Upon the conclusion of NBC’s hit show Parenthood in 2015, my wife and I felt a hole in our souls that no other show was able to fill—until the premiere of This Is Us in the fall of 2016. After having our emotions batted around by the Bravermans for six glorious seasons, we had no idea we were in for all the feels once again. And as adoptive parents, we were quickly drawn into a fictional world that, among other captivating storylines, depicted adoption and foster care much more accurately than any other show we’d ever seen. While there are so many reasons why you should give This Is Us your time, here are three that meant the most to us. Let this be your official SPOILER warning.
A Positive Upbringing Doesn’t Preclude Randall’s Desire to Find His Birth Family
Our first glimpses of 36-year-old Randall Pearson (played by Emmy Award-winner Sterling K. Brown) are of him successfully locating and meeting his birth father, William. (We later learn Randall had been searching for his birth parents his whole life.) Spliced with this are flashbacks of Randall’s childhood and upbringing with his adoptive parents, Jack and Rebecca. It should be noted that of the “Big Three” Pearson kids, Randall is the one who values the family’s holiday traditions the most, much more so than his siblings, Kevin and Kate, both of whom were biologically born to Jack and Rebecca. As an adult, it’s Randall we see preparing the same unique meals that became a Pearson family staple each November as the result of one particularly disastrous, though hilarious, Thanksgiving when the kids were around ten. And it’s Randall who comforts William at the end of his birth father’s life with the same soothing, deep-breathing technique his dad, Jack, practiced with him whenever he was anxious. It’s a common misconception that if children are raised by strong and loving adoptive parents, they won’t be interested in knowing their birth families, or on the flip side, if children are seeking their birth families, they must be having a lousy time with their adoptive parents. In reality, this is not an “either/or” issue, but a “both/and.” We’re given a clear picture of how Randall’s lifelong desire to find his birth family, the eventual presence of William in his life, and his newfound understanding of his origin story do nothing to discredit or diminish the great relationship and upbringing Randall had with his adoptive parents.
Jack and Rebecca Authentically Wrestle Through the Complexities of Adoption
As their three kids grow, Jack and Rebecca approach and grapple with Randall’s adoption in their own ways. We learn that Rebecca secretly located and visited William soon after he abandoned his infant son at a fire station, though she forbids William to have any contact with her family going forward, revealing not just her desire to protect her new son, but also a deep personal insecurity at the idea of any kind of open adoption relationship. As Randall grows and makes no secret of his desire to find his birth family, Rebecca is fearful of losing him, both physically and emotionally. While Jack is not fearful and wants to encourage his son in his search, he respects his wife’s wishes and doesn’t press the issue further. These complex tensions were evident from the moment they became first-time parents. After the stillborn death of their son, delivered along with Kevin and Kate, it was the optimistic Jack who wanted to seize the opportunity to leave the hospital as a family of five by adopting the boy who’d been abandoned. This time, it’s the reluctant Rebecca who follows her husband’s leading despite admittedly feeling very emotionally disconnected from this child she did not carry for nine months and deliver. This Is Us correctly depicts the discrepancies that often exist between couples when navigating this uneven terrain. When my wife and I began our first adoption process, we were rarely on the same page. I was terrified about the idea of open adoption, which I considered nothing more than glorified babysitting or co-parenting at best. As we continued the journey of educating ourselves, there came a point when I needed to take the plunge and trust my wife’s leadership and instincts. I’m glad I did—today, we share a healthy and vibrant open adoption relationship with both of our daughters’ birth mothers.
The Nuances of Transracial Adoption
This Is Us does a fantastic job of exposing the reality that adopting transracially isn’t as simple as providing basic needs to a child of another race as though he or she looked just like you. In the show, we see Randall, an African American, experiencing the inherent privilege of growing up in a white family and being raised in a predominantly white neighborhood. And yet, this upbringing includes for him its fair share of challenges. Randall feels isolated and different; in one episode, as the Pearson family is spending a day at the local swimming pool, Randall is drawn to the only black family there. It’s also during this episode that Rebecca is confronted with the ways in which she and Jack have unintentionally been neglecting Randall’s proper skin care—something parents in transracial families must take the time to learn and practice. Randall feels further alienated by being a gifted student. In another episode, we see Rebecca’s mother giving Randall the token gift of a basketball (a sport he never plays) and displaying genuine surprise that Randall does better in school than his white siblings. Sadly, this sort of racial prejudice by grandparents or extended relatives is an all too common source of strife in many transracial families. Randall’s experiences lead to several identity struggles by the time he’s a young adult. He turns down attractive offers from prestigious colleges and instead enrolls in a school comprised of mostly black students. Additionally, he chooses to marry Beth, an African American woman he met in college, after having dated at least one white girl while in high school. My wife and I are the parents of two daughters, one white and one black. Both kids are still very young, and while we strive to provide them equality in all things, we know our younger daughter will face additional pressures and challenges simply because of her skin color. Over the past year and a half, it’s been heartwarming, eye-opening, and educational for us to compare and contrast our parental styles and experiences with our kids to that of Jack and Rebecca with their three. And while we don’t yet know the full scope of Randall’s struggles with anxiety and nervous breakdowns, it will be interesting and exciting to see the ways in which the writers of This Is Us continue to flesh out his upbringing in a transracial family with his ongoing character development as a middle-aged and elderly man.