely going to celebrate this film – and the fact that it is the only new title being released this Valentine’s Day – because through it, so many people are going to understand just a little bit more of the world of fostering and adoption. So many people are going to realise that care experienced children are not bad or naughty, but scared and hurting. So many people are going to recognise that sometimes things are a lot more complex than you first think.

And, I hope that ultimately, this film will mean that so many more people are going to consider whether they too could be family for children who really need it.

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Written by an adoptive parent


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