“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.
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.
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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