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Adoption in real life and on television - This Is Us, an NBC show, explores the topic of adoption

By guest blogger and adoptive mother, Sally

The moment I saw you, I knew you were my boy. You weren’t a choice, Randall, you were a fact. You were never a replacement son. - Jack Pearson (adoptive father to his adopted son, Randall) This Is Us, NBC

Does television mirror real life or does real life and culture follow the concepts and ideas presented on TV? After several decades of personal observation, I feel confident in saying it’s both.

Historically, in real life and on television, adoption has been handled as taboo. In real life, adoption has been a topic few people experienced or understood. People didn’t talk much about it and when they did, it was often shrouded in (senseless) shame for everyone involved. To be honest, television didn’t help. I’m certain that I’m not the only one who remembers after-school specials or episodes of Law and Order dealing with “heroic” or “evil” adoptive parents, “unstable” or “overly involved” birth parents and uncharacteristically unaffected foster children. I blame these types of shows, in part, for some of the strange questions we received from well-meaning people about the adoption of our own two kids. But I’ll save that topic for another post.

This Is Us is one show that I believe has it right when it comes to the topic of adoption, or at least as close as television has ever come. To be fair, and for full disclosure, I come to this blog post and conversation as an adoptive parent. My husband and I adopted both our children through Choice Adoptions at birth. One of our adoptions is semi-open and the other is closed, both at the request of the birth mothers. I am not an adoptee. I have not been in the foster care system. I have never been a birth mother and although my children are not fully of European descent (read “white”), like my husband and I, our family presents like a biological family. With that said, I have the privilege of being part of a diverse community of adoptive families. I have close friends who are parenting transracially, are foster parents and are parenting kids from hard places and with difficult histories. I have friends who are adoptees with all types of adoption stories. As much as I have learned from and empathize with everyone in my adoption community, my perspective is still limited. Please keep that in mind as you read. I look forward to comments and perspectives from anyone reading this that has a different point of view, or who has been struck differently by the story lines I discuss here.

Our marriage wasn’t perfect, it’s true. But none are. Your father wasn’t perfect either, but he was pretty damn close. As close as they come. He pushed a stranger on me, and that stranger became my child, and that child became my life. He became you. - Rebecca Pearson (adoptive mother to her adopted son, Randall) This Is Us, NBC

****** Be warned: Spoiler Alerts beyond this point.*******

NBC’s This is Us has been able to bring a thorough perspective of adoption to the screen in a way that I have not seen before. This is Us tells the story of the Pearson family through three generations. Although the show isn’t about adoption per se, it captures the nuance of adoption within the family beautifully and from nearly every angle.

Season one opens with Randall Pearson (played by Sterling K. Brown), a thirty-six-year-old black transracial adoptee, looking for answers about his own adoption. From there we journey with the Pearsons through a web of story lines that weave their way in and around one another flashing back and forth over the course of 4 decades.

The adoption story lines include (but are not limited to):

A frightened birth parent leaving their newborn at a fire station. (In real life, there are laws that allow birth parents to safely surrender their child to a fire station, police station, church or hospital without being charged with abandonment.)

A white family adopting a black baby and raising him with white “twin” siblings in white spaces.

An adult adoptee searching for and finding their birth parent and forming a relationship with them as an adult.

A birth parent’s journey through the decision to relinquish their baby and how it impacted their life.

White adoptive parents and siblings realizing that their black adopted brother had an entirely different life experience.

A white adoptive mom realizing there are some things her black child needs that she can’t provide.

A transracial adoptee’s experience coming to understand that – even if no one else wanted to acknowledge it – he was different from his family.

The loneliness of being the only person of color around.

A transracial adoptee being intrigued and drawn to be with the black family in the neighborhood as his parents realize he sees his own color even if they don’t.

White parents dealing with their own feelings about the responsibility in raising a black son.

Racism from extended family members.

An adoptee’s need to make meaning from their pain by becoming a foster/adoptive parent themselves.

Foster care and foster adoption.

The struggles of a foster child to fit into a foster family.

The effects of trauma on a foster child and how it affects their ability to bond or accept the love and kindness of their foster/adoptive family.

The relationship between a foster child and the biological parent they love and who loves them.

The pain and sorrow of losing your birth parent as a newborn and as a teenager.

The search for birth parents and the journey of fully learning their story.

You’re adopted, and we don’t talk about that enough. 'Cause to me, you are every part my son. Maybe I don't want you to feel like you stand out. But I need you to know something. I want you to stand out. I want all of you to be as different as you can possibly be. In all the best ways. - Jack Pearson (adoptive father to his adopted son, Randall) This Is Us, NBC

And if that wasn’t enough, in the current season, This Is Us introduces infant adoption through open adoption. We get to see the adoption process through the birth mom’s and adoptive parents’ experience.

What I love about the way This is Us handles adoption from all these angles is that they don’t sensationalize it. There are no false ideas that adoption is the hero’s story of the adoptive parent, a fairytale life for the adopted child or a “the easy way out” of a birth parent. They show the sorrow, loss, anger, confusion, beauty, redemption and LOVE from every angle of the adoption triad. Adoption is treated as the normal part of life and society that it is, with all its nuanced parts.

I applaud the writers and creators for this excellent piece of American television. Now go! Watch (or re-watch) This Is Us and absorb the deep context of adoption it reveals.

This Is Us is currently in its 5th season and airs Tuesday nights on NBC or can be streamed on Hulu.

If you are pregnant and need support, here are pregnancy resources:

The 9 Things to Know About Adoption In Oregon and Washington

You may also like some of these great adoption resources:


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