Tag Archives: loss

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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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.

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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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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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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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“Other” People’s Children

There is no doubt the foster care system in America is overwhelmed. Hundreds of thousands of abused, neglected and homeless children swarm in and out of its complexity. However, America still has a moral obligation to help innocent immigrant children escaping religious, personal,  and sexual persecution who bleed through our borders daily.

Me, a year after being taken from my abusive mother and entering foster care, 1981.
Me, a year after being taken from my abusive mother and entering foster care, 1981.

I know this is not a “popular” school of thought. However, as an advocate for healthier, stronger and safer children, how can I not be proud that my country has the ability to shelter and protect children who are not American, but who come here seeking refuge? Children who come from blood stained streets, homes with no electricity, war-torn towns; children whose last hope rests in this country.

As a former foster child myself, a child that was abused and thrown away,  I know first hand that the system here falters. But I also know that children can come from the darkest place, the dungiest corners of the world, can encounter the most violent atrocities, and be healed. If given the opportunity at a young age, a child can be saved!

Me and my beautiful daughter, 2014.
Me and my beautiful daughter, 2014.

It is reprehensible that my fellow advocates across many media platforms are condemning the education and support of innocent immigrant (unaccompanied)  children. I question the intention of any advocate who thinks discarding “other people’s children” is the right thing to do, and I wonder if they sleep at night and what they are really advocating.

Let me be clear, I am not a proponent of unrestrained illegal immigration. I am a vehement supporter of national security, and a passionate supporter of national defense.  The children I am referring to are not in any way associated with those that CLEARLY want to bring more drugs or guns into this country. They are not associated with the deplorable terrorist murderers who want to instill fear and mayhem in our streets. Moreover, amongst the drudgery that comes in to this country, are the innocent.

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Shedding Light on Forgotten Children

The last image I have of my mother is her sitting in a low chair, pregnant, with long straggly hair below her shoulders. I am maybe 9 years old, and she is crying to me. She is apologizing to me, she is promising me a new life, and then she is rambling nervously. Her eyes are mine, her hands even have the same texture. But she is so vastly different from my soft-hearted nature, she is starkly calculating and unnerved.

Even in my fear of her, I pitied her obvious weakness. We sat in a cell of some type that day, being watched by two social workers and a cop. I did not speak a word but felt hot tears nearly cut my skin as I tried to decipher my own feelings of hatred and fear. I saw her one time after that day and never again.

It is the stark image of her face, strained and nearly helpless, and the sound of someone kicking in a basement door that follows me sometimes. The smell of the musty air, the light being dim from a broken window, the cry of a boy beside me. And confusion. Mass confusion. Thankfully decades later, these memories are dull and they appear infrequently. They are sometimes jarred by someone’s touch, and other times, by my writing, my motherhood, and personal explorations.

This past week journalist Lisa Ling  gave viewers of the OWN network a harrowing look at the foster care system in Los Angeles in her documentary, “Children of the System.” The stories in the documentary re-opened old wounds, when  I was placed in foster care after being abused as a young girl.  In my advocacy writing, just as in my  parenting and all intimate aspects of my life, I do sometimes tread on thin ice.

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The Tracks–Home: Daily Prompt

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The train rushed past my house every 27 minutes or so bringing millions of strangers to and from one of the largest hubs in the world, Penn Station. The noise of the train rocked my street and at times, shattered its foundation. It trembled at odd hours and to me always seemed magical. When the temperatures dropped, you could see small blue flames light up the hot tracks. It seemed this beating heart was always present.

Nothing is more extravagant, noteworthy, historical, romantic, nostalgic, and more like a house with hidden stories, than New York’s railroad system. To me its pulse housed all the “home” I’ve known. It sheltered my hopes for love and life and mystery.

I spent countless hours as a child climbing over the platform to sit as close as possible to the track. Other times I would hide nearby and imagine stories about the businessman walking in a hurry, the Muslim woman carrying a child..the homeless man struggling for warmth on a train car. It was all fascinating to me. Where were they going? Were they happy? Were they at their last stop?

As I got older I would sometimes ride the train to Penn Station or any other stop just to feel the train beneath me. To see the magic of a new neighborhood, to roam the streets..to let the mighty car pull me away from my own lonely thoughts. Some of the greatest memories of my life happened on that train.

Riding with a lover, all dressed to venture the city’s music— to navigate our souls and bodies. ( I can still feel the sting of his facial hair against my skin as we huddled in the corner of the train car). I can see the sneering faces as we laughed over the noise of the rumbling engine. Young lovers can be so disruptive.

His body was as strong and as powerful as the MTA car it seemed.

I secretly wished that ride would never make it to its final destination. The train sheltered us from life’s blunders. From the realities of love and its inevitable losses.

Writing poems on the Metro North train while crossing the Hudson..watching the river beneath me almost crash through my skin from the dingy window. Bringing my daughter on her first subway ride, all bundled up as a wide eyed baby..just looking out in amazement at the world rushing past us.

Yes, that train was home to me. And it still is. When I go back and feel the familiar rocking below me, see the strangers altogether as a family for one short ride–I feel safe. I feel hidden.

I’ve often wandered if my very elusive idea of “home,” will ever find me. By this age, I pictured myself on a rounded porch, overlooking the landscape, huddled in the kitchen over a pot of sauce, writing by the window…watching the leaves and our lives change. Finding peace in my heart. The house smelling like garlic, the warmth of candles, the hissing of a heater, the low toil of family life, mini me stumbling in for meals.. the security of the same strong, handsome face coming down our long driveway.

They are delusions long buried under those tracks by now.

And while those daydreams are simply, well… childish fantasy, the tracks past my early home are very real. They are waiting for me to step on and feel that long lost feeling of hope and love and maybe magic just one more time.

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The Missing Parts

Me, a year after being taken from my mother and entering foster care, 1981.
Me, a year after being taken from my mother and entering foster care, 1981.

In my first years out of college, I worked at a newspaper and was anxious to be assigned anything that had any merit, anything besides the usual car break-ins my editor felt I needed to cover hourly. I had stories to share, I had things to unearth. I had research and gems I wanted to share!

The stories that gave me some type of hope were any that involved the welfare of children in the system. I was shocked at what I found as an outsider looking in, when before I had a bird’s-eye view as a foster child in the system. I watched my mother have more rights than myself through years of court battles.

To see a woman who looked like me, whose first name I share, who allowed me to rot in a dark basement, with no food, sun, who perpetrated and allowed others to perpetrate a violence and neglect against me that was inhumane, play the system like a fiddle! And me also! To me, I felt that learning everything about the system as a reporter, would bring me closure. It did not, but it helped me keep an emotional distance from those experiences.

I find now that in unearthing stories of friends who experienced this early on, who overcome it, who go on to live a life that is full of love, empathy, success and maturity..that we share a bond that outlives those trauma bonds.
Continue reading The Missing Parts