The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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I Needed a Mom, Not a Friend

My mom gave birth to me one month after her 16th birthday. She was living with her parents in the Midwest, and she had to give up her childhood very suddenly. We lived with my grandma while my mother finished high school. Then we moved to New Jersey, where she went to college.

My mom wanted me to be independent, so she always treated me like an adult. I was only 3 years old when she started making me order for myself at restaurants. I felt shy and helpless, and I wanted her to just do it for me.

By the time I was 7, we’d moved to Seattle for my mother’s job as a writer. She took me to school the first week so I could get used to the bus route. After that, I had to walk to the corner of my block by myself and wait for the bus. After school, I’d go to the corner store to buy snacks by myself. I never felt scared going places alone, but I sometimes felt bored and lonely because I had no one to keep me company.

For a long time, I felt more grown up than my friends. Their moms would baby them and hold their hands in the street. I had one 8-year-old friend whose mother still had her drinking from a bottle. I remember laughing about it with my mom because I thought my friend was so immature.

When I was 13, we moved to New York City. That’s where my mom had always wanted to live, because she thought writers were supposed to live in New York. We had no furniture at first and all of our household belongings were locked away in some storage warehouse for six months (we didn’t have enough money to get them out).

I wasn’t adapting well to my new school. I didn’t know anyone, and everyone was loud and unfriendly. I felt out of place and shy in New York. I was desperate to be back in Seattle, where I felt comfortable and accepted.

My mom was usually out with her friends or holed up in her bedroom working on one of her writing assignments. That wasn’t unusual, but now that I was having a hard time, I felt abandoned.

I got into a bad relationship, some girls in my school didn’t like me because of boy drama, my friends weren’t loyal and my grades were dropping. On top of all that, my mom and I were constantly bumping heads at home. I felt alone and depressed, and I needed her to help me.

Every time my mom and I encountered each other, we’d get into a heated argument, slam doors and both go to bed crying. Our fights were about stupid and unimportant things. One time we got into a fight because my mom hadn’t done the laundry, so I didn’t have any clean clothes to wear to school the next day.

We argued for what seemed like hours, and then I screamed, “You’re such a bad mother!”

Her eyes watered and she left the room. Now that I’m older, I feel horrible that I said that to her. I realize she really didn’t have time to do laundry. But I don’t think that was what we were fighting about anyway. She was stressed from work, and I was stressed from school. I guess we took our stress out on each other.

But I was also angry because I needed her to be a more “normal” mother. I wanted my mother’s affection but I also wanted her to be strict and set boundaries with me—like giving me a curfew and getting on my back about homework. I wanted her to pay more attention to me, even if it was just her asking how my day went. All of that would have shown me that she cared about me.

I wanted her to be like my best friend Janeen’s mother, who was always there for her kids. She cooked and cleaned the house, and she asked how their day went. She even had a specific “homework” time. And every time I went over to Janeen’s house, her mom would come up with fun games to play, rent us movies and make a special sleepover casserole.

My mom just wasn’t that nurturing type of person. She was better at being a sister than a mother. But if she had taken time out of her busy life to comfort me, things might have been a little easier for me.

I wanted so badly for someone to notice what I was going through and to pull me out of my darkness that I began cutting myself at the end of 8th grade. One day my mom saw the cuts and asked me about them, but she didn’t try to stop me. I think she knew that I was doing it for attention, so she decided to ignore me.

But some of my teachers noticed, too. “What happened to your arm?” a teacher asked me one day.

“My cat scratched me,” I said.

image by Edward Cortez

But I knew she didn’t buy it. Two of my other teachers noticed also, and all three of them set up a conference after school in a classroom with my mother and me to see if anything could be resolved. I don’t remember exactly what happened in that room, but I remember feeling cornered, embarrassed and vulnerable.

My mom expressed concern about me during the meeting, but she told me afterward that only I could stop cutting myself. She never asked me to stop. Her only message was for me to take care of myself. Once again, she demanded that I be independent.

My mother and I left school that night without resolving anything, and I kept cutting myself. But during the summer after 8th grade, I visited my grandma and she saw the marks on my arm. She burst into tears and told me that she’d had a dream about me cutting myself one night, but she hadn’t thought it could be true.

My grandma was heartbroken and I felt horrible that I’d made her feel that way. She was in hysterics as she begged me to stop and to never do it again. I love her so much, and her reaction had a big impact on me not cutting so much, and eventually stopping. I can see now that my grandma was the mother figure I needed to act like the adult, take charge and convince me to stop.

The next year I met my boyfriend, David, and he helped me deal with my feelings about my mom. When my mother and I argued, I’d call him and he’d talk to me for hours until I felt better.

I remember at my worst point of cutting, my entire left arm from the top part of my wrist all the way up to my shoulder was covered in cuts. By the middle of 9th grade, I only had a few cuts on my forearm. I had come a long way.

It took David to convince me to stop cutting completely. He gave me an ultimatum one night over the phone. He said, “Baby, if you ever cut yourself again, I’ll break up with you.”

The problem all along was that I felt alone and thought no one really cared. I think my grandmother and David showed me the love I needed. Once they showed me that I meant something to them, I stopped cutting.

I never talked about this episode with my mother, because she always taught me that I could only rely on myself. But my experience showed me that she was wrong. I can’t always do everything for myself. There are moments in life when I need to know I’m worth something to someone else.

Looking back, I understand that my mom was a struggling young single mother going through a lot. She was extremely busy working on her writing just to pay the bills and provide us with food. She didn’t have the time, energy or emotional strength to deal with helping me when she could barely help herself.

But at the time I felt like she was being self-centered and neglectful, and maybe she was. When I was going through the pain of becoming a teenager and adapting to a new city, I needed my mother to reach out to me and try to understand me. Even if she thought I was cutting myself for attention, she should have given me what I needed. At the time I thought that she must not care about me.

I wish that she had just taken me aside for a few minutes, held me by my shoulders, looked into my eyes and told me that she loved me and was there for me. I know it sounds so simple, but sometimes the answer to a complicated situation is just as simple as that.

I am grateful for the things my mom did teach me. Because of her, I am a more independent person. Because of her, I know what it’s like to live in a suburban white neighborhood and a big city with millions of people from different backgrounds and cultures.

Just by exposing me to different environments, my mom helped me form my own opinions about different lifestyles. When I grow up, I’ll choose where I want to live and how I want to lead my own life.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to raise my kids the way she raised me. When my boyfriend and I have kids of our own someday—probably a few years after we graduate from college and can provide them with a good life—we plan to do things differently.

We’re going to incorporate a little of the traditional parenting style that David’s mother gave him, using some Catholic traditions, supervision, boundaries and rules, with a little bit of the independence that my mother used with me. I think that it’s important for children to be children while they’re young, and to provide them with some kind of structure before gradually easing them into independence.

I want my children to feel like they can come to me for anything, that I will be there for them, and that they can trust me. Yeah, independence is important. But no one can be 100% independent all the time. Every now and again it’s necessary for kids and adults to have someone to lean on. I know that for a fact.

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