By Jenn O’Connor
She’s gone. Just like that, she’s gone. Her room is empty, save for an undressed futon and some old shoe boxes on the floor. There are random bits of her still taped to the pale yellow walls—a souvenir picture of us on top of the Empire State Building, an essay she wrote about her mother. The other one, not me.
She called me mom. Just this morning, she did that. And then the judge said she could go home and so after school that’s where she went—to an apartment she has never shared and a bed she has barely slept in and a woman who abandoned her. A woman who fought to find sobriety and get her child back. Still, a woman who is not me.
It’s strange, the quiet. I close her bedroom door because there is an ache inside of me that clenches my gut and threatens to pull me to my knees. I sit on the couch and watch television and force myself not to call her.
I never wanted a child. Once, in my twenties, when I thought I might be pregnant, I panicked. Later, there was a yearning that passed quickly and was replaced by other things—travel, career. I thought of foster care as a project, like grad school. I knew I was fortunate, and privileged, and there were lots of children in need of help. I would do this good thing, but only when it suited me.
I went through the six weeks of training, the background check, the home visits. I started to tell people what I was doing and it started to feel real. Even though I hadn’t yet had a child in my home, I was becoming invested. I wanted more than part-time parenthood, but at the same time I wasn’t sure I could handle it.
So I signed up for respite care, for emergencies and weekends only. I felt like I could manage that easily, with very little change to my schedule. My first foray into fostering was a four-year-old girl who came to stay twice. I thought I knew this age group, could handle the energy and the tantrums. But what I knew was my young nephew, who had never been abused. This child was like the dog I fostered once, for less than a week, the one that bit me. Wild and tending toward violence. I wasn’t equipped to deal with her. I told the agency I didn’t think I was cut out for little kids.
Next, they paired me with Rose. “She could use a strong female role model,” they told me. I was vain; I was not humble. I thought, “That’s me!”
Rose was twelve, brown legs up to her beautiful face, all elbows and angles. She asked me if I knew what the ghetto was and said that’s where she was from. She listed four schools in seven years and two homes during the year she’d been in placement. She was struggling in her current home—too many kids, not enough attention.
She sat quietly on the makeshift bed I made her, drawing dresses on a sketchpad she’d brought. She was incredibly talented. When she laughed, it came from her throat and was contagious. I laughed often that first weekend we spent together. At one point, she took my hand and it felt like she had always been holding it. She said I was the best respite provider she’d ever had. I wanted that, to be the best for her.
She was my kid. Just like that, in less than 48 hours, she was mine. And then, because I was simply that person who pitched in when her foster family needed a break, she went back to them. I hoped to see her again, but I wasn’t sure I would.
A week after our initial visit, her case worker called. Rose was hospitalized, having threatened suicide. She was sad, hopeless. She wanted desperately to go home to her mom, but her mom wasn’t ready.
I thought I was.
Rose moved in with me the first week in November. She was on medication that was supposed to curb her depression. It only made her sleepy. I was told that her depression was situational, not clinical. She was unhappy because she wanted her mother to be sober, to be out of the shelter, to have a job. No pill could make that happen.
She had PTSD from being left alone. Her trauma response was fight or flight—if threatened, she would either hit you or run. She couldn’t stay in the classroom, couldn’t stay in the school building. She got suspended. I missed work, called to her school daily to talk her down. I reasoned with her, listened to her, showed her the research that proved the correlation between childhood trauma and behavior. She humored me. She still believed everything that had happened was her fault.
At night, we curled up on the couch with our dog and binge-watched Lost and she was a “normal” girl. We breathed again. She fell asleep with her head in my lap, my hand stroking her shoulder. And the next day, we did it all over again.
Rose ran—repeatedly, and not just from school. Once, after an altercation with child welfare, she was missing for 42 hours. I drove the streets of the city, posted on social media, prayed. She finally walked home, unharmed, unfazed. She was surprised that anyone was worried about her.
People would ask me, “How can you keep doing this?” and I would answer “How could I do anything else?” They told me to return her, like damaged goods, a sweater with a tear in the sleeve.
What did I see in Rose? I saw sweetness beneath a hard shell. I saw compassion blighted by mistrust. I saw potential. I saw my child.
Over time Rose worked hard to control her impulse to run, and started doing better in school. We found her a therapist whom she connected with and trusted, and put her on the proper medication. We set up support systems at her school. Her mom worked hard, too. She got a job, an apartment, a promotion. She addressed her addiction; she and Rose started to see more of each other. We started to operate as a team, with the same rules and expectations for Rose. And after a year, the next permanency hearing rolled around, and a judge decided that Rose should go home.
I was excited for her. I was heartbroken for myself.
We tried to transition deliberately, moving her things over a carload at a time. We processed our feelings with case workers and with each other. And then I drove her home. To a neighborhood where the success stories are few.
I cling to the knowledge that if I have given her anything, I have given her hope. I see it in her smile. She smiles now.
Someone asked me today, “Are you a parent?” I didn’t know how to answer that question. Yesterday I was, but now? I close the door to Rose’s bedroom and walk away. Maybe I will repaint, turn it into an office. Move the treadmill in. Or maybe I will keep it the way it is, for when she comes to visit. There are a lot of maybes.
There is also selfishness and guilt. I want this reunification to be successful. I want them to be together, mother and daughter, happy. And then again, I don’t. I am a horrible person because I want my child back. A child that was never truly mine to begin with. And yet she was.
And maybe…she still is.