Four Life Lessons from This Is Us Season Premiere
So, it’s official. I love This Is Us. I can never keep up with all the tv shows that exist in the world, so I missed season 1. But thanks to the internet, I finally made time over the summer to binge watch the first season and oh my God. You simply cannot have a child psychologist watch that show and not expect them to be hooked all the way in. Like, I’m so hooked on this show, I’ve been referencing the characters in my everyday conversations. It’s just great - you get to see parenting choices and the impact it had on the development of three very different children. Then as if that’s not enough, you get to see how those children turned out as adults?? Come on! That is a psychologist’s dream since we usually only get one or the other. It’s like having Freud’s cigar and getting to smoke it too. I don’t know if some of those writers were psychologists who left the field for the writer’s room, but I’d visit their therapy offices any day. They’d get me.
I’ve been ready for Sept 26 for weeks. Normally when I watch the show, I am talking to the characters, explaining out loud why someone in the family is behaving the way they are, calling out to the parents to catch their blind spots and generally loving how those outside of the immediate family try to understand the Pearson family dynamics. This season, I thought I would try to share some of these thoughts with you. Hopefully we can have some fun digging up some psychological gems from each episode!
Here we go - four life lessons we can take from the Pearson family this week!
1. “Fine” is relative.
Mom and Dad have to break the news to the kids of their decision to take time apart from each other for awhile. I love that Jake and Rebecca are straightforward and honest with the kids, explaining the fight and why mom returned early from the tour. However, when they try to pass it off as no big deal, the kids see through it right away. As they get upset and leave the table, Jake says about the kids, “They’re gonna be fine.”
I love this moment. I think it’s a classic parent move, to think the kids will be “fine.” It’s usually said after a child lets on that they are not, in fact, doing ok. It’s a statement that is more for the parent’s benefit than anyone else. Fine. Jake tries to convince himself that this separation from his wife, this separation from his home and children, this day of reckoning with his alcohol use and the overall state of his life are all fine. Rebecca also tries to manufacture “fine” and takes the kids to a movie to try and take their minds off this landmine that she and Jake set off in front of the kids.
Here’s the thing. The kids are not fine. They are baffled and confused about what is happening in their parent’s relationship. Parental conflict is disrupting. Drastic changes in the family dynamic create fear and uncertainty. A child expects their daily routine to be the same - whatever they have come to know is believed to be a truth that will always be. The world is predictable, the world is safe. To disrupt that belief is to pull a rug from under their feet. The child has few cognitive skills to prepare for a change like this, and has limited ability to find understanding. And yet, many parents pull the rug from under their child’s feet and expect them to stay standing. This is not possible. They will stumble, trip and fall. They may get some scrapes and bruises, sprain an ankle, maybe even break a leg. They will be in pain. They will need time to manage their pain and heal from it. More importantly, they will need someone to acknowledge they fell and were hurt. They will need help to heal properly. If we leave them alone, as Jake and Rebecca did, the kids will figure out how to stand back up and how to keep going in their pain. But they will live on with some sensitive areas, some scars or perhaps a limp. They will be “fine,” but fine is relative.
2. Death is only the beginning of grief
We still don’t know exactly how Jake died, but we know it had to do with a horrible fire. We may not have known it was a fire in season 1, but we were given hints that it was a traumatic and unexpected death. Throughout season 1 we get to see how each child may (or may not) have dealt their father’s death. In their adult lives, we saw the various ways normal things in their lives brought back memories of their father, set off silence or sadness and how they provoked conflict. We see how it impacts their relationships with their other siblings, their mother, their stepfather Miguel and the new relationships they form. We see the bond that is created by sharing this traumatic experience, and the safety it creates when someone else knows your pain. And 37 years later we still see the emotional leftovers this horrific day.
We can’t ignore that in this family, Jake took fathering to the next level. His ability to maintain optimism and provide emotional warmth, support and love to his children was nothing short of amazing. For all three children, Jake served as a source of moral support, wisdom, guidance, understanding and as a role model. To lose this heroic member of the family drives the loss even deeper.
Many say there is no right way to grieve a death of a parent. I agree, but take issue with the idea that “grieving” is something that has a beginning and an end. In fact, grief is an experience that shifts over time. Even as we consider the stages of grief, it must be acknowledged that we revisit these stages over our lifetime. One does not “resolve” one’s grief. One does not “end” a “period” of grieving. Especially when it is a parent, one can only hope to incorporate grieving into their daily life in an adaptive and healthy way. Grieving a parent in adolescence is a monumental task. It will reveal new parts of itself with each new milestone, accomplishment, loss or failure. It will be a constant discovery, an experience that shifts often, takes on a new shape and requires new awareness. It will shape the adolescent’s personality and how they see the world. It is a lifelong process, and death is only the beginning.
3. We should all strive to be perfectly imperfect
Oh Randall. My favorite transracial adoptee! I really love how the writers address Randall’s struggle with his racial identity process. I imagine there are many transracial adoptees of various backgrounds who feel their experiences are represented honestly and with compassion. I also love that we get to know why Randall tries so hard to do everything right, to excel in every area, to be perfect in every way. We learn he struggled with the fear of being unworthy of love just as he is – that if he did not “earn” his love, he may lose it. This deep fear of not being enough propels his perfectionism, and his perfectionism masks his “self-doubt and self-loathing.”
However, Randall makes a discovery in this episode, possibly sparked by a conversation with his mother where she finally shared the truth of his adoption – that his father had to convince his mother to adopt him. Rather than be upset at this news, he was able to see that in actuality he was enough on the day of his birth – for his father. This realization along with the expressed love from his mother seems to be a moment of healing for Randall.
But, instead of being “cured” of his perfectionism, we learn Randall came to a different conclusion. We see that he is aware that perfectionism will always be part of who he is and an area needing continued work. So he reframes his strive to be perfect and directs his perfectionism at being “imperfect.” This is the best way Randall can accept his flaws, allow for conflict and build room for failures, unexpected occurrences and things generally not going as planned. His epiphany is such an endearing one, and a lesson for any person with ambitions and goals in life who struggles with self-doubt. We learn that if you always strive to be “perfectly imperfect,” you will have no other option but to always succeed.
4. Fake smoking saves lives
Now you can’t tell me you weren’t fully amused when Beth is caught fake smoking in the parking lot! Beth was so heated, she went to new heights of creativity to calm herself. The best part was that it actually worked! She saved her lungs and her marriage. Can we also mention that this is also why I love Randall and Beth as a couple? He sees his wife fake smoking and rather than dismiss or insult her, he validates her attempt to calm herself by taking a puff too. These two are so fun to watch. They didn’t resolve their conflict right then, but they were able to have a heart to heart later and make a mutual decision on the newest member of their family.
I love to see their partnership – a true example of an egalitarian household. They are friends, they are teammates, they add their strengths to the other’s weaknesses. As Randall said, they really are good together.
So there you have it. Those are my four takeways from the premiere. I could have written so much more! I can’t wait to see what comes of Kate’s newfound ability to advocate for herself and her singing. She sang so well but I think we all were on the same page when the backup dancer belted out that first line of Kate's song. You just kinda had to look at Kate like…
Until next week… what is your favorite takeaaway from the season premiere?