‘I Can See His Happiness Just By Watching Him’ – My foster parents showed my son and me how to feel safe

I am 19 years old, married with two sons. I am surrounded by love and family. However it was not always like this for me.

I am a foster care alumni. I first went into care at 3 and exited for good at 18. When I was in care, I felt I had no one to depend on. I couldn’t even be certain I would stay in one house for more than a week.

I was also sexually abused, both in care and in my family. I was beaten, too—in a foster home with a belt, and in my biological home with hangers and switches. In one foster home I was put in a dog kennel to punish me.

Over time I developed night terrors, which were like re-living everything bad I had gone through. I woke up breathless, covered in sweat. Sometimes I would be screaming. The worst part was knowing that if I got up, I would be made to go back to bed alone.

What Did They Want?

Then, when I was 16, I moved in with a foster family that was determined to love me.

I met them through their daughter, who went to my high school. When I first went to live with them it was close to Christmas. They took me to all of their outings and parties and even their annual ski trip. I had a hard time believing they could treat me like this without any type of return, though I also couldn’t figure out what I had that they could possibly want.

The most difficult relationship was with my foster mother. As time progressed, I continued to think she must have some other motive. Even when she was doing something nice I regarded it with disinterest. I yelled a lot and was just plain rude.

Pregnant and Enraged

During this time, I met a man through my foster parents’ daughter. He worked at a convenience store. I used to go on walks in the park near my house when night terrors kept me awake, and as we started talking more and more he would join me. He told me it was because he worried about me. It was nice to feel like someone finally cared.

But then he had sex with me without my knowledge or permission when I was taking heavy sleeping medication. I realized that when I came out pregnant. Pregnancy wasn’t something I was ready for and didn’t think I ever wanted.

When I found out I was pregnant, I couldn’t breathe. I was overwhelmed with raw emotions: pain, anger, confusion. I didn’t feel I could handle an abortion. I already suffered from PTSD and bipolar disorder. I was also sure that everyone would judge me and not believe me if I explained how my son was conceived, so I kept it a secret. Inside, I felt I would never be able to depend on anyone.

Letting No One In

I took a long time for my foster parents to prove to me that wasn’t true.

I was in their home for all of my pregnancy. After I gave birth to my son, I went back to school, and I also found a job in order to make a better life for my son and me. It was very hard. After school, I’d pick my son up from day care, go home and get ready for work. Then I would go to work until between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., often leaving my son with my foster parents. Then my schedule would start all over.

I appreciated that I could depend on my foster parents to watch my son when I couldn’t. But when I was around, I would not let anyone in the house help me with my son. I would always remind my foster parents that they weren’t his grandparents.

It wasn’t that I was afraid they would try to take him from me. I’d done research and knew my rights. I was afraid of my son not wanting me. I was afraid of him loving someone else and choosing them over me.

I also was afraid of how difficult it was at first for me to attach to my son. My son was born in the midst of so much anger and pain. It was hard for me to fall in love with him like everyone kept telling me I would. But that just made me more stubborn not to let anyone in.

A New Respect

When my foster parents tried to tell me how to care for my son, I felt like they were trying to make me do it their way, not mine. If he cried and they thought they knew better, they would correct me. They would tell me when to burp him, or what to do when he wouldn’t sleep. Every time they said I needed to do this or that, I felt judged.

I felt like I needed to prove to myself that I could be a mother and that my son needed me. So one night after a fight with my foster mother, I moved out. I managed on my own for two months before life got complicated and I moved back in.

Those two months gave me a new respect for all my foster family did for me. When I returned, they also began to treat me more like a mother who could take care of her own baby. That allowed me to open up more to their help.

Open to Love

As we opened up to each other, I came to appreciate that my son was surrounded by love in a way I’d never been.

When my foster parents held my son, their faces lit up. They’d read books to him and play patty cake and talk in stupid voices to make him laugh. They’d also buy him clothes and spoil him.

For some reason, I didn’t feel threatened by it. It’s strange, because even today when my son is around other people, I sometimes feel insecure about my bond with him. But seeing my son get that love made me feel so good. Actually, their love helped me feel more confident as a mother. I finally felt I was doing things right. I really can’t describe how special it was that his life was so different than mine was as a child.

‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’

After a few months, I decided to move out on my own again. This time, it was out of confidence. My foster parents helped me with it all. My foster mother even threw me a housewarming party.

After I moved out, they would invite me for dinner. They would call just to ask how we were and offer assistance. It meant so much because it wasn’t something they had to do.

That’s when my feelings really changed. I felt there must be something in me that was worth holding on to. My foster parents said they loved me, and whether I believed them or not, they were determined to show me.

Finally, I started calling them my parents. At first I mostly did it behind their backs, because it was easier than explaining to other people that they were my foster parents. As time went on, though, I began to call them Mom and Dad to their faces. It fit with all they had done for me.

Surrounded by Love

Now I’ve come to want as many people to love my son as possible. The most important hurdle I’ve had to get over is the idea that people are all bad and all they will do is bring harm.

I still often get nervous that I will surround us with negative people who will use us or take advantage of us. But I’ve learned how it feels to be with people who are safe.

When I see my son smile, giggle, run and play, say hi to people, or ask to play with family and friends, I feel that I can relax. He’s safe. I can see his happiness just by watching him.

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