How Navigating Complex Family Relationships Helped Me Heal

By Sarah Pauter

Sarah Pauter largeIt’s been almost 10 years since I emancipated from the foster care system. I remember sitting across from an independent living caseworker, combing over the details of what my transition to adulthood would look like: part-time employment, full-time school at a 4-year university, transitional housing support, and a myriad of other resources to fill the gaps. These conversations went on for months as my birthday and high school graduation inched closer, like doomsday preparations, with meticulous attention to details about time management and financial responsibility.

While the services and supports fostered my independence, the message wasn’t entirely happy or optimistic. You need to learn to take care of yourself because you have no family to depend on. And that was the truth; I was “aging out” of the system that served as my sole caretaker for 17 years.

My journey through foster care started when my mother, who was 22 and had three young children, dropped us off at a babysitter’s house and never came back. She was attempting to flee an abusive and drug-riddled situation with my father, and needed to lay low until he could be served with a restraining order. She felt it was in our best interest to leave us at a location where we couldn’t be found, but after several days, the babysitter became worried and made the fateful call to CPS.

My mother’s drug addiction intensified after our removal and she eventually served a prison sentence for possession and distribution. I was nearly 9 years old when she was released, and to say we didn’t really know each other would be an understatement. We spent the following years attempting to form a relationship despite geographical and emotional separation. There were months, and even years, when we didn’t speak. I viewed her as the woman who abandoned me, and she struggled to understand why I did things to push her away.

As I grew older and learned about generational trauma, addiction, and domestic violence, I felt a deepening sadness for the things she endured. She was born in Taiwan to a mother who was conceived out of violence, and a military father who struggled with alcoholism and disappeared on a regular basis. There was a defining shift in my attitude toward her. Suddenly, I began to view her as an unequipped teenage mom rather than a cold-hearted and selfish individual. I felt the urge to reconnect and form some sort of semblance of relationship, but how? Was it too late? At 24 years old, I had no remaining services or caseworker to guide the process and I felt unequipped to carry the emotional toll.

It was my older brothers who were instrumental in helping me finally come face-to-face with our mom. They encouraged me to take things slowly and focus our early conversations on the future rather than the past. We spent our first afternoon together barbecuing and talking about our mutual affection for dogs. It wasn’t an earth-shattering conversation, but it was a start. Two years later, we speak almost daily.

Looking back, I’m disheartened by the lack of attention paid to my emotional permanency and the missed opportunity to teach the skills necessary to rebuild relationships with the family I was removed from. Research indicates that by age 24, nearly 79 percent of former foster youth have weekly contact with their family of origin. This number increases to 81 percent by age 26. While it’s clear that many former foster youth wish to reconcile family relationships, they often need support navigating these emotionally challenging situations.

Forgiveness doesn’t come with an instruction manual, and in a lot of ways, I am still grappling with how to navigate our new relationship. Just a few months ago, I became a mother to a beautiful baby boy. Like any first time mom, I fretted over the safety of his crib and finding the right pediatrician, but I also worried about bigger questions, like what would I tell him about my childhood? How might it change his perception of the grandmother he has come to know and love? While I don’t have all of the answers to these questions, I am learning that grandparenthood is an important second chance for my mom to experience all of the moments she missed out on. It’s also an opportunity for us to heal together.

I can almost guarantee the case worker sitting across from me ten years ago never once thought about what my life would be like now as a new mother, or how important it would be for me to have a relationship with my own. Her vision was short-sighted and ended with an apartment and college degree. It’s important for foster care alumni and caseworkers to recognize that navigating complex and challenging familial relationships is just as vital to long-term independence as basic life skills and employment. While it took many years and a lot of heartbreak to develop a positive relationship with my mom, I find peace knowing that both my son and I will be better off because of it.

Published on May 7, 2016 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.