My son was 2 when I aged out of foster care. Soon I was going to college full time, working 40 hours a week and paying my own child care. Things were easier when I had the group home to help. Now I had nothing. If I failed, I’m screwed. And to the shelter we would go.
Because of all the stress, I barely saw my son. Monday I would pick him up from his Dad’s and go straight to daycare, school and work. Same on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday I went to school and then dropped my son off with his father so I could work Thursday night. I was always super tired when I saw my son and backed up with housework, so I often ignored him.
At the time, I also didn’t know what to do about my son’s behavior. If we were in the store and he wanted something, or if we walked a way he wasn’t used to, he would throw himself on the floor or the ground, screaming. I always felt embarrassed and ashamed–about my son, and about everything.
One time housing came to fix my bathroom and I complained that the leak kept returning even after they fixed it. The guy told me, “You get what you pay for.” He felt like another person judging me. It’s my fault I was in foster care. It’s my fault I’m a young mother. It’s my fault my relationship failed. It’s my fault I live in the projects. It’s my fault I’m poor. And it’s my fault my son is bad. I got what I deserved.
Then daycare increased their cost and I could no longer afford it. I quit school, and for five months, I took care of my son during the week and only worked weekends.
During that time, I felt panicked that we’d wind up in the shelter. I felt sure that the statistics about foster children and teen moms were going to be true about me, too. I even filled out the food stamp form incompletely and was left without food for two months and had to ask a manager where I worked to let me take food home for free.
Finally one day I melted down and went running to my public housing office.
I entered the office shaking, and when I saw the lady, I exploded in tears. She let me cry for one minute. Then she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Stop crying. Here’s what you’re going to do.” She was stern but it wasn’t mean or judgmental. She just helped me.
Thankfully, she adjusted my rent based on my current pay stubs. After one month, my rent went down $200 a month. She also connected me to a social worker who helped me find a daycare where my son could go for free.
That daycare was great. It had small classes and really nice teachers. They also worked with kids who weren’t potty trained, which was one of the issues I was having finding daycare.
Soon, I was able to pick up more shifts at work again and I even had time to join a gym for “me time.” I joined the school’s PTA and they had resources and support for parents.
Then one day my son’s teacher pulled me aside and told me that when she asked my son to bring his chair to a specific spot at the table, he walked all around the table in confusion. When I was in the group home and they’d asked me if I wanted my son evaluated, I was against it because I felt it was too early. Plus, I felt that something wrong with him meant something wrong with me. But I knew there had to be a reason for his behavior. I also liked the teacher and trusted her, so I agreed to an evaluation.
After the evaluation, we discovered my son needed speech therapy. Over time, his behavior changed drastically because he learned to use his words. He has even learned to tell me when he is confused. That helps the most because then I know I have to rephrase my sentence. Communication is what we were missing before.
Seeing my son get help helped me realize that my most important goal is to build a solid foundation for him. He is the dream, the future, the hope, and my duty is to protect that, and most of all love him. I felt good that I made a choice that gave him the best shot at achieving his dreams.
I was lucky to find someone who helped me. But parents shouldn’t have to be lucky, and neither should children. We hope the city invests in creating centers that work with the community to build trust, where parents know they can safely go to get referrals to good services when they need it, without ever having to come to the attention of the child welfare system.