The Reluctant Mother and a Childhood Deferred - This Is Us, episode 17
What a powerful episode this week! I have been wondering about Deja’s backstory (and her mother) since we met her. I’m so glad the writers used an opportunity to highlight our foster care system in the US, even though what we were shown was softened quite a bit for TV. I don’t think anyone is ready to see the realities of how ugly and broken our foster care system actually is. There were such beautiful moments in this episode – especially the ones that show how universal the human experience is, no matter your background. Did anyone else clutch their heart when they saw that Jack read Goodnight Moon to his little brother Nicky?! In the end, we see how important it is to have a support system and how fast things can unravel when you don’t. Luckily Deja found hers. This episode was definitely a PSA for all the Randall and Beth couples out there (educated, higher income, stable, higher functioning households) to consider fostering a child.
Watching flashbacks into Deja’s upbringing was a story I have seen way too many times – the tired grandmother struggling with her granddaughter’s choices, the lost and overwhelmed mother and the child who doesn’t have enough safety or security to actually be a child. Deja had no choice but to grow up in order to survive. Even though she was only 3, Deja was able to recognize this when they lived with her Gigi. We underestimate children. We don’t recognize how easily they can adapt to a situation, even when it’s dysfunctional. A child would usually be afraid to be left alone at night. But if it happens enough, the child will find a way to survive it. This is the first evidence we have that Deja began caring for herself …at 3yrs old. Deja really had no choice. She intuitively knew that she could achieve more stability for herself if she needed less and helped more. If she expressed needs, if she couldn’t help fill in the gaps that her mother couldn’t manage, she would actually suffer more. So the logical choice would be to care for her own needs as much as possible, while anticipating the needs of her mother. Of course, this is what a mother should actually be doing for her child.
When Deja’s mother says “What would I do without you?” Deja sees it as a compliment and a moment where her mother is showing care and affection for her. At the same time, it is another reminder that Deja is integral to keeping the household afloat because both of them would fail without her help.
The Reluctant Mother
While I’m sure the viewers were directing all their anger at Deja’s mother, I was actually relieved to learn more about her backstory. Mainly because I knew there had to be a start to the downhill spiral that lead to Deja permanently living with Randall and Beth. And for Shauna it started from the day Deja was born. She was a reluctant mother. Shauna was 16 and immature in many ways. There are many teen mothers who are jolted into the truth that their new infant is totally helpless and dependent on them, so they embrace motherhood as best they can. They will of course have many blind spots since they are still children themselves and have neither the cognitive skills or life experience to handle every situation. Then there are mothers like Shauna, who are still in denial about the reality of their new role and overwhelmed by all that is expected of them. They will mother, but they will do so reluctantly. They will pass the baton to anyone willing to step in so they can escape and try to reclaim all they have lost. This is often a teen who still wants to be a teen, who feels they are missing out on fun, who just wants to be “normal” and carefree again. They just weren’t ready and they don’t know how to be ready.
We expect the 19y reluctant Shauna to automatically know how to get a keep a job, how to create and stick to a budget, how to feed and care for herself all while managing the grief of losing her grandmother. On top of that, she must also keep another developing human alive through it all. That’s a lot to ask of anyone, much less a teen mother. It would make sense then, that substance use might creep in as a way to cope, that priorities for money get rearranged and panic over basic survival sets in. Shauna was in over her head. She needed help. She had absolutely none after Gigi died. She was not an evil, abusive and purposely neglectful mother. She just needed help. Unfortunately, our foster care system tries to care for children who are suffering, but we have no governmental agency in charge of getting parents the help they need. Let me say this again – Shauna needed help. The social worker helped Deja’s mother get into treatment and perhaps other aid as well, but this was after Deja was taken away. I wish there were more comprehensive services in place to meet all the needs Shauna had from the day she gave birth at 16y.
This was a painful episode because it was all too real. We get some relief knowing that Deja is now safe with Randall and Beth, but what about in real life? What about Raven, Deja’s friend who bounced from home to home? How fast did you forget about her? We have a serious problem in our country. We have a lot more Ravens who endure a lot more maltreatment in foster care than we do the Dejas who find a safe and stable home. Why? This is something we should spend some real time thinking about.