‘This is Us’ and Birth Family

Last Friday I posted, Ringing in His Ears on ‘This is Us’ about a teen adoptee’s desire to connect with his birth parents on the impressively insightful show ‘This is Us.’ He compares this need to ringing in his ears that grows louder and softer but is always present.

A long-time reader sent an interesting comment worth exploring, so rather than responding in the comments, I’ll respond here. [Note: I’ve edited her comment for length; you can read her full comment with the original post.]

I was recently inquiring to another seasoned foster/adoptive mom about how much connection to give my son with his birth parents. Her suggestion was much different. She gave the example of a marriage. If you are married to a safe and loving person, is it appropriate to continue a friendship with an abusive ex-boyfriend or girlfriend? No.

I’m truly trying to do the right thing by my child. Can you expand more on what you mean by saying that our children need us to connect them with their first families in order to be whole?

I appreciate this question because if one person asks it, I will guess there are others who have similar thoughts.

The Mother/Child Relationship

I would argue that we simply can’t compare the bond between a mother and child to a marriage relationship or any other relationship. We are made up of the DNA of our parents and we grow in the womb of our mother; our earliest memories are formed while we are literally connected to her.

Before we are born, we know her voice, we are rocked by her body. We live because she lives. Yes, some mothers expose their babies in utero to trauma: toxic drugs, malnourishment, a traumatic environment that releases stress chemicals into the mom’s body impacting the baby, and more.

Each adoption story is different, so I can’t speak to every possibility, but I believe nearly all mothers love their children. A mother may have mental illness, addictions, be incarcerated, or simply be unable to make good decisions for her children. Sadly, sometimes it’s simply that she is young, or very poor, as is the case in many international adoptions.

Could addiction or mental illness cause a mother to make terrible decisions that harm her child. Yes.

Is it possible she may one day be clean/sober or mentally more stable? Is it possible that beneath the symptoms and addiction behaviors she still loves her child? Yes.

And what of the child’s love for her mother?

While it may not make sense to our adult brains, especially those of us who have not suffered the trauma of being separated from our first parents, children love their mothers. Even children who have been physically hurt and neglected long for connection, approval, and love from their mothers.

This yearning may ebb and flow over the years, but for most adoptees, it doesn’t seem to go away. They may not talk to their adoptive parents about it because they fear our response. They worry we’ll be angry or hurt.

Adoptive parents may think, “I’ve done all the hard work, why should she get to be part of his life now!” And if our child refers to her as “mom,” all kinds of emotions may be unleashed.

Our children are growing up in a world where many kids have multiple parents and siblings, where families are blended and unique. This is not as complicated for them as it is for the adults.

As I said in my original post, we may need to set boundaries, even very high boundaries of protection around these relationships. Safety may require only letters be exchanged, or perhaps phone calls made on speaker phone with you monitoring the conversation.

While we may be able to forgive people who harmed our children, we do not trust them until they have earned our trust. But I would argue that for the sake of our children, we should hope for healing and believe it is possible. One day they may become people we trust enough to be a healthy influence in our children’s lives.


Our children did not attach to us first; for some adoptive parents, that is painful to recognize. They attached to their first mothers beginning prenatally. If they were parented by their first mothers, they continued to form either secure or insecure attachment to her.

Attachment does not simply dissolve because the child is separated from her mother. I believe that even after adoption, even after forming attachment to us, there is an invisible connection that will not be broken with their first mom.

This is the primary reason we can’t compare ending an unhealthy adult relationship with permanently separating a mother and child. Marriage is an intimate, trust-filled relationship entered into willingly by two adults. If one of the adults becomes abusive, the other has the freedom to leave.

There may be a bond and deep connection, but it is not like mother/child attachment. We may share memories and even children together, but we do not share DNA, family history, and a sense of belonging in the world.

This first attachment may be hard for us to process, especially if the first mom hurt the child we love with all our heart. This is magnified if our child suffers every day from the effects of her choices, and we suffer right along with him. Challenging behaviors from FASD and PTSD come to mind.

Some mama-bear hearts want justice. We may think, “She hurt my child and I will protect him forever from her. I don’t care if she says she has changed, she doesn’t deserve him.”

Open Hearted Adoption

I think we’re called to something better and higher. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

When I want to hurt someone who has harmed someone I love, those words trip me up. How would I want to be treated?

Let’s open our hearts to the stories of our children’s mothers. Let’s imagine ourselves growing up with their lives, being pregnant in their circumstances, and parenting in just their same situation. Would we want to be judged and cut off from our child for the rest of our lives due to the poor decisions we made and actions we took?

I would argue we support our children in seeking relationships with their birth/first families and we allow as much openness as is reasonable and healthy for our child.

There is a lovely quote in the children’s book The Invisible String,

People who love each other are always connected by a very special String, made of love. Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it deep in your heart, and know that you are always connected to the ones you love.

When I saw my son again after so many years, I looked at his face, hugged him close, and felt for the first time that something was complete in my heart. I could breathe more deeply again. We had many conversations and he felt the same. We both felt a sense of relief that the waiting, looking, and longing were over.

I’m not saying reunion was easy – it wasn’t. We had many complicating factors in our relationship, but we both needed to know the other was okay. He needed me to answer his questions, to tell him his story, to introduce him to his extended family and his heritage. He needed to know his siblings.

Adoptive parents reading this, I want to assure you, this did not change his love for his parents or sister. He loved them very much and was deeply connected to them. He lived on the other side of the country from me in the same town as his parents. He was fiercely proud of his sister’s accomplishments.

While my son cannot add his thoughts, we would do well to listen to adult adoptees as they talk about their losses. Read their blogs and join Facebook groups that include the entire triad.

And bringing this all the way back to the beginning, what does this have to do with This is Us? On the show, the teen Randall becomes an adult who searches for and finds his birth father. His father, William, was once an addict who left newborn Randall at a fire station, but was so high he could never remember what happened.

Over the years, William became a clean, healthy, quite wonderful man. They met again 36 years later and his father became a gift in Randall’s life. It’s a beautiful storyline; if you aren’t watching the show, please forgive the spoilers and start watching.

I have barely scratched the surface of this topic and done absolutely no justice to discussing Attachment Theory. Keep reading and learning – it’s for the good of our kids, which ultimately is good for us.

You might also like:

Do You Like What ‘This is Us’ Has to Say About Adoption?

Ringing in His Ears on ‘This is Us’

What ‘This is Us’ Teaches Us About Tragedy

Humbly and with an open heart,


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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Paula
    October 23, 2017

    I love this, Lisa. We have contact with two of our birth families in Ethiopia. It is difficult. Not just emotionally, but also physically as thousands of miles and an even wider cultural gulf affect our relationships. But I am fiercely devoted to maintaining that contact, even in the seasons when my child seems uninterested. I know that they will never be sorry that we kept in touch with the families that loved and continue to love them so…our therapist Cathy talked about “the magical cords of love” that could stretch over any distance and around any number of people.

    We are facing a different situation with our youngest, a true orphan, who prior to being placed in an orphanage, was living with extended family who we have reason to believe severely neglected our son due to some unfortunate cultural beliefs. He remembers absolutely nothing of his time in Ethiopia, although he was almost six years old when we adopted him. His trauma was great. Now we are navigating new waters as we decide how much contact to have with this family. I want them to know how safe and loved he is, because I know they loved him enough to place him somewhere safe for his care. You can help ME by praying for discernment as we make these hard decisions.

  2. Beth
    October 23, 2017

    Always such a hard place to be in as the adoptive mother, something I struggle with daily as we approach the last adoption in a sibling group. I pray for discernment to know when it will be safe to slowly open the door to a young woman with such deep struggles, to know when the children’s hearts can handle the potential pain and disappointment. Thank you for speaking to both sides of adoption and reminding us to be compassionate and forgiving.

  3. Emily
    October 23, 2017

    I love it.
    I also think that in those situations where contact with birth family is not possible (death or no idea how to contact them) or truly not safe, that connection can still be honored and supported… through how/when they are talked about, for example (ideas?).

  4. Emily
    October 23, 2017

    I also love this post and have referred people to it over the years:

    “…And that’s when I realized that this mom, Real or not, was too hasty.
    I was too quick to talk about my own selfish need to be Real. And too slow to listen to my daughter’s Real sense of loss…

    As I listened, I reevaluated what I think about being Real and my own selfishness in hogging that title for Just Me. And I told the truth as far and as best as I understood it in that moment…
    I told Aden the truth that all of us are Real. And that there’s room in the Real pool for more than just one mama.
    Your birthmom is your Real mom, Aden. She grew you inside of her own flesh, and she gave you the gift of life, which is something I couldn’t do for you. Nothing will change that or take it away from you or her. That’s Real life. Her story will always be part of yours. And stories are things we get to keep forever.
    And I’m your Real mom, too. I get to love you and parent you every day.
    You know what else is Real, Miss Aden? Holding the loss and love of your first Real Mom alongside the love of your Me Real Mom in your heart. Because it’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and. Love and loss. Pain and joy…”

  5. Rebecca
    October 23, 2017

    Thank you for speaking so openly about this. We gain so much of our identity from our birth parents. In all of our families there is talk of traits. “You got your mom’s eyes.” “You have your dad’s sense of humor.” “You act just like…”
    Adopted kids deserve to have these bonds and to have help muddling through the hard of them. If my dad makes bad, does that mean I’m bad? If I look like my mom, am I destined to her poor decisions?
    No matter how crazy it sounds, we want the best for our first families. As adopted and foster children, we want our first parents to be redeemed, because they gave us part of ourselves. Their redemption is our own. I know many times this is not reality, but I believe it is the heart-cry of every adopted and foster child. That they would find the good in their first family in order to more easily see the good in themselves.

  6. Cindy
    October 24, 2017

    I am commenting as both a foster/adoptive mother and someone who volunteers with parents who have had their children placed into foster care and who are working through their goals to have their children returned. I firmly believe that it is absolutely necessary to allow our children to have a relationship with their biological family to the extent that it is safe and healthy. Of course that will look different with each child but we cannot go into fostering or adoption thinking we are heroes swooping in or that first families are to be feared. I look at each of these first families that I work with. They may or may not “deserve” to be in this place but they do deserve our respect, compassion, and love. As the director of the program has had to say to adversarial foster parents, “There is going to be grieving if this child is returned to his biological family. And there is going to be grieving if this child is adopted into your home. Can’t you work with us at least until we see which kind of grieving it’s going to be?” Thank you for speaking the truth in love.

  7. Kemery Kane
    October 24, 2017

    I’m so grateful for the truth these words speak. As an adoptee, I can testify to the sort of primal urge that the desire to know your birth parents is. You know my thoughts on this, Lisa, but I’ll share my opinion here in hopes it can help other adoptive parents to understand.
    I believe that the desire to know your birthmother is not even something that can be helped; like your post about Randall having a “ringing in his ears” it’s something that is just always there. Really, to think it wouldn’t be seems foolish. The connection between mother and child is so fundamental, so primal, it lives within every person and manifests at different times in different ways. For me, the birth of my first child sparked something in me that wanted to know who the woman was that went through that same profoundly momentous experience with me. My adoptive parents were always open and they said they always knew if one of their three adopted children was going to search, “It was going to be you!” Out of the three children in our family, I had a desire to search at 23 after the birth of my first child. My sister was ambivalent until our father passed, and then she felt ready to discover her origin story. My brother has a desire to know but not enough to search…although he has two little girls now, and he’s mentioned it a couple times recently.
    The point that I feel most strongly about, however, is the fact that as adoptees, we have the capacity to love more than one person as a mother. To search for birthparents is not to denounce our adoptive parents. (And please understand, I use these terms only for clarification in writing. In “real life” I simply say “parents” and “mother” and if I need to make a distinction, I call my birthmother my “Birthday Mom!” because it sounds happier to me, but I just call her Mom otherwise, as I do my adoptive mother.) It seems somewhat duplicitous to imagine that as mothers, we can love each child individually and uniquely and no less or more than our other children, but do not believe our children can do the same with parents. When a young child asks their mother, “When the new baby comes, will you love it more than me?” we rush in to assure the child that love knows no boundaries, that we will love the baby just as much as we love our other children, but love isn’t a limited resource, that there is enough love to cover every child we have, fully and completely and uniquely. So then, can we ask the same of adoptive parents? To believe that a child’s love knows no boundaries, that a child can love more than one parent, completely and fully and uniquely (and with difficult situations, that unique love may look different, but it is still full and complete)?
    The insecurity and fear that adoptive mothers feel is real and valid and honest, and must be honored, just as an older child’s insecurity and fear that a new baby might take their mother’s love from them must be acknowledged and discussed in a healthy way. But, to deny the birthright that is an individual’s origin story and personal history, is simply to deny a fundamental desire that will be there whether it is honored or not. To prevent a child from searching or knowing their birth story and history is to deny them part of themselves, and in my opinion, is only the cause of more damage. As adoptees, we are at higher risk of a multitude of issues, from ADHD to ODD to disorganized attachment disorder, no matter what the age of relinquishment (Kaplan, A. 2009, January 26. Adoption and Mental Illness. Retrieved from Psychiatric Times:
    http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/articles/adoption-and-mental-illness). It’s understandable, for no matter what the situation, an adoption is a trauma for the child involved. To add to that trauma by denying a child such a fundamental piece of themselves seems short-sighted at best, and based on fear and insecurity. To come alongside your adopted children and truly partner with them to fulfill that part of themselves is a great gift, and allows both parent and child to operate from a place of power, rather than victimhood.

    1. Gena Conley
      October 25, 2017

      Dear Kemery,
      I so appreciate you sharing your perspective as an adoptee. I particularly love your analogy about a child being able to love more than one set of parents as parents may love more than one child. I have felt this, but not articulated nearly so well to myself. As our family grows and stretches in new and beautiful ways, I find myself often saying to myself and others, “There is enough love to go around.” And as God stretches our capacity to love, He continues to change my idea of what a healthy, thriving family might look like in His eyes. And it’s so much bigger, more awesome and includes wayyyy more people than my original ideas.
      Thanks for a great topic, Lisa, and for continuing to give a forum where we might grow in grace and truth. Gena

  8. Ashley Nabors
    October 26, 2017

    I just started reading your blog and found it because I am reading Born Broken by Kristin Berry who had your blog as a resource listed. My husband and I are in the process of internationally adopting a little girl and I just love everything you posted in this entry. I enjoy This Is Us as well and think its a beautiful show. Thank you for sharing your heart!

    1. Lisa Qualls
      November 1, 2017

      I love knowing you found my blog through Kristin’s book. I hope I can be a resource for you along the way, Ashley. Many blessings to you.


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