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Upstream

Yesterday, as my family was enjoying a nice relaxing day at home we were chatting about the Super Bowl that would be played later in the evening and of course wondering what great commercials there would be this year. My husband took to YouTube to get a preview of the Super Bowl ads and that’s when I first heard it. Toyota’s commercial featuring Jessica Tatiana Long, an inspiring Paralympian gold medal swimmer, who happens to be an adoptee. Later while watching the big game it was then that I viewed the spot. Wow… It was so amazing! Being a professional photographer, I couldn’t help but to be impressed with the beauty of the videography and how well it had been put together. But also being an adoptee with a deep knowledge of the adoption culture and industry in the US and abroad, my heart sank.

The commercial appeared as though it was intended to be a feel-good ad celebrating the perseverance and accomplishments of Jessica and in turn to make you feel good about Toyota as a company. But they completely missed the mark and the impact of this commercial, however unintentional it may be) could possibly be felt for decades. (I am not exaggerating… decades! That may sound dramatic, but it’s the truth.)

Instead of actually focusing on how Jessica’s abilities and hard work have made her into an accomplished athlete, the commercial focuses on her adoptive parents and implies that adoption is the primary reason for her success. Unfortunately, this is typical. Society in general assumes that adoptees came from a family who was lesser-than and the child would have never had the opportunity to achieve anything of substance had they not been saved from their situation and given a better life. So our accomplishments are attributed to our adoptive parents or adoption itself, however we didn’t succeed because of adoption – we succeeded in spite of it! Jessica had many obstacles to overcome, not just the loss of her legs but the loss of her mother, her father, her family, her country, her culture, her heritage, her language, her name, and so much more. 

Saviorism in adoption has been extremely prevalent for several decades and the rescue narrative continues to be pushed (as seen in the Toyota commercial) to continue to entice families to adopt. Many people feel good thinking that they can save a poor orphan and give them the life they deserve. Now you may be thinking, “What is wrong with that? There are kids who need homes and we need more families that will step up to take them in.” It would seem that way, because that is what we have been led to believe by the adoption industry but it’s just not that simple.

I will concede that Toyota ad execs did get one thing very right when they wrote the line for the adoption agency worker when she calls the hopeful adoptive parents to tell them there is a baby avaialble. The agency worker says, “We found a baby girl for your adoption.” Did you catch that? “ We FOUND a baby girl for YOUR ADOPTION.” As is so very typical, many adoptions don’t take place to find a family for a child in need, but rather to find a child for a family in want.

It’s impossible to address the numerous issues that exist in foster care, domestic adoption, and international adoption in this one essay, but what I will say is that it is called an adoption industry for a reason. The agencies and workers involved in it are not volunteers. Anytime there is a product to be sold, it is going to be marketed to you in the best possible light and the seller will do anything they can to direct your attention away from any flaws or potential problems that there might be. That is exactly what was done in Toyota’s commercial. They marketed adoption as the fairytale of a recued orphan whose adoptive parents gave her to opportunity she wouldn’t have had otherwise and there is an implied expectation of gratefulness that comes along with it. But Jessica’s story is not even close to a fairy tale.

When I heard that Jessica was adopted from an orphanage in Russia, I had a feeling that there was probably a lot more to this story so I went searching. Just as I surmised, simply based on how the adoption industry operates and the subtle coercion that so frequently occurs – Jessica was an orphan only on paper (a.k.a. paper orphan). She had two living parents. They were young. They did not abandon her. Her mom and dad wanted her. Doctors encouraged relinquishment and employed subtly coercive tactics to get them to leave Jessica (then Tatiana) for care. Her parents thought they could get her back and were not aware she was going to be adopted, much less taken to another country. The perspective adoptive parents were not informed that she had parents and that they wanted her. So yes, this was a very unethical and unnecessary adoption. But the adoption agency got their sale. That’s all they were concerned with.

If you’re not adopted, you may not have actually understood the message being pushed (and the advertisers at Toyota who created the ad may not even realize what they said) but the message was loud and clear to adoptees: “You needed to be saved. Your adoptive parents rescued you, even if it was hard for them. Sit down, shut up, and be grateful.” Why could adoptees clearly recognize this message when others were completely oblivious to it? Because it sounded so familiar. It was the same message we receive day after day after day. It leaves no space for an adoptee to have the full range of emotions about living their life adopted and it silences us. That silence – it’s killing us. Adoptees are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. 

When you see everyone’s “favorite” Super Bowl commercial passed around the internet, will you please do me a favor?  Stop and think twice, or fifty times, before you share it or comment about how beautiful it was. Think about how the commercial is subtle propaganda for the adoption industry. Think about the adoptees that are impacted when money matters more in adoption than the good of the child. Think about the expectant mom who is coerced by the “adoption is beautiful” narrative. Think about the mom who believes she’s taking her child to receive care and instead the child is adopted without her consent or knowledge. Think about the adoptee who feels silenced and dismissed. Think about the adoptee who is just not sure they can continue on in this life because it’s so messed up.

As the commercial was so perfectly named “Upstream,” the journey of living adopted and fighting to be understood feels very much like swimming upstream.

Let’s talk authentically about adoption. No more fairytales.

9 thoughts on “Upstream Leave a comment

  1. I agree and stand totally behind you. I will work with you to stop this. I feel deeply about this due to me having a child that his sisters have been adopted out and he cannot see them. He has no voice they have no voice. He is six years old and he is showing signs of depression over missing them so much and I know his sisters miss him as well.. it was all ok until the adopted family signed on the dotted line then it changed. We need to change this we need to be heard they need a voice it isn’t right. Thank you for standing up for these children.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful and important essay. I have been trying to express how I felt as I watched Toyota’s ad and you captured many of my thoughts so well. In the 60 seconds it was on television I was simultaneously horrified, embarrassed and overcome with sadness. Sinister is the word that popped into my mind. I fear it would be too troubling to watch it again to see if my first impression holds true. I share this as a 64-year-old who was adopted into a loving family as a baby. Adoption is simultaneously wonderful and terrible. Both are true each and play out each and every day. It is hard for me to understand how both Toyota and their ad agency could not have researched adoption and come to the logical conclusion conclusion that this talented athlete’s adoption story is an inappropriate way to sell cars.

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    • Thanks, Lori. It’s hard for the non-adopted to understand how we can hold adoption with so many simultaneous, but divergent feelings. I hope more people will begin to listen to what adoptees are saying.

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  3. Thank you for this amazing and powerfully stated essay! It speaks volumes about what is currently wrong with the public’s view of adoption and the struggle for adoptees to heal. It also highlights the silence surrounding the voice of adoptees in the public arena. I have shared your essay on my page. Your voice and others are desperately needed to change the current narrative. ~ Fellow Adoptee, Susan London

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  4. I too am adopted and while this essay is poignant and well written not all adoptees feel the same! We all have our stories and journeys and mine was very different then yours and I strongly have to say that I have the had the best life thanks to being adopted! I have had the Opportunity to meet my birthparents and while they are both great people they could not have given me remotely the life I was lucky enough to have had thus far. I am blessed to have been chosen and wanted and while I empathize with your points I would never want anything different !! Please understand that each adoption is different and yes you can interpret the Toyota commercial the way you did I applaud them for approaching real life issues in a compassionate manner! Also as someone who works with individuals with disabilities BRAVO for including them for what they CAN do!! So there are always 2 sides to any situation!

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    • Thanks for taking the take to stop by and read. Obviously, I don’t know anything about your story but I’m well aware that each adoption is unique. I don’t believe there is anywhere that I have stated every adoption is exactly the same as mine. If you’d like to share your story, I’d love to hear it!

      Did your parents literally choose you? That’s how I imagined it as a child. I pictured laying there in a nursery full of other babies waiting to be adopted and my parents picking me out of the whole bunch. But that’s not how it happened. I was just available at the same time they were wanting to find a baby they could have.

      Thankfully it worked out and they loved me, because it would have really been terrible if they sent me back! Even though the legal paperwork said they had that right if I had been born with any defects. My parents were really great and I’m proud of how they raised me. It certainly would have been nice though if they had adoptees back then who were able to educate them on what it feels like to be adopted. Hopefully adoptive parents these days are taking better notes with all of the education opportunities available to them so they can better sympathize with the children in their care.

      Thankfully my parents didn’t make too many awful mistakes. It was nice to know they wanted me but of course I had to be “unwanted” before I could be wanted. (*I put unwanted in quotes because I actually was very much wanted by my first mom but as a kid you just really don’t know what to think about what happened and why your mom isn’t around unless someone shares the truth of your story with you.)

      No need to educate me on special needs! I have 18 years of experience as the mother of a disabled child. I hope one day if she gets to star in a commercial because she won a gold medal that they will showcase her hard work, perseverance, and dedication and not anything I’ve done for her. She deserves all the credit, not me as her parent. I’m just doing what a parent should do.

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  5. This is an excellent, thoughtful piece that well articulates many of the issues I had with that commercial. Something else that bothered me was the sense that the adoptee had to perform at an Olympic level to make adopting her “worth it” for her parents.

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    • Yes, and most people don’t realize that performing and overachieving can be a trauma response in adoptees. We can perform in order to earn and keep favor with our adoptive parents (and others) due to a fear of rejection stemming from our original “rejection” we experienced from our birth mother. Rejection is in quotes there since our mother may not have abandoned or rejected us, however as babies we don’t know why she has left or where she has gone so we feel rejected/abandoned, even if it is not what occurred.

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