Bonding Fails - This is Us episode 4
Ok…. tell me your jaw did not DROP open when it was revealed Kate now is pregnant with a lentil sized baby?? I know the nature of the show means there will be some drama surrounding this, but I was so happy for her! No wonder she was staring at that poppy seed muffin! I find it very profound that wanting to be healthy for someone else kicked her healthy eating and exercise regimen into high gear. Kate has been a caretaker for so many others in her family, so it fits that she’d want to take care of a developing fetus as well. And we know she won’t have trouble doing so because she puts her own interests aside to care for others, as we’ve seen her do with Kevin and even her father Jack. So any wishes for a dream dress size or losing a certain amount of weight is now overshadowed by wanting to be healthy for the baby. Same end goal, different motivation.
This episode we learn about two situations of strained attempts to create family bonds. We know family includes a strong focus on genetic ties, but we cannot ignore that bonding is what really holds a family together. Bonding happens in so many ways – through talking, rituals, activities and overall extended amounts of shared time together. Insides jokes, shared memories and even grieving together can create “family.” Everyone has to work at creating family … and sometimes we fail like we saw in this episode.
Bonding Fail #1: Grandma vs. Randall
Oh my goodness, that grandmother. Not only do we see Rebecca experiencing a similar dynamic with her mother like Kate does with Rebecca, but it’s even more intense. Grandma not only is passive aggressive with her daughter, but is judgmental of Jack and little Kate too. And then there is the racism. Wow! Grandma casually states she had to correct her African American maid’s English so her children didn’t speak like “street kids.” She shares her surprise that Randall would be the one to get into private school over the other two (Caucasian) children. Then we learn she gave Randall a basketball on three separate occasions adding she thought he’d be “a natural.” This grandmother clearly struggles with how to connect to her grandchild because she cannot see past his race. She cannot see him, and this gets in the way of her ability to truly bond with Randall.
We cannot underestimate how large a task it is to decide to transracially adopt. In the early 70s, the National Association of Black Social Workers advised against White families adopting Black children because they felt the child would not be able to go through the process of racial identity development, would not understand how to interact with the Black community and because the child would not know how to survive racism in the larger society. In season 1, we see Randall struggle with some of this – and we learn in this episode that Randall does not fully understand the subtle ways racism can be expressed until his parents struggle to explain it to him, and he certainly doesn’t know how to defend himself in the face of such statements from his grandmother. However, while the parents of a transracial adoptee may have a lot to consider when raising their child, one thing that may not be considered is how the adoptive grandparents will react to the child. Many parents would see racism from other family members and just stay silent. For some Caucasian parents they have not done enough work on their own race and awareness of racial privilege to even be able to have the vocabulary to explain it to their children. I’m not sure if a Caucasian family raising a Black child in the late 80s would have been as “woke” about race as the Pearson’s try to be with Randall, but I applaud it all the same. They tried their best to explain what racism is and how it could look. They fumble and they struggle so that Randall is able to see what they know to be true. We see grandma come around toward the end of the episode to see that Randall is a “special young man.” This is the beginning of true bonding with Randall. It is also an example of a deeper bond between Rebecca and her mother because even difficult conversations can lead to bonding and can reinforce a mutual respect. While we get a nice resolution by the end of the episode, in real life many families have to cut ties with their own parents or extended family in order to protect the bond created with their new adopted child.
Bonding Fail #2: Beth vs. Deja
Intimacy can be scary. We risk a lot by becoming emotionally intimate. We let our guards down, we let people in, we risk being hurt. This is an especially difficult thing for a child in foster care because there is no guarantee you will not have to just pack up and go somewhere new. A child in and out of foster care will have had many bonds broken and have their trust deeply betrayed. It is hard to know who to trust and it is much easier to put up an emotional guard to protect oneself than to repeatedly bond and say many goodbyes.
Deja has not washed her hair for two weeks – maybe she needs help, maybe she is embarrassed, maybe she is just was wishing for her mother to return so that she could do her hair again. Beth sits with Deja and talks to her about her hair rituals with her three sisters growing up, and offers to bond with Deja in this way. Deja decides to let down her guard and trust Beth with her hair – a very intimate experience for Black women, and even more so for Deja as she has some shame over her alopecia. She asks if Beth will do her hair and it is the voice of a child asking a mother for not only a hairstyle, but also time together to bond and be intimate. Beth of course takes her up on the offer and uses the time to share about her family, learn a little more about Deja, explain alopecia and it’s relationships to stress, and ultimately leaves Deja with braids that do not show her bald patches. When Deja finds out that Beth spoke with Randall about their intimate time together, she feels betrayed. We don’t know Deja’s history with men, but she must have been victimized in some way, which results in strained interactions with Randall. She believed that she and Beth had a private moment – one that she did not give permission to share with Randall. In an impulsive move, Deja chose to lash out at Beth. She wanted to express her anger and make sure she was able to hurt Beth. So she cut off her braids. In doing this, she said to Beth that she not only did not want her gift of a hairstyle or time together, but that she quite literally cut the bond that was created between them. This definitely had the impact Deja hoped for as Beth looked like the wind was knocked out of her when Deja sat down at the breakfast table. We can only hope that Beth and Randall do not react with anger and a desire to punish like many parents would, but rather with understanding, love and a recognition that she is communicating in her own way. A child like Deja still has deep trauma to process and much to learn about emotional awareness and control, effective communication, trusting others and getting her needs met in a healthy way.
I hope we see that Beth & Randall continue to be as sensitive with Deja as they have been. They really are a great team and have been helping each other walk the fine line between helping Deja feel welcome into the family and letting her settle in at her own pace – all while enforcing any rules and boundaries they have in place.
What do you think will happen with Deja?
Are you as worried as I am about Kevin and what looks like a dependence on painkillers?