Huxley Stauffer had been turned into content before he even met the people who would become his parents. As early as July 2016, YouTube influencer Myka Stauffer was posting videos to YouTube about the long, complex process of adopting a boy from China. She talked about convincing her husband to adopt, cried while describing administrative delays, and exulted when the process inched forward. Over the years, Stauffer and her husband, James, posted 27 videos on their “adoption journey,” including a heartwarming montage of the family’s trip to China to retrieve their 2½-year-old son in 2017. Afterward, they kept their hundreds of thousands of viewers updated on the boy’s growth and his relationships with their biological children. That is, until earlier this year, when attuned fans began noticing that Huxley had quietly stopped appearing in the couple’s videos.
Last week, Myka came to her followers with what she described as “by far the hardest video James and I have ever publicly had to make.” In a teary dispatch from their brightly lit bedroom in Ohio, they said Huxley had more severe medical needs than they first realized. “After multiple assessments, after multiple evaluations, numerous medical professionals have felt that he needed a different fit in his medical needs,” Myka told the camera. “He needed more.” They also alluded vaguely to “multiple scary things [that] happened inside the home towards our other children.” (The couple also has four biological children—Kova, Jaka, Radley, and Onyx—ranging in age from 8 years to 11 months.) And so, the family had chosen to place Huxley in a different home with a new family.
The Stauffers have been pilloried online. Critics offered side-by-side stills that appeared to show the family treating Huxley differently from his siblings. They have accused the family of white saviorism and profiting off Huxley. A petition demanding that the Stauffers remove “MONETIZED YouTube videos exploiting a special needs child” has more than 150,000 signatures and counting. (Some of the outrage was directed at the use of the word rehome to describe the Stauffers’ dissolution of the adoption. BuzzFeed used the term in its original headline, and other news outlets followed, sometimes putting the word in quotes, implying the Stauffers themselves used it, but they had not.)
The Stauffers became notorious because of the uncomfortable ending of their adoption story. But they are not the only participants in the robust online genre of “adoption journeys.” With handles like @born.from.my.heart and @gracewhilewewait, adoption influencers post a mix of generic lifestyle content, cute pictures of their “mix and match” families, and adoption ups and downs. The phenomenon has its own tropes and terminology. “Gotcha Day” videos on YouTube, for example, capture the day an adopted child joins the family. In influencer Anbre Lewis’ “China Adoption: Naomi’s GOTCHA DAY and Adoption Story” (2.7 million views), a white couple and their three biological children travel to China to retrieve their new daughter, set to upbeat pop music.
Videos like “Josie’s Gotcha Day and Adoption Story” (1.1 million views) and “China Adoption: Lincoln & Penelope’s Gotcha Day!” (3 million views) follow a similar template and have been hugely popular for their creators. The Stauffers’ “gotcha day” video about Huxley, “Huxley’s EMOTIONAL Adoption VIDEO!! GOTCHA DAY China Adoption,” has been viewed 5.7 million times. (The video, along with many others featuring Huxley, has now been taken down.)
On Instagram, adoption content is overwhelmingly inspirational in tone. Racially blended families hug and goof around in their beautiful “forever homes.” Soon-to-be-adopted children pose with letterboards reading “AFTER 700 DAYS IN FOSTER CARE … I AM ADOPTED” and “WE WERE IN FOSTER CARE FOR 525 DAYS AND TODAY WE WERE ADOPTED.” Most foster care agencies have strict policies against posting identifiable photographs of foster children on social media, but savvy content creators get around this by artfully scribbling over foster kids’ eyes or posting digital stickers over their faces.
Many influencers, like other adoptive parents, are surely motivated by a sincere desire to expand their families. Adoption posts can offer solidarity, education, and practical insights into a process that is sometimes opaque and emotionally exhausting. But for families who make a living packaging their lives for consumption on social media, a new child can also become a new “character” to freshen up the family’s plotline. As BuzzFeed documented in a story that introduced the Stauffers’ story to a wider audience, Huxley’s adoption was a significant boost to Stauffer’s career. Her YouTube subscribers doubled between 2017 and 2018, and she acquired partnerships with brands including Glossier and Fabletics. She also expanded her public expertise into new categories. In an interview last fall, Parade magazine described her as an “advocate for international special needs adoption.”
Some adoptive parents who share their lives online worry about the message sent by the Stauffers’ relinquishment of their son. “This story spreads fear and the message that adoption is ‘too hard,’ ” lifestyle blogger Elsie Larson wrote me in an email. “This is an already WAY too common belief.” Larson said she is frustrated that Stauffer portrayed herself as being blindsided by the extent of Huxley’s special needs. “EVERYONE in the China adoption program understands this level of ‘risk,’” she said. Larson, for her part, appeared on the cover of Parents magazine last year with her daughter Nova, who was adopted from China around the same time as Huxley. She doesn’t allow her children to appear in advertisements for brands, though she does share family photos and, in her words, lets “them be involved in my work in other ways.”
To some, the upbeat “adoption journey” genre itself is a manifestation of a larger problem with (mostly) white adoption narratives. “Content creators like the Stauffers center themselves and their experiences in ways that render adopted young people as props, objects to shore up adults’ narratives of themselves,” said Jenny Heijun Wills, author of the 2019 adoption memoir Older Sister. Not Necessarily Related, who was born in South Korea and adopted by a white family in Canada. Posts like the Stauffers’, in her view, “overlook the truth that every single adoption experience begins with loss, grief, and trauma.”
Most successful adoption bloggers do not exactly portray adoption as painless, or parenting as perfection. Inspirational speaker and blogger Ashley LeMieux posts about her pain after losing two children to their birth father in a contested adoption. (Promotional copy for her 2019 memoir, Born to Shine, frames the loss as a starting point: “It sent her into a tailspin that, ultimately, taught Ashley how to soar.”) Last year, mother of six Brittany Hagensen alluded to her two oldest sons’ “unique struggles as adoptees” in responding to followers asking about their absence from her feed; the boys, she wrote, were attending a boarding school “that can better meet their needs.”
Stauffer, too, spoke openly—or appeared to—about the challenges that came from parenting an adopted child with autism. “Myka Stauffer Gets Real Sharing the Hardships of Adoption,” a headline on Moms.com put it last summer. “The best thing to say about my brand is that [what] I try to focus on in my life and in parenting is the reality that it is hard and that you don’t have to do it alone,” she said in that interview. “We can do it together, and it doesn’t always have to be perfect.”
Critics say that adoption clichés contribute to painful outcomes like this one. “There’s so much pressure to put out a very simple, happy story where all the pieces line up and the child comes home and there are no problems,” said Abbie Goldberg, a psychologist at Clark University who studies adoption. “The whole idea of a ‘forever home,’ and ‘he was always meant to be with us’ … makes it so hard for individual families to speak up and ask for help and support when they’re having trouble.”
The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that between 1 and 5 percent of completed adoptions are eventually dissolved. It’s hard to know what was really going on in the Stauffers’ home; they have declined to share details, citing Huxley’s privacy. That would appear to be a new concern on their part, although obviously they have been holding back many details along the way. (A spokeswoman for the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office told BuzzFeed this week it is investigating the case, but authorities “are confident that the appropriate process is occurring.”) Regardless, the situation was clearly more than “imperfect.” But for every admission of a roadblock, Stauffer offered a reassurance that the “journey” was a positive, inspiring story. In a since-deleted sponsored Instagram post in 2018, she nuzzled Huxley with a strategically placed bottle of Dreft in the background. “This adoption hasn’t been the easiest ride,” the caption declared. But “I love everything about this little boy and I wouldn’t trade him for anything!”