My Lost Decade

Reflections on Ten Years in Foster Care and my life since.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Being Good Enough

I pride myself on being my best. I try to make good decisions & admit when I'm wrong. I make efforts to learn new things & I consider what others have to say. From an objective point of view, I think I'm a pretty good person & I have a lot to be pleased about.

Yet, I never seem to think I am good enough. In junior high, I did not think I was good enough to join extra-curriculars or be popular. In high school, I didn't think I was good enough to interest the guys who interested me or to be Valedictorian. I was sure in college that I was not good enough to be admitted to my dream school or the journalism program there or to get on the college trivia team. I certainly did not think I was good enough for my husband when we started dating. Most recently, I didn't think I deserved the job I was offered by a very rigorous interviewer who I feel asked all of the right questions to get the best person for the position.

All of my insecurities fly in the face of what I objectively know to be true. I know I am smart because I got good grades, always understood concepts quickly & excelled on IQ tests, the ITBS, the ITED, the PSAT & the ACT. I was co-captain of my high school trivia team for two years. I know I am likable because I have plenty of friends & strangers have commented on how kind & helpful I am. I know I'm not ugly because my friends' dad accidently threw away my photo once because he thought it came with the wallet his son was carrying. I have nearly 2 1/2 decades of experience with overseeing the care of my mom, a person with disabilities. I am a hardcore advocate for vulnerable people of all sorts & I have an excellent education from a respected university. These are facts I know to be true & yet, these insecurities which are directly contradicted by the facts linger.

Maybe my confidence in my appearance was undermined by worse than usual teenage acne & a foster mom who told me if I lost a few pounds & they didn't photograph my face, I could be a model. Maybe I have less faith in my intelligence because of the rough start my education had. Is it possible that I never became popular because I felt like an outcast & the other kids just picked up on that? Was I only less athletic because I did not believe I could make the jump shot, score the goal or outrun the competition? Do I think I am a cold, unkind person because of the foster family and roommate who called me the "Ice Queen" when I would not respond to their hateful comments about me? Do I still secretly believe I am a bad person because of the foster family that told us all that we were heathens & constantly punished someone for something? Did a childhood full of people who would not listen to me make me feel like I do not have anything valuable to say or any control over my world?

All I know is that it is time to quit letting the past haunt me & make my decisions for me. I am just as good as anyone else & I deserve to reap the consequences of what I sow, not just bad, but also good. It is time to listen to the good things people say & put a lot less stock in the negative.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


It may seem funny that it isn't yet Halloween & I'm thinking about Christmas already. I've been this way since I started college. To demonstrate, I decided to make my own Christmas cards this year. They are designed, printed & signed. I just need to buy envelopes, address them, enclose a photo & send them off. Also, I already bought gifts for about half of the people on my list. They are wrapped, labeled & ready to give. I have a good idea what I am buying everyone else. Not only that, but I have been cruising the ornaments at Wal-Mart for weeks.

So, I am trying to figure out how I got this way. I remember commenting as a child, that it was not right for stores to have Halloween stuff & Christmas stuff on display simultaneously. There was plenty of time AFTER Halloween to sell Christmas stuff. Here I am now, one of the people the stores are targeting.

I think a seed was planted in my head when my grandma died. Needless to say, Christmas was not the same without her. I opened my gifts still numb with grief & thought how I would give up everything I owned to have her back. I later realized that Grandma spent the last few weeks of her life shopping for Christmas gifts for her "grandbabies" & that this would have been a very happy time for her. She was a very giving person & though we did not have much money, she lived for the times when she could splurge & buy things for people. When she died, she had completed all of her Christmas shopping & everyone got one last gift from Grandma. With that in mind, I started shopping earlier & earlier each year.

At each of my foster homes, there were different traditions for when & how things happened at Christmas. In some foster families, the tree went up on Thanksgiving & in others, not until a week before Christmas.

In the first scenario, it tended to be a fake tree. Its purpose was to get everyone into the Christmas spirit & having fun. It was not the kind of tree you would see in a magazine, but it reflected how the whole family saw Christmas. There were eggnog, homemade ornaments & music. As gifts appeared under the tree, it was okay to shake them & try to guess what was inside. I got really good at guessing. I love this type of Christmas.

In the second scenario, it was about appearances & propriety. It was usually a real tree, because they looked better, but that meant having to vacuum up needles every other day & remembering to water the tree regularly, so we had to wait to put it up. Every decoration had to be placed perfectly & nothing got on the tree unless it fit the theme, which may not reflect anyone's idea of Christmas. No one thought to play Christmas music or buy eggnog. The focus wasn't on getting excited about the holidays, but on looking good. Shaking gifts was forbidden. This was not an approach I really liked, but I see a little of it in myself sometimes.

It has been interesting trying to combine my experiences with my husband's sense of the holidays. Christmas has never held the kind of magic for him that it always has for me. When we have decorated a tree together in the past or I included him in Christmas shopping, I could tell it was weird for him, but in a nice way. He likes shopping for me & I think he will love shopping for kids once we have them. He will probably take great glee in making the children's gifts appear to be something other than what they are, just as he sometimes tries to do with me (I am too good at guessing, so it seldom works). We have had a blast making gingerbread houses the last couple of years, which is something he did as a kid, but I had not done until we started dating.

As I get older, time moves a lot faster. There are obligations as an adult & there is little time anymore to just sit & stare in wonder at the lights, the presents & the snow, as I did when I was a child. Tomorrow is only Halloween, but before I know it, it will be time to take down the tree & how well will I have enjoyed the holidays? I have tried to pick from the best of all of my experiences & make Christmas the way I think it should be. That means cramming the best traditions from my birth family, my husband's family & five foster families into a short period of time. I guess that's why I extended my Christmas season so much. It has become necessary.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Beginning of the End of the World as We Knew It

If you asked most people to identify the moment their childhood ended, they either would not be able to say or they would give some traditional rite of passage, such as getting their diploma, voting, starting or finishing college or becoming a parent. I was six-years-old when it happened to me & it took three simple words to end my childhood.

I had lived with my mom & maternal grandparents since birth. Because of my mom's disabilities, she was more like a sister to me & her mom was more like a mother to me than a grandmother. I adored my grandma. She was a big lady, with big hugs & an even bigger laugh. She thought I was the best thing since sliced bread.

Things were not perfect in our home. In first grade, I was already falling behind my peers academically. I had been tested for special education but my grandma refused to let me enter the special ed classroom. Beyond school, there were other problems. Mom changed boyfriends about as often as she changed clothes. She kept hoping that she would find me a daddy. Grandpa drank too much & frequently spent all evening in the bars downtown only to come home muttering or yelling unintelligibly. Grandma protected me from a lot of this ad kept Mom & Grandpa in line as much as she could.

Then came that fateful December night when everything changed. My aunt & her family were over for dinner. The adults were eating around the kitchen table & the children were enjoying their supper in the living room. I remember emptying my plate & going to the kitchen to put it in the sink. I stopped at the table full of adults & gave my grandma a hug before being sent back to the living room with the other kids.

I was playing with my three cousins when their was a sudden commotion in the kitchen. I looked up & it was clear that something was wrong. I could not tell what, but the adults all looked terrified. It soon became apparent that my grandmother could not breathe. I watched in horror as she started to turn colors & the adults lost their heads. Finally, one of the grownups called the paramedics. I was very confused when my preschool teacher, one of the paramedics, came in the ambulance.
Someone eventually realized that the children were watching their grandmother choke to death & we were ushered to my bedroom & told not to come out. We sat on the floor & cried & prayed & asked God to keep Grandma safe.

One of the adults came in & told us we would be going to stay with some family friends for the night, while Grandma went to the hospital. We all assumed that meant she would be okay & we packed up. I was unable to sleep all night because I wanted to see my grandma. I lay in a sleeping bag between my cousins & watched the Christmas lights outside the window blink off & on.
The next morning, my uncle came to pick us all up. The family friend who had taken care of us all asked him when he entered what had happened. In the next moment, he said the three words that ended my childhood. He took a deep breath & said, "She passed away." He had intentionally used a term he thought the children would not understand. Unfortunately, it was a term my grandmother had often used to talk about death & I knew all too clearly what it meant.

I remember shrieking & running. I fell to the floor in the living room & cried even after I had run out of tears. I felt like I would throw up & like I would die. I was certain the world would end without her. In some ways it did.

Less than one month after that, my mom & I were in a homeless shelter to protect us from Grandpa, whose alcoholism spun out of control after Grandma died. Mom agreed to place me in kinship care with the aunt who had been there that night. This was the first step in my inevitable entry into the foster care system.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Good Memories from Placement One

When I was eight-years-old, I entered my first placement. The foster parents were an old couple. They had adopted girl who was a year younger than me. At the time, they also had a sixteen-year-old foster daughter in their home.

Since I have highlighted a lot of negative things, I decided it would be good to focus on some positives. I remember a lot of positive things about that first foster family. These are the highlights:

I had my own room for the first time ever. This was both awesome & scary.

If I had bad dreams, my foster mom would sit with me until I fell back asleep.

We had french toast a lot. I was allowed to use honey & syrup & peanut butter on my french toast.

We went to Canada for a camper rally. The foster parents brought along myself, their adopted daughter & three of their granddaughters.

They had two aquariums. I loved to watch the fish.

They had a big backyard. Because I was young it seemed ENORMOUS. I am sure it was just a bit bigger than average.

They had grand kids my age & they would come over to play a lot.

My foster sister had more Barbie dolls than anyone I had ever met. They were all named Christina. So was her fish.

We had a huge box full of dress up clothes & had more fun with those than anything else in the house.

We went to church every Sunday & got donuts during "Fellowship," which fell between Sunday school & church.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


When I was 16, I hit one of those proverbial crossroads of life. Not only was I in a position where one decision was going to change the rest of my life, but I knew this to be the case.

I had only recently resumed visits with my aunt (the one who cared for me for a year after my mom went into a care facility & who ended up placing me in foster care) & her family, when they offered that I could move back in with them. I turned it down, but began to think and write about it in the form of letters to express my feelings. I did not send any of these letters, in fact, I tore them up because I decided I was better off staying with that foster family for the time being. I forgot about the letters completely.

Just before the start of winter break, my foster mom sent for me to come home early from school. When I arrived, I was confronted with the letters, which I explained fully & honestly for what they were. Her two daughters, who were in their twenties & living in the home rent-free decided their feelings were still hurt. I was told to call my aunt & I better hope that she would be able to come get me or I would be out on the street at 5 pm. They took back everything they had given me, including my winter coat & other items paid for by the state's clothing allowance.

I stayed with my aunt's family through the break, but was forced to "reunify" with the foster family. In a horrible confrontation with my foster mom & her oldest daughter during a therapy session with a counselor I did not know, I was expected to grovel & beg to be part of their family again, which was not something I wanted. I was put back into their home, where I was treated like a felon for a while & expected to return love for this treatment.

My aunt's attitude toward me started to change once I was moved back into the foster home. She started talking badly about me behind my back, which I found out from other members of the family. She started treating me like she did not trust me. She acted as though any concerns I might have about moving back home were personal attacks on her. It became impossible to carry on a relationship with her.

By now, I had gotten a part-time job & started working on the weekends. I did not have as much time to visit my aunt & uncle but still wanted to move to their house at the end of the school year. My aunt did not believe me & argued with me to the point that I decided I could not handle living with her.

It was then that I made a life changing choice. Instead of moving back with my aunt's family, I decided to stay in care. Though the home I was in was not good, it was my first chance to attend one school for more than two years. While I didn't feel loved, I felt stable, which I didn't feel on visits to my aunt. I felt that if my aunt really loved me, she would want me to be happy & she would stick by my decision. I was wrong.

She bailed on me & I have not heard from her except when I called to try to get information about my great-grandmother's funeral. She more or less told me that she would send someone to pick me up & if they found me, great. If not, that was just tough, but she would not take directions to my house. Other than that, we've had no contact in eight years.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


I have a number of fears. I am not sure if they are related to having been in the system or if they are fears lots of people have & just don't talk about. I also don't know if they are logical or not, given what my life's experience has been.

Being a bad mom. They say you tend to parent the way you were parented. I was parented inconsistently. I had foster parents who were great & who I would be delighted to emulate. I had others who I would never want to be like in any way, let alone parenting. Perhaps it will be like my husband. He is the best of all of the male role models I had, but isn't really exactly like any one of them. Perhaps I will draw on the best of all of the parenting styles I experienced.

Never filling the gaps inside me. I feel like I belong in my birth mom & my relationship & for the longest time, that was the only place I felt I belonged. Then, in high school, I found a niche of friends & clubs where I belonged, but I lost that when I graduated. Once we started dating, I got a sense of belonging in my husband & my relationship, which I still have. I still do not feel like I belong in his family or in my foster family. It seems like I need to belong more than most people, but express it far less.

Abandonment. I think this has less to do with being in foster care than having my primary caregiver, my grandma, die when I was six. It was very sudden & unexpected & she was only 54-years-old. Pretty much ever since, I have been afraid people will leave, or die, or get sick of me & want me to leave. This is another fear I do not express very much.

Getting angry. I have a hard time talking about feeling angry. It's the only emotion I have any trouble expressing. I think it is partially because of being born into an alcoholic family & anger being translated into violence too often. I think it also has to do with the fear of abandonment. If I get mad, someone might get mad back & leave, or they may storm out, die angry in a car accident & I never get to apologize for something stupid I might say.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Dreams

The bad stuff in foster care happened some time ago. It has been 7 years since I left my last "bad" placement & I left the first "bad" placement two years before that. So, why do I continue to dream about being stuck there two or three times per year.

In the dreams, I am as I am now. In spite of this, I am stuck in a bad foster home. It is not always clear if I am still there from before or there again. What is clear is that I've done nothing wrong, but am accused of it anyway. I cannot leave my room, even though I have my own real, adult obligations to fulfill. I'm depressed, angry & humiliated. I should not be here & know I deserve to be treated better, but don't know what to do about it.

Other than being an adult, the dream is a fairly accurate picture of how I felt in those placements. I was often accused of things I didn't do & treated like I was there to serve the needs of the adults in the house. In one placement it was the foster mom & in another it was the foster mom's adult daughter & her fiance, who lived with us but paid no rent & treated the foster kids like beggars.

Perhaps I am still angry about the injustices incurred in there. Anger is an intense emotion. Why don't I dream about the intense emotions I had in foster care that were good? Why don't I dream about when my foster sister was born, when I graduated from high school or when I was placed in TAG classes? Those intensely happy feelings had to be as strong as the anger. Is itbecause I was able to express that happiness & it got filed under "complete" in my subconscious mind?

There has never been an appropriate time to express all of my anger. At the time those things were happening, I could not talk about them. Once it was over, my new foster family didn't want to hear about it. By the time I found an outlet besides them, it seemed like it had been too long ago to talk about anymore.

The whole time I was in foster care, I was forced to go to therapy. I had some really lousy therapists & I was not ready to think about what had happened yet, so it did not help much. Now that I could finally use it, it is no longer being offered. Isn't that typical?!

Monday, October 17, 2005

Insensitivity vs. Oversensitivity

I don't always have the thickest skin. Sometimes I take things much more personally than they are intended. I am pretty good at not letting this show, especially to strangers & people who I know are not trying to be jerks.

That said, I hope I pulled it off this weekend while attending a meeting of foster and adoptive parents. I believe I am the first former foster youth in the country to be asked to sit on a board like this without being a licensed foster or adoptive parent first, so the fact that I am involved at all says great things about the forward thinking nature of the members. But, even on this board, with its great members, people say some really stupid things sometimes without thinking & I cannot help but be a bit offended.

Being very concerned with confidentiality, I am not going to describe any of the people on the council or say the name of the association, & while I cannot quote directly because it has already been a day or two & I did not write down the statements when they were made, I will do my best to replicate the statements that upset me.

Foster parent 1: People think these kids we adopt are beautiful, normal kids. They are not. (This made me feel like asking why they adopted the kids in the first place if they found them so detestable.)

Foster parent 1 (again): If I did not get a subsidy for my adopted son, I think he would be homeless right now. (I cannot tell you how many red flags this sent up. There is something be be said for honesty, but this is downright unkind. I have to wonder if the foster parent has said this to the adopted son.)

Foster parent 2: It's not a matter of if you will get a false allegation of abuse, but when.
(There are a lot of people who do not understand that an unfounded child abuse report is not necessarily a statement that a foster parent was innocent of all charges. It just means that nothing could be proven. Not only that, but I am pretty sure that a lot of kids who change their story from saying that they were abused by a foster parent to saying that they were not are only doing so because they have been threatened into doing so. Nobody seems to think about that. They would rather assume foster children are liars.)

One person asked me a question she feared MIGHT be offensive & repeatedly apologized afterward for asking. The thing was, it wasn't offensive. It was phrased appropriately & if I'd felt it was too personal, it was clear I could decline to answer. I do not want people to feel like they have to apologize left & right for being honest in front of me, walk on eggshells or not be themselves. Between that & being new to the board, I did not want to jump on people too much.

There is talk of bringing a teen who is still in care into the group at some point. I think there will have to be some definite paradigm shifts before that will be successful. A kid still in the system would have emotions that are still far too raw to sit through some of this.

Some of the parents seem like people who do not know they are prejudiced, but who are. They do not want to say things that are unkind or ignorant, but they think them (at least subconsciously) & then they end up saying them. I do not know if it is my responsibility (as part of the group being talked about) to step up & help them reframe their views in the kindest manner I can or if I would be overstepping my bounds to do so.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Termination

I do not recall my mom's parental rights being terminated. Maybe I never knew or maybe I blocked it out. What I do recall was rummaging through some old court documents to try to get something that would prove to the financial aid office at my college that I had been in care up to my 18th birthday. I was a freshman in college & finding the paperwork from the termination proceedings was the last thing I was expecting.

I remember the strength in my legs giving out & feeling ill. I felt numb as I read the document over & over. At that point, I had already aged out of care & it hit me how very alone I was in the world. Although my foster parents loved me & were fairly supportive, I realized in that moment that I had no legal, official, binding connection to anyone in the world. But as alone as I was, I knew someone who was even more alone.

I was the only child my birth mom ever had. Mom was born with cerebral palsy & mental retardation. She was shuffled from place to place until she aged out of foster care at 18. In the eight years she was in care, no one taught her how to care for herself or a child. Apparently no one ever expected her to get pregnant. Mom had been out of care less than a year when I was conceived.

We lived with her parents for six years, until her mother passed away. After that, Mom went back into an institution & I went to live with her sister for a year, before entering foster care. I lost touch with my biological family except Mom within a few years. Mom & I had visits every month, like clockwork. By the time I got to high school, we had started pretty much repeating the same visit every time.

Mom: I miss you.
Me: I miss you too, Mom.
Mom: How are you doing in school?
Me: Good. I got mostly A's again, except in math.
Mom: That's good. You are so smart. I'm very proud of you.
Mom: Honey?
Me: What, Mom?
Mom: I'm gonna get out of here soon & get my own place. Would you want to come to live with me?
Me: We'll see. Let's worry about it when you get closer to getting out.
-This is where I changed the subject.- We repeated this conversation several times per visit with other subjects in between.

Even if Mom did not know, I knew she was never getting out. Even when I was ten, I could see the decline in her health from when I was younger. In my earliest childhood memories, I recall having to run to keep up with her walk. I remember calling to her to slow down as we walked a couple of blocks to the grocery store. By the time I was 11, her legs had weakened & she was falling so much that she started using a walker. Some time around my sixteenth birthday, she started using a wheel chair on bad days & by high school graduation, she could no longer walk at all.

Mom has five siblings who have seventeen children between them & yet, I am her only visitor. Correction. She has one brother who did visit for a while. He is on record as having given her enough alcohol (which does not mix well with her seizure medication) to get her drunk & try to pimp her out. That was while I was in care & I didn't find out until I aged out. He disappeared when my caseworker stepped in & when he suddenly showed back up at her facility when I was 19, I put a stop to those visits. No one else comes to see her.

When I told her I was getting married, she was afraid I was going to stop visiting her. No matter how often I told her that was not going to happen, the next time I came to see her, she needed reassurance that I would still come to see her once I got married. Even now, she still seems surprised each month when I show up to visit. I wish I could explain in a way she would understand. I tell her that love her & that she is my mom & always will be, no matter what. Even more than that, she is my only link to my past & I am hers. There is no one else in this world that can replace us in each other's lives.

I'm pretty sure Mom doesn't know about the termination. I'm not telling her. We both fought it tooth & nail. She knew I didn't want to be adopted & I knew she had no one but me. That wasn't enough for the judge. He thought the foster families I lived with were better for me. Some of the homes would've been okay. The rest make me wonder why they even bother with licensing foster families at all. I would have been better off on the street than in two of the placements. Oddly enough, those two were the ones that pushed hardest to adopt me & the ones who tried to punish me by taking away visits with my mom. I don't think so. Homey don't play that.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

My husband & I got married on July 16. Other than me not being able to find a job, it's been great. Everybody told me things would be different once we got married. Apparently, they did not know him. Nothing has really changed between he & I.

His mom is living with us. Things HAVE changed between her & I. I used to feel really comfortable around her. I could tell her about anything & I thought she felt the same way. Now, I find that she chooses the weirdest times to reinforce my own worst fears about myself.

The things she says are to the effect that I do not know how families are supposed to work (due to having been raised in foster care), that I am not as much a part of his/her family as those born into it & never will be, etc. Mind you, she does not say it exactly like that, but the idea is there. I have a lot of worries about what kind of mom I will be, what kind of wife I am & if I will ever be able to create enough of a family for myself to not feel a huge gaping void where the family of my childhood should have fit. My foster family, try as they might, never has made me feel like one of their own. I've always been an outsider.

The statement about me not being part of the family really hurt, because she was comparing me to her youngest son who lives in the same town as we do, but never seems to be able to make time for her or his brother. I had a foster family who liked to do things to point out to the foster kids that we did not really belong & it does not hurt any less now that I am an adult. Though no one else had been on the subject, my mother-in-law felt the need to bring it up just to point out that he is more part of the family than I am. Apparently, no amount of caring for her after she's had surgery, no amount of loving her oldest son, no number of favors done for her, no number of grandchildren carried, will ever give me a spot in the family anywhere near the son who does not even care to be part of it.

I tried talking to my husband, but he doesn't get it. He does not have the need to belong that I have. He would not care if someone said these things to him. He does not understand why I am so upset by what she says & says I should confront her.

How would I go about doing that without looking like a total hag? Here she is, this little old lady with two artificial hips & a memory that lasts about thirty seconds, & I would either be confronting her in front of her family (automatically making me look bad) or waiting until no one else is around & she no longer even remembers making the comment. I don't know what to do.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Looking Back

August marked six years since I aged out. Sometimes it seems like it has been twice that long. Other times, it feels like it has been less than a day. I try very hard not to hold on too tightly to the past, for fear that it will hold me back. On the other hand, talking about the pain I experienced in foster care is the only way to prevent other kids from experiencing the same things.
Placement #6 became my forever family, though not legally. They were also placement #2, but it did not work out at that time, so I moved to a few other homes & ended up back with them five years later, at age 17. They don't like it when I talk about my experiences. My foster dad says that talking about the bad things (even when I also talk about the good things) is ungrateful. He says I should show thanks for the system that raised me even if it was not always perfect.
I do not think that is it at all. I think they don't like it when I speak out because they feel guilty for not being there for those five years to protect me. All of the bad things that happened were in placements 3 & 5 & I think he & my foster mom feel like if I had not moved out of their house, those things never would have happened.
My take on that is different. The way I see it, those things happened because I could handle them. I am not overly religious, but I feel that God let that stuff happen because he knew I am the ultimate lemonade maker. I was never thrown anything I could not cope with & God surrounded me with people who cared about me & who provided me emotional shelter from the worst of storms. There were always good friends & they often had parents who embraced me like family, plus I had a social worker who worked her tail off for me & a birth mom who thought I walked on water & did her best to love me, in spite of her disabilities. It is amazing what a person can get through with the right people by their side.
Now, because I am a survivor, because I am able & because I feel passionately about foster care, it is my duty to call attention to the parts of the foster care system that I know can use some work. I am eternally grateful for the things I was given, but I know there are many more kids who had it worse than I did & who did not have nearly the number or quality of resources available to help them through as I did. I need to call attention to the things that are not right & help work to right them. I do not do this to bash the system, but to honor it & make it even better.
It is the least I can do.