Recently, a friend asked what it felt like to be fostered. Obviously, I only know how I felt to be fostered so the following is not necessarily an indication of how any body else might feel or has felt.
For me, the knowledge that I wasn’t really one of the family was always made exceptionally clear; either because I was continuously told that was the case and by the treatment I received. The biological children, my ‘siblings’ had an entirely different bond with their mother than I had and that manifested in some interesting ways.
The actual sensation for me, if you can try to imagine it, is this: picture all of your family, including the extended family (cousins, aunties, uncles, in-laws, pets etc) all standing on a desert island with you somewhere on the edge. Now imagine that whilst they are all standing on firm ground and interacting with one another, you begin day by day to realise that the ground beneath your feet is becoming less stable and less supportive. In fact, before you realise it, you feel like you are being devoured by a giant sinkhole that has opened up directly beneath your tiny feet and that no ties are strong enough to stop you from being swallowed whole.
As you begin to disappear from sight no one notices because you were already standing apart from them.
Every family has it’s issues. My foster family was no different. I know when I hear about these incredible foster mothers who have fostered 85 million children over the years that it always seems as though those families never encounter problems other than the difficulties the child brings with them but that isn’t necessarily so.
Our unit was unconventional to start with in many ways. My foster mother was a widow, so we had no father figure for most of my childhood there, until she remarried when I was seven. My foster mother was also an older mother; eleven years older than my own biological Mother and from a totally different culture and mindset.
My foster mother was English through and through and I, although quite hard to believe nowadays, was a little bit of an exotic addition with my Mediterranean complexion.
Most different, although we didn’t realise it when we were very young, was that my foster mother was battling cancer throughout my growing up. It was just part of what was.
I remember seeing my foster mother in the bath when I was very young and being fascinated by the scars across her chest where she had had at that time,one breast removed. It was back in the old days, when I am told, the doctors removed as much tissue as possible, so the area was quite terrifying to look at.
My foster mother was extremely brave and (it seemed to me) nonchalant about it all, so we learned to be the same. Over the years the cancer returned and more scars appeared as more hospital visits and stays occurred and we all took it in our stride. It just was.
After I lost all of my foster family overnight in 1977, when I was taken from there to live full-time with my Mother and then never heard a word from them, I grieved their loss. It’s hard to explain just how devastated I was – how often does a small child lose everyone and everything they have ever known in one go and then be forbidden to talk about it? Not often. In fact, when it does happens it becomes front page news, like the poor woman whose family drowned in their car a week or two ago.
My enormous loss, however, was not acknowledged. I would sit and cry for days alone in my room. I would beg to be able to see them and ask why they had abandoned me. The response I got from my Mother was that if I kept ‘going on’ about it, she would put me in a home.
Having already been fostered for ten years from six weeks of age and sexually abused by the ‘stepmonster’ from the age of five, this threat seemed very real and one to be avoided at all costs. Life was already bad enough enough but I had a feeling that whatever I was suffering now would be multiplied many times over if I was ever put in a children’s home.
Instead, I begged to be sent to boarding school. My head was filled with ‘Mallory Towers, tuck boxes, japes and Lacrosse,’ from all of the books my nose was constantly stuck in. It seemed like a fair compromise to me. Sadly, it didn’t seem like one to my Mother.
Even when I gave back as good as I got, viciously telling her how much I hated her and pointing out all of her many failures until she was also in tears, nothing changed and still no contact with my foster Mother.
I knew that as I got older, I would be able to arrange contact myself (if they were all still alive) and so waited until I was seventeen to do exactly that.
I remember taking the two buses that had been so much part of my weekend routine as a young girl and then walking up the road to what had once been my home. Suddenly everything seemed smaller, including my foster mother.
My heart pounded as I knocked on the door and waited for someone to open it, not least because I could see and hear a giant dog barking through the frosted panes in the door.
The first visit went well. We all caught up with our ‘news’ and remembered old times. My baby foster sister was now a sturdy ten years old (the age I was when I was wrenched away from this family) and the other child who had also been fostered with me (my foster brother) was now twenty-one and still living there. We had been as thick as thieves as children (up until seven years earlier) and so the transition of get to know each other again as adults (or thereabouts) was weird.
Another visit was arranged and so for the next few weekends I repeated that same journey back and forth and became part of the family again. Or so I thought.
On one of these visits, my foster brother and I travelled up to Leicester Square to see a film and then because we were enjoying chatting and catching up so much, decided to walk all the way back from there to Edmonton in North London. It took hours but we didn’t notice as we laughed most of the way, just like old times.
The next morning, I was told off by my foster mother’s husband. He berated me for having a good time with my foster brother and told me that the only reason I was welcomed there was to ‘babysit’ my little foster sister and that I was no longer allowed to spend time with my foster brother. Hmm. Of course, I didn’t take too well to that.
The visits lessened and my feelings naturally settled in a state of hurt and disappointment once again. Where I had had an insatiable hunger for my ‘family,’ the fact that there was no family and never really had been became strikingly apparent.
Eventually, I hardly visited or had contact at all. It all weighed massively on me and I felt like I was free-falling constantly. I had no real attachments with anyone at all and if you have never known any kind of emotional security it only gets worse as you experience more of it.
By this time I was in my first relationship and had recently discovered that my boyfriend was seeing someone else behind my back. The bottom fell out of my world and I felt like that tiny child all over again. No one, not even someone who themselves had chosen to be with me, not for money, but through their own freewill wanted to be with me.
I felt totally unwanted and unlovable.
My self confidence, which hardly existed as it was, shattered into miniscule fragments and instead of doing what any rational fully rounded human would do- dump him, I panicked and did everything I could think of to make him choose me over her. He did but there was no longer any trust and instead of feeling joyous in the relationship, all it did was turn me into a nervous and clingy emotional wreck.
During this time, I was ‘gifted’ with my first ever counselling sessions. I had never considered counselling and given the opportunity all over again would politely decline them. It’s not that counselling overall is bad but when it’s the wrong counsellor and the wrong counselling it can do tremendous harm. I have suffered more at the hands of appalling psychotherapists than I have from the actual traumatic events themselves.
As with everything else in my life, I felt a gigantic urge to be a ‘good girl’ for my counsellor, somehow believing that the more effort I put in to fixing my life, as prescribed by her, the sooner everything would be ticketyboo. I think it’s safe to say at this point that I learned very clearly that things get far worse before they get any better. If they ever do get any better.
For the first time in my life, I felt I had to confront my foster mother with what I percieved to be appalling treatment by her. I needed to know why. Why had I been abandoned at the age of ten without any explanation then or since? I had never spoken out of turn to my foster mother so this was a big deal. I didn’t have any intention of being rude but I was determined to ask all the questions that had been building up in me for years and also wanted her to understand how it had felt for me, a young child, to have been treated in such a despicable manner.
The conversation did not go well. She didn’t apologise. She did not want to acknowledge any responsibility for what had happened. She said that she always considered me her child and still included me when talking to other people. When I said that I had noticed that she only mentioned things about me that were ‘impressive’ to other people (I had noticed that from childhood that I would be criticised to my face but my achievements would be used to boost her ‘mothering’ to others), she put the ‘phone down on me.
That was it. Done. Or at least so I thought.
Six months later I received a call from my little foster sister to tell me that her mother was in hospital having been given only days to live. I was given all of the details of the hospital and asked if I would visit. I (wrongly and have since apologised) asked her why I was getting a call now that her mother was dying but for all of those years when I was desperate for some kind of contact from them no one bothered to pick up the ‘phone?
I asked my counsellor the same thing when I called frantically with the news, not knowing what to do for the best. The ‘phone had been put down on me all those months ago when I was legitimately asking for answers, hoping for an explanation, for an apology and got nothing and now, here I was being asked to attend my foster mother’s deathbed.
My grief was already spent. I had cried every day for years for the loss of them all. You can’t grieve the loss of the same person twice, or at least not in the same heartfelt way. There would be no wracking sobs, snot streaming down my face, my eyes so sore and dry that they looked seriously infected. The hollow in my heart had already scarred over.
Where it could have been healed somewhat with an apology, an explanation – something to help me feel less worthless – to understand why; nothing.
My counsellor said, “If you go and you don’t want to, so be it. If you don’t go and she dies, you may regret not going for the rest of your life.”
As I walked along the corridor to my foster mother’s deathbed, her eldest daughter and her sister (my aunt) were walking towards me.
The daughter, my sister, stopped in her tracks when I said, “hello.”
“Oh. I’d forgotten about you.”
That is what it felt like to be a foster child for me.
*For all the posts in this series, please click here: