When I was approached to share my story on Attempting Agape, I was asked to write about my “journey” through foster care. This is the first time I have actually thought about my experiences as a journey, but that is what it truly was and is. Not only did I literally travel from home to home, town to town, family to family, but there was an emotional voyage attached to that as well, and I’m still on that journey as I continue to discover new places within me that were affected by my experiences.
My journey started when I was born. My birth-parents were both developmentally and cognitively challenged. These challenges prevented them from properly caring for a child and I suffered some physical delays as an infant. Sometime after I turned two, a storekeeper at the local mall, who had come to notice us roaming around there daily, called Social Services several times and I was eventually placed in foster care.
Once I was in care, I lived with four different families. The first placement only lasted six months and I have very vague memories of it. I only remember another girl my age and a tall man with dark hair. But it was in this home, once given the physical care I needed, that I was able to overcome my delays and develop properly. According to stories I've been told, I soon surpassed their own daughter’s abilities, which led to me getting a new placement and the sense that something was wrong with me, that I wasn't good enough. A feeling that has accompanied me on my journey.
My second placement was much longer: two years. For the first time, I was taken care of physically AND emotionally, but that sense of being unworthy had already lodged itself in my emotional luggage. A few years ago when I interviewed my former foster mother, she told me the story of my first day in her house. How at the age of three I came in and sat down at her kitchen table, folded my hands in front of me and talked incessantly for fifteen minutes about how I was going to be such a good girl so that I wouldn’t get sent back. I don’t remember that, but I do remember Saturday morning traditions of joining my foster siblings in the living room to watch cartoons, daily walks down to the chicken coop and being pushed on the swing set. These memories have also become my travel companions.
I’ll probably never know the real reason for why I was placed back with my birth-parents after two years at that home. But it was on that day that I was forced to grow up and start a new section of my journey. For the following year, I was the adult of our family. At five years old, I was forced to take care of not only my parents, but also my little brother, who had been born in my absence. I became a surrogate mother; changing his diapers, cleaning up after him, comforting him, playing with him. I made certain we all ate at least a couple meals a day, even if they did only consist of ice cream or butter sandwiches. However, I couldn't control everything, despite my efforts. My father was an alcoholic and had a temper. I was forced to call the cops on him, because he had started to beat up my mother.
After a year, and a couple of calls to the cops, my brother and I moved into another foster home. This family lived in small trailer and was already taking care of three other children: a teenage biological daughter, another foster daughter a couple years older than me, and a severely handicapped five-year old foster son. Unfortunately, this foster family was the type that gives fostering a bad rap. They took the money from the state and spend it on themselves. They were abusive – verbally, emotionally, and physically, though not physically to either my brother or me. I remember being yelled at constantly for no apparent reason. Their method of discipline was completely arbitrary. I would be punished for allowing the neighborhood girls to play with my long hair, but would be allowed to stay out until midnight and watch R rated horror movies. Things were so bad, that at the tender age of four, my brother was clinically depressed. Eventually, my social worker found out what was happening and had us moved to another foster home, but we stayed in that living hell for two years.
Moving in with our last family felt like skies clearing after a particularly damaging hurricane. From the beginning, we were made to feel loved and cared for. We were given boundaries and structure, respect and affection. But after my arduous journey thus far, it was hard to feel secure. Though maybe not consciously, the fear of being removed from this home was always there. At this point, my emotional luggage was full to the brim with negative thoughts and feelings about myself and the world and I was afraid to unpack. After a year and a half of living is this apparent paradise, our birth-parents rights were terminated. And, despite the load I carried with me, my foster parents wanted us to start a new leg of our journey as part of their forever family. On the day of our adoption, my mother says that I finally let out the breath I had been holding in for so long. I think it’s just that I finally was able to unpack.
I’ve been doing that ever since. Every time I turn around, I realize there is another compartment that hides some piece of my journey that I’ve forgotten about or deliberately hidden away. But my experiences have led me to believe that we are all on a journey of some sort, some through foster care, some through adoption and some through some other equally challenging path. But whatever path we are on, it is ours and only ours. Our journeys have no destinations, only those things we decide to pack up and take with us.
Lisa's next post will be in Q and A format - so if you have a question for Lisa, post it in the comments section below and we'll try to squeeze it in.
Q and A is up - check it out! Soo insightful!