Category Archives: Foster Care Issues

Rewritten History: Motherless Motherhood

“I think you forget that we are super girls, you and me, but mainly you,” my 13-year-old daughter whispered to me recently. Her blossoming into a young woman is like watching clipped movie reels, revealing uncut scenes of the childhood I wanted for myself. As she walks down the block to school, her ponytail swaying, her hips gleefully hopping almost, her mind safe; she is all the things I was not at her age. To me this is the epitome of success of motherless motherhood.

For former foster children, becoming a parent is filled with a mine field of emotion, far different from the landscape of others who had good or bad parents, natural or not. Children are taken from their biological family and put in state care due to abuse, neglect, or parental addiction. I was taken from my mother before I was 5, after I was found burnt, abused, and suffering from malnutrition in a dark basement. I spent my first year “out” learning to walk, talk, and acclimate.

As a society, we are horrified at abuse from a father or other family member, but from a mother it seems unholy, even to atheists. When the umbilical cord is murderously snapped, when children are cast aside, abused, neglected by the very person whose body nurtured them, something changes in the child. Synapses are broken; trust and safety are coveted but often never really found.

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Me and my growing mini.

When foster children are ripped from their mothers and fathers, several griefs occur. The loss of mother seems like a different loss for foster children. Even if the mother was violently abusive, as many are, or had an addiction, or was extremely neglectful, not feeding or clothing the child, there is a loss and grief cycle that child still enters. This is still the person who brought them into the world, it is different than abuse from another trusted person.

Foster children are taken from biological relatives and placed in stranger’s homes or group homes until “reunification with a safe biological relative” is possible. If not, at some point, that child may become eligible for adoption, or sits in the system from home to home until he/she is out on the street for good. It is a system with flaws, it is a system meant to protect; but often children are abused in these new homes, and lose more than their biological family.

I spent a few decades doing was trying to come to terms with this unnatural loss. It was a loss of my former self in many ways, as the person in the mirror looked strangely familiar to the figure who was wandering the earth without me, and who let other people hurt me. With this loss also came the startling discard of my connection to any other family, grandparent, or cousin. Most caseworkers and even advocates neglect to see the other losses in this child’s life. It is a loss often of an entire lineage, and for foster children, they often have other familial relationships that are gone, often forever.

When I was found, I had an older brother who was found with me. Often, I would ask for him. That person was long gone; coping with that and with supervised visits with my mother was very complicated. As years went on and my mother completely vanished, to live her life elsewhere, I shuddered at my physical similarities to the woman I feared and loved. I even have her first name and so I prefer to go by the Italian translation of it.

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The year I was taken from my mother.

I spent birthdays wondering if she ever thought of my birth, did she remember me kicking inside of her, remember pushing me out of her body, does she remember there was a cord? I wondered if she had any regrets. I wondered if she was crazy or just such a sad, desperate person who did not know how to love and protect, even her own. I wandered if I was worth anything.

The umbilical cord breaks and so does the ability to trust or feel safe in the world. I spent years before my motherhood creating my own corner of safety. I found it in books. I kindled an internal warmth and  was often a peace keeper in the calamity of my foster home. I was mother-like to friends, boyfriends, and to foster siblings. As I got older my caretaking spilled into other relationships where my needs, wants, wishes, or even dreams were not really discussed. I was never looking for a rescuer, I never believed in fairy tales like other young women at that time; it was my job to put myself last. This was the lesson from my mother, though she hurt me and left me, I felt responsible. Maybe I said or did something bad? Maybe I did not deserve light or sun or safety. These lessons give abused foster children a PhD in devaluation to hang on the wall for life.

Learning that we are valuable as a foster child is a daunting carnival, with long lines and expensive tokens. It is lifelong.

The idea of motherhood baffled me. I often studied the mothers I would see on the train, in my friends’ lives, on television. I would watch carefully at the good and not so great mothers around me, my friends’ mothers, my foster sisters who were parents, neighbors, and friends; I always felt like I was watching a television show, outside of something I could not study enough.

I wrote stories about mothers in my notebook. I studied writers whose mothers were either idolized or furiously hated. It intrigued me. Sometimes, I would sit in a café in NYC and just listen to the stories, the complaints of someone’s mother; oh the irony and jealousies I felt! This mysterious connection was difficult to grasp but as a woman it was my focus. I did have anger and fear toward men in many ways. I did wonder about my father, whose name I shared, but I did not seem so intrigued by fatherhood. As a woman, motherhood was something I felt I HAD to know, or else maybe I really could never grow up and be a real woman.

Despite this obsession with understanding the nature of motherhood, it did not occur to me that I would have my own children. To be honest, I did not think anyone would love me enough to start a life with me. But I adored children and thought that I would share this concern I had for them in a classroom or in volunteering or advocacy. I had an empathetic soul, but did not think I would be granted any chance to conceive.

By some granted miracle, I had my daughter in 2003. In the past 13 years, I watched her grow into a better version of me. A freer version of me. As a baby, I was astounded by her every move sound and gesture; often I would sit up all night just to watch her sleep. I would check the doors and the oven and the windows incessantly.  My eyes were always on her. I studied her features. I wondered if I looked like her at that age (I never saw a photo of myself before 4). She was all the lineage I knew. Her blood, genes, skin, and eyelashes were something that probably were similar to people in my mysterious past. She was and always is a revelation to me.

Often these re-awakenings are not understood by anyone other than other former foster children and some adoptees. My daughter’s natural beauty and talents obviously come from both sides of the gene pool, but my side is very dominant. Maybe it is also environmental; we spent most of her life alone together. But still, sometimes I see the curve around her lips and I remember my mother. It is very startling for me, it is almost like someone flashed back a memory to her, to grandparents I didn’t know, maybe aunts, family who never looked for me or found me.

When former foster children become mothers or fathers; their child can uncover startling memories. Memories of people we never met, or people who hurt us and vanished before we could find closure. I do not live through my daughter, that is a different parental connection. The motherless mother synapse is one through a carefully crafted lens. My girl has so many skills and interests that have nothing to do with me. I give her the tools to nurture these new curiosities and I watch her parade like a movie star under a blanket of emotional security from me.

Success comes to former foster children when we redefine parenthood in our own terms. I put aside (okay maybe buried) my hurt and anger toward the past before I became a mother. I vowed that her movie reel of childhood would instead be safe, full of little mystery, adventurous, exciting, and emotionally secure. And it has been. Do I have regrets and would haves, should haves? Sure I do, like any other mother.

But when in doubt of myself, I watch her movie reel. Her arms outstretched, she takes on new opportunities with hope. My movie reel was confusion, fear, loss and at her age; with my mother’s and her “friend’s” abuse as the director. My own production reminded me I was not good enough. My daughter’s reel has never known that pain.

Her reel is hope.

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This work by menaanne.wordpress.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

Life Without Conditions: Motherless Mothering

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.

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Me and my girl.

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. 

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The Ties That Bind: Motherless Mothering

“I am sorry I was born and caused you so much pain.” The scribbling in my old dusty notebook brought back an old familiar pain, long forgotten and buried in the rubble of my foster sister’s basement. As an introspective young girl and a bit of a loner, I filled notebook after notebook with endless internal observation. My private thoughts were not entirely meant to be private. Someday I hoped to hand them to my mother, who I was taken from at 5 and saw sporadically through my elementary school years. I never had that chance. In 2004, holding my own newborn daughter in my arms, I was told my mother died years before and did not want me notified. In my daughter’s big blue eyes, I found a solace that notebook never brought me. Motherhood closed the door on most of the past, but not all.

Me and my girl.
Me and my growing mini.

The day I found out I was pregnant with my mini me, I sat in my car crying alone before I called anyone with the news. Fear, excitement, nervousness washed over me. What would she look like, a relative? I knew none. I never even saw a baby photo of myself: What mysteries would my genes bring? Would I know how to be a mother? I never really saw one for very long. Before having my daughter, I envied my friends families with their normal family struggles and battles. Their photos on the wall. Their smiling parents at games, graduations, their shared expressions, their family fights, and their tangled emotions. I was envious but just carefully observed. Now, with this new person growing inside me I had the chance to see myself in someone else. I had the chance to undo the past and bring a loved person into the world.

Anytime the umbilical cord is snapped, unnaturally broken, or tethered, the child on the other end suffers. The world seems so large and life feels so alone. As a foster child, the disconnect and mystery surrounding my young life appeared in every friendship, relationship, failure, success, happiness, or sadness.

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Orphanhood and Batman: Redifining Foster Children’s Labels

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It has been a long time since anyone looked at me and used the term “orphan,” but it happened this week. In a clinical sense, the word may fit, but its connotation implies weakness. As my mini me told me, “Aren’t Batman and Superman both orphans? So that’s it, you are my Batman.”

While I do not look good in capes, I do want to redefine the term “orphan” away from the idea of victimhood of foster children, and instead define it by eternal superpowers. Orphans do not have parents as children and are raised by strangers. While they do lose the grounding of being consistently parented, foster children have an inner strength that others do not gain until adulthood. They can use that energy to become their own heroes as adults.

Foster children are children who are taken away from biological relatives due to abuse, neglect, or parental addiction. They are placed in temporary homes until they can be reunited with a safe family member, or even adopted. Many are left in children’s homes or on the street. Homelessness, academic failure, drug use, and suicide rates are very high for former children in care. My goal as a former foster child, is to help others become advocates for themselves, create their own family, and encourage girls in foster care to redefine their strength as they become women.

I was taken from my mother and placed in foster after I was found in her basement starved, abused, and left to die. For years, a lingering court case against her and others kept me as an emotional prisoner to her apologies and to biological connections I lost forever. I was adopted, but both of my adoptive parents died within months of each other, when I was 13. Orphan-hood was in my blood it seemed and so I navigated alone. I watched foster brothers and sisters come and go, some living a life of crime, depression, and drug use. Others, who succeeded, went on to love themselves and won their internal battles against those who left them at their most vulnerable.

Without any guidance, good or bad, as a developing child the brain takes in the environment with little shelter. For some orphans, we see only the bad and keep ourselves in a bubble. For others, they absorb attention and affection anywhere they can, and often the abusers of the world hone in. Orphans are, after all, a weak link. In some ways, this is true. My weakness was and is a codependent helping of others. Out of guilt and maybe shame, I blamed myself for whatever happened in that Brooklyn home as a toddler and infant. That guilt led me to try to fix anyone and anything. It led me to poor boundaries personally. My real solace was found in being alone. When I was not fixing friends or lovers, I sought out time with myself by wandering aimlessly to recoup. It gave me a convenient excuse for not taking care of my own heart. 

While my past did dictate my solace, it did not lead me to victimhood, in fact I was determined to rewrite my story. I  had loose connections with some foster brothers and sisters. Some were good influences and believed in my few talents. I never drank or partied, in fact I was basically a very short adult, even as a teen. I studied hard and became absorbed in books. What my favorite writers like Emily Dickinson or Sylvia Plath could not heal for me was a sense of belonging to something. I was introspective, very much self-aware, and a mother hen. As I look back, I grew very attached to women teachers, friends’ mothers, strangers even. I sought out maternal attachments everywhere.

Some were positive, some were not, but I concluded that rather than seeking out answers from the past, searching for long-lost family, (which proved disastrous emotionally), having my own child was the biggest part of my healing. After years of quiet envy listening to friends complain about their parents, siblings, extended family, I wanted something of my own. On January 22, 2003, whatever higher power exists, decided I needed a little blue-eyed girl to put my heart into, to build walls around, and to help design her own future with strong roots.

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It has been 12 years of non-orphanhood for me! In my eyes, becoming a mother shatters that term altogether. I finally got the normal I heard so much about. It has not been easy. Everything I wanted for her did not happen as I expected. But I got the up all nights, the lioness protection, the graduations, the crying, the sadness, the pain, and the joy of childhood laughter. For the first time, I found myself playing hopscotch and picnicking in the park. I started to love who I was and was proud of my new lineage. I had photos to hang on the wall, photos that resembled me, the good parts of me. With this new piece of me, I strived to become better. I stumbled a few times, but she helped me believe in myself and improve myself. I am forever in her debt.

For other fellow successful orphans, a strong network of close friends, or animals, or successful relationships, became their family, but the commonality is that we all tried to rebuild what many people took for granted. While my girl cannot be my only grounding, which I’m learning painfully as she gets older, I finally have let myself become more vulnerable to a deeper adult relationship and a sense of not being alone. I may even have another child or let someone lift ME up when I need it. For this orphan, that is a huge feat.  After all, what I want my daughter to see, and other former foster children to see, is that Batman or not, every orphan has the opportunities to find success amidst the ruins of our childhood enemies.

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This work by menaanne.wordpress.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

Motherless Mothering: The Endless Cure?

Like most  mothers, passing milestones are sometimes bittersweet. After all, my identity has been intertwined with motherhood for 12 years. Old habits are hard to break. Often, beaming with pride at another birthday or school year, I feel an almost stabbing in my heart. Change is coming, change is here, and the bubble of early childhood years will soon burst. As is, it is leaking.

For former foster children, becoming a parent can help mend the past or play it as a horrible rerun. They can repeat their cycle of abandonment, abuse or carelessness, or they can cradle the gift they have like a prized jewel.  I have a jewel and I cradle it as much as she will let me! In many ways becoming a mother saved me. But, while some healing comes from the unconditional love of motherhood, some healing has to come from within.

Me and my growing mini.
Me and my growing mini.

Foster children, are children who were taken from their biological family due to abuse, neglect, or drug addiction. Of the hundreds of thousands in care now, thousands will never see their biological family again, thousands will spend their childhood living with stranger after stranger, thousands will sit in court rooms for their entire childhood, thousands will be reunited with abusers, thousands will live in homeless shelters, hundreds will commit suicide. A small percentage find stability.

I was taken from my mother when I was 5, after I was found abused, starved and burnt. I was left in a basement to die. For years, I saw my mother in supervised visits until one day she just vanished when I was about 10.  I was adopted, and within 2 years my adoptive parents died. Change was part of my life. I learned quickly not to get too attached.

As I became an adult, I never felt jaded, but instead tried to save everyone around me, perhaps trying to heal the past. Perhaps because I felt to blame for my abuse. Still I always had some inner strength that kept me from dwelling. I hoped one day to have my own lineage, one that would be proud to be part of me.

The day I found out I was pregnant with mini me, I cried like I never cried before. I was happy, scared, fearful, and almost in a state of panic! I spent weeks reading everything I could about motherhood. The word “mother,” seemed so illusive. I felt like someone just threw me out of plane with no parachute. So, I did what any good English major would do;  I read about the most heinous mothers in the world, I read about the best. I read something from every psychologist on the planet. And I felt prepared.

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End of the Line ?

Former foster children live a patchwork life, with bits of  small recollections of the past, often blurred by emotional pain. Most of their own heritage and lineage remains a complete mystery. Identity is shuffled and recreated in different foster homes. In adulthood it can remain precarious. A lifetime of sorting through a past they will never find, leaves them in the cold.

In my collaboration with other foster child advocates, we talk a lot about abuse cycles, attachment issues, success, stability and strength. What is often overlooked, outside of the adoption arena, is identity and the lack of a concrete past.

Me and my end
Me and my end

Dissimilar from adoptees taken or given away at birth, most foster children are taken from their biological families after attachments, negative or positive, have formed. Children enter the foster care system due to neglect, abuse, addictions of the parents, or abandonment.

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Blue Pin of Courage

I wore a blue pin this week and had someone approach me, “Is that for Autism awareness?” I felt almost bad saying no, but my blue this month is for child abuse prevention month. Child abuse kills 5 children in the US a day. A DAY. Thousands of other victims a day go on living; their young lives physically, mentally, and socially altered.

Child abuse is rampant and knows no ethnic or economical boundary. More often than not, a trusted caregiver or parent is the child’s abuser. The truth is not everyone loves their children and not everyone protects and cares for their children. As a mother, this is hard to accept.

I live mostly for my daughter, every day I wake up thankful I have her. I spend my nights worrying about her, my decisions center around her needs. But, not everyone feels this sense toward even their own children.  As I type this, hundreds of children in America are being hit, starved, burned, molested, and left in the dark at the hands of those who brought them into this world. They have no out. And when they wake up tomorrow, their abuser will either continue to abuse, or further perpetuate the sick cycle of abuse by rewarding the child with praise and affection, regaining trust.. only to abuse again.

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Me and my girl

What is the key to preventing child abuse? Like winning any other battle, we must understand the enemy. How do they infiltrate? How do they succeed?

Abusers gain a powerful tool, trust; either by proxy or because the child knows no other way. TRUST is the open door for an abuser. A parent, caregiver or family member often already has this trust by biological or situational nature. Children are born innocent and their only security comes from what is under their roof.

In recent years, many programs aim to help parents, caregivers and teachers recognize these grooming tactics. But what about parents who abuse? As we delve more into the causes of abuse, or indicators, rather, there really is not a picture of a parent abuser. It happens in trailer parks, it happens in mansions.

City officials were investigating my mother and other adults in my house, when I was found at  5;  abused, beaten, burnt, and starved for a long period of time.  They came to my home half a dozen times looking into suspicion of severe abuse of my older brother. No one knew for over a year that my mother had another child. She kept me locked in a basement and lied to the police. A case worker literally turned on a light on the staircase, and my brother finally uttered he had a little sister.

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Kit Kat Bars and Hope

I was 9 years old, but my little legs and little belly made me look about 5. I was cute, no doubt. Stumbling into the social service office, I looked over at my case worker Drew’s desk to make sure the picture I drew him was proudly displayed.

Drew was a very tall man, probably about 35 years old, though at my age he seemed ancient to me. Because of our stark height difference, he often patted me on the head like a puppy. I liked him a great deal; he was the first man in my life I ever trusted. He was kind-hearted, never raised his voice,  and lit up when I walked by. He lavished me with compliments.  I looked forward to our meetings, though at the time I did not understand his role.  I just knew that when I sat in his office, he had toys and Kit Kat bars. I liked Kit Kat bars!

The year after I was taken from my mother. I was tiny!
The year after I was taken from my mother. I was tiny!

One day, he seemed a little unnerved, almost shaken. His smile was different. I knew, even in my young mind, that our conversation was not going to be a fun one. So, I clutched a wooden doll and looked for my Kit Kat bar. I braced myself for some type of bad news.  A lot of what Drew imparted to me is being imparted to thousands of children a day who enter the foster care system.

Drew  was one of the social workers who found me at about age 5 locked in a basement with burn marks, bruises, and left very sick from malnutrition. I was not toilet trained, could not walk and did not talk.  His accidental finding brought me to a hospital and led to the arrest of my mother and others in my home. I was then placed in a foster home.  The brother I was found with was sent somewhere else.

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The Ebb and Flow of Letting Go

My nerves and heart were both tested this week. The realization that the world can intrude on the safe, secure space I have built for my mini me, came crashing. Former foster children who become loving parents are rocked hard deep in the soul even by minor intrusions on the children we have sometimes smothered for their own protection! 🙂

Me and my girl.
Me and my girl prepare for Santa’s visit!

Often our minds are flooded with the physical and emotional trials of our own past; innocence and trust ripped from us before we knew what either meant. The moments that flash like slide show images when insecurity, fear, doubt, and frustrations sit at our door as adults. It is startling. This is why many former foster children try not to love or attach to anything. For those like me, who ventured into loving motherhood, the slope is especially tricky. We are vulnerable, so is the object of our unconditional affection; it is a tough reality to face.

I have prided myself on being a good parent. Mini me trusts me, relies on me, she feels loved and wanted. Check. But what about what the rest of the world can do to this gentle creature I helped create? There are things I can protect her from and do; people I keep her far from, events and situations we avoid..but what about what is outside my grasp? This is something I had not considered.

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It’s My Party-Celebrations and Foster Children

2002, NY. Pregnant with my mini me and glowing!
2002, NY. Pregnant with my mini me and glowing!

Today is my Mini Me’s 12th birthday. Her big blue eyes have been rolling all week, because I dragged out baby pictures left and right all week. Mini me sighs heavily, simply because a  recollection of our connection, is already very real to her. For children in foster care, this day of birth comes with a painful clause in small writing. It is a reminder that their personal past has been erased or deleted. It is a reminder of  a history often long gone or wrought with pain.

Birthdays are a celebration of life, it is a mark of importance of the child to his or her family.  Foster children have been abused, neglected, or lived with a parent with addictions who is gone, and so this validation of importance is not fed.  The violent, or tragic separation or abandonment, of children by their parent or both parents rings loudly on this day. A connection to the happy event of their birth is often not ever born or shared with them. Generally, the day is wrought with mystery, confusion, or even memories of physical pain.

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