Adoption on TV- NBC’s “Parenthood”

Dawn Davenport


8546982929_cf1ff40522_nI’m definitely behind the times when it comes to TV—OK probably in most things, but in TV for sure. I watch most of my TV while I cook or make jewelry. and almost all of it through Netflix streaming. This means I’m at least one season behind. Last night I finished last year’s Season 3 of the NBC drama Parenthood.

Parenthood follows the Braverman family of four adult siblings. One sibling, Julia and her husband Joel, are trying to adopt. The show is set in 2011, but if you didn’t see the current cars, clothes, and ubiquitous iPhones you would assume they were adopting in the 1960s or 70s. I cringed when Julia refers to “buying a baby”. Open adoption is not even mentioned, even though 95% of infant adoptions in the US are now open to some degree. Zoe, the expectant mom, is never offered counseling. For that matter, Julia and Joel seem to know precious little about adoption either. Never does anyone mention what would be in the best interest of the child.

I found myself talking to the TV frequently, providing helpful comments such as:

  • Big Mistake.
  • What are you people thinking?
  • Counseling, anyone?!?

At one point, the birth father asks for money if they want him to sign the relinquishment papers. While Julia refused, no one ever mentioned what type of legacy this would leave for the child or how the child would one day feel if/when he found out. Well, that would be no one other than me, and you can bet I provided plenty of commentary. Ultimately, Zoe changes her mind, and after the birth of her son decides to parent.

What a missed opportunity to paint a realistic portrait of infant adoption in the US. It feeds the misunderstandings of openness in adoption. I still hear from plenty of folks who believe that openness equals co-parenting, or open adoption is inherently confusing to children, or open adoption makes adoptive parents less secure, or open adoption is cruel to birth parents. While all of these are possibilities, they are far from probabilities, especially if all members of the adoption triad (adoptive parents, first parents, and adoptee) are supported and educated.

The adoption drama is continuing this season on Parenthood because at the end of Season 3, a couple of days after the adoption of Zoe’s son fall through, Julia and Joel decide to adopt through foster care. Days later an early elementary aged boy moves in. As is no surprise, there is zero education or preparation provided. We all know how realistic that is, right?

I was quite frankly surprised by this totally unrealistic coverage of adoption because one of the things I’ve loved about Parenthood, is the amazingly accurate portrayal of a family (one of the other Braverman siblings) with a son with Asperger Syndrome. I am blown away by the both the young actor’s skill at capturing autism and by the show writers’ ability to understand what it is like to parent a child with a special need.  I was not surprised to find out that Jason Katims, the executive producer of Parenthood has a son with Asperger’s. Too bad someone hadn’t adopted.

Did this portrayal of adoption drive anyone else nuts?


Image credit: starbright31

16/10/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 36 Comments

36 Responses to Adoption on TV- NBC’s “Parenthood”

  1. Misty Snow Misty Snow says:

    You can watch this season on Hulu, Dawn. Without giving too much away Rosie, I think they are doing a good job of showing that the transition can be tough.

  2. Tracy O'Mara Whitney Tracy O'Mara Whitney says:

    I love that it clears my sinuses out good every single episode. Sheesh, btw the oldest daughter leaving for college (my oldest left just two weeks ago) and the adoption story line (we’re waiting for a Chinese baby girl and have adopted one already) and the new breast cancer story line (really truly one of my worst fears), and the young man with Asberger’s (I have a couple friends with kids on the spectrum) – I am happily and regularly a wreck each time I watch. It’s so cathartic. And I don’t even care that they don’t handle all the issues or handle them all well. Who of us does? I love it and I am SERIOUSLY BUMMED that these two blustering, rude buffoons debating each other tonight are stealing my show’s airspace!!!!!!! 🙂

  3. Wendy Cheek Cavalier Wendy Cheek Cavalier says:

    In contrast, I like how the adoption story line was handled on “Modern Family” this past season. The mother decidjng to parent the newborn; the potential adoptive parents reeling with a variety of emotions that weren’t resolved tidily in one episode; their (veiled) reaction to another family member’s unexpected pregnancy.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Wendy, I just started watching that season of Modern Family. (Had to get the DVD from netflix since they don’t stream that one.) Oh, I can hardly wait. That is such a funny show!

  4. Avatar Suzanne says:

    I hated the infant adoption storyline. Terrible. I actually think they’ve been pretty fair with the older child adoption. This older child adoption took place through the same agency, and my experience with friends who have used a private agency to adopt (both internationally and domestic) is that the classes are, in fact, woefully inadequate and far less than what is required to adopt from the state. I still think Joel is a one-dimensional, superman character with no flaws which bugs me, but Julia’s reactions/thoughts/actions/feelings as presented this season have been very well-written, in my opinion.

    I was surprised when I saw that initial My Brown Baby article about the addressing of race in this current season. Do most people reading here agree with it? I read several other pieces from black bloggers that were hugely complimentary. I’ve only been a transracial parent for a couple years, but I found myself identifying quite a bit with how they’ve written this story line.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      I may have to break down and watch this season in real time. I really want to see how they handle the older child/ multi-racial family issues.

  5. Jennifer Michalik Olson Jennifer Michalik Olson says:

    I watch too and I was also appalled by the “buying a baby” comment. I was thinking the same things as you – they have not done any classes if this is how they think about adoption. I’m a couple weeks behind on this season, but have seen the first two episodes. I have been disappointed with the handling of the whole situation.

  6. Avatar Rob says:

    As a parent who has adopted 3 older children from foster care, I really appreciate the way they have handled this story line. Has it been perfect and portrayed every conceivable angle of the adoption process? No. What I think they have done well is portray the ups, downs, struggles and joys that every member of an adoptive family goes through. The truth is, no amount of training can truly prepare you for this journey. You just have to live it. Joel and Julia are portrayed well in my opinion. As an adoptive parent, I can sympathize with feeling kind of clueless (especially early on) and not having an understanding of the trauma kids can go through and how long it can take them to work through it. I can sympathize with the questions and doubts that come that make a parent ask themself “am I doing the right thing?” I think the show simplifies certain aspects for the sake of brevity and because this plot line is not the only one on the show. In all the movies and television shows I have seen that portray foster care and adoption from foster care, I think this one has done the best job of portraying a balanced, well-rounded picture of what it is truly like.

  7. Avatar Rosie says:

    After this week’s episode I am really dying to know what people think. I don’t want to give it away, Dawn, since I know you are not ready for this episode yet. But anyhow, things are changing. For sure.

  8. Avatar Kimberly says:

    I too am dying to see where they take this. They can do it justice or it could be a complete train wreck. They can play into every stereotype and fear people have of older child adoption or they can create a (semi) realistic picture of the challenges encountered and commitment required. I have to say the social worker is not doing her job.

  9. Avatar JR says:

    I have been extremely frustrated with the recent episodes. I don’t understand how they can expect Victor to just completely forget his birth family… it’s just absurd. They should be helping him deal with his feelings honestly and productively. Why is he not in therapy?? I am glad that they seem to be realistically portraying some other issues, such as the stages that behaviors can come in (i.e. Victor seeming to “finally” be adjusting, and then totally go the other direction and start rebelling) but it’s frustrating to see how unprepared Julia is for all of this. She seems to be legitimately angry at Victor, and think he’s like, a bad seed, instead of empathizing with him and where he’s coming from. Did she not take any parenting classes or read any books??

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      No, they did not do any adoption preparation that was portrayed on the show. They were waiting for an infant placement, then BOOM accepted Victor’s placement. Makes for better drama I suspect. Education and preparation is slow, dull, and absolutely necessary!

  10. Avatar Rosie says:

    As I carry on with the show (and I still love the show – it remains one of my guilty pleasures) I am so curious what people think of how it is progressing. How about the trip to the “old neighborhood”? And how uncomfortable they are there and the half hearted sudden attempt to acquire some Spanish? And still absolutely no mention of Victor’s past other than the one friend – as ihis first 9 years of life never existed – or as if they want to pretend it never existed…
    And the level of “challenge” they are facing – it seems to be as if they really just feel a bit awkward around him. I wonder (because I have never adored – only read and observed) – is that pretty close to reality? I wonder whether Joel and Julia are meant to come off kind of clueless and unequipped…but it doesn’t seem like that is the show’s intent…

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Oh, this is like a tease since I’m watching on Netflix which means I’m a full season behind and have to wait until next year to see this season. ARGHH! I hope others will chime in though.

  11. Hello from ICLW. I don’t expect much from TV, so I’m not shocked that adoption is not portrayed realistically here, but “buying a baby” is really going too far with the ignorance. Thanks for this interesting analysis of what this show got wrong.

  12. Avatar geochick says:

    In general I’ve had to turn away from any show that portrays adoption. The only one to almost get it right is Grey’s Anatomy and they still messed it up pretty good. I’m glad I never started watching Parenthood. It sounds like they really missed the mark big time.

  13. I got upset last season, especially about the “buying a baby” comment, but I have actually been very pleasantly surprised with their handling of an older child adoption. On one episode, Julia talks to Joel about how she feels like she is “waiting to fall in love with her son”. She also struggles with how to discipline him because she is walking a fine line in learning to mother him. There are trust issues and there are times she feels she is short changing her bio daughter because of the attention her new son requires. These are all issues we dealt with when we adopted and I am pleased to see an adoption storyline (especially an older child adoption) handled in a real way. Adoption isn’t a fairy tale.
    Sure, there is a lot more they could do, but like others have stated, it’s a TV show. I actually thought the conversation with Jabar about the “n” word was wonderful. As an adoptive parent of a child of a different race than me, who has emotional special needs, I relate to so very many of the storylines. I love the show!

  14. Avatar Carrie Franz says:

    I haven’t seen this show but TV shows and movies are so inaccurate in portraying adoption, for the most part.

    Just 2 that I can think about from the top of my head are Arrested Development where the family’s mom signs an agreement to adopt from Korea to slight one of her grown sons and then a Korean teenager shows up one day unannounced. She treats him as an accessory and everyone treats him pretty poorly (but at least we are supposed to look down on the family as they are a pretty horrible, selfish family).

    Also, Modern Family, which I do not watch, but I know that the plot includes a gay couple that adopted from Vietnam (which I’m pretty sure was closed to US adoptions at the time the show started and was never open to single men/gay men adopting from there so there is no way they could have adopted from Vietnam even if it was open to US adoptions.)

  15. Avatar Sue says:

    I agree it’s not a completely accurate portrayal of adoption, but it’s not a show about adoption, it’s a show about families. I’m an adoption social worker so I know how it’s supposed to go. I didn’t assume that they had do training before adopting. I assumed that they’d had it but didn’t show it. And I also assumed that they had more training before they got Victor. It’s a tv show. You can’t expect them to show every single thing the family goes through. I think what they try to focus on is the impact that various trials that the families go through has on the individual, the nuclear family, an the extended family.

    As to the “buying a baby” comment, I assumed that Julia meant that’s what it felt like to her, was that she was buying a baby. I know that that is a realistic feeling for adoptive parents sometimes, when they pay exhorbitant placement fees and birth mother expenses. I felt it was a brave thing to say out loud. It was clear to me that she was uncomfortable with feeling that way.

  16. Avatar Tara says:

    I was surprised that they didn’t seem to have any education, I’ve missed episodes but was there a home study done or classes taken? I have to admit though, the last one I saw, recorded, was when the newly adopted son gets to play after the family harasses the coach and hits a home run. It was predictable and shmultzy, but a got weepy anyway.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      There was never any mention of the expectant mom, Zoe, receiving any education, support, or counseling. At the beginning of the season Julia was working on a video as part of their parent profile, but no mention of education. I know it’s a TV show, for goodness sake, and education is boring (I’ll try not to take it personally as the director of an adoption education nonprofit) so I didn’t expect them to include specific info on the adoptive parents getting educated. I did, however, expect them to act as if they had a clue about adoption which would reflect having been educated. For example, why in the world did Julia refer to adoption as “buying a baby”. Why didn’t someone–maybe Julia–talk with Zoe about some of the benefits to open adoption for her, but most especially for the child. And of course, I would have loved some discussion about becoming a multi-racial family and preparation for an older child adoption BEFORE they adopted their new child. Keep in mind, I haven’t started this current season, so maybe they have improved.

  17. Avatar LA Mama says:

    In season four it becomes pretty apparent that no one advising the writers has dealt with multiracial families before either. There was a post about this recently on My Brown Baby, but it’ll spoil the plot, so be forewarned.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Yeah, I didn’t mention the lack of education on becoming a transracial family, but should have. It’s funny because they have done an OK job with the transracial issues with Jabar and Crosby. (For theuninitated, anohter Braverman sibling, Crosby, has a biracial son with his girlfriend/now wife.)

  18. I really like the show, so it ticks me off that I have to spend so much time fussing at the TV. It also set me up for “There goes nutty mom” comments from my kids as they walk through the kitchen while I’m cooking and arguing with the TV.

  19. Avatar Erin says:

    I agree, the storyline has been driving me nuts too. I have been disappointed and expected more from the show. Reflecting on the older child adoption, not only has there been no mention of training, there was absolutely no transition period, and there has been no apparent ongoing support or supervision or real attachment work being done. It is a lost opportunity to educate about so many areas around infertility and adoption and unfortunately I feel that it has served to promote many of the misconceptions about adoption. Perhaps you should approach them to consult for the show, perhaps all is not lost yet…

  20. Avatar Melissa Siebenthal says:

    My husband and I are currently in the adoption process. We are adopting a child with a special need from Russia. I love this show but I hated the way they handled this whole adoption story line! I have a few close friends who have adopted and we couldn’t stop talking about how many stereotypes and misconceptions they chose to include. They could have easily made this more realistic. I think you are right, if one of the writers/producers had adopted the story line would have been completely different!

  21. Avatar Tammy says:

    Actually, Julia does mention in the first episode of this season, “Remember in training they told us…”. I was also thrilled that they adopted an older child, not a baby, thus dispelling the myth that adoption is only for babies. There are also a couple of instances where Julia and Joel do seem to get it. I also really appreciate how they showed how hard adoption can be but they are now showing the good points too. There was no transition because birth mom went to jail/prison and made a quick decision to place him for adoption rather than allow him to go into foster care.

    That being said…I was appalled that they were doing no attachment work whatsoever and then they act surprised that he is struggling to feel a part of the family. I also wish they would talk about his birth family more. I mean, he lived with his birth family for 9 years and nobody talks about that? While they talk about how hard it is for him to start over and try to fit in, nobody mentions that he has lost his first family in a very traumatic way. I am hoping this comes out as the season goes on and that there is some mention of the fact they have been doing this all along.

  22. Avatar Robyn says:

    They don’t adopt through foster care. They go to their social worker(?) and say, “We’ve decided to open up to all ages.” You know, because you can do that without having to get your home study approved for an older child, and without taking any additional classes or training. The social worker(?) comes and says, “His mom relinquished him so he didn’t have to go into the system.” So, presumably, the jailed mom TPRd to the private agency.

    I hate this story line.

    I think Jasmine & Crosby’s talking about prejudice and racism with Jabbar was awesome, though.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Robyn, I was confused about this too. I missed the line when the social worker asked Julia and Joel if they would consider _____. (A pot must have been boiling over on the stove.) Joel responded that they would consider anything now-any age or race. But you are right that the when the child was literally dropped into their home, the SW said the mom didn’t want him to end up in foster care.

  23. Avatar Alison says:

    It’s a fictional TV show – it’s not a documentary about the ins and outs of adoption. I personally LOVE the show and appreciate that they even have adoption as one of the story lines and that they convey that not all adoptions work out and it’s a hard, emotional road. There are like an avg of 5 minutes in each episode dedicated to their story – you can’t expect them to include all discussions about training, open adoption, etc. I don’t use the show as my source of information about adoption and I would hope that most people are aware that it’s just a TV show. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest that random people out there have “misconceptions” about adoption training and open adoption, etc. All that matters are MY conceptions and feelings about adoption.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Alison, I too like the show. And you’re right, it’s just a TV show, for goodness sake. However, I do think they have made an effort to be accurate on many of their story lines–especially with Asperger’s. They even have an Asperger consultant for the show. I also think that many people form their opinions about real subjects from what they see on TV. For example, I think (and certainly hope) that the coverage of what it is really like to raise a child with a special need in general (Asperger’s in particular) will inform peoples opinions and make them more sympathetic and patient with both the child and the parents. So, if they can do it for some of the serious topics they cover, why not for another. I hope they will take the time to learn about breast cancer and give a realistic portrayal of that subject too.

  24. Avatar Cabber says:

    Am I the only one who was not offended by the “buying a baby” comment? I clearly remember talking to a friend who was going through the adoption process soon after we had adopted our daughter. She expressed concerns about the feeling that she and her husband were buying a baby. I have read that sentiment in many adoption message boards as well.

    I think that Julia’s statement was an honest reflection.

  25. Avatar Trina says:

    The “buying a baby” comment was horribly cringe-worthy, but I actually think they’ve handled the adoption story line pretty well after that – the nerves that that the expectant mother would change her mind, the ethical implications when her boyfriend wants money, the fact that the adoption didn’t work out, and – not to spoil the next season for you – the feelings that Julia has about her new son and her and Joel’s debates in walking the line between being loving/supportive and disciplining. It’s not painted as rainbows and unicorns as most adoption is perceived by the general public, which I think is a huge step in the right direction.

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Trina, I agree with you completely, although I would add that I wish they had included the concept of open adoption as an option last season. Oh boy, I can’t wait for this season to start streaming!

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