Tag Archives: forgiveness

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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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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The Other Side

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.

Me, the year I was taken from my abusive mother and entered foster care.
Me, the year I was taken from my abusive mother and entered foster care.

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.

Continue reading The Other Side

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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A Reason to Believe

I spent a lot of time in my own mind as a foster child, dreaming up my ideal holiday that would not ever come. For me, the lights of Rockefeller Center scripted fantastical stories that eased the pain of being forgotten.

While most of the world, no matter what tradition, awaits big family meals and the exchange of gifts; for children lost in the child welfare system the holidays can wreak havoc on their fragile souls.

Me. the year I was taken from my mother and entered foster care.
Me. the year I was taken from my mother and entered foster care.

After being found in a basement, beaten, burned and starved at age 5, I entered foster care. The ferocious court battles, the on and off again appearances of my illusive mother, plagued me well into my teen years. Often during holidays, I wondered where my mother lived and if she too saw the crystal star at the top of the grandest tree in the world. I wandered. I made excuses for her in my mind.

Certainly I was loveable or at least I hoped so, but alas dreams stayed dreams. I held my breath each year, thinking some knock would come to the door..a long lost sibling explaining the big mishap. My father maybe? I would’ve settled for a man with a familiar feature walking down my street, even. Maybe my mother would run to me, presents in hand, cloaked in her long dark hair at the door, looking for absolution! The stories spun in my young mind over and over again each Christmas.

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

Many foster children feel discarded like yesterdays trash around the holidays; discarded by those who brought them into the world, by a child welfare system that doesn’t protect them, and by the fairy tales they hear other children recite. It is a childhood interrupted by an all too soon reality.

My childhood Christmas came decades after my childhood, when my daughter was born.  Because then..I did not need answers anymore. I had my own link, someone belonged to me.Every other sense of my own family seemed to fail, but not my blue-eyed girl depending almost solely on me.

A girl whose eyes lit up next to the big tree. A girl who still waits anxiously for Santa.  A girl whose heart is so big that she leaves an unmarked gift under the tree every year for a girl in foster care.

Becoming a mother saved my soul from a past that did not want to let go. All former foster children can be saved, with a sense of belonging to something unconditional, far from the discard pile.

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Getting Back on the Horse

 

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My proud girl and her new friend.

Sometimes I stumble. Actually, I stumble often.  Sometimes the past whispers in my ear, tells me I am not good enough, tells me my attainable goals are out of reach. It whispers I am not beautiful enough, smart enough, rich enough, strong enough, or worthy enough. My inner voice is polluted at times.

I heard somewhere, that as mothers, our words and actions to our children become their inner voice as adults. Nothing about parenting is more true. Being a former foster child, who was taken from  an abusive mother, my own inner voice sometimes has a deep, harrowing echo–it sneaks up on me at vulnerable times. It is especially loud during intimate moments and in small daily perceived failures.

Children who were foster children, or who suffered abuse by a  trusted parent often have a life-long emotional barricade. Physical wounds heal and people do move on. We look whole on the outside, we can grow and succeed, but that inner voice taunts. It pushes us to fail, to stop while we are on the path to emotional freedom.

It makes us hold our breath, it keeps us expecting hurt. Sometimes it invites hurt. Failures, personal or professional, seem par for the course. In fact, there is a comfort in being cast aside, or losing a professional goal. That nagging whisper tells us our negative inner voice is correct. It is  the lifelong impact of early abuse.

But, being a mother now always gives my soul another chance to drown that inner voice. This week, I watched my beautiful girl get up on a big horse and proudly trot around an incredible horse farm. Her bravery and confidence astounds me. Her inner voice is strong. When she is scared, she hears me telling her she is the most beautiful girl in the world. She hears her family telling her she can do it, telling her to try one more time.  She is whole and not fractured. She later climbed a fort, pulling herself up on ropes, and laughing at my fears. She is strong, where I am not.

My proud rider.
My proud rider.

She stumbles (not often), and she gets herself back up. I asked her how she is so brave. After all, she is now an aspiring artist. She is my little chef who studies french baking. She still climbs trees and likes to rock climb higher than I ever would! She nurtures every living creature, even the scary ones. Most importantly she always wants to help someone else. Only yesterday she asked me if she could do more to help foster kids. She is so proud of herself when she gets involved. She is selfless beyond any child I have met.

I felt so emotional watching her climb that horse. My daughter is everything I was not as a child. She is fearless.

On the way home, I told her I am so proud of her willingness to try so many things. Her response was: “I am so proud to have you as my mom, in all the universe there is not a better mom. That is why I get back up when I fall off!”

Me-- Just entering foster care after I was taken from my mother.
Me– Just entering foster care after I was taken from my mother.

This is what foster children, discarded children, and abused children need. They need what secure and loved children like my girl have; one consistent voice and presence urging them to be their best selves. Advocates can bring this to all children. Former foster children can create a new generation of givers in our own children. We can create strong women and men. Our own inner voices can be quieted for yet another day.

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