' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: NBC's This Is Us tackles foster care and a mother who returns to claim her daughter

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

NBC's This Is Us tackles foster care and a mother who returns to claim her daughter

Are you watching America's most engaging and informative show on adoption these days? This Is Us continues to surprise and delight me with its examination of the adoption issue and most specifically, how it depicts the emotions and actions of the adopted person at the center of the drama, Randall Pearson--nerdy, successful, sensitive--brilliantly portrayed by Sterling K. Brown. It is an examination of many of the issues that are usually not fodder for primetime TV, in fact, any TV at all.

Last season we dealt with Randall's adoption and his adoptive mother's duplicity in dealing with knowledge of the identity of his biological father, who could have met Randall as a young teen when he was searching and curious on his own. But his otherwise sterling adoptive mother (Mandy Moore) prevented it. For those who haven't watched, the adult and married Randall went on a search without telling her, and found his father in one of the first episodes. The whole gamut of emotions of reunion, anger at his adoptive mother for keeping his father secret, telling the grandkids who this older guy was, the father's late-stage cancer, and his death was played out while we stayed riveted. And wept. One birth father of my acquaintance told me that he watched and cried every week.

This year, Randall and his wife set about adopting, but in the end decide on taking an older foster child named Deja, as in deja vu.  Fantastic! This Is Us, a show that had an audience of 12.6 million for the season opener, is exposing to America how helping a child have a home ought to be done. Instead of looking for a "perfect baby" they took in a troubled teenager, whose mother was sent to jail. Suddenly having Deja (a quiet, understated Lyric Ross) in the home without an instruction book seemed real. She remained shy and leery of the family in the beginning, but the two other girls in the house, the natural children of Randall and his wife, help smooth things over. 
Deja (Lyric Ross), left, and foster father Randall (Sterling K. Brown)
slowly bond, despire some wariness, on NBC's This Is Us. (Photo: NBC)

Time passes. Randall does all that he can to make Deja feel welcome. He becomes the house father; his wife goes to work full time. He takes Deja to visit her mother in jail, but at the last minute, as they are waiting for the mother to appear, she cancels and is a no-show to a visit she is allowed to have. Randall is infuriated! What kind of mother is she! On his own, he visits the mother who says that she had been in a fight in jail and didn't want Deja to see her with facial bruises; Randall vows not to let this woman get Deja back and lets her know that. 

Not unlike real life, I'm thinking. The natural mother is not a paragon of justice and rectitude. Well, what do you know--the charges against her were dropped and she's out of jail soon enough and she shows up at the Randall's home and makes a scene outside--she wants her daughter! Deja comes out and sees her mother and despite their obvious affinity, and Deja's defense of her mother, the Pearsons are infuriated! They will fight this unworthy woman! They are so much better off, have a nicer home, will nurture Deja way more than her mother's inadequate nature can overcome! Randall drives by the neighborhood and apartment house where Deja will live with her mother. Not so nice. Not unlike where he found his own father. On to the lawyers. 

A life with a lot missing 
You gotta give them credit for taking this show right where most of the audience is going--keep that girl in the upper middle class home! Knowing the nature of the melodrama, I'm suspecting that this could take episodes before it is resolved--but no. Driving to the lawyer, Randall has a transformative moment, he relives wanting to find his own father, and realizes he needs to let Deja go back to her real mother....
I know these kinds of situations are sometimes handled just like this by adoptive and foster parents. We write about adoption cases where the adoptive parents fight like make dogs to keep a young child they ought to let go. I have to give the show credit for writing this story the way they did. Of course I'm thinking all throughout the episode--how is this going to end up?--most of these story lines end up not the way that warms our hearts, but this one surely did. 

Randall, for those non-watchers--was the adopted "triplet" when Mama Pearson's (Rebecca) third child didn't make it. So Randall is the black adopted son with two white siblings, all of which is part of the complicated and endearing plot lines. While the other characters have their own stories (the sister Kate always struggles with her weight and insecurities; brother Kevin, the good-looking "perfect" child has his demons of failed dreams) but to me their story lines pale in comparison to that of Randall. 

What Randall's story makes clear is that adoption is not a one-time thing; it colors his life and decisions, and the writers get that. I've written about the plot of returning a foster child, but the greater longterm impact may be conveying how adoption is a continuum in the life of an adoptee. Earlier we had the intense sibling rivalry between Kevin, the natural son, and Randall, the adopted one. We had the Rebecca's mother as a clueless mother-in-law dealing with the adopted son differently from how she treats the "twins." She gives him a basketball while he tries to interest her in his latest science project, as he is clearly the brain in the family but she doesn't see it. She says unconscious racist things about blacks in front of Randall. Randall's birth mother died early on, and so she was never a character, but it appears that Randall's father may appear in flashbacks now and then. As a learning tool for American, all good. 

The show is on holiday hiatus, and will return January 2. 

Looks like the Randall and his wife Beth will adopt or foster a son. So no matter what, adoption will continue to play a part in the NBC hit, This Is Us. If you haven't seen it, all the episodes can be watched on line. I'm curious to know what adoptees and other mothers--adoptive and biological--think of the show and how it handles the adoption/foster child plot line.--lorraine  

In the same vein, one of our regular commenters, Robin, recently wrote about how adoption has affected her life at her blog: What were the chances?
Liz Duren was kind enough to send me her memoir about growing up adopted, All about You: An Adopted Child's Memoir, her search, and less than welcoming arms of her biological mother. Many adoptees will recognize themselves through her story and will find some comfort there. I'm reading it now; highly recommended. By the way, Hole In My Heart: memoir and report from the fault lines of adoption in on sale on Kindle for a few more days, Dec. 7.  Take advantage of it! The links will take you there.

And This Is Me: Our new house is not quite there. After discovering several things critically wrong (or not working) with the downstairs bath (and my bathroom), we decided to gut the old and put in a new. I ordered the fixtures on line, and therein lies the problem. The shower "trim" (or shower handle) was supposedly in stock when I ordered it, but it was not, and a month later I am still waiting for the part. It is supposed to come this week--from Germany. There have been other slowdowns, etc., and for more than a month the living room contained all of the stuff from the linen closet and medicine cabinet. I posted a depressing shot on Facebook! 

I had thought we would be finished totally by Thanksgiving. Now I am looking at Christmas, because without the missing part, I am not having the rest of the shower bits installed. If the part doesn't ever arrived, some of the wall will have to be taken apart from the other side--where my office is! In the meantime, I have learned more about toilets, showers, tile, grout, doors than I ever imagined. Stay tuned. 


  1. Kudos to "This is Us" for a well-researched and realistic depiction of how foster care works, what foster care is all about. This episode was close to home for my husband and I, there definitely were parallels to our story (and if Randall and Beth end up adopting a boy out of foster care, after having returned Deja to her mother, that would add another thing in common with our story). Deja even looks quite a bit like our former foster daughter Nina, and they are close in age. I was able to appreciate everyone's point of view - Randall and Beth Pearson, Deja, Deja's mom and the social worker, which is a credit to the sensitivity with which the producers are handling the story and, of course, the superb acting.

    The way I would like the "Deja" story to progress is for her and her mom to eventually get in touch with her former foster family. I totally understand why, right now, Deja's mom is not up for being in touch. But it takes a village and I think Randall, Beth and their daughters would be a good addition to that village for Deja. That is why I am hoping, in future episodes, Deja's mom will reconsider and reach out to Randall and Beth.

    I know how giddily happy it makes me to still be able to see Nina, see that she is well, the gratitude I feel for having her even just a little bit back in our lives after a 3 year gap, my legally temporary but "always in my heart" daughter. And I know Randall would feel the same way, and could be a great support to Deja and her mom. So, I want that situation for Randall, and I also want to see more of Deja - Lyric Ross, like Sterling K. Brown, is a terrific actress!

    1. Jay, I know your story pretty well, and I am so glad to know that Nina is somewhat back in your life, and that of your son, even if only tangentially. I know how hard it was when she left to go back to live with her natural mother.

      I too imagine that Deja and her mom will again be part of the story. Lyric, who plays Deja, is 12.

  2. If a mainstream and highly successful tv show is changing its tune about adoption then our message has gotten across. The more people who watch and see adoption presented in a different light, the more people’s minds will be open. And with that will come a paradigm shift on adoption, or maybe that has already occurred and that’s why the show is touching a nerve with so many viewers.

  3. What has deeply resonated with me about "This is Us" is the insight into the adoptive mother's mindset. One line, in particular, from the show literally “broke me open”.

    I was a 20 year old birthmother who was coerced into a last minute private adoption, arranged by the boyfriend's parents, church and wealthy connections. Alone, without the support of my own parents, they convinced me (with relentless pressure) that I wasn’t enough because I was unmarried and hadn’t graduated college yet. Like many vulnerable, naïve girls, I was told that if I truly loved her, I would give her to a wealthy family. I wanted so badly to keep my baby but they arranged it all. I was alone and too scared to say no and the adoptive parents they found seemed so kind. For the next couple of decades, I lived in silent torture waiting on those promised letters and pictures from the adoptive family.

    In the show, upon deciding whether or not to connect a young Randall with his birthfamily, the adoptive mother regarded her husband's question, “What if the birthfather is a bad person?”, she replied, "What if he is wonderful?".

    That one line hit my heart like a rocket. For two decades, I honored the adoption agreement but felt incredibly confused, betrayed, and heartbroken. I prayed that the adoptive parents would fulfill their simple promises. Instead, I find out later that the a-mother never bonded with my daughter and that she hid my many letters, photos and the truth. The adoptive mother knew that I was a good person and probably realized that I should have been the one to raise my daughter, despite the temporary financial situation I was in. She had a nice materialistic life, but we should have never been separated.

    Like in many infant adoptions, some adoptive parents eventually realize that their adoption may not have been a “rescue operation” after all. Perhaps their biggest fears are actually good birthmothers and birthfathers?

  4. Anon--You are absolutely right about this! There were many times in the shows last season when Mandy Moore--I can't remember her name on the show--said things that were so revealing about why she was afraid to let Randall's father meet him. By the time she contacted him when Randall was an adolescent, he had gotten his life together, and was writing poetry, as I remember, and he was THRILLED that he might be able to meet his son. He turned around to get something and she ran out the door without saying anything. She was afraid of his power as the boys's actual father.

    I loved it! Why? Because she was showing the million-viewer audience that adoptive parents do crummy things to keep the natural parents of the child out of sight! She was not taking the high road! She was yes I will say it, being a shit!

    And though the anger that Randall had for his mother has dissipated this season, they showed it in full bloom for an episode or two.

    I wish stories like yours were not a common as they are; about promises of letters and contact that are dismissed because they can be, because the adoptive parents can't handle them, despite what they must know somewhere in their hearts that they the "good for the children."

    As readers of the blog and hole in my heart know, my daughter's adoptive mother came to dislike (hate?) me intensely as years went by. Why? Partly, I think, because Jane never rejected me, even if we had months of silence. She always came back. And this drove "Ann" crazy. Lest us not forget that when I first met her--at the time I had a career freelancing magazine articles, had written a couple of books, had been a magazine editor, etc., because of Jane's seizures, she had to be convinced that there was not someone on the family who was or had been in a mental hospital. Clearly, she hoped this was true. Then Jane could be a from a bad seed.

    Yes, a great many adoptive parents don't want us to be good, don't want us to be someone who could take care of our children. At an SOS (Saving Our Sisters) conferences in Kansas City a few years ago, I met a wonderful, strong, smart teacher who had been talked into giving up her child when clearly she should have kept him. All the promises about openness (they did not live but a few miles away) had been broken.

  5. I am adopted and cannot watch. I've seen one episode. It did not seem realistic to me. At least adoption is on TV. Modern Family also has an adopted person, and I can't watch that either.

    I recently attended an event in NYC called "This Is Us, Adoption in the Real World". https://www.adoptioninstitute.org/event/this-is-us-adoption-in-the-real-world/

    It was a discussion about adoption using the show as a platform for discussion.

    I still can't watch the show. To me it makes adoption to be too normal, which it's not at all. I wonder if other adopted people like it.

    Also, where is Randell's mother? She's just a dead druggie? No backstory?

  6. I'm happy they chose to do a storyline about older children instead of infants. I hope people will consider foster older kids from foster care and realize adoption isn't all rainbows.

  7. [Why are we so against Randall finding out who his birth father is?]

    Rebecca's response: Because what if he's a good person?

    So what? What if, indeed? Does it mean adopted children love their adoptive parents any less? I don't understand this paranoia. It's not like the courts are going to barge down the mother's door and physically force her to give the child back. Once an adoption is done, it's permanent. It's forever, unless you can find a way to legally annul it, and there has to be a legitimate reason - for example, your adoptive mom ended up getting on drugs and abusing you, or something dire.

    The pool scene had the teenage adoptee in me sighing in bittersweet memories. I remember, as a young adult, walking around with my white parents, and wishing I wasn't so disconnected all the time from other Asian groups.

    I still feel that way, actually.

    [She says unconscious racist things about blacks in front of Randall. ]

    When was this?


    1. Quick answer to last question: In an earlier episode when Rebecca's mother visited.

    2. As a birthmother, the most profound and beautiful thing I have learned is that adoption is NOT forever. It's simply a legal contract that lasts until age 18. For many of us reunited, building and bonding strong family connections is indeed possible and filled with blessings. It's even better when the adoptive parents bond right along with us. Letting go of ego, regret, anger, possession, jealousy, and the conviction that it is her or me, instead, if possible, embrace...THIS IS US.

  8. The reason many adoptive parents do not want the birth parents in the picture because of the complications it can bring. Raising a child is difficult enough and during turbulent teen and young adult years, consistency can be critical. It's an issue that has severe ramifications in divorce as well. The children do so much worse with split family options. It's all about the odds and the odds are more often against smoother going with other parents in the picture though,yes, there are cases when it is good. Deja's odds with her mother are not good in terms of self sufficiency. That's the bottom line in concern. I'd give up my children in an instant if my life situation gave them low odds for a self sufficient life. I work with many children and adults who would have had much better odds had they been raised in a more stable family, less criminally involved. I wish they were all adopted.

    1. 'I'd give up my children in an instant if my life situation gave them low odds for a self sufficient life'.
      Words without meaning. Easy to say when there is no intention and no likelihood of being made to do so. Bet you feel really heroic saying it. Yak.

      'many adoptive parents do not want the birth parents in the picture because of the complications it can bring.'
      It's not about them.
      Quit dressing selfishness up in fake nobleness.

      'I work with many children and adults who would have had much better odds had they been raised in a more stable family, less criminally involved. I wish they were all adopted.'
      Doesn't matter what you wish.
      It's not about you.

    2. I wholeheartedly agree with Cherry. Children raised in blended families, with divorced parents, do JUST FINE when the ADULTS put their egos aside for the best interests of their children. That is the only "complication" that creates issues.

      My daughter's dad and I divorced when she was a year old. We raised her, sharing custody and spent many holidays together in the same house. He with his girlfriend and later his wife, me with my husband when I remarried. We were always welcome in each other's homes. Our daughter grew up with that level of friendship and cooperation between her parents. My daughter is now in her 40's, happily married for 15 years, two kids, college graduate (put herself through school), author, owns her own business.

      It's a bogus excuse to claim children do "so much worse with split family options". They do fine if the adults in their lives act like grown ups.

      Adoptive parents do not want the birth parents in the picture because they want sole ownership. They don't want shared anything. Shared love. Shared devotion. Shared children. And they ADMIT THESE VERY THINGS when they believe they are speaking only to one another in various Adoptive Parent forums.

      Being adopted brings it's own challenges. Especially when adoptees hit their teen years. Adoptive parents aren't saints! Adoptive parents divorce. Adoptive parents are alcoholics and (Rx) addicts too. Adoptive parents can even be criminals.

      How "stable" do you think a home with two functioning (abusive) alcoholics is? I can answer. NOT VERY! Of the 4 children they had, all left before age 18. Only one graduated - the adopted one (me). Almost a year AFTER I left their home (at 16). (turns out all my bio sibs graduated HS then College like me). It wasn't until much later in my life that I found stability. Something I never had in my adopted home. My story is sadly not at all uncommon. Adoption doesn't guarantee a better life. Only a different life. Money doesn't guarantee a better life. Money cannot replace love.

      Much better to help families gain their footing, become stable, overcome obstacles and stay together. Self sufficiency is taught not by avoiding all difficulties, but by facing them and overcoming them.

    3. Robin, my son also grew up as an adoptee in a very insecure environment - where alcoholism, physical abuse, psychological cruelty and homelessness existed. I believed he was going to a better life than anything I could provide as a young mother from a poor family - that is what everyone promised that adoption would ensure.

      The truth is that he had a tiny and painful life AS A RESULT of being adopted. He would have fared SO much better if we had kept him in our imperfect, tottering, complicated family - a place where - for the first time in his life - he feels he fits in and feels self-confident and loved unconditionally (his words). Adoption was the worst thing to happen to him (and to me) - he was saved from nothing through it, and instead bore burdens that no young person should have to bear as a result of it.

    4. "Raising a child is difficult enough and during turbulent teen and young adult years, consistency can be critical. It's an issue that has severe ramifications in divorce as well."

      Sometimes this is indeed true. When adults are not able to behave like adult, and there is demeaning of one parent by the other, or open hostilities, this can be true, certainly. Are you familiar with the many cases of divorce where the kids grow up just fine? Even speaking anecdotally, the vast majority of people I knew who grew up with divorced parents turned out perfectly fine at the end of the day. So many people get divorced. If this really was the overall case, we would have many more messed up people walking around than we do now. What is usually more likely is a far more nuanced home situation than simply "divorced parents." There are other contributing factors.

      "The reason many adoptive parents do not want the birth parents in the picture because of the complications it can bring." When you sign up to be a parent, you sign up for complications. That's the way it goes. Here is what is interesting: in the post, Lorraine is not discussing a fictional situation wherein contact was repeatedly attempted, and it just got far too complicated for the child and was causing the child stress and issues. The fictional situation was an immediate "you didn't do it right this one time, so we are done!" That speaks far more to Randall's insecurities than it does to the health and well-being of the child. Your statement is interesting to me in that context, because it is defensive of the rights of APs to cut off contact for "complications" such as this one, and I don't view that as a reasonable complication that is going to cause life long hard to the child. Do you? I'm honestly curious because I read this defense constantly, and I have yet to have someone provide me a real life situation (short of the oft cited "abuse factor" because come on, no one is arguing for that here), especially for domestic infant adoption, where it honestly holds true and the APs were justified in cutting off contact because it was causing actual harm to the child. What are actual things a first mom could do that justify cutting off contact between her and her child? Again, let's leave out physical abuse because no reasonable person is arguing that an abuser should have access to her victim.

      I am hoping you circle back and read this because I genuinely would appreciate having that kind of discussion.

  9. Cherry, Rebecca is stating the reality of what is, as she sees it, through the course of her work (as you quoted). It seems that she is speaking through her day to day experience. She deserves to speak, as do we all, without being personally attacked for her views.

    1. This is the second time on this site you have tried to stop me speaking out about what I think. You say your words in polite, measured, slightly chiding tones but still you say it. I wonder what you hope to achieve.
      I should mention that I am in my mid 50s, and will express myself as I choose.

    2. Cherry, I think the way you treated Rebecca was really nasty. As a result, she may not come back (although I hope she will) - as it is much easier to disappear and write us off at FMF, rather than waste time responding to accusatory, presumptive and personal attacks.

      I don't have any power to stop you to stop you from expressing yourself, nor do I want to. It's good that you do what you think is best - which is what anyone should do.

    3. I think that what Rebecca was saying was really nasty. Subtle but nasty.
      I also think you try to police what others say.

    4. I am also not concerned with making sure Rebecca feels fine, or making sure that everything is just right so that education can be undertaken. Not my purpose for being here.

    5. Folks, let's end this debate over Rebecca, who seems never to have returned, here. Okay?

  10. The whole thing makes me very sick... I tried, once, to watch... I can't watch it is sick and disgusting.


  11. Since the show does not "celebrate" adoption in the usual way, but presents some pretty difficult situations, it is a useful tool to educate adoptive parents and would-be adopters. On Facebook, there are very positive comments from adoptees. This show reaches a great many more people than Long Lost Family, which I haven't watched this season at all.

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  13. Welcome other Robin,

    I wanted to point out to readers, in case anyone was confused, that there are now two adoptees named Robin commenting at FMF. I am the Robin who has been a long time commenter here. I will start adding AITFOA after my name so readers can distinguish between us.

    While we have similar views on adoption and it appears we are both the only adoptee in the family with bio-kid siblings, there are also a number of differences in our stories. I am not divorced from the father of a 40-something year old child, and I do not have still married APs who abused alcohol. My APs have been divorced since I was a toddler and neither use alcohol.

    1. Good you cleared that up. I was definitely confused!


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