adoption in this is us on tv and lion movie

Adoption on Screen: “This is Us” and “Lion” Give New Focus

My daughter told us the other night of a time in middle school when she shared with  two teachers her complex feelings about being adopted. Yes, I really love my family, she reported as they nodded sympathetically.  But also, she continued, being adopted sometimes sucks.

The sympathetic nodding ended.

Oh, you don’t mean that! one teacher told her. The other tag-teamed: Look where you ended up. Your parents are awesome! (why thank you).

My daughter was mad at the time about her feelings being invalidated, about being told she should feel differently than she feels. She was angry that someone who doesn’t know adoption first hand corrected her about her actual experience.

As far as I can tell, neither of those teachers — one in her 30s and one in her 50s — has a direct connection to adoption. So how are they qualified to speak so authoritatively on it?

You Don’t Have to Be in Adoption to Know Adoption. Duh.

Everyone knows about adoption, right? We see it in the movies and we see it on TV and we see stories about the movies and TV shows in People magazine while we wait at the hair salon or dentist.

adoption in this is us on tv and lion movie

You know, if the movies and TV shows got adoption right, people would have a better idea what it’s like to actually live in adoption. Historically, though, the media have not gotten it right. The media have gotten adoption flat out wrong by showing incomplete slices of it, by perpetuating stereotypes, and by reducing multidimensional complexities to 2D simplicities.

Hollywood has mostly painted adoption in black and white terms. Childless couple finally gets their baby (good!). Baby gets a stable home (good!). Birth parent wants baby back (bad!). Birth parent or adoptee wonder about the other (weird! move on!).  The Either/Or mindset has been bolstered by Hollywood because, duh, everyone knows you need only one set of parents, not two.

So it’s no wonder that these two teachers could see only that if you end up with good parents, its all good! It would be as if the social studies textbook covered only peace treaties and not wars. Or if the chemistry textbook covered only chemical bonding but not entropy. Yes, the coverage may be accurate, but not at all complete.

But maybe Hollywood is changing.

This Is Us Dives Deep into Adoption Complexity

Last month after I’d previewed the Fall season of NBC’s This Is Us, I invited my teens wanted to watch it with me. We binged in the weeks before Christmas, and the kids were into it for many reasons, the adoption story line being only one of them.

As I did the first time, I wept again while watching episode 9 — more than once. I got choked up at scenes that take the viewer from the simple Either/Or mindset to a more labyrinthine Both/And heartset. Like these:

  • Dad (Jack): “It kills me that our son will always have this hole, not knowing who his parents are.” Mom (Rebecca): “WE’RE his parents.”
  • When Randall, inadvertently on mushrooms, tells his dad he’s just a replacement for his dead baby. And Jack’s response? OMG.
  • When Rebecca tells birth dad William (whom she has known all along) that Randall has been asking about him and wants to meet him. William gets excited and begins talking about all the ways he wants to share himself with his son. When he comes out of his reverie, Rebecca has vanished.
  • When Randall lists all that his mother, Rebecca, robbed him of in keeping William from him. Then when Jack tells Randall to look more deeply at her, and he sees Rebecca in a more complete and complex way. OMG.
  • Jack and Randall’s initiation at the end of martial arts class, otherwise known as the push-up scene. OMG.
  • The voiceover during the push-up scene as William reads the letter Rebecca sent him about her verdict on meeting Randall. OMG.
  • When Randall confronts Rebecca about the secret she kept from him for 36 years, he shows an unexpected emotion — empathy. OMG.

See? All complexity. Happy and sad, heartbreaking and heartsoaring at the same time. People doing wrong things but not because they’re bad people. People doing the best they can dealing with their own past hurts, demons, and fears.

It’s as though the writers of This Is Us are using Rebecca to represent the Either/Or mindset we are evolving from, and Jack to represent the Both/And heartset we need to move toward. Both Rebecca and Jack love Randall deeply. One is more affected by fear and insecurity than the other. One constricts in the presence of fear, and one is able to be expansive in it.

We are all called in adoption to decide which will be our orientation.

New episodes of This Is Us resume Tuesday evenings on NBC next week.

Lion: Of Course You Root for the Boy to Find What Was Lost.

My daughter didn’t relay the middle school conversation to us until Family Date Night last week. We’d just seen the film Lion and were talking about it over dinner.

Once we got it out of the way that Dev Patel is ohmygawdsocute!, our daughter started talking about the less obvious parts of the movie.

“People think adoption is all wonderful,” she explained to us. “They don’t get that even if you get a new pretty good mom*, you can still miss what you lost.”

To my knowledge she has never read an adoption blog post, not mine and not any of yours. These thoughts originated in her, as they do in so many adopted people.

My son agreed that people have a really hard time understanding that adoptees can hold lots of people in their hearts at the same time.  “Do people really think that he’s just going to forget that he once had a mom and a brother that he loved so much? Or that, if he gets them back, he’ll no longer love the people who raised him? That’s just dumb thinking.”

The storytelling in this film is exquisite. The tear-jerk moment comes, predictably, at the end of Lion. But there was another that got me again, unexpectedly, during the credits. It was a Both/And moment in which the real original mom and the real adoptive mom (not the actresses) embrace the real Saroo.

I’m a sucker for people in adoption having it all.

* at this stage of parenting, I’ll take even such a lukewarm compliment.

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Here is the real Saroo (Lion in Hindi) on 60 Minutes.

More on Lion from the Adoption Community:

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Lori Holden's book coverLori Holden, mom of a teen son and a teen daughter, blogs from Denver. Her book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption: Helping Your Child Grow Up Whole, is available through your favorite online bookseller and makes a thoughtful anytime gift for the adoptive families in your life.

18 thoughts on “Adoption on Screen: “This is Us” and “Lion” Give New Focus”

  1. This Is Us definitely blazes new trails in the way adoption is being presented and it accomplishes this by engaging the audience and eliciting empathy. (BTW, adoption is not the only BIG Storyline this series tackles and handles well.)

    GREAT post–as usual. I will add “Lion” to my must-watch list.

  2. I loved reading this. Thank you. Just the fact that you have Family Date Night made me pause.
    Keep doing the good work, shining the light on the places that need some illumination for the betterment of all, and for the ease of life for the adoptees in particular.

  3. Thank you for sharing! This was great, very well written and speaks the truth from some adoptees point of view and from some adoptive parents point of view which is so good to see together! I’m sure you would agree that in the adoption world we are so grateful for both “This is Us” and Lion.

  4. The both/and concept is very difficult for people to grasp. We are a culture that thrives on black and white thinking, so it’s not surprising that adoption and all that is involved is not fully explored by many. Seeing media like this is heartwarming as it can be a stepping stone to much-needed conversations. It provides the gray and shows that those many shades are important to address.

    I also love that this sparked so much sharing in your own family. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Whenever I’m watching This Is Us, I think of what you would say about it. I love that show, and I hope they can keep on writing excellent stories.

    I just put Lion on my movies-to-watch list…

  6. I’ve been on the fence about watching This is Us, but this post is nudging me towards the “watch it” side. I’ve been told that it’s a bit manipulative emotionally, as if playing by a formula solely to “win” at causing tears. But maybe that isn’t always a bad thing if it generates deep thoughts or good conversation.

  7. The fact that your children are willing and able to articulate their perceptions and feelings about adoption in your presence means that you are waaay beyond being a “pretty good mom.”

  8. I agree with Rich! I love that your kids are so comfortable talking about this with you. And that sounds stupid, doesn’t it, for people to be surprised that kids can talk openly with their parents about something so emotional? That’s what we hope for when we’re raising our kids, but we never know if we’ll get there. You got there!

    This reminds me of A+ efforts latest post on FB about adoption, an article I adored and then shared. You’re children will never feel like that author, and that’s ALL your doing, friend! ❤

  9. Ack, the tears, the tears… Okay, so I have been putting off watching “This Is Us” because a) I have limited time to watch TV b) I am a weirdo and if everyone loves it or says it’s amazingly emotional I don’t want to watch it as much (“Stranger Things” is an exception, but there are so many amazing shows I’ve never seen for this reason) and the big one, c) I know I should watch it as it is probably incredibly, insanely applicable to my own future family but I am also in a very emotional place and I know from all the reviews that I will watch it and sob my eyes out. But, watching this clip (which did make me sob my eyes out) makes it clear that I totally need to watch this show. I want to watch this show.
    Okay, also this post is amazing and I just love your family, lukewarm compliments and all! I love Family Date Night, I love the conversations you have, I love that you really mean openness in all forms. It is irritating that Hollywood perpetuates adoption stereotypes, but it sounds like between This Is Us and The Lion (which is on my list to see) they are starting to get that it’s not a good guys/bad guys scenario. I love what Reed said, that it’s just “dumb thinking” to think that you have to choose one over the other, that you don’t have enough love for everyone. Ack, it’s been an emotional day and this really tapped into everything, but I love everything about it. Great post.

  10. Honestly I could have seen my mother being Rebecca given that scenario and my father being Jack. I do understand why Randall (after a month break, I think) felt empathy for his mother

    Two things: It’s interesting how Rebecca couldn’t bond with Randall until she met William and he made the suggestion to change his name. Then he became her favorite. I think that a switch was turned on or something enabled that feeling and that it often happens to adoptive mothers

    Adoptees are the only group of people who are expected to feel not just compassion but empathy toward everyone. That’s exhausting. I feel compassion toward my birth mother and understand why she did what she did and will forever be grateful for that but do I feel empathetic? I’m not sure. Don’t really want to. She was a bitch and I’m not going to rewrite history to make her sibling and niece and nephew happy. (The niece and nephew admit she was toward most people and me especially but she loved them to death–so my complex feelings are hard for them, and they’re Ivy grads in “helping professions.”

  11. Your kids are amazing. 🙂 Love hearing stories like this. I have shyed (sp?) away from “This is Us” — I think I was scared off by the ads before the series began. I KNEW that someone was dead, and I figured it was either a baby or the mom, and I did not want to go there. Even if I felt able to handle the subject matter, I so often find Hollywood’s treatment of these issues to be disappointing. I have heard a lot of good things about the show, though, from you & others, so perhaps I should rethink my boycott. 😉

    I would definitely like to see “Lion.” I remember reading about the story some times ago (probably when the book was first published). I am a sucker for reunion stories of any kind, and this guy’s was pretty unlikely & pretty amazing. I also found it poignant that Nicole Kidman plays the mom, given her own personal experiences with infertility, loss & adoption.

  12. Lori,
    Thanks for stopping by my site. I must confess, I didn’t finish your post because I haven’t watched the Story of Us, YET. I agree with the beginning that adoption is complex and we can’t turn it or any major life event into a 2D flat portrait, there is no perfect story. Thanks for sharing. I will have to finish your post when I catch up with the show!

  13. my adopted child (we have a bio kid as well) is 7yrs and so when we look for family movies, we are always trying to guess which ones will look/feel like our family (tough!). So many Disney movies have the classic/flawed stereotypes around adoption (Finding Dory!) but we recently watched Kung Foo Panda 3 and it has a couple of really nice “both/and” moments and some funny inter-racial adoption moments too. Let’s hope with more profiling/talking/advocacy the ‘both/and’ story line becomes more mainstream !

  14. Ah, Hollywood and the media. The cliches about adoption explain why we always get the “why don’t you just adopt?” questions too. I was telling my husband about Lion this morning, as I want to go, but I’m a bit scared I’ll do the ugly cry!

    I cringed at the teachers. People so often just try to dismiss feelings because they don’t know how to deal with them.

    I love that your daughter acknowledges you are a “pretty good mom” – as you say, that’s high praise from a teenager!

    So much of parenting (that I have observed) is thinking about what the parent wants, rather than what is honestly best long term for the child. It’s about what they think the child “should” want, rather than what they really want and need. I get frustrated watching that (in real life or fiction). The ads had put me off watching This is Us, as it looked like a traditional family line, but I might consider it now.

  15. We do a Family Movie night as well, but we tend to pick less feel-good and more scare-good like, “Lights Out” and “The Conjuring.” *grin*

    Definitely putting “The Lion” on my watch list. 🙂

  16. Thank you so much for your thoughts on This is Us (I haven’t seen Lion yet, but it’s on my to do list :-).

    I am a birthmom who has always shared myself with my daughter’s parents through mail correspondence and only now realized (as she is 18) that my assumption surrounding her parents honoring her Origin Story was not accurate. I am currently seeking counsel and advice about how to initiate contact myself… hopefully my story is not over.

    That being said, watching This is Us is absolutely heart wrenching. My husband and I end every episode with fishbowl eyes and our traditional loving exclamation of “this F*#%ing show”! We are huge fans and agree that the actors and writers are doing an amazing job presenting what you describe as the Both/And vs Either/Or posture of parenting. But I admit, Rebecca’s character illicits an acute pain in me that is directly related to the betrayal I feel surrounding being shut out by my biodaughter’s parents. When Rebecca abandons William in his home after waiving that carrot of reunion, when her son is actively trying to find his bioparents every time they are in public, when William still chooses to protect HER over his instincts to protect his biokid… my heart is turned inside out.

    I hope my story continues with less heartbreak than this, and I will keep watching This is Us because there is a catharsis in seeing these characters find forgiveness in order to try to create relationships in spite of #doingitwrong.

    It just gets me right in the feels.

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