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What I Got From My Two Foster Moms
A.J.
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Names have been changed.

I had no steady home for most of my childhood. After years of going back and forth between my mom in Minnesota and my dad in New York, I ended up with my dad. He didn’t have a place to live and drove us around to crash at friends’ and relatives’ places. When I was 9, Child Protective Services (CPS) noticed that I couldn’t focus at school and investigated. They took me away from him and placed me in a big house full of kids and a Jamaican foster mother. She was nice, and I was treated well there, but my father fought to get me back.

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CPS told my dad he’d have to move with me into a family shelter, to stabilize our living situation. I was 11 at this point. At the shelter were crackheads, mentally ill people who’d been through numerous medications, and “normal people”—though my definition of normal did change while I was there.

After six months, we were moved to a much calmer part of the shelter where I found more people I could relate to. The residents gave each other a hand with a smile on their face. Soon, we became comfortable with our surroundings.

Every morning my father and I would get ready because it was mandatory to be on the go. Adults must be looking for work or going to work and kids had to go to school. After school ended, if your guardian wasn’t home yet, you had to stay downstairs at an after-school program until someone picked you up.

My Downstairs Family

I met a girl in the program named Jennifer. She was seven months older then me and had a big round head, with small facial features and the hair of a goddess. I liked her and her family—a kind mom, a big brother, and two sisters. Jade was the oldest and Teresa was the youngest. We became inseparable, and around that same time my dad’s drinking spun out of control.

Jennifer inserted me into her family—or did I insert myself? I needed a place to escape my dad when he couldn’t control his drinking.

There were nine floors in the shelter, and we had our own apartments. I lived on the eighth floor, and Jennifer’s family lived on the seventh, so I could sneak down whenever I wanted to. We shared laughter and sadness, and she’d include me in family activities like going to church, eating out, playing with the Wii, or having Thanksgiving with their relatives.

Sometimes my father would lock me in our apartment to keep me from going to the seventh floor. He gave many excuses why he didn’t want me down there with Jennifer, but I think he was jealous and wanted me with him.

When I was almost 14, Jennifer’s mother introduced the idea of taking me in and adopting me. She said I was part of their family. I smiled so big when she said that that my cheekbones hurt.

But later that year, she died. The oldest child, Jade, was 23 at that point, and she and her brother had to pick up the broken pieces of her family. I was heartbroken, but glad that the two of them looked after Jennifer and Teresa.

Living in the shelter became overwhelming for my father. He signed us out and we went on the road once again. My dad liked to travel around and crash with others. He loved living “free,” paying no bills. We went from New Jersey to Rhode Island, where we landed with my dad’s aunt. After a short time, she told us that she didn’t have the energy for this and bought us tickets to New York to leave her sight.

Longing for Stability

My dad dropped me off at my grandmother’s house and left me for good after that. He never did explain his behavior to me. I wanted him to acknowledge how I was dragged around like a toy or a blanket, not a daughter, but he never did. His unreliability and abandonment made me long for a stable home and family.

My grandmother was not that stable family. I lived there from freshman year into 10th grade. Between her and her boyfriend, I felt less like a granddaughter than a house slave. We also clashed over me staying out past curfew. The stress ate at me, and I told someone at school that I wanted to kill myself. I was admitted to a psychiatric ward.

After that I had therapy once a week. I told my therapist that I wouldn’t go back to Grandma because I knew she didn’t want me there. My last night there, I got home at midnight and rang the bell and knocked for hours. Nobody let me in. I pressed my ear to the door and heard my grandmother say, “She better turn back to where she came from.”

I called Jade and she came and picked me up. From that night, everything got better. Jade got certified to be a foster parent and took me in. I shared a room with Jennifer and Teresa; a bed came for me from the foster care agency. Jade had her own room, and their brother slept in the living room.

I used to sneak into Jade’s room to get the affection I didn’t get when I was younger. Her hugs lifted up my soul, and I craved them. I was not much of an eater then, but Jade’s cooking was phenomenal, and she made sure I ate. Her understanding of my boundaries and how to take care of me made me feel better about myself, inside and out. My grades went up, and I looked forward to coming home each day.

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I felt the same comfort I’d gotten from the whole family in the shelter, except for one big missing piece: their mom.

She had also been a phenomenal cook. She was open-minded and respectful to kids and adults. She was also the first gay adult I knew; she dressed like a man and dated women.

I not only missed the mom; I missed the family being whole. You could see that they weren’t OK after she died, though they tried their hardest to hide it.

Uprooted Again

Jade sometimes seemed like one of the kids, and sometimes more like a mom. One day in her room, she talked to me like an equal, and I was amazed at how she opened up. She’s introverted, like me, so the conversation was awkward until she started telling me about her childhood. Her father was selfish and didn’t do anything for her. She compared her situation to mine and said that parents can be careless about our feelings.

I also shared some personal stuff with her. Though I hesitated to tell her about my attraction to girls, she picked it up. One time we were walking down the street, and she noticed my eyes on a girl’s butt. “You gay,” she said, laughing. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just laughed with her.

They were Seventh-Day Adventists, went to church every Saturday. I worried, “What if they start judging me? But their mom was gay! But what if they hid their homophobia while she was alive?” I had noticed Jennifer was judgmental about gay people.

Sometime I worried that Jennifer’s and my relationship was drifting away; once we lived together, she didn’t consider our friendship a big deal. But she reassured me it was still there. We hung out together on each other’s bed, gave each other advice, gossiped about what was happening in school, and took little walks from the Chinese food store back to our house, where we’d watch movies together.

But taking in a foster kid meant that CPS watched their family. I skipped classes sometimes, and Jade and Jennifer got scared that Teresa would get taken away. After I’d lived there junior year and most of senior year, they kicked me out. I was devastated.

While I was packing, I called my caseworker and told her I was going to crash with my boyfriend. (I kept dating boys even after I realized my attraction to girls because it seemed safer and more acceptable.) My worker put in for another home for me, and eight months ago, I moved in with Laurel, a foster mom from St. Thomas. When my caseworker and I arrived at Laurel’s place in the Bronx, it looked fancy to me.

Laurel is energetic, a 70-year-old lesbian who looks 50. She is straightforward, and at first I didn’t like that. The first day we talked, she looked at a picture of my boyfriend and asked if we’d had sex and if I was protecting myself. I didn’t answer those questions because it felt invasive. We’d just met!

Laurel Being Extra

But I soon figured out she didn’t mean any harm. I like her energy: she goes to the gym, though she’s older than my grandmother, who takes a whole lot of pills. Laurel is one conceited woman, but it makes sense: If you don’t think highly of yourself, who else will?

Her self-confidence motivates me because she doesn’t just do her; she lets me do me. She cares about my opinion and listens to me. She figured out that I like girls, and she was the first adult who told me that was OK.

We’ve had some rough spots. After I’d been there only two weeks, she brought up sending me back to the agency because I wasn’t contacting her about my whereabouts and wasn’t cleaning to her expectations.

But we worked it out, and now my life is more settled than it’s ever been. Another foster child lives in her house, but I have my own room. She treats us like individuals, with respect. Laurel noticed how introverted I am and told my caseworker that I seemed to be “on the other side of a wall.” It’s true, but I’ve moved around so much, opening up is hard for me.

We had several meetings with my caseworker about my introversion after that, and in the last one, Laurel said that I’m a good kid. I’m her first foster child to graduate high school.

I appreciate that she’s been patient with me, and I am starting to let her in. She’s taught me more then anyone about how my voice is meant to be heard.

I told her about my dad’s alcoholism, and she encouraged me to tell him how that affected me. I never thought that made sense, but now I’m considering it. It felt like a relief that someone understood what I’d been through, even if my father never can take responsibility for how his actions affected me.

On graduation day, I had to decide who got the tickets. I have a big family, but I decided Laurel had to get one for her part in building me up. I also gave two to Jade and Jennifer (we forgave each other and stayed friends). When all the graduates were waiting to get their diplomas, you could hear Laurel being extra, her voice springing across the room shouting my name.

(FCYU-2017-10-28)