After Huxley
New York magazine|August 17 - 30, 2020
YouTubers Myka and James Stauffer adopted a toddler from China and shared every step of the process with their online audience. Except the last.
By Caitlin Moscatello

THE VIDEO BEGAN like so many others. YouTubers Myka and James Stauffer, in the glow of camera-friendly lighting, staring into the lens. But this time, instead of energetically updating their roughly 1 million subscribers (over 700,000 on Myka’s YouTube channel and over 300,000 on the family’s vlog, The Stauffer Life) on their “kiddos” or Myka’s “mommy morning routine” or vegan-meal ideas, the couple had somber expressions. “This is by far the hardest video James and I have ever publicly had to make,” said Myka. Wearing white shirts that matched the linens on the bed where they sat, the Stauffers revealed that they had placed Huxley, their then almost 5-year-old autistic son from China— whose adoption process and life they had documented for more than three years— with “his now new forever family.” Myka and James tearfully explained that the extent of Huxley’s needs had not been clear when they’d adopted him, that it was never supposed to happen this way, and that they loved him.

Some viewers were sympathetic, but the video, which was posted in late May, also fueled outrage. The Stauffers lost thousands of subscribers, and Facebook and Instagram accounts sprung up demanding “Justice for Huxley” and “Cancel Myka & James Stauffer.” Brands that had worked with Myka to promote their products— including Fabletics, Suave, Danimals, and Playtex Baby— distanced themselves. They were even subject to a sheriff ’s-office investigation after detractors suggested their other children might be endangered. In the kindest light, Myka, now 33, and James, 35, were painted as well-meaning but naïve parents who had gotten in over their heads; in the harshest, they were fame-hungry narcissists who’d exploited a child for clicks and profit only to discard him when caring for him proved too difficult.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, anywhere from one percent to 5 percent of the more than 100,000 adoptions in the U.S. each year are legally terminated in what’s called a “dissolution”—making the Stauffers’ decision to relinquish custody rare but not unheard of. Had they not shared Huxley’s adoption with the world, building an audience from videos about everything from his medical diagnoses to his food anxiety, they would be dealing with a private family tragedy rather than a public scandal. Instead, the Stauffers have been held up as examples of what is wrong with both influencer and adoption culture—and what can happen when a child is caught at the intersection.

BEFORE SHE WAS Myka Stauffer, adoption vlogger, she was Myka Bellisari, a nurse and single mother living in Ohio, posting weight-loss videos to her YouTube channel. This was 2012, around the time she met James on OkCupid. After they moved in together in Indianapolis and got pregnant, the couple started The Stauffer Life, where they vlogged about their relationship and growing family. In 2014, they were married, and Myka began a channel using her new last name. With James’s support, she quit nursing; by Myka’s own telling, his job as an engineer paid “at least three times” what she was making. She began selling clothes on eBay while filming for her channels. Eventually, she said, James convinced her to focus on YouTube full time.

Back then, much of their most-viewed content centered on the couple’s quest to get pregnant again. Myka and James, who declined to be interviewed for this story but whose digital footprint spans countless hours of testimonials, showed an early willingness to share deeply personal moments. They were rewarded for it. Clips titled “my miscarriage story at 6 weeks pregnant!!!” and “live pregnancy test! am i pregnant?!!!” received hundreds of thousands of views, while videos about healthy breakfasts or Myka’s favorite things fell flatter. The couple studied YouTube analytics—Myka has called James “an SEO god”—and leaned further into family vlogging.

They came off as a young, attractive couple dedicated to their kids and to each other without losing their sense of humor. Myka, with her ombré highlights, high cheekbones, and considered, casual outfits (her aesthetic might be described as mature-Coachella, Moon Juice–meets–the–mall), poured herself into decorating, cooking, and child-rearing. James was Super Dad, the devoted partner with endless energy for work and family. Myka described him as “the man of my dreams.” They seemed equally ambitious, with Myka happily oversharing the details of their life and James more than willing to hold the camera when he wasn’t also in front of the lens.

By 2016, Myka was homeschooling—a trend among top family vloggers—and James had started a car-detailing channel, Stauffer Garage, restoring his Honda Civic for early material. With their three kids, the family moved to Ohio. They remained on the lower rung of influencers. Other YouTubers had grown their audiences by sharing family milestones, and, in a 2019 interview, James acknowledged that “peak moments” could increase viewership. New homes play well, as do pregnancy and new babies (many successful family vloggers have four kids or more).

Myka said she’d long wanted to adopt; at one point, she and James talked about having six or seven children, with multiple adoptions, and were specifically interested in a child from Africa. James was more reluctant, she said, and after several conversations, she finally pleaded, “Can you please, please in your heart just consider adoption? Just really genuinely think about it, because it’s really important to me.” He ultimately agreed, and, later in 2016, the couple posted a video announcing their plans to adopt and their intent to take viewers along with them on their “journey.”

Sharing information about a child’s adoption before he or she is in the home is frowned upon by adoption experts. “We don’t advise it. In fact, we ask them specifically not to do it,” says Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice-president of policy and external affairs for Holt International, the agency that has since merged with the World Association for Children and Parents, which the Stauffers said they used to adopt Huxley. Not only can publicizing an adoption jeopardize it, but it’s often seen as playing into the stereotype of white families swooping in to “save” foreign children. It “perpetuates the idea of lesser,” says Cox, who was adopted from Korea. That notion hasn’t stopped other influencers from documenting their process.

Myka began framing the couple’s decision as a step they were being called to take, saying she was “so excited to open our hearts and see what the Good Lord has in store for us”—a sentiment frequently echoed by the often white and Christian community of adoption influencers. Adoption, Myka said, was “something that we really want to be part of our story.” After speaking with adoption agencies, they decided to focus their search on China. International adoptions to the U.S. have dropped to a fraction of what they were a decade and a half ago, as many countries, including China, have revised their protocols. (For the 2019 fiscal year, the U.S. Department of State reported just 2,971 adoptions to the U.S. from other countries, down from almost 23,000 adoptions in 2004.) China still accounts for more adoptions to the U.S. than any other country, but now almost all adoptees from China to the U.S. are toddler age or older, and many have existing health conditions. If the Stauffers adopted from China, they would almost certainly be choosing a child with special needs.

Even then, though, there are two categories of adoption: the country’s LID or “Log-in Date” program, in which the children have more minor needs, and the Special Focus program, in which the children usually have more challenging conditions. Myka said James was initially interested in going the LID route, but for reasons they didn’t make quite clear, they decided to adopt from Special Focus instead. “Let’s just say there’s 100 conditions. Me and my husband were comfortable with 99 of the conditions, so we were very, very open,” Myka told her viewers at the time.

During their search, Myka became active on Facebook groups about adoption. Cynthia Martin, a clinical psychologist who specializes in autism spectrum disorder and is the mother of two adopted daughters from China, says she first encountered Myka in a group-specific to parents who either had adopted from China or were interested in doing so. She says Myka “was very vocal” within the group and had reached out to her to ask about various special conditions. Myka also talked about her vlog. “She did ask to be followed, if I wouldn’t mind helping her out, that her family was really trying to get this vlog off the ground,” Martin recalls. “She framed it as wanting to use it as a way to document their adoption process, similarly to how some other families will blog about things. But those are blogs that are generally geared toward family, friends, people in your close community.” The solicitation was off-putting, but Myka persisted. “She would ask families, ‘Can you follow me? Can you go and like my videos?’ ” says Martin. At that point, “myself, as well as other families who I am in touch with through this community, decided, ‘We are going to keep our distance now.’ ”

Myka said she looked through hundreds of photos of children who were available for adoption, but none of them “spoke” to her until she came across the child she and James would rename Huxley. When the agency told her over the phone about suspicions that the child had a brain tumor or cyst, “My heart just stopped. It just stopped. So hard. And I felt crushed,” she said.

The Stauffers took Huxley’s medical file to their physician for review—a step in the adoption process that agencies recommend, according to Cox. When the doctor assessed the imaging, “her optimism went down significantly,” said Myka. “She kind of almost discouraged us from adopting him, saying, ‘This is going to be severe. This is going to be a lot. You know, we don’t know what unknown elements could be.’ ” But Myka wasn’t deterred. “Without a doubt in our minds, we knew, no matter what state he came to us, that we would love him,” she told her subscribers. “If anything, my child is not returnable.”

Myka and James asked viewers to invest not only time in Huxley’s adoption story but money. In one video, they held a fund-raiser asking their audience to donate $5 for puzzle pieces, which, when put together, would reveal a photo of Huxley. (In a video, Myka said they’d raised $1,900; during the investigation conducted by Ohio’s Delaware County Sheriff ’s Office, one of the Stauffers told officers they’d raised $800 from a GoFundMe. Either number is a small fraction of their adoption costs, which were over $40,000.)

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