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What a Toyota Super Bowl ad taught us about adoption, trauma, and grace

The Super Bowl ads this year were a mixed bag. From Ashton Kutcher’s embarrassing Cheetos ad featuring Shaggy, to the ode to oat milk—2021 will not necessarily go down in the history books as a year for great marketing. Then again, I don’t envy the position advertising agencies were in this year. It’s hard to convince Americans to go out and buy much of anything in a year when there has been so much turmoil. 

And then, all of the sudden, there was a cinematic moment. A girl with two legs amputated below the knee, swimming in a pool that seemed to stretch to all corners of the globe, “inception” style. I couldn’t quite hear over the chatter where I was watching the game. But even still, the hypnotic sound of water, the athlete swimming laps, the glimmering blue wake, all caught my attention. There was a family, a phone call, and a smile. I wondered, still unable to hear clearly — did I just see what I think I saw? An ad about adoption? 

I re-watched the ad when I got home, and it brought tears to my eyes. Toyota chose to tell the story of Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long, whose adoption from Russia brought her to America, and the family that helped her blossom.

This time last year, my husband and I were busy packing the car. Bottles? Check. Diapers? Check. A few good onesies, a blanket, a noise machine? Got ’em. Having been through the adoption process once before with our first son in 2017, we tried to maintain a sense of composure, and open-handedness about the future. Expectant mothers who have made an adoption plan retain the unquestioned right to change their minds and parent the baby. We planned to drive eight hours west, to Kansas City, knowing full well that we may return home with nothing more than a few hundred additional miles on our car’s speedometer. 

A few days later, a little boy was born, surrounded by a massive biological family that loves him. His biological mother didn’t give him to us; she asked us to give ourselves to him. (Read that again. The distinction is important.)

Watching the Toyota ad, I felt a surge of fear and anxiety, too. Because no matter how heartwarming I found the ad to be, there are plenty of people who oppose adoption, and who would use this ad to make predictable accusations. I hope I am wrong. But as I opened the internet this morning, I braced for the worst. 

Adoptive families have been accused of having a savior complex. Of participating in the trafficking of children. Of using their money to adopt, rather than using their money to support a single mother. Of participating in harmful trans-racial adoptions. Of using their adopted children as “props”. When adoption stories are hailed as “heartwarming,” nay-sayers often say that the story is minimizing the trauma that occurs within an adoption. 

To be fair, not every adoption story is one of triumph over adversity, like Jessica’s. There are plenty of horror stories — adoptions gone wrong, unethical agencies, etc. Those stories are prevalent and often garner plenty of attention. And I will be the first to say that it is essential to continue to regulate adoption both domestically and internationally to keep abuse and corruption to absolute zero. But for every awful adoption story, there are an untold number of faithful families doing the diligent, daily work of raising children and providing a stable, loving home where otherwise there was none.

No glossy advertisement will ever be able to make up for the trauma Jessica Long experienced, or the waves of challenges and heartache that her family — both her biological and adoptive families — have suffered. The waters she swims through are full of trauma just as much as triumph.

But we cannot as a society allow trauma to be a defining factor of our identity, and therefore rob us — or our children — of the dignity of future possibility. The future of hope. We should never let the fear of being accused of having a savior complex keep us from imitating Jesus. Critics may say we are “virtue signaling.” Let us go on living with virtue. 

I appreciate Toyota’s choice to create a beautiful depiction of hope in the face of adversity. It is a reminder that all children deserve a family that loves and supports them. No matter the challenges or traumas they’ve faced. 

It is a reminder that cynics — the critics — will never win, when compared to the great good of answering the call.

This article originally appeared in the author’s newsletter

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