At my daughter’s age, a counselor told me never to forget three important things I learned in foster care. What happened to me was not my fault. My experiences made me mentally strong. At 12, I could take care of myself and protect myself. Don’t forget that at 42, she added.
I am not 42, but that marker is not too far off. I forget those facts when adulthood brings me the usual pains of life. Somehow her voice echoes through though, at even my lowest points. Every single child in foster care and every former foster child can muster up this power. It is a gift bestowed upon us by early brain changing, life altering events that endow us with the kind of strength others still seek.
Despite this superhero energy I dig into time and again, voids exist. Voids I try to fill, but in searching for my own identity, still lurk in the background. For more than the half a million children who were removed from abusive, negligent or drug addicted parents, and placed in care, their adulthood leaves these impenetrable gaps.
Often, my colleagues discuss what missing link displaced, abandoned, and neglected children crave most as they develop into adults. Their diligent research is aimed at stopping the negative cycles we all see in the child welfare system, generation after generation.
But, in order to stop the vicious cycle of abuse, depression, graduation failures, addiction, and mental illness that so many former foster children face, advocates must start understanding the importance of maleness.
Foster children need a balance of nurture and protection. Generally this comes from a mother and father figure ( of any gender). Without a true identity, or with a broken one, foster children clamour around their lives seeking to fill emotional buckets. They recreate themselves from nothing.
I never fell into that pile of advocates (many whom I respect and love dearly) who desperately searched for answers, for biological family, especially a father, to heal early wounds. Instead, I plowed on. Some called it denial, I called it survival. Survival sounds better.
At age 5, I was taken from my abusive home, after I was found beaten, burned, starved and locked in my mother’s basement. Through years of supervised visits I watched her explain her reasons away. Sometimes my young heart believed her. I fell for her a few times; after all, she was my mother. Until she stopped appearing for visits, I gave her chance after chance in my soul.
The truth hit me, at about 14 (when both of my adoptive parents died) that my real mother never meant for me to be found in that basement. I was stumbled upon by accident. For years after that I blamed her cold abandonment and abuse for my emptiness. How could the person who carried me in her womb just leave me to rot?
I spent many years focused on my relationships with women. I became very attached easily to kind teachers and even female strangers. I never looked at the other side of the coin, my father. A male figure just did not sit prominent in my mind, I was too busy focused on the woman whose hands I have, whose first name I carry.
My biological father was never on the scene, though I had his last name and he signed my birth certificate. Father’s Days brought pain, but ignoring the heartache came easily. In 2004, I was contacted by a biological relative. While it opened a Pandora’s box of hurt emotions ( my mother had gone on to live her life, telling everyone I died); I did gain scraps and bits of the past, which I shoved into mental drawers.
At that time, my baby girl was young, the war in Iraq was raging, and I was trying to build and keep a new identity for myself. I had my child, I had all the blood relatives I needed. Adoring and cherishing my girl came naturally. My protectiveness of her was and is powerful and consuming. She filled so many voids.
One day, my daughter pulled out a picture from the drawer and said, “this man has your nose.” I looked carefully. It was a photo of my biological mother smiling with a man, who indeed had my features. I shook and threw the photo out and went on with my day. At 3 am the next morning, I was overcome with angry, confused feelings. Where was this man? Why did he not protect me? Look for me? Care about me?
I felt almost in a panic and then my daughter needed me and I shoved those feelings aside. There was much more I did not know about my past. So much I would never be able to tell my daughter. So much of her history would not exist. My side of her blood line would remain blank. There were people out there connected to me who did not value me enough to try to find me. See me even. All of a sudden, I understood that the male father component had left a bigger gaping wound than I considered.
As I looked back at my relationships with men, I saw that my void had me desperately searching for a savior. Someone who I could create an identity with and someone who would accept me and handle me with kid gloves. Someone to respect. That lack of a male model (good or bad even) led me down some paths I should have never trotted on. Unconditional affection was missing entirely, and without it, former foster children can be a weak link in relationships. Adulthood brought awareness; many trials brought me to a place where those voids stopped guiding me.
While friends outside of this child welfare circle grow up to blame good and bad parents for their failures, former foster children have mysteries to blame. The series of questions marks, the haphazard relationships as they shift from home to home, are a dangerous mix.
We need more male role models for foster children. We need strong men. We need adults children can trust. We need to find a way to help foster children channel their inner strength, create their own identities, and go on with all the mystery in their lives to build their own dreams.
Every single person needs to be unconditionally valued by someone, preferably by trusted male and female role models. They have to belong to something. Former foster children have a lifetime with no one in the audience so to speak. No one to call, no accountability, no safe spot to visit.
However, with or without parental reunification, they can build their own tree if they learn to understand that some voids make them stronger.
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