This Is Us
Screenshot: ABC

Somehow, I didn’t realize that This Is Us had returned to my Tuesday nights. The last episode I saw was THE episode where Jack [CENSORED]. You know what? “[CENSORED]” means died. Bought the farm. Kicked the bucket. And any other euphemism for dying you can think of. Anyway, on Facebook, I saw somebody mention this past Tuesday night’s episode, so I promptly logged out and then watched the past two.

This week’s episode treated us to the backstory of Deja (and her mother, Shauna) and how she came into Randall and Beth’s life as their foster child. Randall in particular got very attached to her, and while Beth is “the head” and Randall is “the heart” in the relationship, we find out that Beth has also been struggling mightily with Deja returning to her mother. As we come to find out, Deja and her mother have continued to struggle, resulting in them being evicted from their apartment and sleeping in a car, where Beth and Randall find them.

Deja and Shauna come back to Randall and Beth’s home to stay, and Shauna gets to see Deja be a kid without the weight of the world on her shoulders. Deja gets to smile and laugh and not have to worry or be Shauna’s grounding. Deja gets to be part of a family and be wanted. She doesn’t have to be an adult with the Pearsons.

In a weighty scene that drew some tears from me, Deja tells Randall about how she’s slept in so many beds in her life and she’s just tired. Shauna, in observing her daughter have some peace, realizes that Randall and Beth are whom Deja needs to be with. And she makes the decision to leave without Deja.

That scene was heavy—for a few reasons, but the most obvious is that Shauna was leaving her daughter behind (in good hands, of course). This was a mother realizing that she couldn’t do for her child and that there was a better option available, and selflessly deciding to give her child the best chance at success. But I cannot imagine for the life of me how hard a decision like that must be for a parent, especially a mother. And you can see it in the faces of Beth, Randall and Shauna as she stands, bags packed, ready to walk out the door.

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When I was 6, my little sister and I left my mother and moved to live with my father in Germany. I don’t know what conversations occurred between my mother and father that resulted in this decision. I don’t know how long they’d been having those conversation about her sending us to live with him or how many they had.

Though I have several theories on why it happened at all, in the one conversation I’ve ever had with my mother about it, she said that she’d realized that she couldn’t properly teach me how to be a black man, and she didn’t want to split up my little sister and me, though they’d discussed that as a possibility. I can see my father attempting to hammer that point, but I still struggle with my mother accepting it.

For one, she was 28 years old at the time. It’s possible to be wise beyond one’s years—perhaps she had some moments of enlightenment—but it feels like revisionist history. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t think that was it. My father has never really spoken about why the decision was made, though I have this vague memory of my mother being sick, and my grandmother was already housing my other cousins.

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Either way, at 6 years old, I left my mother and moved across an ocean to live with my father and a woman my mother had never met. For whatever struggles she and I have had, I cannot imagine what it’s like to send your kids to what you deem a better situation that means you won’t see them for nine- to 10-month stretches at a time, only accessible by phone.

Anybody with little kids knows that kids suck on the phone, so I’m sure our actual communication was very ineffectual. There was no videoconferencing or FaceTime. Whatever was going on in my mother’s life at the time caused her to weigh the life we had against the one we would have and determine that we were better off with my dad far, far away. I don’t know if it was supposed to be temporary, but it ended up being permanent.

I don’t know how she made that decision. I don’t know how hard it was the minute the airplane doors closed and she knew she wouldn’t see us again for a minimum of seven months. I don’t know what she did when she drove off, obviously with tears and probably some significant amount of second-guessing and regret. She was a 28-year-old mother of two who no longer had her children with her. That sounds like a mentally impossible situation.

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I have friends who are mothers who have sent their kids to live with the other parent for a slew of reasons. I’ve asked how hard that decision was, and the usual answer is that it’s been the hardest decision they’ve made, but they knew in their heart they were making the right choice. The pain was somewhat mitigated by knowing they were doing what was in the best interest of their child.

That’s what Shauna was doing. She knew it. Randall and Beth knew it. And even Deja (who was asleep when her mother was leaving) knew it. And I can’t imagine that Shauna would ever be more than a phone call or visit away; they all live in New Jersey. But still, that scene hit me. She said, “I gotta go. And I can’t take her with me.”

I gotta go. And I can’t take her with me. Where she is in life and where she could see for the foreseeable future, she couldn’t bring Deja there—not when a better choice existed. She saw it. She felt it. She understood it. And I’m sure it still hurt her to make that choice.

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I will never pretend to understand what it’s like to be a mother. My love for my children is unquestionable and unconditional; there’s something about a mother’s love, though. Even watching that episode and KNOWING what was coming didn’t prepare me for that line. It’s the clear solution to the situation. And even though her mother knew it, it was still likely the hardest decision of her life.

That’s a mother’s love.