Last year I reunified with my son, Aaron, who spent his first two years in foster care. Aaron is now 4 years old with curly brown hair, brown eyes and a smile that makes everyone want to smile too.
Aaron’s foster family had lots of money for clothes, toys, everything. When we reunified, I thought Aaron would be unhappy not having a large TV with cable and tons of fancy toys. He was just happy to be with his mom! Still, I work every day so my son will know the feelings of safety, security, and love despite the difficult conditions we are in.
Shelter: Our Only Choice
Before Aaron was released to me, I was living in a supportive housing program for adults with mental illness. Since my income on SSI isn’t high enough to afford an apartment in New York City, our only choice was to spend our first day together as a family going to a shelter.
After packing up all our belongings, waiting all day at the city’s shelter intake, and speaking with countless workers, we were sent to a temporary place overnight. The place was ice cold, dirty, and had a bare mattress on the floor. My son was already upset about the different changes going on, so he kicked, screamed and finally vomited everywhere. He fell asleep in his stroller covered in my blankets and sweaters. I stayed up all night keeping watch over him.
The next night we were moved to a shelter. All by myself, I had to wheel Aaron in his stroller plus wheel two suitcases in deep snow. Nobody offered to help, because everyone was involved with their own stories. When we arrived, I saw roaches and mice, and people cursing, shouting and smoking weed.
I felt horrible about taking Aaron to unknown and possibly unsafe conditions. I kept wondering: “Am I being selfish by getting him back? Who am I doing this for?” Aaron grew up thinking his foster parents were his Mommy and Daddy, and I was taking away from that into horrible conditions when I didn’t even know if I was going to do a good job as a mother.
Still, I have come to see that I can help my son feel safe inside himself despite the conditions around him. What I remember growing up is that other kids had a lot more money, more toys and more vacations than I did. But my mom was always hugging us and kissing us, and telling us how much she loved us. That is what I want to give to my son.
One way I help Aaron find happiness and wonder is in books. I have enough books to open up a small library. Aaron loves me to read to him. I also encourage Aaron to find happiness in his own imagination. One day, I was playing and joking with Aaron, and I picked up an empty toilet paper roll and put it by my eye. Aaron said, “Wow, a telescope!” I got the idea that we should color it and put stickers on it for a project. He likes to hold it against his eye and tell me what he can see through it.
I’m good at finding all the fun, free activities I can do to with my son. His school gave us a cool culture card so we can get in free to lots of different museums and zoos. We also go to the library, to the park, and to free community events like health fairs.
I’ve been lucky that New York City started offering pre-K. Aaron is in a wonderful school. I volunteer in the classroom so I get to know the kids and other parents, and get support, advice and friendship. While Aaron is getting smarter every day, I also have the time to shop, cook, clean and go to therapy and my writing program by myself.
Building a Life
I know that where we are living is temporary, and one day we will I have to pack up and leave. I wonder: “How will my son feel about this? Will we move somewhere better, or worse? Will I have to start building my life all over?” For now, all I can do is keep working on building a life for my son and me where I am.
We have a puzzle of a house that Aaron likes to put together. I tell him to separate the pieces to make it less stressful and less complicated, to find the corners and then the edges, one piece at a time. I am trying to do the same in building a home for my child.