My little girl graduated from 5th grade last week. As I watched her eyes look for me in the crowd over the dozens of families strewn together, it occurred to me that being her anchor has indeed saved me.
Sharing moments with her and for her, my only real familial connection, heals me. When I was a child in foster care, milestones such as graduations, birthdays holidays, events were something I wanted to avoid. And here I was last week and hundreds of times over the past decade, slowly overcoming the feeling that I had nothing that really belonged to me by sharing milestones for her.
For children in foster care, all seems temporary, haphazard, confusing; they are sometimes forgotten in the shuffle of the system and courts. I was no different. I was put in foster care at age 5 after I was found locked and hidden in my mothers-basement abused, not fed, unable to walk or speak. But still, I looked in the crowd for many years, hoping for any sign that my mother or even father would need to see me or would need my forgiveness.
Sometimes the pain of feeling forgotten outweighs the pain of remembering past abuse for children in care during these milestones. To me, the milestones were a reminder that I was not important, that I was not impressing anyone, that I had no one to “make proud” or even let down.
While I adjusted as years went on, there was always a lurking feeling of unworthiness at these events. My adoptive parents, who both died by the time I was 13, were around for a couple of years, and I did have foster sisters who could turn up at events. I am sure they are or were proud of achievements.
However, there was nothing more painful than looking in the crowd, as a young child, hoping and praying that some benevolent force would wash over my mother and she would walk through the door, healed and wanting to even see me from afar.
Children in foster care all struggle with milestones and holidays. It is a reminder of what is lost, forgotten or nonexistent. It is a feeling of failure. It is a feeling that whatever happened is THEIR own fault. It is in my opinion one of the biggest hurdles foster children must overcome.
Foster children, even abused children, feel abuse is their fault. The reappearance of even an abusive parent would make them feel that whatever happened was over and forgiven. Foster parents need to understand this dynamic. It is very natural, and is part of the course of healing. It must be handled carefully.
For me, that reappearance never happened, and my father was an unsolved mystery as well. The only interaction I had from the day my mother vanished from a courthouse at about 10 years old, was the cold notice almost 20 years later that she had died. Not only had she died but she told her family that I died in foster care.
I realized that for my mother, who was an abuser, losing me permanently to the system was embarrassing for her. It worked more in her benefit to be a victim and have people feel sorry for her that maybe I died. And so, I forgave. Later milestones, where I stood alone did hurt. But it did not overshadow the hope in my heart that I would be able to love and be loved. That I was worth something more.
Foster children, no matter what the circumstance, even from the most abusive, horrific circumstances will still naturally look in the crowd for their parent even years later. It is biology. It is the basic foundation of brain development to have an anchor.
Rewriting your own past is scary, and that is the task of a foster child. And sometimes, as I did, foster children try to rebuild this past with anyone; lovers, friends, whoever will let them in their circle and give them a purpose. While this can be healthy as an adult, as a confused child/teen these choices are sometimes unhealthy.
Just this week, someone asked me if it hurt to hear stories about their parents. Did it make me feel bad to hear childhood memories, stories, when maybe I did not have that past or connection to my own mother or father? Of course it does not necessarily “hurt” anymore, but it does sometimes still leave me with a gnawing feeling of aloneness or disconnection. I cannot wholly relate to those stories. They are foreign to me.
My daughter may not understand the magnitude of me being in the crowd for her over the past decade. Children who have the luxury of the love of parents tend to expect it and rely on it, as they should!
It hurts me sometimes to see mini me’s family trees have large empty holes on my side, or to see proud grandparents at events and see me standing alone. While I know she has plenty of love from her dad’s parents, and from me, it is still tough to answer her questions or to feel like she has inherited somewhat of a blank slate from my side.
The lack of belonging, loss of personal anchors, the nondescript past is something that does not go away for children in care, even later as adults. With proper guidance, mentorship, emotional and physical rehabilitation, former foster children can go forward. They can build around that empty spot. They can build their own family and make their own roots and memories.
They can stand in the back of a room proudly for their own children someday, who feel loved.
And one day, when they are near a friend or lover’s family members hearing childhood stories, they can smile and say, “I want to hear more.” They can let go of that emptiness that, for the rest of their life, will sometimes still hang in the air.
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