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How ‘This Is Us’ Totally Nails Every Mom’s Haunted ‘What If’s’

this is us

I’ve been obsessed with “This Is Us” from the season premiere last fall, watching religiously every Tuesday with a box of Kleenex close at hand. A pleasant deviation from politics, “This is Us” has become my favorite show. The characters are complex yet approachable. The storylines are always intriguing as they jump between past and present tenses, and the themes–marriage, love, loss, adoption, interracial families, weight and body image issues, fear of failure, fear of success are relatable themes.

I was on a plane during the season finale, but finally had a chance to watch it a few weekends ago, and I cannot stop thinking about it.

In this episode, we see the blow-up to end all blow-ups between the main characters, Jack and Rebecca Pearson. Rebecca, who has been a stay-at-home mom to her three teenagers for the past 13 years, is longing to get back on stage–back to the singing career she put on hold for her kids and Jack. She finally has the opportunity and is beside herself with excitement, but Jack can’t handle her new life as the lead singer in a band going on tour. He loves her–but selfishly, he doesn’t want to see her career take off. He wants things as they have always been, while she is starving for change, starving to be fulfilled outside of her responsibilities as a mom and wife. They come to blows as she breaks down to Jack that the kids don’t need her anymore, and that she’s given up her career–and herself—for her kids.

In an amazing scene full of Academy-award caliber acting, Rebecca says, “I’ve become a ghost of myself, Jack.” The pain in her voice as she says those words is so visceral, it brought me immediately to tears.

What mother can’t relate to what Rebecca is going through?

Though I didn’t stop working to stay home with my kids, I can still understand how she is feeling. Because as much as motherhood gives, it also sucks some of ourselves out. It’s why, in spite of knowing we need to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first, we often forget to do so. Everyone else’s needs come first.

Friends and family will tell us “it’s a season” and that “they grow up so fast,” but even though that is surely true, let’s be honest: it can feel unbelievably overwhelming when we’re in that “messy middle”–(aka, the stage I am at now, where getting belligerent small people up and out the door in clean clothing with brushed hair and teeth on time is worthy of a celebratory glass of wine).

But even in this stage, there is an end in sight, even if the goal posts seem to change by the day. Although they’re nowhere near being teenagers like Jack and Rebecca’s kids, I already see my own babies (3 and 6) needing my husband and me less and less by the day.

The changes seemed to happen out of nowhere. I don’t remember when my daughter stopped saying, “Uppy, Mommy!” Maybe it was because I was busy tending to her baby brother …. But one day she just stopped saying it. I don’t remember when my son learned to zip up his jacket. One day I went to do it for him and he protested, “I can do it myself, Mommy!” It blew me away; he sure could. And I don’t remember when my girl was able to open her Go-Gurts on her own. Now she gets the kiddie scissors from her craft bin and snips open her brother’s, too.

Each day during this “messy middle” stage, our kids need us less and less for basic survival. And though they will begin to need us again as they navigate the challenges of middle school and beyond, it’s a different kind of need, one which ebbs and flows depending on the child and the day.

In “This Is Us,” Rebecca’s three kids–anxious over-achiever adoptee Randall, popular athlete but slightly dense Kevin, and overweight Kate, living in Kevin’s shadow–have surely kept their mom busy over the years, offering her no time to fulfill her own dreams.

This is why we need time to carve out time for our own passions, whether we work outside of the home or not–be it a race we are training for, a book we are writing on the side, a class we are taking either for pleasure or to advance ourselves, a nonprofit we are founding, a project we are bringing to life that will change the world. Because if we don’t make that time to fulfill ourselves outside of our role as mothers, we can find ourselves in a similar situation as Rebecca, feeling like ghosts of ourselves–staring in the mirror, and wondering–what happened to me?

Truthfully, I imagine most mothers probably question themselves at some point about the path not taken–even if they don’t feel comfortable admitting it. Maybe they had to work or chose to work, but regret missing the early years. Or they worked part-time, but worry they’re falling short. Or they stayed home and, like Rebecca, felt the pull to jumpstart the creative or ambitious side they tabled during the early child-rearing years. While some mothers may feel secure in their decisions, I think it’s healthy to gut-check ourselves from time to time as our kids grow up and their needs–or our desires–change.

What’s abundantly clear in the season finale is that Rebecca feels she has given up a lot of herself for her kids–and while she doesn’t regret the past, she isn’t feeling fulfilled right now and wants to chart a new path for herself.

I often wonder what my life would have been like, had I chosen to stay at home with my kids. Though I love my career and staying home wasn’t a viable option for our family, I sometimes wonder: would I be a better mom? A more fun mom? Would I have more patience for my kids, because we wouldn’t be rushing out the door to make morning meetings and I wouldn’t be as stressed? If I had extra time when they were at school to work out more, I’d be thin, right?! Would I cook more? Would we have more money in the bank because we wouldn’t be spending it on daycare?

I don’t know if any of that would really be true–and in the end, it doesn’t really matter, because I wake up every day grateful to have kids I couldn’t love more, a career that fulfills me, and a side hustle (blogging) that tickles me.

There are no ghosts in my mirror right now. But there may be someday, and if I see one lurking, I know the antidote: putting my own oxygen mask on first. I hope Rebecca can put hers on in season 2.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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