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:

On Giving, Receiving, and the Journeys to Home

Driving around Seattle, I could no longer avert my eyes and close my mind to the homeless, because my 8-year-old granddaughter was often with me in the car. At various intersections, she asked me, “Why can’t we help them, Grandma?” Why indeed.

After some introspection and a few Internet searches, we decided to make Blessing Bags, or care packages, as Z calls them. They are zip-loc bags with things like socks, hand sanitizer, energy bars, chapstick, candy, and whatever one thinks might be helpful. Z put the bags together carefully, and included a pretty postcard with each.


We put the bags in the car, and had our first opportunity to hand one to a young woman outside the Safeway. She said a happy “Thank you!” Another time, outside Walgreen’s, I bought Real Change and we handed a bag to the homeless fellow selling the paper. He smiled and thanked us. We smiled back.


A couple of days later, we were at 7-11, where a bearded, ruddy-faced, young man with very tattered shoes was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall, talking and gesturing to himself. I asked Z if she wanted to give the man a care package and she said, “No, but you can.” Ok then. I took a deep breath and walked over to him, handing him the bag. He didn’t look at me, didn’t say a thing, and took the bag with a look of curiosity.

I scurried back to my car, and Z and I watched him open the bag. He immediately put the socks on. “See?” I said to Z, though I’m not sure just what point I was proving. He took out the deodorant and put in on his underarms.

Then he sealed the bag carefully up, and threw it in the trash.


“He threw the bag in the trash, Grandma! He didn’t even look at my postcard.” She was puzzled, and a little sad, maybe a little mad as well.

Yep. It was a great lesson/reminder for both of us about giving, and about expectations. I have to admit I thought: Buddy, you just threw away something I spent time and money on. You were supposed to be appreciative. My granddaughter wrote you a postcard.

So we talked, Z and I, about gift-giving: If we give something to other people, it becomes theirs, to do with what they will. Polite people with homes might trash our gifts after we leave, behind closed doors. Homeless people might trash them in plain sight. It’s okay. The important thing is that we give. Z and I acknowledged we have little real control over what happens after that.

We talked about thoughtful giving: wanting to give people things they need, want, and can use. Socks are very much needed from what I read about the homeless. Socks are not much fun, Z commented when we put the bags together, and so we put other things in that seemed, if not fun, more enjoyable: beef jerky, cookies, pretty tissue packs.

We also talked about our own expectations about how the bags would be received. Z said that people should thank us when we give them things–this is of course a lesson we drill into her, saying please and thank you. I said yes, that would be great–and sometimes people don’t say thank you. (Though you, my granddaughter, always should. And well, yes, so should I.)

We talked about why the young man threw our bag out. He didn’t like the other stuff. He took what he needed, and let go of the rest. We talk a lot in our home about “letting go:” of anger, envy, material excess, pettiness, etc. The man may not have had a place to put the stuff in the bag, or the bag itself. He got confused. He was rude. He only needed or wanted the socks. Many possibilities.

We talked about why people are homeless. Mental illness. Addictions. Bad luck. Bad choices. Complicated to figure out, and to explain to a child.

I want her to be unafraid to see the homeless as people, as individuals–and I am working on seeing them that way myself. She asked me if homeless people could be dangerous. Yes, I said, though most are not. It’s scary when they are talking to themselves or cursing or swinging their arms around, Grandma. Yes, it is. Most homeless people, most people generally, just want to be treated fairly and with dignity, to be listened to, and to be seen. So I take a deep breath, and work to practice what I’m preaching.

The bags are small gestures, make us feel better (I’m being honest here), and sometimes might help the people receiving them. It’s better than the averting my eyes and ignoring that I so easily used to do. On a global scale, watching the tragedies of refugees leaving their homes and losing their children, I find myself overwhelmed. Yes, I donated. Yes, I send out prayers and wishes for safety and healing. Yes, I posted the powerful poem “Home” by the young Somali poet Warsan Shire on my Facebook page. What else, what else, what can we do?

Z and I will keep giving out our little packages, and smiling, listening, and learning. As one spiritual teacher said so well, “We are all just walking each other home.” Sometimes it is a long, hard journey.