I recently read a submission to “What I want you to know…” about growing up in foster care and I wanted to share my story of my own foster care experience.
As a young child, I used to daydream that my parents were not my parents and that someday a new set of parents would come take me away and give me the kind of family that I wanted but never knew. I spent many afternoons that I should have been napping making elaborate plans of running away, and even tried to enlist my younger sisters in the planning efforts.
You see, rather than a feeling of “drowning” or being ripped from my family, I dreamed of flying away. I knew at the core of my being from an early age that my surroundings were not safe and I needed to get out. But my sisters and I were with my parents until I was in high school. We were too frightened to talk to other adults about what was going on because we did not know what would happen if we did. My mother was physically and mentally ill for many years and self-medicated with drugs. My father did the best he could to keep our family clothed, fed, and together. The “together” part did more damage than good with my mother’s worsening condition. By the time I was in high school she had become abusive on a daily basis and I was missing school because of having visible bruises. As the oldest I suffered the worst at the beginning, and over time my mother did not discriminate about who she targeted. Out of protection for my younger sisters, I finally talked to some adults and thus began my journey as a ward of the court.
I aged out of the system at age 18 a couple weeks before I graduated from high school. Two of my three younger sisters also finished high school as wards of the court. None of us were “typical” foster kids—we did not have behavior issues in school, earned good grades, and were placed in college prep/advanced placement classes. During the month I graduated high school with honors and scholarships, my mother was arrested on felony drug charges. Being from a small town in the south where everyone knew everyone’s business, I knew I did not want my mother’s reputation for her own life choices following me as is the case in small towns. I took the scholarship offers from the furthest away college in Fullerton, California and didn’t look back.
I flew into John Wayne airport on a one way ticket with 2 suitcases full of non-trendy clothes. The 6 boxes of books I mailed ahead of time were waiting for me at the dorms. My most valued and only real worldly possessions were books. I had some trouble making close friends during the first couple years of college. First, because I had a thick southern accent which I was teased about mercilessly—I found it to be a free, intensive form of speech therapy over time. Second, I was too afraid at first to open up to others at my conservative Christian college about what my childhood had been like. After becoming more comfortable in my skin what I did realize that I had in common with other students was my desire to be a part of the helping profession. I got connected with local and national organizations that serve foster and other at-risk youth and spent the better part of the past 20 years working happily in that sector. I eventually got married and have two small children and have been a stay-at-home-mother the past two years.
From the outside, I seem like a pretty “normal” person. When people find out about my background who do not yet know me well, they are usually surprised. Sometimes shocked. And from the inside, I feel like a pretty “normal” person too. My life journey has taken me on a long and winding path of getting there, but I have come to believe that there are many people who do not have foster care backgrounds who would give a lot to feel the same “normal” on the inside.
The messages that I was given by my mother from an early age about who I was and what my potential was did a great deal of damage to my self-esteem and followed me well into my 20’s. But I had other “angels” in my life—Sunday school teachers, neighbors, parents of my friends, therapists, public school teachers, guidance counselors, mentors, social workers, college professors and advisors, and so on—who helped along the way. It is truly a village. Each of these special people showed powerful kindness to me as a child and young adult that cumulatively added up to begin to chip away at the sense of brokenness I was given as an inheritance from my mother. I grew to understand that for me, my self-worth came from who God created me to be, period. Once you really take that on as your inheritance, it is powerful. Truly powerful.
I cannot deny that I had some other advantages that others in foster care do not have the luxury of having. Because I was with my biological family for so long, even though I suffered abuse, I remained in the same schools with my sisters and with my same friends throughout my education. But these friends also saw me having to literally wear my grandmother’s clothes to school after being removed from my parents’ home. In high school, it does not get more humiliating—other students may have honestly refused to go to school. I still went to go to school each day, and completed my homework assignments on time, regardless of what was going on at home the night before. I had to miss a few class periods here and there to attend court dates related to my dependency case. I had to keep track of standardized test dates, scholarship deadlines, and college application essays on my own. I had to attend counseling. Regardless of the setbacks—and there were many—I fought. For myself. Because if nothing else, us “fosters” know that if we do not, others will not either.
This lifetime of unlearning and new learning has taught me quite a bit about what it means to “survive” foster care and the complications that life from a family that sends you into foster care brings. This is a random list in no particular order.
I have learned that when I show up and do not give up, I am very capable, strong, and resilient. The only thing that can give you that feeling is working very hard to get where you are at.
Because I have been respectful, responsible, and grateful for the majority of my adult life, I have been able to have friends become “like family” and most of the time, this is “enough.”
I have learned that it is okay to have “off” days.
My own mother died of a long series of complicated health issues related to decades of drug abuse. My sisters were grieving and still are. I felt relief. My mother was finally at peace with the world and not harming herself or others. It is the most freeing feeling to know that someone is not suffering or causing others to suffer.
That is it good to trust my “gut.”
I have learned that I can create a family of my own that is vastly different than the one I grew up in. And I have. My husband and kids are my favorite people in the entire world.
I have learned that not everyone in the “helping” profession has the same motivation. Some are deeply, unwaveringly committed to helping others in a sacrificial, almost saint-like way. Others help because of all sorts of other reasons that may not be in the best interests of the people they serve.
Being a person is messy. Foster care background or not. We live in a broken world. People are always going to do messed up things. But there are always good people doing amazing deeds to balance this out. Every good story ever written is about the struggle of this balance.
It is okay to not share with others about my background until I have a sense that they have earned the right to this sensitive information. There is a continuum of sharing: open book vs. cautiously guarded vs. walls everywhere. It’s not wise to live in the extremes.
I have learned that no matter what, God is on my side. He always provides help, and a way through.
It is not all gloom and doom for people who come from foster care. People get different starts in life—all of it builds character. I am far more capable, compassionate, hardworking, family-oriented, and rooted in my faith than I might have been otherwise. There is hope. You see, I choose to get up every day and believe that God is inherently good, and His plan is that good wins in the end.
My favorite non-religious story of good and evil is the story of Harry Potter. Stay with me here—I relate to him. Orphaned, sent to live with family that did not want him with them, trying to shake a past that he didn’t ask for, etc. When I think about being a former foster youth, I think about one tiny, obscure piece of this story. When Harry and other students encountered the thestrals—mythical winged horses that seemed scary because of the way they looked. Harry and Luna were able to see these creatures but most other students were not. In the story, it is because both Harry and Luna had experienced and witnessed death that they were able to see these animals. Being a former foster youth is like being able to see thestrals. All around you, actually, and all the time. Because of your life experiences there are certain things that you will see, perceive, pick up on, or sense, that other people who have not experienced foster care will never see or deeply understand. It is actually a gift. But the important thing is that in this series of seven bestselling books, none of those were titled, “Harry, the boy who sees thestrals.” It’s not the focus. And it shouldn’t be.
In short, surviving foster care is possible. Working through trauma is possible. Feeling “normal” most of the time is possible. Creating a loving, family and an awesome support system is possible. You can live with seeing thestrals even when others don’t. Those mythical, winged, scary looking but harmless creatures. They are just there to reflect what life experiences you have been through that are different than others.