In my last blog, I told you about a sunny August day in New York City, when I was happily playing in a park sand box, and my birth mother told a woman sitting nearby how ‘stressed out’ she was about being pregnant again? And that caring for me at the same time was just “too much for her?”
The date was August 10, 1972, and incredibly, my birth mother followed the stranger’s subsequent advice and, I am assuming while still quite “stressed out”, brought me to Jewish Child Care in New York City. (I later learned she agreed to bring me to a Jewish agency because she thought Jews were nice people.)
This monumental event marked the next leg of my life’s ‘journey’ at the tender and vulnerable age of 15 months: my placement into foster care.
After a period of time at Jewish Child Care, during which I am told my birth father would visit me ‘quite often’ and plans were being discussed to have me sent to an aunt’s home in Argentina, I went to live with a nice Jewish foster family in Seaford, Long Island.
I had a foster mother, a foster father and two pre-teen foster sisters (who were biological to my foster parents). Apparently, I cried a lot. Thinking back, it’s hard to imagine how I ever stopped. I was crying for my mommy and daddy to return. Crying because I felt incredibly detached, frighteningly alone in this world.
As I grew older, living with a foster family in their upper-middle-class suburban home, my inner voice grew stronger, but I was still afraid to speak freely. I didn’t question anything out of a sense that if I said or did anything ‘wrong’, everything could be taken away again. I would once again be out of control, totally dependent on strangers.
By the time I was 7 years-old I remember tearfully asking the same questions over and over again, “Where did my mommy go? Where is my daddy? When are they coming for me?” and even more painful questions like, “What did I do wrong?”
I felt responsible. Did I hurt them? Did I destroy them? The sense that it was my fault, that I had done something wrong, was tremendously debilitating. And I would look up at my new family and wonder, “Who are these people? They don’t feel like me, they don’t smell like me… Do they love me?” And then that relentless voice again telling me, “I’m scared, I’m sad, I’m angry and I am all alone in this enormous world!”
I was just a kid and didn’t have anyone to model strength for me, or help me process my thoughts and feelings so I just accepted my situation. I would tell myself:
‘It is what it is. I’m in a family, they care about me, I eat everyday, I have hand-me-downs. I have a room. I have toys. I go to school and that’s that. I’m alive.’
In the 1970s, the foster care system did not provide individual counseling or family therapy services to help process and understand what was happening, so I did what most kids in this situation do: I repressed everything. I took every painful, negative, angry feeling that was raging inside of me and crumpled it up like a giant piece of paper. Crushed and crumpled and threw it in the garbage like “trash” and thought I was done with it. These feelings would not control me.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult and in therapy that I realized I was walking around with this enormous “crumpled up ball” inside of me. I told my therapist “I felt like a piece of garbage.” This part of me desperately needed my attention. I now realize I was lucky to have that epiphany, as some foster kids never do and they carry the pain inside their whole life.
But I was a strong kid, who wanted nothing more than to be happy. So with all of my strength and all of my courage, I reached deep down and ripped out that ball of crumpled paper, smoothed it out in front of me and wrote “I LOVE YOU” with my own hand.
The trash was instantly turned to gold. This was the day I began to heal, to love myself, to care for the pain and not discard it. I began to feel compassion for what I had been through and began to hear my voice more clearly. No one person could have done this for me, I had to do this myself, but looking back I now know that a good therapist could have helped me get there sooner, with more understanding and empathy.
This support is exactly what I try to provide foster kids in my professional practice today.
Jeanette Yoffe is the founder of Celia Center, a non-profit support center for all those connected by foster care/adoption within the constellation and beyond.