There are stories we yell out to the world with a megaphone, stories we tell only in the dark, and other stories we keep buried under the rubble in our thick skin, the skin thickening with time, loss, disappointment, and hurt.
Recently my mini me, a proud and soulful preteen, had the chance to scratch the surface and get a pinhole view of her mom as a child. She had 3 full days with my adoptive brother, whose stories of our time together in foster care, she never heard. I watched her face light up and dim all weekend. Some were stories of hope, others of fear and mayhem. This weekend was my daughter’s first real lessons about her mother’s personal past. With so much unknown history from my side of her family at all, this was her chance to scribble the first few pages of her own history book as well.
I’ve been very skillful in my disclosures to her. The stories in between the basic timelines, I usually gloss over. My daughter knows a lot about children in foster care, but I am often impersonal about my experiences because they are part of her also and I want her to be nothing but proud of her background. There are a lot of things to not be proud of in my history, but I never wanted her to see the blemishes. As she’s gotten older I feel uncomfortable with some of her questions. They are no longer shallow and easily answered. I write academically about transitioning foster children at universities and about strong mothers in literature. But, often talking about my own vulnerabilities is not easy for me.
My girl is very much like me; an empath (though she uses her skills in smarter ways than myself). With her sensitivity to other people’s emotions, I am cautious. My parenting philosophy is to give her what I did not have, manage myself so she sees resilience, give her the emotional foundation to be her best self, shelter her when I can, and enjoy every second of her gift; the gift of family that I was robbed of as a child. Some things I wear like a badge, so she appreciates having a mother who loves her, having a family that believes in her, having emotional, physical, and nutritional safety. Many other things I keep under lock, with no piece of cut metal to open it.
Recently I was told that I only seem truly happy when my daughter is in the room; that I can push the garbage of life deep in my pockets and run to bake cookies. Yes, I can. Because, for me, my daughter has been the only love I’ve had that came with no conditions. Most people gain this from their original family or family system. Intimate relationships have and need conditions, and so our family of origin is the steady rock. My daughter relies on me, depends on me, looks to me for comfort, security, and structure. When you never had your own family, having a child gives you what most others take for granted. Even a bad family is better than none, at least you know where you came from and can find at least one person to identify with in some way.
Without that identity, a foster child is often very alone in the world. Until she becomes a mother.
No matter what happens in my adult life, I try to show my daughter the best side of myself. She has seen me weak, but not for long. Always, her crooked smile puts my heart into perspective and I am reminded of the one success in my life. Being a parentless mother, does not mean I only need my daughter. I need other things as an adult woman as well. But, she does bring me a unique comfort. She lets me know I belong to a family. Her skin and eyes remind me that I created something; that I have a lineage I can be proud of, something that cannot be taken away from me.
As a former foster child, that is all brand new to me. I started family traditions with her, they were never my own. I did not have any. Our cooking, family dinners, night walks, talks, holidays, birthdays, years of travelling, building, crying, and laughing were foreign to me until she arrived. It is an anchor for me.
Growing up in foster care was all about conditions. I had to adapt to conditions that even a soldier in battle gear may crawl up and hide from quickly. Often, I had to meet conditions to keep a roof over my head and food on the table. At age 5 I was placed in foster care after being severely physically abused, suffering from malnutrition, and being locked in a basement for a very long time. I spent almost a year in a hospital learning to walk, talk, being toilet trained, and acclimating to a society I did not understand.
For many years I saw my confused and often disheveled mother in supervised visits. She was always full of some false promise, apologies,
grand gestures that never came to fruition. Years of confusion and then high swung promises made me a stereotypical prisoner of war who was very well entwined with her aggressor.
Foster care was not a shining beacon of hope, as my girl learned while our tales unraveled all night. It was not the white horse I was promised it would be by social workers. But, in hindsight it gave me some foundation to learn about my strength. It gave me a few people to love, others to fear. There was always chaos; new siblings, some who were in and out of jail, some who were perverts, some who were just lost souls, others that were gems. My foster mother brought in children for money. She was always screaming and yelling, hitting, and demanding. I found her laughable, not scary. Scary is the abuse I endured before, at the hands of those who created me; the abuse that had no light through the window. This woman was just ridiculous I felt. I tiptoed around her to avoid her calamity. I hid out on the NYC trains with a pen and paper to escape.
My daughter was shocked to learn that I would steal food and keep it under my bed in foster care. Sometimes the food would rot but I kept it anyway. I would steal food a lot actually; it was the only crime I committed in my life. I always had a bunker of supplies. I always had a plan to take care of myself. Nothing was ever guaranteed. I was owed nothing, not even security; which was the mantra my foster mother and my biological mother instilled in me.
I was at some point supposed to be reunited with “safe” biological family, but an eerily empty courtroom with my parents nowhere to be found, left me holding a suitcase on the sidewalk and up for adoption at 11 years old. Normalcy was the scene for a short 2 years. My foster mother married a kind man and they both adopted me and the foster brother who recently visited.
I bonded with this new father, but the rug came swiftly out. Both of my adoptive parents died within months of each other. A new chaos set in and I wandered where was my mother in all of this? Was I not worthy of rescuing yet? I learned to care take other foster siblings (most of whom were adults) and put myself somewhere else.
My heart raced at times over the weekend, when my adoptive brother mentioned being in a car with an adult doing cocaine as he drove us around. When we talked about the cops beating in our front door. When we talked about the blood spilled in our living room. It hurt to relive the loss of a foster sister, whose “real” mother beat her to death after being reunited. It was hard to remember my adoptive father dying in the kitchen. It was painful to remember the face of a foster brother who now spends his days at Reiker’s Island. My daughter was shocked that I had a gun in my face at 13 years old, because I hung out with an older foster brother with a cool car because he bought me things. It was excruciating to remember the notebook I kept, with a made up log of where I thought my mother lived. The sketches I drew of her hands. The drawings I etched nightly of a man, who we called “The Man with The Beard.” The emotional letters I wrote but never sent.
It was hard to remember the obsessive trips to Brooklyn to find the brother I was taken from when I was put in care. It was sad to remember how naive and young I was; often I was foolishly hopeful. But it was also uplifting to be painted so well in these stories! (joking). Through the eyes of a now successful 33-year-old man, (who I still see as a boy), I was something steady. I was mother-like. I was reliable. If anything I caved into my books and became illusive. I had friends I would die for and a few times almost did. I adapted myself into the life of one close friend and her close knit family. They expected good things from me and they were a refuge. I drifted off to college and never returned. I am zip codes removed. But, in a way, I never left.
To this day I still am truly an empath, I have a knack for lifting people up, for bringing them through the dark. Sometimes I get so busy helping people that my needs are lost. But I never feel lost to myself. Foster care gave me an armor that is not destructible. And so, despite my sensitivities, someone could tell me all day long that I’m worthless and I would never believe it. I went through such a calamtous show as a child that very little could destroy my sense of self. It took such hard work to develop it; it is not knocked down easily.
Being an abused orphan gave me so many good things, I explained to my wide-eyed daughter. It gave me the ability to reinvent myself when my brain was only just developing. It gave me a sense of accountability: I never felt like a victim. I am always myself; a façade, an image, an ideal is something I do not have time to design. My life is too precious to waste energy lying or hiding. It gave me the ability to appreciate. I can have very little and appreciate the crumbs. I can be beaten down emotionally but get up out of bed. I learned to self soothe. I never lose an inner peace; I always have something to crawl inside of when I need it.
I never felt the need for approval or recognition from anyone or any system. I never wonder if someone is impressed with me. I am flawed and weak like anyone else, but I can put the pieces back together. I learned to love. The people I care about come to me, they lean on me. I give the best part of myself to friends with no regrets. Those who left my life for one reason or another still respect me. Even though the losses of adulthood have always been hard for me to personally accept; I appreciate whatever they brought to me or took from me. Foster care gave me resiliency.
After the weekend, my daughter said to me, “Now I know why you love me so well. And I am proud of wherever you are from, because it is where I am from too, I think. I am more proud than anyone else is of their mom.”
Her sentiments filled me with a relief and absolution I thought would never find me.
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