The topic of adoption isn’t exactly new to film and TV. It’s subtly worked its way into movies like The Blind Side and Juno, shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Parenthood, and has even been the backdrop to popular children’s programs like Doc McStuffins and Annie. But in all of those cases, it’s usually placed into one of two categories: glorious or horrifying. Rarely is its complex and bittersweet nature explored.
That is, until this past fall when NBC premiered This Is Us, and viewers everywhere couldn’t unglue their eyes from the television. (My family included.)
If you haven’t yet given it a watch, allow me to catch you up. (Then again, if you’re not a fan of spoilers, I suggest you stop reading immediately.) This Is Us tells the heart-wrenching stories of three siblings, Kate, Kevin, and Randall, who all share the same birthday but not, in all cases, the same blood. The show alternates between the past and present, compelling the audience to go on a reflective journey with each character.
Kate struggles with her weight and the deep-rooted insecurities that threaten to disrupt her budding relationship with a new boyfriend. Kevin is Kate’s biological twin — a famous actor who is often oblivious to his own narcissism and immaturity. After throwing a temper tantrum one day on set, he’s kicked off his show and forced to find a new path. Randall — who was adopted at birth by Kate and Kevin’s parents Jack and Rebecca — is now in search of something he feels is “missing, too: A connection to his biological parents. So he hires a private detective to find them, only to learn his mother has died and his father is now dying of cancer.
There are numerous reasons to love the show, from its fresh authenticity to its excellent acting and ’80s nostalgia; but above all, I tune in every week because This Is Us doesn’t just tell a story. It tells my family’s story.
More than eight years ago, my husband and I were painting our kitchen when his cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number, but picked up anyway. His eyes grew wide and he thrust the phone into my hands. It was our adoption agency’s new social worker.
We were parents.
When we met our daughter, our whole world changed. She became our everything. And just like Jack and Rebecca, we were two white parents with a black child, which meant that although she was fully our “own” and “real” daughter, we would face obstacles dealing with race that we had absolutely no experience with.
Parenting four children who came to us through adoption has been an ongoing lesson in humility, empathy, strength, and change. We have learned, just as Rebecca and Jack did, that love is not enough. Children of color who were adopted by white parents require racial role models and parental knowledge of hair and skin care. Adoptees (people who were adopted) may have a natural desire to know where and who they came from. Biological connections matter, just as Randall demonstrates when he reconnects with his birth father.
Just like Jack and Rebecca, our children sometimes face stares or snide comments from strangers as soon as our family enters a room. We too can’t help but wince when — once again — our children are asked if they are “real” siblings, or I’m labeled as their “adoptive” mother instead of just their mother.
For me, one of the most poignant moments in the show so far happens when the family is sitting around the Thanksgiving table, and Randall discovers that his mother and his biological father have been secretly communicating for years. Deception in adoption is never healthy or helpful; nor is it fair. And for Randall and his mother, we see just how clearly her deception drives a wedge between them, making his adoption an even greater force to be reckoned with.
But there are countless other moments that have tugged at my heart strings, too, and reminded me of so many of my own struggles.
Like the moment we see Rebecca in a flashback, newly home from the hospital with her three little bundles. Cradling Kate and Kevin one by one, she nurses them naturally, but struggles to do the same with Randall. The way she attempts to physically connect with her son symbolizes the deep importance a mother often feels while bonding with her child after an adoption. Making a child one’s own can be a struggle for many families who adopt, as each person tries desperately to figure out what belonging, acceptance, and true love means.
In so many ways, This Is Us perfectly explores the intricate dance that families like mine often encounter. Whether it’s the child who deserves to hear truth, the family who seeks to settle into their new “normal,” or the biological parent who craves connection and closure, This Is Us gets me emotional every single episode. And I know I’m not alone.