FCYU113 cover image See all stories from issue #113, Summer 2013

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The Journey to a Mother
Samantha Flowers
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Names have been changed.

Because of past experiences, I was angry and had my guard up when I came to live with my last foster mother, Irene. I was 17 years old and a bit defiant. She had four adopted children: Devon, 20; Sonya, 17; Brandon, 17; Maya, 9; plus an older biological son who visited a lot. (Two years later, Irene adopted Emily, who was 6 at the time.)

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The kids were all reserved at first, but after a few months, they started to warm up to me. I started hanging out with Sonya, and Devon started to tease me as his way of interacting with me.

Irene and I bumped heads at first. I was doing more chores than her adopted kids and I didn’t feel like she defended me the way she defended them. At first I didn’t trust her; I thought she only cared about the money she was getting for taking care of me. Meanwhile she thought I was a sneaky, untrustworthy teenager. We argued about chores, rules, and my behavior. She wanted me to socialize with her family more instead of staying in my room. I felt that her lack of trust, faith, and understanding of teens was her problem, not mine.

But even with all the fighting, we began to care about one another. She asked about my schooling and told me stories of her childhood. She would cry and lean on me for support when Sonya, who is my age, was acting out. That first Mother’s Day, I gave Irene a card. The second year, I started giving her actual gifts. At first, it was just to be polite, but over time it became more personal.

When I was 18, Irene sat me down to let me know that if I were interested in being adopted by her, she would consider it. I felt warm inside when she said that, but I thought about it and decided not to. I didn’t want to be adopted by anyone because I was tired of always being abandoned.

When I had a chance to live in my own apartment through an independent living program, I took it and walked away from her for good, or so I thought. But then the program ended, and at age 19, I needed a foster home again. Irene and her family welcomed me back with open arms. Ever since then, I respected and trusted Irene more. Our relationship seemed to be growing stronger.

‘I Am Your Mother’

I moved to my own apartment six months before I turned 21. Irene kept in touch with me for the first couple weeks, but then she stopped calling. She never came to visit me in my new place.

Still, four months after I moved out, I went to Irene’s house for Mother’s Day. I still appreciated that she had taken me back in and felt good about our relationship. And I’d grown closer to the younger kids. I babysat for them whenever Irene needed and took them out almost every weekend. So I wanted to show my love with a Mother’s Day surprise.

Besides the usual gifts, I wrote her a poem and gave it to her to read. The poem told her how much I appreciated her and loved her and her family and that she was like my own mother.

She read it and said nothing at first, but her face got redder than a hot chili pepper. Then she cried and said, “No, I’m not ‘like’ a mother, I am your mother.” We hugged and I wanted to cry but held back because the kids were around.

Then Sonya announced that she was pregnant. I went over and hugged Sonya and told her that I would always be there for her. By now I was in tears. I will always remember this moment. I really wanted to stay part of this family.

But since that day, Irene hasn’t been acting like a real mother to me. She still has never visited me, though I’ve invited her many times. I was out of work for nine months, and Irene never offered any financial support or help. I know she is dealing with a lot: Devon had to move back in; Sonya still depends on her and has a baby now; and of course she is taking care of the littler kids. But I still feel abandoned.

What Does a Mother Do?

I’m trying to accept that I can’t count on her for any money or even taking me in if I became homeless. She takes my calls, but never initiates contact herself unless she wants me to do a favor for her. If I call, she’ll give me advice, and she allows me to come over on holidays. I do appreciate that.

To be fair, I didn’t ask her for help, because I wanted to prove that I could take care of myself. I don’t think I’ll need her to give me money or provide me with shelter, but I’d still like her to assure me that I can turn to her for anything. Despite her saying, “I am your mother,” Irene seems more like a friend than a mom.

It’s hard to know what I can expect from a mother, given my life. I was taken away from my birth mother at age 7. The aunt who took me in after that was verbally abusive and her sons abused me too. With them and then in foster homes, adults never protected me from danger. I learned that the only person I could depend on was myself.

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Irene was the first mother I saw who tried hard to protect her family. I admired how Irene asked for what she needed without shame. Whether it’s trying to get food stamps or taking in more children as foster kids, she always solves her problems and takes care of her family. Irene’s family showed me that love, commitment, and forgiveness brings families closer even when they hurt each other.

But I have to admit that sometimes I feel so lonely and lost. Even after you turn 21, you still want to be somebody’s daughter. Now that I’m an adult, Irene is probably my best hope for a mother.

I would like to open up more to Irene, to tell her things I haven’t yet about my painful past. I want her to know that I don’t want to lose her as a mother figure. I love Irene and her family. Once the kids asked Irene why my last name wasn’t the same as theirs if we were all family. Irene responded, “You don’t need adoption papers and a name change to be considered family.”

She says the right things, but I don’t see her walking the talk of being my mother. A mother calls her daughter. A mother gives her daughter support. And most of all, a mother visits her daughter and checks up on her to make sure she’s OK. That is what a mom means to me. It really hurt when I didn’t get a call from anybody on my 21st birthday. I expected my wannabe mom to remember; I never forget her birthday.

The Way Forward

I worry a lot about Irene’s commitment to our relationship. I realize that I need to have a scary talk with Irene and tell her what I want from her. I’ve debated whether to tell her about the abuse I went through when I was younger.

I feel lucky to have a therapist to help me sort through all this. My therapist reminds me about the reality of things and tries to dig out my true emotions. She’s helped me realize that I’m holding back from having this serious talk with Irene in part because Irene sends me very mixed signals.

On one hand, Irene said that she would consider adopting me, and on Mother’s Day in 2011, she said she was my mother. On the other hand, she’s never visited my apartment and she didn’t invite me along on a family trip this past Christmas, saying it would be “too hard to explain” who I was. That hurt: If I am a daughter to you, how is that hard to explain?

My therapist says it’s OK to be frustrated and confused by things like this. Having her acknowledge Irene’s inconsistency helps me to not stress about the situation. My therapist helps me accept that I can’t control what Irene will do and that she might not be able to give me the things I want from her. I’ve decided not to tell Irene about the abuse and neglect I suffered because Irene did not handle it well when another foster child of hers shared her story of abuse.

If we have the conversation about our relationship, I want to know if she really considers me her daughter. I want to know how much I really mean to her. I know I need to be ready for disappointment. I need to ask myself, How little can I put up with? Is it worth the risk of asking her for things when she may say “No”? Or say “Yes,” but then not come through?

My heart says, “Irene is worth the risk,” because she has made me a better person. By allowing me to socialize with her family after I aged out, she has opened me up to the possibility of living with people I care about and who care for me, rather than doing everything solo.

Staying Open

But I have to be realistic. Irene probably can’t handle hearing about my painful past, and she’s not always available to hear my good news either. She does give me advice about boyfriend issues and job-hunting, and that motivates me to try and make her proud with my accomplishments. She (usually) invites me home for holidays with the family. She confides in me and seeks my advice about the kids. I love that because it makes me feel in the family loop. I feel especially close to Maya, who’s 15 now, and Emily, 11.

She’s not perfect, but Irene is as close to a mother as I have. So I want to keep her in my life and not bury her in my past. In the next couple years, I plan on visiting more often and becoming more proactive in trying to do outside activities and trips with the whole family. I plan on letting my guard down little by little and showing Irene that I can put my pride away while working on myself for the good of our relationship.

I sometimes wonder if Irene is disappointed that I haven’t finished college or had a stable work history, since those things were important to her. I’m not sure if I’d ever ask her that or not. I’d like to have a completely open conversation with her and have her say again that I’m her daughter—and then to follow through and act like my mother.

I’m using therapy to figure out how my past relationships with my aunt and previous foster mothers affected the way I am handling me and Irene’s situation. Maybe I don’t know how to keep that kind of relationship since I basically raised myself from the time I was six years old. As I look back at my life, I realize that all the women I’ve trusted in the past let me down or gave up on me so maybe I am expecting Irene to do the same.

But I know that my work in therapy will help me better deal with future relationships by becoming more open to my emotions instead of packing them away in a suitcase. I have faith that I will be able to come up with strategies for asking for what I need.

This past Mother’s Day was the first step toward my new journey with Irene. For the first time I told her I loved her and actually meant it. I have decided not to have the talk with Irene right away and instead let things fall into place and keep focusing on therapy. I hope in the next two years to be able to have that special conversation with Irene. Until then I will stay in touch, keep visiting, and stay involved with the whole family. I won’t push for more yet, but I won’t let them go.

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