What Foster Care Feels Like, A Metaphor

"You were born when you emerged from the dirt, your roots securing you to the ground."

You were born when you emerged from the dirt, your roots securing you to the ground.

To your biology.

With a strong foundation to guide you and support you, you grow. The two trees that created you protect you from the elements of the world. They give you both sun and shade, water and nutrients. You would be nothing without them.
As you grow, you see other trees in clusters all around you, each of them with varying levels of difference. Some are deep green pines, others monumental oaks. Some branches hang low to the ground dusting the soil while others skim the sky. You are a birch tree. You stand thin and tall, your ivory bark soft and smooth. The only other birch trees you know - your parents - have the same ivory bark, but theirs is crackled and broken.
You grow. You thrive. You live.

And then -
out of nowhere,

your roots are slashed.
You didn't even know they could be.

You are pulled from the ground by your leaves with what’s left of your roots dangling in the air, aching from the break. Although you thought what you had was always plenty, you’re told your parent trees weren’t giving enough shade on too-sunny days and enough rain to sustain you. You’re told the way you’ve been growing isn’t the right way, even though it’s the only way you know.

You are completely unprepared to live alone. Without the shelter and comfort of the two trees your roots connect to, the very ones that brought you to life, you fear you will die. The people who held the shears that cut you take you to another group of trees, far away from where you used to be. You’re placed in a different environment, under the shade of different trees that look very different from you. You’re told it will be safe to grow here, that your roots will be easily transplanted here.

The leaves on the unfamiliar trees around you look completely different from yours, clinging to long thin branches that dance inches above the dirt. You feel you are a stark comparison to the two other small willow trees in the cluster. Their carefree branches sway joyfully in the wind, in a manner and way which was never safe for you to do. Ashamed of what you look like and where you come from, you move your aching roots to cover one another, to hide the protruding stumps. Knobby, sharp, and disfigured, you didn’t want anyone to see them. You're told your roots will join the others, but they never connect.

You don't recognize anything around you. The sunlight feels different here, and your leaves start to shrivel.

You are moved again, and then, they say, "just one more time, the soil is much better here", and then to three different tree constellations before the final time you’re ripped from the ground, breaking any roots you were able to build. Like always. You begin to notice you look different from the way you originally did, with soft white branches reaching to the clouds. Instead, some of your branches swing low to the dirt, others sticking straight out and with pointy, small needles. Some of your leaves are a different color from the rest, and your bark isn’t crackling like you once hoped it would.

You don’t look at all like trees that raised you, but like none of the others who covered you, either.

You’re almost fully grown, and luckily you can pass as being on track with your peers. Your branches reach just about as high and your trunk is as strong. Your roots aren’t even comparably as long and strong as the other trees, but no one can see them underground. Though you still don’t know where you belong, you appear to blend in to other trees your height.

Again, your roots are cut but this time, it was a ritual. All trees your height moved to find a different place to plant themselves, in new clusters. You are lined up against the others to determine your fate, to be compared to all other trees your size. On the surface, you appear roughly just as tall and strong. But underneath the dirt, you don’t begin to compare. Yet again, you cover up their knobby disfigured ends, a habit you’ve become all too familiar with over the years.

The other trees are taller and have roots to live off of when they can’t find enough shade, water, or sun. You have been re-planted over and over and over again; you don’t think you will ever truly have enough. You see other trees thriving and establishing themselves, but all you can worry about is the upcoming storm. Even the smallest one can sweep you right over without roots to hold you down.

But with practice, you manage to - for what feels like the first time since the original break - secure your short tiny roots in a new place you've never been with plenty of sun, water, and shade. And there, they grow.

You still don’t look like any of the other trees around you, but rather a collection of them all. You are a blend of every tree that covered you. A dynamic combination of pine tree branches, lively colored oak leaves, and multi-textured bark, you are stunning. You finally belong – to a league all your own, one that far surpasses any of the other trees you ever wanted to belong with and to.

As students who have experienced time in foster care, we are so often judged simply by where we are at – symbolized by the height of our branches - but seldom by how far we’ve come and how much we’ve grown, especially without roots. Some of us don’t have roots at all. Some of us have roots that are disfigured, damaged, and that no longer connect us to the food and water we need to survive. Some of our trunks are too short and crooked, stunting our potential for growth and access to happiness and self-actualization. We are compared to students with roots that grew up in groves with a stable and sustaining root structure to protect and provide through the storm.

We should no longer be assessed simply by the height of our branches, but also by the length of our roots. 

Great thanks to my friend Megan DeVoe for her insight and assistance with this blog post.

Your donations help make a difference

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