This Is Us: The Beauty and Brokenness of Adoption

In September 2016, my family experienced the tragedy and privilege of adopting our two youngest children after parenting them through our state’s foster care system for almost two years. In this event, we began to see beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3) in their lives and ours, and we celebrated the expansion of our family. Friends and family, both near and far, took part in our journey and shared our joy. Just a few weeks after our adoption was complete, my friend Kate told me about an amazing new show that I just had to see. Knowing a few of my personal preferences, she cautioned, “Even if you think you’re not going to like it, you have to keep watching.” She didn’t tell me anything more than that and, when I turned on the first episode, I had no idea what I was getting into. If you have not yet seen This Is Us, please stop reading this article right now and go watch season 1, episode 1 before I spoil anything for you. It is so much better if you see it completely unaware of the storyline and fully experience the magical storytelling of the writers.

If you are still reading this, then hopefully you already know that NBC’s This Is Us, created by Dan Fogelman, chronicles the lives of Jack and Rebecca Pearson and their children. My friends and I each found pieces of ourselves within the characters on the screen. We could empathize with their struggles and understand their motives. We were angered by their failures and heartbroken by their pain. The show builds characters with depth and quality that truly show the universal truths of the “human heart in conflict with itself” (William Faulkner). While my husband and I made a weekly date of watching the show together, my friends were eager and ready to rehash the latest episodes and share our reactions. The story of the Pearsons sucked us in and we became their friends—their family. We watched the show, so appropriately titled, and actually thought—Yes! This is us! 

While the show itself is brilliantly written and beautifully delivered, the adoption community, in particular, is greatly appreciative of the many ways this show has brought awareness of the beauty and brokenness of adoption. This intricately woven thread in the storyline is what made Kate certain that I would love it, and she was right. My husband and I still look forward to weekly episodes of the series and bemoan the weeks when there isn’t a new one. How the story brings to light the realities of adoption are numerous, but here are a few that have been significant to me.

Adoption After Loss 

Right off the bat, This Is Us captures two families caught in unexpected grief. The Pearsons enter the hospital to deliver triplets and one is stillborn. In the meantime, William Hill and his girlfriend, Laurel, experience the birth of their son amid their struggle with drug addiction and quickly see that Laurel cannot maintain her cleanness and survive the pain that follows childbirth. William watches her become unresponsive on the floor as paramedics work to revive her and, in anguish, he flees with his son, who he quickly surrenders at a local fire station. The Pearsons have barely started grieving the loss of their stillborn son when they are presented with the opportunity to adopt the baby in need of a family.

The show gives a nod to tragedy, loss, and similar circumstances that cause many people to look to adoption to build their families. Not all adoptions follow loss, but many do. Sometimes the grief of infertility or infant death draws a family toward adoption. The realistic struggle of the Pearsons shows the emotional roller coaster of losing a child, loving another, and learning that one child cannot replace another. Throughout the series, the viewer is confronted with this reality. From William’s perspective, we see how adoption often follows loss for the biological family as well. He grieves the loss of his girlfriend, the loss of control over their addictions, and the loss of their newly born son for whom he knows he cannot provide. His desperation to provide for his son is evident as he watches from a distance, eager to know the boy is safe. Birth families often experience losses of some sort which drive them to seek a better life and placement for their child through adoption.

Regardless of the circumstances that lead to adoption, the show makes it clear that one child does not replace another, and grief does not go away with the gift of a child. We see this again in later seasons when Kate experiences a miscarriage, which is followed by the birth of her son who is born blind and spends several days in the NICU.

The Significance of a Name in Adoption

The Pearsons planned on naming their triplets with “K” names but, after Kate and Kevin are born and Kyle’s death leaves them reeling, they decide that the abandoned baby is life’s gift to them. Rebecca struggles with naming him. No matter how she tries, something within her knows that she needs to honor him with his name and she just can’t find a “K” name that will suffice. Despite Rebecca’s fears of sharing any part of him with his birth family, she finds herself knocking on William’s door to seek a piece of him to share with the boy. William introduces her to his favorite poet, Randall Dudley, and gives her a book of his poetry. Rebecca decides that Randall is the perfect name for him and can finally rest, knowing that he is appropriately named.

Though I do not have the same transracial circumstances that Rebecca did, I can relate to her naming struggle. We were very intentional with the naming of our children; we wanted to honor their birth families while simultaneously choosing names that were beautiful and meaningful to us. Names are significant and they will go with our children throughout their lives. Many people use names to share family heritage, just as Kate did in a later season when she named her son Jack after her father and then named her daughter in a very meaningful way, too.

Once again, This Is Us hits the nail on the head when it highlights the complexity of a name when it comes to birth and adoption.

Fear of the Birth Family Taking the Child Back

Rebecca’s fear of the unknown leaves her wrestling, as many adoptive parents do, with wanting to protect Randall from his birth family. She is terrified to risk losing another child, as she worries that they’ll try to take him back or harm him in some way. What Rebecca misses, because of the norms of the time, is the huge benefit of a child knowing his or her birth parents when possible. Open adoption was not nearly as popular in the 70s, and much research has been done since then to show how much better off adoptees are who have access to information about their birth families or even to their birth parents directly. The best of intentions still leave Rebecca making poor decisions and deceiving even her own family about her knowledge of Randall’s birth father. All of these decisions seem to be driven by fear and a focus on herself rather than on the best interest of her son. This Is Us writers manage to create empathy for Rebecca while simultaneously encouraging the viewer to recognize the plight of Randall’s birth family and their undeniable love for him. 

Many birth mothers wish that adoptive families would understand that even though their feelings are complex and they will wrestle with grief and loss of their own, they do not desire to take their child out of his home and away from the very adoptive parents they selected for him or her. Adoptive and biological families alike love and want what is best for the child, so though the dance of open adoption can be awkward, it need not be avoided because of fear.

In Randall’s case, addiction was an evident issue for William, and that could have contributed to Rebecca’s desire to protect Randall from him (though Jack battled addiction of his own). I can completely relate because we have walked alongside birth parents who struggled with addiction as we cared for their children through foster care. We could have written off these birth families as unfit and distanced ourselves from them after adoption. The reality is they were not fit to parent their kids, but their love for the kids was undeniable and our opportunity to minister to all of them through our complicated circumstances was worth it. We have managed to maintain positive relationships with their biological parents and extended families while still protecting the kids from the heartache and harm of addiction. Our open adoption is unique and would not work for everyone, but it was undoubtedly the best choice for our children.

The Struggles of Transracial Adoption

Randall stood out in the Pearson family as a Black child in a sea of white faces. This caused the Pearson family of the 70s to be met with questions, criticism, and judgment even more than a family with multiple races normally is. This Is Us masterfully shows the complexity of transracial adoption from multiple perspectives, and the story and depth grow with the characters. We watch determined parents, Jack and Rebecca, heed advice to expose Randall to strong African-American men so he can find inspiration and identity from these men. We also see them struggling with wanting to be enough on their own and wanting their love for Randall to be all he needs. We see them stand up to ignorant people around them who treat Randall differently, and we see them battle their ignorance of how best to help him. Again, the story is written in a way that generates empathy and understanding for all roles and viewer perspectives and in a way that challenges the viewer’s thinking.

The transracial adoptive families I know find themselves in an endless process of educating themselves and others to strengthen and support their kids in every way possible. They are trying to proactively see things that may hinder or hurt their kids to better love and protect them. In later seasons of This Is Us, we begin to see Randall’s internal struggles unfold and we hear from his adult lips what his experience was like as a child. 

The Struggles of Biological Children in Adoptive Families 

Sibling rivalry and conflict are often considered part of the course of family life, but when adoption is part of the picture, this rivalry can become even more complicated. Through the Pearson family’s story, we see Randall rise as the good kid in the family, which puts him further at odds with his brother, in particular. Randall and Kevin clash and battle throughout childhood and both end up feeling overlooked and misunderstood. Though the three of them grew up together from infancy and even share a birthday, there are still tensions present as a result of Randall’s adoption that create struggles for both him and his siblings about his place in the family. 

Though it’s unpredictable, biological children of any age sometimes do have struggles of their own with welcoming an adopted child into the family. For my kids, the addition of a sibling has been smooth in some situations and not in others. In the Pearson family, we see childhood ignorance and selfishness give way to heartbreaking reflection in adulthood as Kate and Kevin begin to recognize what childhood was like for Randall and find the awareness, compassion, and empathy they lacked in their younger years. The show generates hope for adoptive families when we see them repeatedly come back to their love for one another and their adoration for their flawed parents as they face and overcome whatever life throws at them.

The Challenges of Foster Care

In September 2017, just one year after adopting our youngest kids and bringing our total count of children to five, my husband and I began to consider the possibility of bringing home a teen girl in need of an adoptive family who had spent five years in the foster care system. The struggle to figure out if the decision was right was intense, and we found ourselves relating in all-new ways to the cast and characters of This Is Us who were on the same journey. In October 2017, the show introduced a new spin in the story when Randall and his wife Beth stepped into the role of foster parents to a teen girl named Deja. Still battling his own pain from the scars of growing up in a white family, Randall felt confident that his household would be the perfect fix for young Deja, an African-American young lady who had been living with her mom in their car. Instead, what he found is that foster care and the loss of a biological family in any circumstance are traumatic and he could not protect Deja from the pain the way he wanted to. The resources his family had to offer were not enough to help her and, in some cases, were the very things that set her off.

This Is Us puts a spotlight on foster care and the complexities of adverse childhood experiences over and over again, drawing the viewer in and hopefully inspiring people to be part of the solution.

The Complex Feelings and Choices of Birth Parents 

While This Is Us portrays the insecurities of parenting and the struggles so many people experience in family life, it also specifically brings up some of the complexities of birth parent responses and shows that we can’t judge someone else’s motives with only a piece of the picture. There are multiple times when we see a scene where the situation seems obvious, and it turns out it’s not. For example, in recent episodes, the viewer sees no logical reason why Randall’s mom would not come find him or tell William she’s still alive when she awakes in the hospital after the paramedics treat her. Later in the show, as the details are disclosed, the viewer learns that authorities immediately arrested Laurel and took her to jail where she was unable to call William because he did not have a phone. She was incarcerated for five years and was racked with grief and regret, yet she felt helpless and ignorant of what to do upon her release. There are still unanswered questions and gaps in information, but the writers again build compassion for Laurel as the viewer realizes that things aren’t as cut and dry as they first seemed.

Earlier in the series, viewers are left thinking that William had a chance to know Randall and chose not to, but then we learn that Rebecca prevented it. We see pieces of his story that are revealed in later days when he meets and gets to know Randall, and his previous actions begin to make sense.

We see Deja’s mom wrestle with wanting a better life for her daughter and herself and wanting to be the one who cares for her daughter. Though her failure to show up may anger the viewer, it shows yet another side of the complexity of foster care and adoption.

In recent episodes, we watch Kate and Toby connect with the birth mom of their daughter and vow to maintain an open adoption. They have learned from Randall’s experience, and they want their child to know her biological family. They are stunned when, in an unexpected turn, their daughter’s mother declines the opportunity to be present in the baby’s life. Only birth mothers can fully understand the ups and downs of their role in an open adoption and the ways that open adoption can evolve.

One parent does not replace another 

Just as This Is Us started off clearly showing that one child does not replace another and grief does not go away with the gift of a new child, it also shows that one parent does not replace another. Throughout the series, we see example after example of the inability of one person to replace another. No matter how hard they try, Jack and Rebecca do not replace the role of William and Laurel in Randall’s life. They are excellent and loving parents, but that does not take away his desire to know where he came from. While great parents, Beth and Randall are not a replacement for Deja’s mom, who has been the only parent she’s ever known. Though Kate and Toby will raise their beautiful daughter, they are not her birth mom and cannot offer her the same things. Years after Jack’s death, Rebecca’s choice to marry Miguel stirs resistance in her grown children whose loyalty to their father trumps their love for Miguel. In each circumstance, the writers show the irreplaceable impact of the new parent as well as the irreplaceability of the original. 

Just as adoption does not provide a child to take the place of another, it does not provide a family to take the place of another. Each parental role is distinct and important in adoption and is not in conflict or competition with the others. Adoption is the addition of a child to the adoptive family and the addition of a family for the adopted child.

Besides the fact that I’ve never had another show repeatedly leave me so stunned by new revelations, captivated by the characters, and emotionally invested in the storyline, This Is Us further wins my vote of approval for the way it so carefully captures the beauty and brokenness of adoption, which builds understanding and compassion for all members of the adoption triad.