It’s a fallacy that all children within a family have the same upbringing.
Instinctively, even though you are only a child you know when things are just not right. It was clear to me that I wasn’t being treated the same way my older foster brother was being treated by our foster mother. Yes, she was proud of my accomplishments – to other people – but it was clear that me being able to read and write before the age of three, being able to do long division by the age of four and so on really got her goat, even though it was she who had taught me to do those things.
Whatever I did I was criticised for, or belittled, or embarrassed and that has stayed with me my entire life.
As an innocent four year old I remember singing and splashing around in the bath but was shouted at to shut up, with, “You sound like a fog horn!”
After a great deal of persuasion she came to see me perform as a five or six year old at a school performance evening and all of the way home kept telling me how amazing so and so was but that I was a ‘fairy elephant.’
And on it went. Nothing I did was ever good enough even though it was better than most other people’s efforts. It had to be better, clearly I and my abilities were not enough as they were.
The thing is, though, that I can sing (and was part of the school choir) and I can dance – I even got honours and distinctions when taking my ballet grades at the Royal Opera House, achieving the highest marks in all of London but instead of those achievements feeling good, I didn’t believe in them. Or myself. They didn’t matter because I was going to be made to feel bad about them anyway.
Being singled out for this behaviour didn’t stop with things like that – there were other obvious ways to make me feel dreadful.
Going back to when I was only four, there was a night when I felt suspicious about being sent up to bed early. Both me and my foster brother went up to bed and clearly, although all signs pointed to me being bright, my foster mother didn’t realise that meant across the board, not just in class and so I was aware that something was ‘up.’
About fifteen minutes or so after we had been sent upstairs, she came creeping along the landing, so I lay as still as possible and pretended to be asleep when she peered into the room. She then wandered back along the hallway to my foster brother’s room and started whispering to him and then I heard the two of them go back downstairs. They went into the living room and the door was shut behind them but I could hear lots of laughing and talking – not difficult at all, my room was directly above them.
A little while later there was a knock at the front door, a few words exchanged and then more talking and laughter.
I know that curiosity killed the cat but was too young to pay heed and so very carefully snuck out of bed and down the stairs to see what was going on that they didn’t want me to be part of. Although the living room door was only slightly ajar there was enough of a gap at the hinge for me to peer into the room and observe clearly the goings on.
Well, wasn’t that lovely! What they didn’t want me to be part of was a secret dinner and film evening! The knock at the door had been a delivery man arriving with a take out order of Chinese food and there were the two of them gorging on prawn crackers and giant spring rolls!
I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t that I was hungry for the food but I was hungry for a share of that kind of attention. Really? She had gone to all of that trouble of pretending to send us both to bed just so that they could do this?
Where do you go with that information? The truth that you are being lied to so that your foster mother can spend ‘special’ time alone with your eight year old foster brother sits heavy in your heart. It may not sound very serious but that moment fundamentally changed me. I felt rejected and unwanted. Being lied to and knowing that I had been lied to meant that I was no longer able to trust anything I was told. Everything time I left on a Saturday to spend the weekend with my Mother, I couldn’t help but wonder what ‘fun’ they would be having without me, what lies I would be told upon my return, although of course, they didn’t have to wait for me to be gone to make me feel separate.
Each time I arrived back on a Sunday evening, I walked into a house that no longer felt like my home, like I was part of what went on in there. I was an outsider and have always felt like an outsider. I can play act a good version of being one of the gang, at home, at play and at work even now, but the smile never quite reaches my eyes.
One of those occasions left me reeling from the obvious favouritism for my foster brother and sheer nastiness of my foster mother towards me. We had an old biscuit tin filled with building bricks, like Lego but all white, that would keep me occupied for hours. In fact, playing with those bricks and building all manor of houses, palaces, forts – you name it, was my reason for being. When I returned home on this particular evening, it seemed my reason for being had been sold whilst I had been away. Not to any old outsider you understand. That old biscuit tin full of bricks and hours of fun had been sold to my foster brother and because of that I was no longer allowed to play with them.
When I was seven, the Brownies had arranged a camping trip. My first ever. I was very excited at the thought of all the adventures that were to come having never been away from home before (apart from with my Mother and the various places she left me when she was working each weekend) and knowing that all sorts of new fun was to be had.
The coach was picking us up outside the school gates on the Saturday. We were to congregate there at a certain time with our bags and a packed lunch and then we would be on our way.
The time came and off I went carrying my bag and a jam sandwich. When I got to the school gates there were families everywhere waving their children goodbye. You know: mums, dads, siblings and even some grandparents, too. It seemed to be a big deal and everyone else and their family had received that memo.
It was apparent that if we had received that memo, it hadn’t been read, or adhered to. It was the first time in my life that I realised that I wasn’t part of a real family as I sat alone on the coach and looked out of the windows at all of the people who were sharing something that I was to never know. It was the first time I really felt a pang of grief for not having a dad, as I sat there and watched classmates being hugged by these kind men who kissed them on the tops of their heads and walked with them to the steps of the bus. The waves and blown kisses continued even as we drove up the lane out into the big wide world and I sat there, in a vacuum, feeling an emptiness, a void that has never been filled because there was no one there saying, “goodbye, have a great time!” to me.
People who say that you can’t miss what you’ve never had don’t know what they are talking about. In that moment and forever more I missed not being like everybody else, or missed what I believed everybody else to have: love and security. We do know what we are missing – it’s everywhere; in all the people that we know, films, books, TV shows – everyday everywhere there are messages about what a real family looks like. All of those other children were valued, they were going to be missed, they had strong arms to hold them and caring family to send them on their way. I was the odd one out.
I had no family of my own to speak of. The families I had were not satisfactory when presented with examples of families who were doing it right. I had two mothers. One who made it clear I was not really a part of the family, a foster child and one who had forsaken me for the sake of her dysfunctional and codependent relationship with a perverted bully and her freedom. As a tiny child I was being forced to take on situations and feelings that I wasn’t emotionally prepared for and had no experience of how to deal with.
I survived because like those children in Romanian orphanages who stop crying when they realise no one is coming, I realised no one was going to change my situation any time soon.
In fact, my situation did change that year but only in a way that made my eyes open even wider. It was the year my youngest foster sister was born. My foster mother’s biological child.
It was soon very obvious that handing over an agreed fee each week got you only so much mothering and no more. Maybe it had nothing to do with the money; maybe I was just unloveable? This new baby was treated completely differently from the outset. I guess having already been primed by years of not feeling connected in a comfortable way meant that this child’s appearance in our lives did not make her responsible for her good fortune, in my eyes and so I loved her with all my heart.
However, the true love of a mother for her daughter was expressed clearly in that: we, not being true offspring, were never allowed to have friends to the house but my new foster sister had play mates over at the house all the time. We never had birthday celebrations but extravagant parties were held for this child and not only that, we were not welcome. I remember being sent out of the house to ‘play’ and ended spending hours on the school field at the end of the road whilst a dozen toddler’s tucked into a feast in my absence. I made my own way to and from various places – including being sent on a bus into town at the age of six – whilst this child was always accompanied by a familial bodyguard. Good! That’s exactly as it should be but it seems that it wasn’t important enough for me to have it, too.
My foster brother and I had been left in situations that would make your hair curl as young children. Yes, he was four years older than me but that would only have made him seven and eight years old and upwards when we were left sitting in the car outside pubs with a bottle of pop and a packet of crisps for what seemed like hours, on a regular basis.
When we visited family out of town, there was a pub that ran alongside a deep walled river. Instead of being left in the car all evening, we were allowed to make fishing rods out of sticks, string and curved pins and would spend the time with our little legs dangling over the edge of the wall trying to catch anything we could.
Thankfully, we neither drowned nor were kidnapped but that was down to luck more than anything else. Yes, lucky old me.
*For all the posts in this series, please click here: