"In the midst of Mother's and Father's Day, it can be really difficult to feel at peace with my life, my family, and my history."
In the midst of Mother’s and Father’s Day, it can be really difficult to feel at peace with my life, my family, and my history. The amount of shame that exists within a family that has experienced foster care is so vast. Everyone is affected. You become the daughter, the cousin, the niece, the granddaughter, and the friend who was taken away from her parents. Relationships are sometimes strained or lost entirely. Being involved with Child Protective Services is often viewed as a societal punishment when it should be perceived as an attempt at family intervention, designed to ultimately help a household overcome challenges or seek other solutions when overcoming them isn't an option. The child welfare system in our country is underfunded, unsupported, and continuously shamed.
Youth experiencing foster care are so often given pity when what they need is resources. Many young people in the system ask for what they need in the only way they know how, sometimes through their behavior or a collection of seemingly unrelated words strewn together with urgency. When you're 14 years old and actively experiencing trauma, you don't always have the physical and mental capability to articulately describe in which way you are struggling and how you can best be supported. Instead of the answers and support they're searching for, these youth are instead given prescriptions and distant promises. The families connected to these youth are shamed when they should be supported.
Most biological parents don't really have the option of giving up. I'd bet that some parents in traditional families that are not and have not experienced foster care frequently think, "I don't know how we will get through ______ (fill in the blank)." But for foster parents or relatives taking care of youth in care, a way out is provided after a 10-minute phone call. Again, instead of the resources (counseling, mediation, extra support) that these foster families need, they are frequently given the quickest, most cost-effective solution: removal. This, of course, is not the experience of every youth or every family but it seems to summarize the experience of so many young adults I've met.
Mother's Day and Father's Day exemplify and add to the shame surrounding the foster care system and the families involved with it. These holidays are a time that has the potential to affect every area, every domain in a student’s life. On a recent shopping trip, I was reminded of the presence these holidays have in our consumer-driven culture. Greeting cards, gift displays, and commercial representations of what mothers, fathers, sons and daughters should be permeate my toughest defenses. I am continually confronted with the reality of my situation in these moments.
However, there aren't any greeting cards made for your estranged biological father, or the aunt who acted as your foster parent. There aren't magazine gift guides that include "Gift Ideas for Distant Daughters.” Instead, the images and gifts that promote an ideal image of family most young adults from foster care do not belong to can feel very disruptive. I do best when I'm actively aware and processing my experiences. I feel most at peace when I'm able to realize my emotions and say to myself, "This happened to you. It is unfair that it happened to you and you did not deserve it. There are a lot of things that happen in life that are out of your control. But what you can control right now is the choices you make, the people you surround yourself with, how you spend your time, and generally how you focus your thoughts.”
But sometimes… I forget. Sometimes, when I'm in a group of people, or having a really good day, or deeply engaged in an assignment or conversation, I forget. I forget that I was in foster care, that I have a treacherous relationship with my parents, and I forget that I've survived some really difficult experiences. There is a reel of jolting memories playing in the back of my mind and sometimes I forget it’s there, but then it catches my attention and all I can do is watch as it replays. I would not describe this as a panic attack, exactly. It feels more like a painful, captivating reminder. The sensation reminds me of the common experience so many of us have when something bad happens in our lives and we go to sleep. When we wake, there’s a brief moment where we forget the tragedy or disappointment. Then, suddenly, we remember that so-and-so has passed away or we lost our job or that a relationship we really cared about has ended and those uncomfortable feelings come rushing back. That’s what it feels like.
This process doesn't happen very often. These moments are tied to certain times of year or certain experiences, like in the midst of Mother's and Father's day or other holidays. I’m discovering that these moments are happening more frequently as I age and grow farther away from my time in foster care. Though one may think that the increased frequency is unfortunate, I think it’s actually a good thing: it means I’m experiencing more and more moments where my foster care history or family status doesn’t matter and isn’t the focus of my life.
Recently, my boyfriend and I were out to eat at a restaurant. I'm not sure what was said, what I observed, or what led me to "remember" everything, but suddenly no matter how many deep breaths I took, it still felt like a portion of my body wasn’t receiving enough air. It didn’t feel as though I was in a panic per say, but rather it felt physically and emotionally uncomfortable as my mind and body merged my past and present experiences in a way that made sense at the time. This can be more difficult depending on the context. I have been able to identify several things that help make it easier:
These preferred ways of coping weren’t easily accessible to me on that recent day with my boyfriend in a public place. Though I said nothing, my partner, this amazing man I'm in love with, could physically see my demeanor change. He held my hand and his eyes intensified as he asked if I was okay. After almost a year of dating, he has grown accustom to my challenges. As a social worker himself, he is extremely supportive in these moments. I explained to him that sometimes it feels as though my memories are like a herd of invisible buffalo chasing me. No one else can see them, but they constantly run behind me, capable of destroying even the thickest walls. Sometimes, I told him, they catch up to me. Forgetting they are there is actually the most damaging approach. Forgetting about them causes me to put my guard down, and the chance of them catching up to me becomes greater. I told him that it felt like they were catching up to me, and it’s frustrating that they’re always there. Our conversation stalled as he nodded gently, showing he understood.
"But," he said, squeezing my hand gently. "Do you know what you're supposed to do if you get caught in a herd of buffalo?" I squeezed his hand back and shook my head no. A slight smile appeared in the corner of his lips as he said, "You're supposed to stand perfectly still and let them run past you."
So here's to standing still.
Fostering Success Michigan is a program of Educate Tomorrow that aims to increase access and success in higher education and post-college careers for youth with experience in foster care. Learn how you can contribute to building a holistic network that insulates (i.e., strengthens protective factors and reduces risks) the education to career "pipeline."Make a Donation