When I was 8 years old, my mom became a “single mother” – a member of a population recognized for facing numerous challenges. My father’s death, from diabetes complications, brought these challenges. Her mental illness (bipolar disorder, paranoid schizophrenia) only strengthened them. She felt she was under attack from all sides. The culprits ran the gamut, from jealous in-laws and nosy neighbors to the CIA and NASA.
One of them was the foster care system, and I remember being told numerous times, “if I can’t take care of you, they’ll take you away!” So I entered my teenage years with the specter of foster care hanging above my head. Not surprisingly, when I did end up interfacing with the child welfare system at age 13 (due to my mom briefly running away from our home in Northeast Philadelphia), I went into it expecting that leaving foster care and returning to live with my mom was both necessary and inevitable. As the months went by however, my mom grew deeper roots in a network of boarding homes and psych wards, and I settled further into the bosoms of my foster families.
I had known for years that something was off. I knew that other parents didn’t have so much paranoia or spend whole days lying around smoking, with their kids relying on frozen dinners. With no friends her own age, my mom treated me as her closest confidante, often sharing way too much information. There were definite positives to my upbringing: she consistently encouraged my academic excellence, and I realized that school was what I held onto throughout the tumult of her and foster care. But once in care, I got to explore new skills and experiences: sports, music, Jewish studies, siblings, healthy eating, anger management, as well as political awareness. After eight months of transition–during which I lived with an elderly aunt of my mom’s, five foster families, and spent a weekend in a shelter–I ended up with my current foster family, whom I still go home to in Philly.
I came out as gay two years later at age 16, and they accepted me unconditionally. I’m not sure what would have happened if I were still with my mom. When I told her on one our visits, she broke down in tears, lamenting that she’d never have grandchildren. At art therapy a few years later, she crayoned a scene of me under a rainbow, with the caption, “Why did God give me a gay son?” Yet over time she accepted me, and has grown to love my boyfriend as well. Another possibility if I stayed with my mom: she was so overprotective, I don’t think she would’ve let me go to New York University; I could have ended up living at home, only strengthening the bubble we were in.
I’ve always said foster care was good for me, but it was tough in the beginning. I got beat up by other kids at the shelter, who called me out for being “the white boy.” One home had cats, and I discovered that I was allergic–the first night there, during a welcome party the neighborhood threw me, a bout of hyperventilation heralded in a lifetime of asthma management. Another family told me five months into my stay something I’d long known: they didn’t have time to give the love I needed.
Aging out of the system in Philadelphia required that I attend life skills classes at the Achieving Independence Center (which would benefit plenty of kids who aren’t in foster care). There I met young people who had less positive experiences; many were neglected and abused by foster families, or were unjustly removed from their biological families and were fighting for reunification. I taught classes there on safer sex and self-advocacy, and once in New York I gave classes to kids in foster care about their rights in the system, through The Door’s Foster Youth Peer Educator program. My connection to the disenfranchised, combined with my foster family’s emphasis on community involvement, led me to become an activist. I’ve been working to make a difference ever since, be it with tenants’ rights, LGBT and labor rights, or participatory democracy.
I’ve changed so much, but I haven’t left my “former life” behind. I see my mom regularly, and lately I’ve been finding distant relatives I never knew before. It’s especially rewarding that, in recent years, my mom herself acknowledged that my foster family gave me things she never could, and that we’re both better off in our respective situations. I wholeheartedly agree.
Published on May 13, 2013 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.