I’m not a cryer.1 And yet twice during the last few weeks, I’ve suddenly found myself sobbing on the couch in front of the TV. Both times, teenagers were involved.
Not my teens, mind2. Or, at least, not directly.
As they get older and I get further from the day-to-day momming trenches, which are full of hours of tedium punctuated by moments of crisis and seconds of pure joy, I’m moving to a place that isn’t nostalgic, exactly, but one that is fully aware of how tender and fraught the whole growing up thing is — and how hard it is to watch it from the outside.3
Found (now streaming on Netflix) follows three teenaged girls (Chloe, Sadie, and Lily) who had been adopted from China as babies by American parents. Prior to filming (more or less), the trio hadn’t met each other and were scattered across the U.S. A 23andMe DNA test5 put them in each other’s orbit. As the girls bond via Snapchat and Google Hang-out, they plan a trip with Liu Hao, a Chinese genealogical researcher,6 who will meet them in Beijing and show them where they came from.
As you’d expect, Chloe, Sadie, and Lily’s adoptive parents grapple with their own roles in their children’s stories. Their feelings about what is implicitly promised to the child you choose to raise are interesting, yes, but the spotlight is on how the girls process what they learn. It’s also on Liu Hao, who has her own bittersweet reasons for her vocation.7
The parts of the film that take place in the U.S. are interesting and necessary, if slow. The filmmakers (one of whom is Chloe’s aunt) are given access to the conversations between the cousins, their parents, and Liu Hao. Found really finds its soul when we get to China. Each family gets to see where the child they love was literally found. The teens get to meet the women who took care of them in the orphanage and these “aunties” get to meet the young women their babies have become.
Most moving, maybe, is the sequence in which one of the girls meets a family who thought she might be the baby they gave up years ago. So many emotions without names were viscerally felt, not only by the people on screen but by me in the audience. You see the moment when each girl finally understands that she was given up because their mothers had no choice but to do so, which might be obvious to a 50-year old mom like me but is a big deal to a teenager working through her identity.
None of these moments are showy. The music doesn’t swell.8 The camera doesn’t linger. Our heartstrings are not overtly plucked. Instead, what comes through are the complicated emotions and how equally complicated they are to resolve, if they can be resolved at all.
All of the baggage around adoption and what makes a mother is baggage we’re familiar with, if only because adoption has been a thing in the popular imagination for centuries. We have language for it and know its general outlines, even if it hasn’t happened to us specifically. That’s not where we are for parents and parenting across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
As a culture,9 we’ve only recently decided that non-straight people are, you know, actual people.10 And when you start talking about trans people? That conversation only started seconds ago. We just have the beginnings of stories about mothering a kid whose sexuality isn’t what you’d assumed; we have nearly no stories about mothering a kid whose gender isn’t what has been assigned at birth.11
I’ve sung the praises of We’re Here on HBO before now. Or, at least, if I haven’t, I certainly intended to. Bob the Drag Queen12 remains in my top three RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants ever; Shangela and Eureka are growing on me. What makes this show different from all other drag-related shows13 is its focus on using drag as a way to embrace the person you authentically are, no matter what society as a whole might think of you.
In its second season, there seems to be a renewed focus on people who are outside of the gender binary and/or questioning their gender and/or committed to a gender they weren’t assigned at birth. This focus may be a result of Eureka’s own gender journey. It may also be that I’m simply noticing it more than ever because one of my teens is trans, which she revealed to us this summer.14
On the whole, I’m not at all in a place to talk about my family with broader details. But what I can talk about is this: I love my child and want her to be as fully herself as she can possibly be. Which is why the last two episodes15 of We’re Here have absolutely wrecked me. It’s not just hearing Eureka or Bob talk so kindly yet firmly with their subjects about being who they are and finding their community, it’s watching the parents of these kids see them thrive on-stage and, then, off of it. As a mother, I want my kids to know that joy and love.
I was today years old when I finally understood why the first person who puts you in drag is called your Drag Mother. The best ones only want to help their children stop hiding their authentic selves from the world. And, you know, teach them how to get a close shave and smooth tuck. Let me be that mother.
Shameless self-promotion: I also write books.
I’m also not an easy laugh, which are two personality quirks honed by years of working as a theatre critic, in customer service, and as a local politician. No matter what may be going on my my head, I’ve gotten pretty good at maintaining an “I’m listening” facial expression. Seeing that all typed out makes it seem like I’m *thisfar* from developing some kind of dissociative disorder so maybe hang onto this to show to the gents with the huggy coats should they be called.
I have two, for those keeping score. The elder is 19 and a college sophomore; the younger is 16 and a high school junior. They aren’t fully baked humans by any stretch of the imagination but 80% of the recipe is accomplished and in the oven. At this point, I’m cleaning up the kitchen and making sure nothing burns.
I promise this will be the longest sentence you read today.
Probably fatherhood, too, but that is outside my area of expertise. Lord knows there are enough male-identifying writers who have made more money than I will ever see who are itching to wax philosophical about it.
My own DNA test revealed stuff I already knew, like that most of my genes came from England, Scotland, and Italy. It did, however, prove wrong one of my aunts who insisted that her side of the family had Native American heritage (it does not) and that what would have been a scandal in the late 1960s is actually good news in the 2020s because the child born a “bastard” who no one knew about is a link to a man dead too young. But that is not my story to tell.
and my new hero
They have a lot to do with China’s one-child policy and ingrained misogyny. It’s hard to wrap my head around how many baby girls never made it to their first birthdays. I don’t know that we will ever know the true number.
In fact, my only real complaint is that I wish the filmmakers had more money to spend on music. The final two songs are … well meaning … and could be improved upon.
I’m U.S.-centric here.
I know queer people have always existed. That’s not what I’m saying.
Again — I know there are stories out there. There isn’t the same body of stories as there are about, say, adoption.
as opposed to Bob the Furniture Polish or Bob the Aquatic Mammal
(not to be confused with the first question of Passover)
It’s not a secret, mind, but it’s not not a secret. And, as a above, her story isn’t my story to tell. But I can tell you about my small part of her story, once I fully process all of the changes. So, like, by the time I’m in my 60s?
Temcula and Del Rio. I caught the Selma episode last night and ooooof. It was powerful in its talk about being Black and queer. If nothing else, watch the segment with the women who were part of bloody Sunday. We need to talk more about this part of American history.