are families meant to go viral? a look at adoption, news, and happy endings

Much ink has been spilled over the enduring stories of the families created by adoption. The hardships, the waiting, the uncertainty, and finally–the success–happen every single day. Most of these tales go unseen by the public, but like so many social “givens,” the act of adopting (often summarized as a parents’ need for a child, a child’s need for a home, and the uniting of the two) needs almost no preface other than itself. But for the stories that the news media happens to pick up, adoption becomes a period at the end of a seemingly final sentence: Everyone wins!

I’m interested in exploring the reason(s) why the media and the general non-adopted public finds fascination in adoption stories. I think that the privatization of the family and the continued emphasis on heterosexual, biological, White kinship ties as the “norm” emphasizes adoption’s queerness. Coupled with the American paradox of individuality-conformity, adoption stories offer the average unadopted person a temporary reprieve from an otherwise banal existence. What person, adopted or not, hasn’t at some point imagined themselves as the secret child of a wealthy king or queen? Or, what person–again, adopted or not–hasn’t maybe considered adoption as an option for helping children? Adoption stories, especially when they go viral, provide a lightly voyeuristic look into someone else’s family. Adoption stories give us hope that not all families (at least in that moment of time) are screwed up.

This is all well and good, but where’s the child in all of this? Is the child given a happy ending, or is the child a product of an uncaring neoliberal state? If the child truly mattered, would adoption be celebrated or would it be viewed as a byproduct of our inability to care for those who cannot care for themselves? Would we revise our adoption news stories to a more resigned tone: Here’s yet another child whose biological family we failed to support–off to a new home, and let’s hope we don’t mess this up again! Can we acknowledge the social flaws that produce adoption, while genuinely wishing well the child’s placement?

I’m not covering any new ground with these thoughts. What I think is important, though, is thinking through what it means when adoption makes the news. What are we really celebrating with those stories? What are we saying about “the family” and our conception of it? Ideally, every child deserves a home where their race, biological ties, and genetic anomalies receive respect and care. Many adoptees would agree that love, or its popular conception, is not the solution or is the “enough.” But maybe if we shift the focus off of “adoption” itself and onto what family means in this moment, it’s possible that we’ll open up dialogues that invite a shift in the perception of children and their needs.

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