I’m late to the party. I know this. I’m sure that 6,348 articles have already been written about the NBC smash hit, This is Us, but I’ve been busy, people. I knew if I started it before my book deadline, it would be curtains for any hopes of meeting said deadline, so I promised myself I wouldn’t start watching until April.
I started watching. I can’t stop.
I’m 11 episodes in, and MY WORD. Has there ever been a better TV show? Has one ever been so perfectly cast and written? Has another series ever tackled such real, delicate issues with as much authenticity, grace, and humor? I think not.
More than any other aspect of the show, what impresses me the most is the honest, yet redemptive engagement with the complex realities of adoption. As an adoptive mother, I can say the writers hit the nail on the head on so many of these issues. Here are five of them:
1. The joy of adoption can never erase the depth of loss.
As wonderfully redemptive as adoption is, it leaves a crater of loss for both the birth parent and the adopted child. Even though Randall was adopted into an incredibly loving, happy home where his every need was met, he grappled with loss his whole life. As a child, he stopped black strangers in the grocery store because they might be his biological parents. As an adult, he couldn’t stop longing for the father who left him behind. By all standards, he succeeded in life, but he still felt the vacuum of not knowing where he came from. No amount of love and stability can fully erase the pain of this kind of loss, and the loss is just as deep for the birth parent. I’m grateful that in this storyline, the writers let us see both.
2. Being a different race than your parents is hard.
As much as Randall’s parents tried to make life normal for him so that he wouldn’t feel different, he couldn’t help it. He kept a tally of black people he met because they were few and far between. He and his parents both endured strange looks in public as people tried to figure out how exactly he fit. His mom didn’t know how to cut black hair, or whether or not he actually needed sunscreen. He felt the racial differences, and he didn’t quite know what to do with them. As the white mother of an Asian child, I anticipate that in many ways, my daughter will walk a similar road. Although at four years old, she is happily colorblind, the day will come when it’s blatantly obvious to her that she doesn’t look like us, and as much as I don’t want that to be a big deal, I know it will be.
3. Sibling rivalry is real.
Remember the scene at the pool, when Kevin almost drowns and no one notices? He yells at his dad, “You never pay attention to me! You’re too busy trying to make sure Randall doesn’t feel too adopted!” I’ve had a similar conversation in a bunkbed in my own home. It’s true. Parents’ efforts to offset their adopted child’s loss and trauma with extravagant love and security can make their biological kids feel overlooked. Set aside. Not as important. Often in the early days of bonding and attachment, my baby girl demanded so much of my energy and attention that the others had to take a back seat, again and again. And like Jack, I’ve had to look straight into teary eyes and say, “You’re right. I haven’t seen you—not like I should. I love you and I am so, so sorry.”
4. Identity can be a lifelong struggle.
Randall told his dad that his lifetime of perfectionism stemmed from a desire to prove his worth—to prove to himself and others that he wasn’t just something to cast aside. His parents spent a lifetime showering him with love and affirmation—his father literally bore him on his back and did push-up after push-up to demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice for him (THAT SCENE THOUGH)—but the identity struggle remained.
We all grapple with the question of who we are, but for those whose stories begin with loss, it can be infinitely harder. One of my favorite lines thus far is Jack’s response to Randall’s feelings of abandonment and worthlessness: “You are not a choice; you are a fact. You are my son.” Cue the heaving sobs. Our adopted kids need to know that they are ours, and not just because we chose them, but because it’s a fact, and it will never change.
5. Adoption is a beautiful opportunity for empathy, grace, and forgiveness to take center stage.
Randall got to meet his biological father face to face. He had an opportunity to confront the past, understand, forgive, and be a part of his biological father’s life. My daughter will probably never have that chance, but I pray that she will be so gripped by the gospel of grace that she can love and forgive as well. This costs so much. It may have to happen over and over. But I pray she can choose to believe the best about a mother she never knew; about the circumstances surrounding a choice that had to be made; about the backstory of the man and woman who made that choice. I pray she’ll be able to look at her own brokenness and see the level ground at the foot of the cross. I pray, if only in the quiet places of her heart, she’ll be able to offer her biological mother her hand, invite her inside from the cold, and extend grace upon grace.
Of course, a TV show can’t accurately reflect all the complexities of adoption, but this show does a darn good job in engaging in the conversation. Thank you, This Is Us. You’ve made this adoptive mama feel understood, you’ve helped me understand my baby girl a little bit more, and you’ve made me weep 75 times. I’d call that a hit.
Don’t forget to grab your copy of 30 Days of Hope for Adoptive Parents! You can get one here.