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

The adoption community is abuzz with discussion about This is Us. As an adoptive mom and birth/first mom, I’m very critical of movies and shows that attempt to tackle the subject of adoption. It’s nearly never done well. This is Us is the exception to the rule.

Qualls Family - 2016
And this is us – The Qualls Family – 2016

[Spoiler alert: spoilers for episode 8 and 9 of This is Us are in this post.]

If you’re not watching This is Us you’re missing some of the best television I’ve seen in a long time and the best adoption education I’ve ever seen in mainstream media.

I’m usually far behind the crowd when it comes to watching television, in fact, we don’t have cable and only have Netflix, but something about the trailer for This is Us caught my attention. I searched a bit and found it on NBC.com.

Then I watched the first episode and was hooked.  I watched it again with Russ, and it’s become our weekly date.

I’ve never seen a movie or show handle adoption with such insight. When adoption is a theme in a show, I watch with such a critical eye that I tend to make everyone in the room miserable. I expect the writers to be shallow and lopsided in their views, and in nearly all cases, they meet my expectations.

In contrast, with each episode of This is Us, I’m increasingly impressed with the writers’ navigation of the complexities of adoption for the entire triad of birth parent, adoptive parents, and adoptee.

As an adoptive mom, I relate to Rebecca. I understand her love for her children and her strong attachment to her adopted son, Randall. She is fiercely protective of him. She wants to believe that she and her husband, Jack, are “enough” for him. Her one concession is her recognition of his need for positive black role models.

But she can’t bear to meet the greatest need of her son’s heart, even though it is within her power to do so.

Randall wants to know his first father.

This is where the writers rise above the crowd, Rebecca finally admits it’s not her fear that his birth father will be a terrible person or a drug addict that terrifies her, as many adoptive parents tend to claim, but that he might be a wonderful person.

This is what frightens her the most.

If Randall’s first father is wonderful, Randall might love him more, and maybe she will not be needed or wanted.

She is afraid of losing her son whom she loves so much – yet this is exactly what his first father, William, is experiencing and she knows this.

As much as I relate to Rebecca, my strongest sympathies are with William, Randall’s first father.

As I watched episode 9, where Randall wrestles with the knowledge that his mother knew his first father all along, and William desperately wanted a relationship with his son, I began to cry.

The deep grief of being a birth mother, a first mother, bubbled up and flowed out. My son was born in same era as the characters of this show, making this all the more real to me.

While I pleaded for an open, or semi-open adoption (after begging not to have my son taken from me at all), the agency refused. I lived for 16 years not knowing if my son was dead or alive, and it’s only by the grace of God that he found me when he did.

It was truly a nightmare of grief. To have a child disappear from my arms knowing I would probably never see him again was a depth of sorrow I would not wish upon anyone.

I contacted the agency continually over the years, asking for updates, begging them to reach out to his parents and see if he was okay, but they refused.

When my son finally contacted me himself, our communication was cut off again. It is a long, tangled story I don’t feel free to share, but maybe one day I will.

Randall’s story in This is Us illustrates a very real yearning for answers and for connection with a first parent. Not all adoptees experience this, but my son did, he needed to know me, he wanted a relationship with me.

In the last months of his life, we had frequent, sweet communication. Realizing he nearly lost me in the accident was a shock to him and he longed for deeper connection. We were planning a visit in the fall when he died in June 2015.

I see this deep longing for connection in Wogauyu. He talks about his Ethiopian mother and wants to see her. She has our contact information, but we haven’t heard from her in several years. I pray that we will hear from her soon; it would meet a need of his heart.

Eby has a relationship with his sister in Italy. Beza communicates with her family in Ethiopia. We had contact with Kalkidan’s family.

As a birth/first mom, this was essential to me. We could not take another family’s child and cut off all contact. We would not. Open adoption, even across continents, was the only kind of adoption we would consider.

After watching this week’s episode, I’m left with many emotions and thoughts. I would love to hear from you, either here or on my Thankful Moms Facebook page.

You might also like:

Ringing in His Ears on ‘This is Us’

‘This is Us’ and Birth Family

What ‘This is Us’ Teaches Us About Tragedy

Are you watching This is Us? What do you think?

Lisa

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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.

31 Comments

  1. Emily and Ben
    December 1, 2016

    Whoa. Going to have to watch this. Maybe we can convince Samuel to come over and watch it with us every week. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 1, 2016

      You will LOVE it! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

      Reply
      1. Emily
        December 1, 2016

        Yay!! I needed a good new show, too.

        Reply
  2. Martha
    December 1, 2016

    I love this show. My adoption story is different – my son knew, was abused, and neglected by his birth parents until he was almost 6. We adopted him after years in the system when he was almost 11. I fear that after struggling to get him to function in a somewhat normal way he will leave to find his birth parents and will fall into their bad habits. When he is upset he will say I’m worse than his birth mom and he would rather live with her – even though I know that is not true I feel he will try to find her when he is older.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 4, 2016

      We’ve been talking about the complexity of relationships with birth parents that may be harmful over on my Facebook page. I can imagine how much that must frighten you, Martha. It is a different situation, to be sure, when we’re considering the safety of children or even young adults. I think we can only give them the best foundation we can, love them, prepare them, pray for them and for their birth parents, and hope for a healthy and safe relationship in adulthood.

      Reply
    2. Emily
      December 6, 2016

      One of my cousins choose this route. She came into care at 8 and spent a year with foster parents before being adopted by my aunt and uncle at 9. While I don’t know the full depth of her story (she’s 3 years older than me so I definitely didn’t have much perspective when it happened), I know she chose to live with her birth father for some time as an older teen.

      She’s made a lot of choices that don’t reflect my aunt and uncle’s values. Her life now is very different than theirs, and different than her sister’s (who was 5 when my aunt and uncle adopted her). But she still considers them family, she still considers us family, and her kids have a close relationship with their grandparents (my ain’t and uncle).

      For a long time I didn’t want to adopt because of watching the pain my aunt and uncle went through. I thought absolutely nothing could be worth that. Now, I watch them with utmost respect – both as people who live a redemptive love, but as people who understand however complex families are, sometimes they are only as complex as we make them.

      Reply
  3. Luann
    December 1, 2016

    My husband and I are HOOKED on this show. The writing is superb. One thing I expect from a well-written show is 3-dimensional characters. Too many shows feature characters that have only one personality trait: nice, evil, ditzy, serious, comedic, etc. This Is Us has characters that are like the people in our lives…normal people (in all shapes and sizes) who sometimes do great things and sometimes make mistakes. It shows the consequences of poor decisions and shows how are early childhood experiences shape and affect us.

    Thanks for sharing your insights. As always, you make so many interesting observations.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 4, 2016

      I’m glad to hear you’re hooked too, Luann. Russ is one episode behind me and I seriously need him to catch up before next Wednesday when I’m ready to watch the final episode!

      Reply
  4. Anna
    December 1, 2016

    As an adoptive mom, this story has broken my heart so many times. Our daughter yearns so deeply for her birth mom and birth family, and we have an extremely open adoption, where we stay in each others’ homes for several days at a time regularly and go camping together. But we live many miles apart, and our daughter frequently expresses sorrow that she can’t be with her first mom. In addition, we see personality traits that are thoroughly nature and not nurture, and there is an unintended separateness because of not “getting” each others’ differences the way we “get” our other daughters.

    I completely related to Rebecca’s fear that the first mom is wonderful. And truly, my daughter has a very real connection and commitment to her first mom. I am determined to nurture that…but it really hurts, too, and triggers a lot of fear and sorrow.

    Funnily enough, I also sympathize with William (Randall’s first father), even though we are the adoptive family. I grieve for this loss of his. People often don’t understand that before adoption is wonderful, it is TERRIBLE; full of loss and sorrow, a tearing of lives, it is not the natural way of things, and even in its wonderfulness, adoption is only ever second best to what SHOULD be.

    I also thought Randall’s comment to his mother, about her loneliness, was a profoundly mature concession that his pain is not only his pain, but also hers.

    This is Us has been a deeply touching reflection of what we experience daily. Thanks for your post.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 4, 2016

      Anna, thank you for sharing your family’s experience, which sounds really wonderful and unique. I share many of your thoughts about adoption and despite being a birth/first mom, there are moments when it pains my heart to hear how much one of my children longs to be with their first mom. It’s so complicated.

      Reply
  5. Dawn
    December 1, 2016

    I watched this episode last night before bed, woke up thinking about it during the night and all day today. I agree that they have done an authentic job of painting a picture of how incredibly complicated adoption is, for all parties involved. A reminder that it isn’t God’s plan A. And the truth that it is so much more than a gotcha day photo….

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 1, 2016

      The show is so nuanced, showing that adoption is not easy. So true, those sweet photos only show a tiny slice of reality.

      Reply
  6. Emily the Original
    December 1, 2016

    I am watching this show. I think it’s very well written. It has some excellent actors in it (and I know the birth father personally Ron Cephas Jones, and he is a truly wonderful man.) It’s so creative in how it tells stories by weaving in and out of the past. I wondered if that would get gimmicky or old but they do it so well that you get used to following two story lines that are intimately connected. The one thing I struggle with is how emotional every single episode it. Your heart strings are tugged and you end up in a puddle weekly with this show. I cry easily so maybe not everyone is reaching for the tissues by the end of every episode of This is Us, but I definitely am. Maybe it’s because, like you, we are a family who has adopted, is interracial, my husband is an adoptee and we are connected to his birth family and I am deeply connected to other birth moms like you. And of course- the loss. The super bowl episode about killed me. I mean it pulled me right back. And what I have learned is that we can take too much in. It can be too much politics. Too much zombie killing. And even too much exposure to grief and loss. I hope the show doesn’t feel the need to bring us to our knees every week. It’s good enough not to have to do that. And we didn’t even touch on the issues of being overweight!! Yeah, this show has it all! Ha ha! I love what you said here and thanks for asking our opinion. (Also Ron’s Daughter is in Hamilton! “LOVEISLOVEISLOVE”)

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 2, 2016

      I love everything about your comment – and I want to meet Ron – the “wise owl.” I know he’s an actor, but he seems like he would be as kind in real life as he is in the show. And I want to see Hamilton too. Can we go to NYC? Tell him how much I love the show and how it is affecting the adoption community. His work matters.

      Reply
      1. Emily the Original
        December 2, 2016

        I will tell him Lisa and I know it will be very meaningful to him! Xo

        Reply
    2. Emily and Ben
      December 4, 2016

      I agree with you re too much grief and loss exposure… this makes me nervous about the show, I’m only a few episodes in and while I have TOTALLY been a puddle at the end (and/or throughout!) most of the time :), I have so far mostly felt like it has been positive-if-poignant emotions… like the ultimate messages are that people are kind and good. I couldn’t do Parenthood (the show) even though I thought it was excellent, because the emotions were just tooooo….

      Reply
    3. Emily W.
      December 12, 2016

      Just watched Episode 9. Oh the grief and loss. Still so good and worth it to watch. But TEARS

      Reply
  7. Debbie
    December 2, 2016

    We have 7 bio and 3 adopted. The last two have the same father and we talked of open adoption (he willingly signed them over to us and wanted it open), but its been over a year since we have heard from him. My husband wants us to leave it up to him to contact us…im conflicted. He knows where we go to church and has visited in the past, but nothing since the adoption. What do u think?

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 2, 2016

      As in all real-life situations, that is complicated. Personally, for us, an invitation for communication is always a gift worth giving when the father is a safe person for the children. Keeping our hands and hearts open is core to who we try to be. That being said, it depends so much on your husband and how flexible he is in his thinking about it. Lots to pray and talk about. Blessings to you, Debbie.

      Reply
  8. Tricia Wilson
    December 2, 2016

    Lisa, I just watched the last episode. I agree that this show deals with the complexity of adoption better than most. I end up crying most weeks, but I think that is a good thing. So many nuances and complications and mixed emotions all around the topic of adoption for each and every one involved.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 2, 2016

      Wouldn’t it be interesting to talk with the writers. Whoever is advising them is doing a very good job.

      Reply
  9. AmyE
    December 2, 2016

    I really do wish there was a litttle processing group each week because there is just so much to discuss. The thing that has surprised me the most is how impacted I’ve been seeing a grown up transracial family. In one of the first episodes when Randall’s kids run up to Rebecca yelling Grandma, it took my breath away. Of course I have a black son but had never pictured his children some day. It’s the perspective of seeing what we must look like from the outside that keeps surprising me. And then Randall’sense of being “other” is heartbreaking. My son is more like your K was at first. Not a pleaser but a fighter and so I am not the warm, always loving mom that I’d like to be. And he does feel like I love the other kids more because they don’t “get in trouble” the way he does. And he’a an extrovert in an introvert family. And so many things that make him feel like he does not belong. So to see Randall struggling when he was so clearly adored just makes me feel even worse for the many times I have blown it with my son. I wish he could feel the depth of my love. I wish I could do the push-ups to remind him that I will never give up fighting for him and supporting him. And really I could go on and on.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 2, 2016

      Amy, just reading your comment brings tears to my eyes. The subtle nuances of being an interracial family with an adult adoptee, and now his children, are really fascinating to me too. And the push-up scene? So powerful.

      Reply
      1. AmyE
        December 2, 2016

        Lisa, every year I say I’m going to make it to Refresh since I live in Portland and every year money, life, etc. keeps it from happening. I would so love to meet you and am sure I would be a sobbing mess because your journey has and continues to be such a powerful influence on my own family’s journey. Thank you for continuing to share your story. It has made a difference in my life.

        Reply
        1. Lisa Qualls
          December 2, 2016

          I hope we can meet one day too, Amy. I’m so glad my blog ministers to you – you are not alone in this journey. I’m going to miss Refresh for the very first time because I’m speaking at Created for Care in Atlanta and they overlap this year. I’m very excited to speak at C4C and can’t wait to spend time with those ladies – I’m going to miss my Refresh family!

          Reply
  10. Marla
    December 8, 2016

    I find the lack of empathy for Rebecca in the adoption community kind of crushing. The adoptive mom loves, sacrifices, weeps, rejoices, deals with the day in day out everything. In contrast the birth parents must only exist and they are given equal if not higher standing in the hearts and minds of many adopted children. It doesn’t matter if the birth parent is a “William” or an abusive murderer. This is reality that adoptive parents face, and I wish the comments showed more support for Rebecca’s heart. I am speaking more about the Facebook comments on this post than the comments here. I know her decision was wrong, but as I currently navigate the prison system to help my teen and adult children reach out to their unrepentant murderer mother, well I guess I most relate to Rebecca. I don’t feel comfortable writing this post on Facebook because I wouldn’the want my children to see it. Randell got one thing right, the pain and adoptive mom feels can be excruciatingly lonely, regardless of the decision.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 8, 2016

      Marla, I’m glad you are sharing your thoughts. It really is complex, and your situation is much harder than many of ours. Yours is also much different than the story portrayed on This is Us, where William was clean/sober, healthy, kind and loving. It’s easy to write about Rebecca, because she isn’t a real person – you are. You are walking a hard path of loving your children through very hard circumstances. You are not Rebecca. Press on, fellow mama. We can only do our best with the knowledge we have and the fact that you are navigating the prison system to help your children connect with their birth mom speaks volumes about your love for them.

      Reply
  11. Pam H.
    December 13, 2016

    I loved your post and reading the replies. I saw a few episodes of This is Us and always come away – grown. I have adopted children, a step-child and one bio child, and each one created their own This is Us story. The oldest adopted child is now 44 and I went through years of him always wanting, needing, to belong to his bio family. I let him go over the years to connect with them, but not surprisingly he has always come back to me, knowing as Mom, I will always be there. That is the one sure thing we Moms can give our adopted kids. I always told my son, that no matter where he goes, or how long he is gone, I will ALWAYS be his Mom. Step-daughter hated me, like HATED me, most of her childhood and into her 20s and early 30s. I stood by her though no matter what came, and now, while she still doesn’t call me Mom, she calls me, Pamie, as close to “Mom” she can come to, and tells me all the time that I am more of a Mom to her than her bio mom. Ironically, and sadly, my bio daughter is the one I have trouble connecting with. At 29, raising her own family, I have to give her space. She loves me and I love her, and we get along, but I think I broke her heart when I unexpectedly took in the last two children when she was 12. My last two adopted kids, 20 and 17 yrs old, have a relationship with their bio parents, and I don’t have to say a bad word, neither one “likes” their bio parents, though encouraged to love them, and works very hard not to BE like them. They see them for who they are.

    The Moms who follow you Lisa, are a special breed. We love with our whole selves, give everything away without expecting anything in return, mold and shape lives, give endless support and guidance, and even when we tell ourselves we have to give up – we just can’t go one more day – we take a deep breath and DO go on. We love whether we are loved in return, and we love until our last breath. We love multitudes of children completely without favorites, loving each one for who they are and meeting their level of emotional need. To our adopted kids, we persevere even when deep in our hearts, we know we can only ever be second to bio family. We show love and mercy and grace even when it can’t be returned. Only God can fill our hearts with what we need in order to keep doing this. This IS Us.

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 13, 2016

      Pam, thank you for sharing your heart and your story. I love what you said about the moms here, we are a unique, broken, determined, weary, strong, weak, sometimes successful, often faltering bunch. Only Jesus can keep us on our broken path of love.

      Reply
  12. Melissa
    December 21, 2016

    While I agree that this is the best media portrayal of adoption …probably ever, it has sent me wrestling. Wrestling so much that I haven’t cried yet….gasp. I’m an adult adoptee and adoptive mama and a bio mama. All of our adoptions are international and don’t have birth family contact. I always cringe when I encounter adoptive moms who are as protective as Rebecca. Possessiveness of kids has always made me cringe. I imagine this is a grass is always greener subject.I know there are complicated birth parent relationships out there, but I’m always envious of families who have birth parents to struggle with. I wish that my children didn’t have the sense of non closure that comes from not having a connection to birth parents. On the other hand, as an adoptee, I have never yearned after birth parents. I am totally content with my story. I know I’m a bit of an anamoly but I know a few other adoptees who are in this content camp with me. Watching characters like Randall make me either feel guilty that I don’t feel the way adoptees are often portrayed or annoyed that the nuances of adoption experiences aren’t explored more. We are still addicted to the show 🙂

    Reply
    1. Lisa Qualls
      December 22, 2016

      I just started watching with one of my teen girls last night. It’s such an interesting, complex show. I think we are all free to feel what we feel – and know that our relationships and feelings change throughout our lives too. I’m glad you’re hooked too – the ending of the last episode was a terrible cliff-hanger!

      Reply

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