Is Randall Pearson A Grateful Adoptee? Is That A Good Thing?

When my kids were little, I used to hear fairly often how saintly and noble and exceptional I was for having adopted. I don’t know if it was because of the choice to adopt, or because the adoptions were transracial, or because my daughters were six years old when they arrived from Ethiopia: clearly, different folks were motivated by different reasons. Their dad and I got comments like “How lucky these children are!” and “I could never do that!” I guess “that” was adopting, or white people adopting black children, or adopting older children—I don’t know. We would accept, demur, and deflect the ostensible compliments.

It took me a while to understand the impact of the remarks about the luck of the kids and the saintliness of us parents. I felt fortunate—I wanted kids, and these four are blessings—don’t most parents feel that way? But in adoption, there’s always an undercurrent of rescue, which is a step away from saving, and from saviorism, a word often preceded by “white.”

The object of a rescue is often understandably grateful. People who are saved from some dire outcome are grateful.

Ergo—adoptees are supposed to be grateful.

And that is a complicated, contentious, disturbing, problematic statement, one which is often discussed in many an adoption circle.

We can all be grateful to our parents, especially if they have been kind and good to us.

But should adoptees be grateful they were adopted? Were they truly saved from a dire outcome?

Do they owe us, their adoptive parents, a special note of gratitude for having “chosen” them, and raised them?

Is adoption a kindness, one that our adopted children should thank us for?

“This Is Us,” a series on NBC, resonates with many in the adoption community, especially transracial adoptees and their adoptive parents. (Spoiler alert) When Randall became the replacement child for the triplet who died, the Pearson family had no idea what awaited any of them. A kind doctor arranged for the white parents to take the abandoned black baby home from the hospital with them in 1980. Now, in 2016, Randall is 36.

The final episode of this season’s “This Is Us,” a show which I have been enamored with, takes place on Christmas Eve. There is a flashback scene where, coincidentally (this is a show that thrives on coincidences), the doctor who delivered Randall’s siblings (and gave Randall to the family) is in the hospital at the same time that Kate (Randall’s sister) is undergoing an appendectomy. The kids are all around 10 years old.

The Pearson parents, Jack and Rebecca, tell the kids that Dr. K was responsible for their family, and now, since Dr. K’s family can’t get to the hospital, “tonight we’re gonna be his” family.



Randall meanders into the gift shop, and buys a snow globe for Dr. K. In presenting the globe to the doctor, Randall says, “My dad said you’re the reason they adopted me. So thank you.”

I know firsthand there were some adopted adults whose eyebrows went up and hearts sank at that line.


Dr. K is kind and complimentary about the snow globe, and about his role in the adoption. “Only thing I did that day was nudge a man in a direction he already wanted to go.”

A sentiment that unwittingly speaks to the lack of agency by the adoptee, omits the role of the mom, and is silent on what direction Randall’s birth parents may have wanted to go in.

Dr. K goes on to say to Randall, “If at some point in your life, you find a way to show somebody else the same kindness that your parents showed you, well, that’s all the present I need.”

Adoption as kindness: there’s a much bigger picture, and I recognize that many folks don’t want to hear it, think I’m being negative, and wish I would lighten up.

I love my children beyond words, and I know that my joy has come at a price, for them and for their first families. They love us, their adoptive parents, deeply. Each has experienced and dealt with loss and trauma differently. Their view of gratitude around adoption is multi-layered, and theirs to express.

I don’t think my children should be grateful to be adopted. Maybe they should be appreciative and thankful for sacrifices their dad and I have made for them, but that’s what parents are supposed to do. We hope they will do their best for their children.

But adoption is based in loss. It’s supposed to take children from a bad situation into a “better” one, and sometimes that happens. Adoption should certainly be an option for abused and neglected children, when parents can’t or won’t take care of their children and keep them safe. Adoption shouldn’t be a permanent solution to a temporary situation, when, with a little help, parents could raise their children. Adoption can be positive and powerful, when done with transparency and integrity.

As an adoptive parent, I am often stunned at how rarely the losses (or existence) of birth parents are mentioned, as well as the grief that adopted children/adults may experience as a result of having been adopted.

To its credit, “This Is Us” has a strong birthfather story line. On his 36th birthday, Randall found his birthfather William, and it turns out that William had desperately wanted to know his son. Rebecca, Randall’s adoptive mother, closed that door for 36 years. (Randall is now in danger of going from a grateful adoptee to another stereotype, an angry adoptee. The writers of “This Is Us” have a lot on their plate.)

I both understand and despise Rebecca’s choice in cutting William off. As a white, middle class, non-drug addicted parent, she held the power. (Indeed, we white, well-educated, non-addicted parents have traditionally held the power in adoption, and have often been considered saviors and rescuers of our children, especially of brown and black children, and of orphans. What a burden that places on our children.) She exercised her power, and it was not a kind decision. I hope the show continues to unpack the nuance and heartache of what seemed “best” to her.

I hope also that those who were a bit teary at that scene of Randall expressing thanks with the snow globe realize that tears fall for many reasons in adoption, and not necessarily for gratitude or kindness.


Here are some adoptees’ perspectives on the complexity of gratitude in adoption:

13 thoughts on “Is Randall Pearson A Grateful Adoptee? Is That A Good Thing?

  1. Hi. I am a transracial adoptee and generally I would say my adoption was a “successful” one. I grew up in a loving family and become a “successful” adult (have a job, husband and two lovely children). I didn’t really have an issue with being adopted although growing up it was sometimes very hard being Asian in a predominately white society.
    I do though absolutely hate the lucky narrative . Firstly it seems to to suggest that adopted children are less worthy or entitled and of love and security since not many people are telling biological children how lucky they are to have parents who love them. Secondly there is a racist overtone as the belief that because a child is coming from a poor (usually brown/black) country to an affluent (white) country that it should negate all the losses and trauma they have experienced. Imagine telling an Western child “oh all your family are dead, you are so lucky, oh you have been sent to a foreign country where no- one speaks your language or looks like you, so lucky. You don’t know your biological history, so lucky. Don’t get me wrong I am not trying to diss inter racial adoption and it can be a good thing if handled with sensitivity and awareness. The final issue with the lucky narrative is that it silences and dismisses any negative or difficult feelings the adoptees may experience in relation to their losses or adoption. The lucky comment is almost as bad as the colourblind narrative! Thanks for listening.

    • M again. I just want to add that I believe it IS important to teach children (bio or adopted) to be grateful and appreciative of having a loving secure family and all that entails I just don’t like adoptees being made to feel like their parents are charitable benefactors as it creates a significant power differential and alters the parent child relationship. Adoption should be about creating a family.

    • In my opinion, people should say the parents are lucky. I think this applies, whether children are biological or adopted. I totally agree that adopted people should never be told they are lucky (for being adopted) or that they should be grateful. However, parents should be grateful for the opportunity to parent.

  2. I don’t know the show you are referring to, but I always cringe when I hear other people tell my children how “lucky” they are…ugh. Adoption comes first from a place of deep loss. Great article!

  3. I am adopted from birth, and I do feel gratitude. Not necessarily to my adoptive parents, but to my biological parents who chose to give me a life that they felt they could not do. I am grateful that my biological mother carried me to term instead of choosing an abortion. I am grateful that I have been blessed with a loving family and parents. I think it diminishes the complexity of the issue a little to assume that there should not be gratitude. Each adoption story is it’s own, and each child/adult has their own response/feeling in relationship to their biological and adoptive parents. My adoptive parents always taught us (there were four of us adopted in my family) that we were special because we were adopted — that it took an immense amount of love (and yes, pain) for our biological parents to make the choice they did. Some of us have connected with birth parents, some have not. Maybe it feels differently to me because I was adopted as a baby and my birth mother made the choice right from the start. I’ve appreciated This is Us because it is many-layered and not black and white (pardon the pun). I do get frustrated when people try to catagorize all adoptees the same. I think every unique person will have their own unique responses and needs.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I agree there is a range of ways adoptees (as well as adoptive parents and birth/first parents) process and perceive adoption, and I think it varies over time. Wishing you and your family all the best.

  4. I am a mother who relinquished a son almost 44 years ago. Thank you so much for pointing out the pain of the birth parents. I agree, adoption is not a natural act. I was not told the sex of my child-I found out from the mom in the room next to mine. I was not allowed to see or hold him. We just recently (six months ago) found each other through doing DNA at Ancestry. We are hoping to meet each other in January. It will be the first time I will see him. I have cried every single day since I saw his name on my Ancestry account-such regret over lost years, but I am ecstatic.
    The adoption storyline on This Is Us is causing tears at my house every week! My son was raised in a wonderful family, neither of us has any regrets about that aspect, when he first started looking for me his mother was agreeable to him finding me. He now knows though, that she has always known my last name, and could have found me easily. Much like Randall in the show he was terribly conflicted. They are now at peace, but not totally healed. I truly hope the writers will handle this storyline with care.

    • Oh it’s so complicated, isn’t it? So many emotions, and “what if’s,” and “what nows.” I agree it is a very complicated story line with Randall’s adoptive mother. I wonder about the fact that the story line includes the idea that his birth mother is dead–had she been alive, that would have been a pivotal story line as well. We will see how they handle it all when the show resume January 10.

      I wish you and your son all the best as you figure out your next steps, in January and beyond. So glad you have found each other. 44 years! Take good care.

    • What you have to say, Mary K, is so true. I have been where you have been and where you are now. Of particular note: “she has always known my last name and could have found me easily.” The adoptive mother had the original birth certificate and my personal information; yet I knew nothing about her, which seemed one-sided to me. Reunions are complex and one can feel like you’re walking on egg shells. Both sides need much time to process all the emotions. Uncertainties are hard to deal with. In my case, I felt I would be devastated if the reunion did not work out. So, I hung in there. I realize we are all different, so reunions will be experienced in different ways. For example, some people are more sensitive than others. I had much preparation in that I had listened to others’ stories of search and reunion. Possibly, because your son is older, he will have some maturity to deal with emotions, etc. I hope your reunion brings some healing. I kept a diary and did a lot of writing. That has helped me.

  5. I understand This Is Us is a fictional show, however, when I read the title of this article it did not sit well with me as an adoptee. First and foremost IMO each individual adoptee has a right to their own personal narrative. I have spoken with some adoptees who do state they feel “grateful.” And I must admit, I was one of those adoptees before I had children of my own and started the S&R process myself. Us adoptees are entitled to our own personal feelings and this feelings need to be validated. I share in your concern of how the show has displayed certain aspects of adoption, but I must admit it has done far more than most (on network TV) to show the complexities and rawness of emotion in reunion, to name one example. Thank you for the article and your perspective.

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I love the show. I think it has more nuance and depth than most (all?) tv shows ever. The adoption story line is amazing, as also are the ones about the siblings, about weight issues, about marriage, about choices and control. I recognize well that adoptees have a range of feelings, and deserve to be respected/validated for that. My point here was to acknowledge the complexity of gratitude in adoption. I’ve had many conversations about that with my own children, and with many other adult adoptees. No tv show (or person!) is perfect: This Is Us could be criticized for writing Randall’s mother out. How many Disney shows eliminate the mother, and hence create a whole publicly embraced narrative about orphaned children? I think it wonderful that we are having these conversations about adoption, search, and reunion, and about transracial adoption, and all the other really important issues that This Is Us raises. Let’s keep talking. Thanks again.

  6. Thank you for sharing your honest heartfelt perspective… I also wear a few hats. I was adopted 50 years ago. I am the mother of 2 biological children. Step-mother of 2. And… an adoption attorney. I have been watching the show, and have conflicting feelings about how adoption has been portrayed. My first thought was… hmm, I’ll just take the cute african american boy to fill my empty crib. What about social workers? agency? biological mother? In full disclosure, I cry each episode. Can’t necessarily tell you why. But it hits a chord each and every week.

    • Many thanks, and respect for all the hats you wear. I have had some of the same thoughts about the process–what does Randall’s birth certificate look like? no oversight with social workers before or after placement? That said, I also get caught up in the story line each week. Looking forward to what they’ll do next season.

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