Special Needs: Adoption and the Super Bowl

Preparing for the Super Bowl

Super Bowl Sunday is a regular day for me. As a wife and as a mom of many, it was on my radar because our oldest is really into football right now. Our next few children are into football—or maybe the snacks that go along with it. So, there had been this sort of background count down to the Super Bowl for the last month or so. Given that the COVID-19 virus has taken so many other things from us, the house was abuzz with excitement. We woke, got six kids ready for the day, and headed downtown. The COVID-19 virus has restricted us from attending church in person in my province of Canada, but our oldest son goes to the church building to run the sound and PowerPoint for the online service. Tyler and I listen to the service in our mega van—a 4×4, 12 passenger van with a lift—while we deliver farm eggs and our farm-produced meat around town. This particular Sunday, it was minus 45 with the wind chill, and we were also delivering hand-knitted toques to an outreach in our area. Many of the recipients have been touched by foster care and adoption. I was dreading the farm chores because our outdoor faucet had been frozen up for days and we were spending large amounts of time hammering ice almost eight inches thick out of our water troughs, despite the heaters that were in them. In the back of my brain was the buzz to make sure we picked up snacks for the Super Bowl.

As the afternoon wore on, we made plans to pick up fried chicken, chips, and pop for the big game—a special treat in this house. Of course, we fumbled it. Somehow, we managed to miss a couple of kids in our order, and we had tears—and the fear that we would get home late and miss the kickoff. So, we pulled into the recently constructed co-op gas station nearest to our rural property, and I ran in to grab the items we had missed. We got home in time, and Tyler and the oldest kids were enjoying the game. I ran interference, keeping toddlers away from the spicy, home-made chicken wings and, of course, away from the screen. I was in my own little world when my editor from our adoption writing group posted about an adoption shout-out in one of the commercials during the Super Bowl. Being Canadian, we were told that this year we would not get the much-anticipated, U.S. commercials that are usually funny or poignant. I groaned inwardly, thinking that of course, I would miss such an important commercial. Thankfully, someone from the group was able to send me a link to the Toyota commercial that contained so much emotion and so much hope.

The Super Bowl Commercial

The Super Bowl commercial shows a swimmer in deep waters. She is missing her legs from the knees down. The only audio is of a phone call from an adoption worker to a waiting family. She is telling them that she found a baby to place with them, but that she is in Siberia and that she has a rare condition that will require her legs to be amputated. The adoptive mom on the line is quiet. The worker continues, saying that she knows it is a lot to take in. By this time, it is clear to the audience that the swimmer is an Olympian and that she is the child being discussed in the phone call, years down the road. She is confident and smiling. Tears were flowing down my face and I thought back to a similar moment in my adoption journey when a doctor told me that our little foster daughter might not ever walk or talk. The commercial ends when the prospective adoptive mother speaks slowly but with love in her voice, affirming their decision to adopt this little girl with special needs: “It might not be easy, but it will be amazing.” If that isn’t a declaration of hope, I don’t know what is. 

Adoption Statistics

I love adoption stories. I love promoting adoption, and I love to educate people about adoption issues. I can’t remember the exact statistic, but very few people that ever consider adoption go through with it. I think it might be around the 2% mark. In Canada, there are 30,000 children in the foster care system that are currently waiting for forever homes. Worldwide, UNICEF estimates that there are 153 million orphans in need of adoption. These numbers are staggering, and it is incredibly important to get the message out there; children from all walks of life, all abilities, and all parts of the world need and deserve forever homes that are safe, supportive, and loving. 

The Savior Complex

I must pause here to discuss an uncomfortable topic: the savior complex. Not too long after the commercial aired and after it had been shared far and wide within adoption communities and beyond, another perspective was being relayed. Some people felt that the savior complex was the essence of the message. The savior complex as defined within the adoption world is the ideology that kids of adoption needed to be saved and that their adoptive parents are their saviors. It is an unhealthy and wrong way to view adoption. It sucks the love and joy out of the act of adoption and makes it about looking good, doing the right thing, or—even worse—adoptive parents putting themselves above others and making themselves worth more because of what they did. For adoptees that grew up in homes with a true savior complex ideology, this commercial may have triggered many unpleasant feelings of being an object to manipulate, control, or through which to live vicariously. Adoptees with parents who have a savior complex might have felt they had dues to pay for being saved and that performance in sports or academics was essential to prove their worthiness or thankfulness for what was done for them. I did not interpret this commercial in that way, and I felt the commercial was honest, tactful, and respectful. It is just important to talk about the issue of the savior complex for those that are affected and to ensure that we are promoting healthy adoption language and healthy adoptions.

My Experience

After watching the commercial, I sat hunched on the floor, my phone plugged into a socket on a ridiculous, 6-inch cord not even meant for charging. I had tears running down my face, and my mind was seven years in the past. I was remembering the Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, which was 14 hours from home. It was about 3 a.m. I learned quickly that at the Children’s Hospital when you have a critically ill baby, the teams of specialists and residents come at all hours of the day and night. This particular night, I was being interviewed by someone from the neurology team. Our 2-month-old foster daughter had been flown in by air ambulance after weeks of losing weight and eating increasingly less and less. No one could figure out why, and it was time for some intense testing. She had been stabilized using a nasal-gastric feeding tube, which had to be fished up her nose and down her throat, then taped to her face. Already, her face was red and raised from the second-skin-like bandages they used to hold the tube in place, as they had to be peeled off and replaced regularly. I was learning how to run a feeding pump to send the life-saving formula to her tummy since she was not eating orally at all. This little one had had an extremely rough start to life. It is beyond the scope of this article to journey into her beginnings, but many have said this beautiful child was lucky to be alive. I remember the dim, yellow lighting. I remember the green hospital flooring and yellow hospital curtains. I remember the doctor sitting with his clipboard, his hair messy as if he had run his hand through it many times. There was just enough light for him to take notes—no one was sleeping with all the machines beeping and alarming. And yet they still dimmed the lights in a modicum of normalcy, an ode to sleeping at home despite the madness. I remember him turning to look at me and softly but firmly saying, “She might not ever walk or talk.” I felt the tears then form in the corners of my eyes, and I gulped as I nodded. “It’s okay,” I whispered. He nodded then and didn’t dwell there. He moved past that into the next part of the assessment, which I don’t remember now—or don’t want to remember. My brain has buried some of the hardest parts of our journey. I remember waiting until the next morning and feeling the light coming through the hospital window, every single spring of the awful hospital cot. I always slept right beside her crib, even though I never got any sleep. I remember calling Tyler to tell him she might not ever walk or talk. He replied with a simple, “Okay.” The thing is, we both knew that it didn’t matter to us. We knew that it would be difficult, but we also knew that our love for this child did not depend on her abilities. Our love for her was based on her personhood, on her being just her

Once we got home, nasal-gastric tube and feeding pump in tow, people often recoiled. We heard things like, “You won’t go through with the adoption now, will you? How will you manage? You can’t do it. She might need to live in a facility. This is too much. There are other kids out there—more adoptable kids.” As insulted as I was, we knew that most people were just emotionally overwhelmed by our journey. I do want to acknowledge that it is not wrong to decide against an adoption you know you can’t handle. If you are fostering a high-needs child you know you can’t care for forever, or if you have a potential match for adoption that you are certain is above your capabilities, you are not a bad person for saying no. It is better to say no than to risk an adoption disruption or dissolution later on. People can judge, but until they’ve been in your shoes, they have no idea. I have been in this situation with high-needs behavior kids—sometimes we have said yes, other times we have said no. For our daughter with the feeding tube, we knew it was a yes. Always. No matter what. 

After six and a half years, our daughter was able to get off her feeding tube. She has had several surgeries and will always need extra support. But she is walking, chattering, talking, running, swimming, riding horses, and living life to the fullest. 

Something Worth Talking About

In a busy household, you don’t get too much quiet time, especially with a toddler around. I was quickly shaken out of my walk down memory lane as one of the other kids hollered that the toddler was undoing a whole roll of toilet paper again—in fact, he had also emptied an entire box of facial tissue and a container of baby wipes. I wiped my face, got up off the floor, unplugged my ridiculously small cord from the wall, and smiled. I smiled because our daughter has overcome so much. I wondered what she might do or become in her life. I smiled because adoption is wonderful and beautiful. I smiled because years ago, a family said yes to a little girl from Siberia, who they knew would lose both her legs. I smiled because that family never gave up on that little girl—they supported her, and loved her, and were there for her as she became an Olympian. And I smiled because something as big as a major automobile company coming together with something as huge as the NFL Super Bowl game to celebrate that story is as beautiful as anything I’ve ever heard. I smiled because adoption is worth talking about.