Fitting the Foster Puzzle
"My experience in foster care was like trying to figure out a giant puzzle. When I would come into a new home they already had their routines. When their doors opened to me, I was expected to fit in that puzzle almost immediately."
My name is Alexis and I was removed from my mother’s care when I was 13 years old.
In the span of a year and a half, I was passed around to about 4 different homes. You see, my mother struggled with addiction. This, in turn, affected her ability to provide for the family and provide a safe environment for us children.
We were dirt poor – the type of poor that involved eviction, an empty fridge and cupboards, tattered clothing, and water or electricity cuts. We were raising ourselves and each other, making decisions that were not meant for children to make, like deciding when and if we would go to school… which ultimately led to me failing 7th grade.
Caseworkers would try to surprise-visit us, but we knew the routine and were great at fooling them. All mom had to say was, “CPS is coming,” and I, being the anxiety filled child I was, would get on my hands and knees and scrub the floors. It finally got to the point of removal when, at a party, some poor choices were made by the party goers that had my poor little brother in hysterics. He called on the family to intervene and this began our foster journey.
My experience in foster care was like trying to figure out a giant puzzle. When I would come into a new home they already had their routines. Their days ran smoothly and everything seemed to fit together perfectly. It seemed like when their doors opened to me, I was expected to fit in that puzzle almost immediately. They would start trying to “fix me” rather than guide me, trying to find the best way to fit me into their puzzle. Sometimes I would rebel, sometimes I would adhere, but sometimes I wouldn’t adhere fast enough and I’d be on to the next one. While I was lucky enough to stay with family members, there was still a sense of moving in with a stranger. It was different with each placement, but I did feel a common theme amongst each home that I was a burden. While I would say that I was a relatively normal teenager, every little thing I did wrong made me feel like “this could be it.” It could be the time that I did something just wrong enough that I would get sent away. It was worrisome, but also created this INTENSE desire to fit in. To find any way possible to please others, sacrificing a little bit of who I was in order to do what others expected. While this was beneficial to me in some ways, (like helping me be rid of some undesirable behaviors) it also created a lot of anxiety and insecurity.
It wasn’t always difficult though. I began to live a life I had only seen on television sitcoms like The Brady Bunch. I learned how to care for myself by brushing my teeth, showering, and wearing clean clothes that actually fit. I learned how to speak to adults, use my manners, try new foods, and sit down to a good home cooked meal with a family. It was like a whole new world to me that I enjoyed.
Finally I was placed with an Aunt and Uncle who eventually adopted me. They basically took the crumbling foundation that was my childhood and rebuilt it from my core, introducing me to the strongest foundation, their faith. Through my faith I found a purpose for my heartache and the circumstances that I was forced to endure.
Being removed from my mom was hard. The life I was living with my mother may not have been the best, or safest, but it was what I knew. Having to fend for ourselves, I naturally became the mother figure. I helped take care of my younger siblings as best as a girl my age could. I lied, cheated, stole, and hustled to do what I had to do to protect them. I stuck by my baby sisters even when the system wanted to separate us, and my little brother found an amazing home with my aunt and uncle (where we all eventually joined him).
There are a few stereotypes that I came to know during my time in foster care.
First, there was a term that hovered over my head the entire time I was in care and shaped my identity: ward of the state. (I didn’t know the term “foster child”). I just wanted to be known as and actually be a regular teenager. I wanted to like boys, wear shell toe Adidas, and listen to the Backstreet Boys. But because of this title, a certain stereotype followed me wherever I went. Sometimes when people knew my story, they would look at me differently. They would look at me with so much pity that sometimes, being the master manipulator that I was, I would take advantage to get attention or get what I wanted. And sometimes it would lower my own expectations of how I should portray myself, like, “You think I’m some ghetto girl from Flint? Well let me show you ghetto.”…
Second, the idea that, because I was a foster child, a little less was expected of me. Sometimes I felt like people stood by just waiting for me to fail or expected me to do just enough to get by… not excel, not over achieve, but just get by. Sometimes I used this to my advantage by slacking, while other times it would just piss me off. I wanted people to understand that I was my own person. Yes, I was so and so’s relative but that did not mean I would follow the same path. I made my own choices, I created my own destiny. I believed it didn’t matter where I came from, and with a lot of hard work anything was possible.
Last, the idea that all mothers and fathers lose their children because they don’t love them. This is a difficult one to swallow as both an alum and foster mother. Fast forward to present day where I am married and we have been foster parents to 10 children under the age of 5. Initially it was my belief that my mother didn’t love me enough, but as an adult and now foster mother, I know that she did and still does truly love me. When I try to explain my family to my children and my children's parent's situations to my foster children, I try to explain it the best way possible – without judgement. I try to understand that my mom, and often times my children’s mothers are sick. Addiction is an illness and is often times coupled with mental illness. People make mistakes, things cloud their judgment. Any other person, including myself, can't know better unless you walk in their shoes and I want our country to know this.
To anyone interested in getting involved in foster care, first I would say, become a foster parent! If I can do it, anyone can do it! There are also other ways to help children in need. Volunteer or donate to local organizations that advocate for foster children and collect duffle bags or other basic needs for those entering foster care. Find a foster family and ask if they need anything such as meals, donations, help with laundry, anything! Volunteer at a local shelter. We have The Arc which is an emergency shelter for children in between foster homes. Or if you feel called to serve but not as a foster family, there is always respite care!
I want the world to know that life was not easy for me and it’s not easy for any foster child. I wasn’t born with advantages, and unfortunately didn’t have the ability to choose what was happening around me. As I got older, I decided to take a negative and turn it into a positive. I decided to show the naysayers that I could do better – that I would take all the negative influences and use them as an example of what not to do. I vowed to take school more seriously, to stop the lying and manipulating that helped me survive for so long, and focus on building healthy relationships. I decided to let go of the hate and betrayal that was all-consuming. I decided to love… this was probably the hardest of them all. I dreamed I would find a man who would see my past as a beautiful thing and accept all of me, flaws included. I got that and more! I decided to live a life that would serve others and do something I loved, and with a lot of hard work I will receive my Masters in Elementary Education in a week!
Living with strangers is not easy; even living with extended family is hard. But through all of the moving, each person gave me a piece of themselves, which in turn helped mold me into me: a woman with a very eclectic personality who wears her heart on her sleeve.
I’m not doing this to boast because I am FAR from perfect BUT I want to show you that foster care, or a parent’s mistakes, do not predestine you for failure. They do not determine how you will turn out, they do not make you. No matter what you have been through, success is possible with hard work. When I was younger I would describe myself as an outsider, someone who didn’t fit in the lifestyle I was raised in. I believed that I was made to do something, I called it Simon Birch syndrome (if you haven’t seen this movie, it’s amazing. lol) While my brothers were out doing God knows what in the streets, I was babysitting to raise money to get things for me and my sister. While every decision I made as a child wasn’t always best, I did what I could to survive. I am living a dream life I never imagined for myself. I have the most amazing family. My siblings are my best friends. I have traveled the world, gotten two degrees, married the most amazing man, and I continue to be blessed daily with the love of my foster babies. It’s a total "pulled up from my boot straps," American dream kind of story. I’m not quite sure why I am so lucky, but I know that after years of heartache I’m finally happy.
– Alexis, Former Foster Youth