“Once Upon a Time” Goes to Neverland

Racilous column topper

When Once Upon A Time premiered, it was definitely felt throughout the adoption community; it was a show with adoption plot lines throughout it. Although I enjoyed the show the first season and looked forward to watching how they handled some of the adoption themes this second season, I didn’t expect them to surprise me.

This season they did.

At the end of last season, Emma’s son Henry(who she relinquished at birth but found at the beginning of the series) was kidnapped by two people who took him to Neverland and gave him over to Peter Pan. Emma and her parents (Snow White and Prince Charming who are around the same age as her because of a magical curse) along with Henry’s adoptive Mother Regina (aka the Evil Queen) set off to Neverland with Captain Hook to find Henry. It is there where I found the story so interesting.


In Neverland Emma is given a map by Peter Pan that is supposed to show where Henry is. The map is blank and Pan says “you will only be able to read that map when you stop denying who you really are.” Emma attempts to tell her story by saying facts about herself like that she is the sheriff or she is Mother to Henry, then she starts in on what everyone else believes, that she is the product of true love and that she is the Savior (something Henry believes). None of it changes the map.

Later in the episode they find Pan’s camp and start fighting the Lost Boys. Emma has one of them cornered but stops, letting him go. When Snow asks her why she stopped, Emma explains that the look in his eyes is one she recognized, one she has felt herself – Despair.  When Emma was born, her parents, under duress because the Evil Queen was threatening them, decided to send Emma through a portal to our world. The initial plan was to send her with Snow White, but then they weren’t able to send a second person so Emma went alone. She was found as an infant along the side of the road and was put into foster. For Emma despair was something she herself had felt in the foster system – she felt like a lost little girl who didn’t matter and didn’t think she ever would, a girl who cried herself to sleep because she wanted her parents, a girl who wondered why they gave her up. Emma had to admit to herself, to her Mother, that she still felt like an orphan.

I personally found this moment of the show poignant. So often the images shown in culture of adults in reunion with their birth parents (when they actually show these images) seem to imply that it undoes all the loss that happened previously. In this case, the loss can’t be glossed over; Emma grew up in foster care, never having been adopted, her childhood was one filled with despair. But the idea that a reunion as an adult can undo the time lost as a child, the time spent without knowing your story, without understanding why you were left, isn’t Emma’s reality. In her case, Emma’s parents sent her away like they did to save her life, as adults it was clear it was the only viable decision, but for Emma the child she just felt the loss – she didn’t even have the context as to why it had to be that way, only the reality of being parentless. Then as an adult, as much as she understood the logical reasons behind it, she could never get past the very ingrained feeling of being an orphan.

When Pan returned he talked to Emma again, he not only acknowledged her feelings but gave her a warning –

You haven’t forgiven your parents for abandoning you, that’s good. It will help you understand Henry. Henry hasn’t forgiven you either. By the time you find him he won’t want to leave this island.

In a later episode, this prophecy starts to come true. We learn Pan had gotten a set of pipes which he would play and children who felt lost and unloved would hear the sound and follow him (this story showed how Pan was actually the figure that inspired Pied Piper). A few adults were able to hear it, adults like Rumpelstiltskin who was abandoned by his own father, and Emma who was an orphan. When Henry first starts to interact with the Lost Boys he can’t hear the pipes, but somewhere along the line he begins to lose faith, lose hope, feel abandoned and feel lost, he then can hear the song of Pan.

It was an interesting take for Pan to play up that Henry felt abandoned. I think for many in mainstream culture it is probably a difficult pill to swallow. Henry was adopted by a Mother at birth, and currently he is being raised in an open adoption. Although there are issues, both of his Mothers are working to create an encompassing family, they both love him and both are fighting for him. It would be easy to dismiss what Pan is saying, Henry should never feel abandoned. But what I have learned is that no one else can dictate what someone is supposed to feel, it needs to go back to their own truth. A child relinquished at birth can still feel abandoned as they grow. They can still feel cheated out of a life they might have had, even if the life they do have is a good one. I think it’s important for all involved in adoption to recognize this – what someone else feels about their own circumstances is valid, it’s their truth – even if that person is involved in the same adoption as you. Regina and Emma can be traipsing through the jungle together looking for Henry and see no abandonment in any of their current actions and yet Henry is still allowed to feel abandoned, and that is his truth, his story. They can’t rationalize away his feelings, they can’t tell him what he should feel, they can only love him and hope he feels their love along with everything else he feels.

When Emma apologized to Snow after saying she felt like an orphan, Snow’s response was immediately, “You WERE an orphan. That is okay, it is your truth. Now it’s my job to try to change that.” I think her validation followed by her renewed effort to show her daughter love is the best she can do, the best we all can do.

About the author:
In addition to being a monthly contributor to OAB, you can also find Racilous at her personal blog Adoption in the City. There she writes about her experiences as a birth mother, navigating an open adoption with her son and his family, and how adoption has impacted her.