Defining Moments: Disrupting Labels

Tiffany after graduating with a master’s degree. Photo Courtesy of: Eric Weintraub
Tiffany as a young girl at the park. Photo Courtesy of Tiffany Kennedy

The interesting thing about the world in which we now live is that we have come up with numerous terms to understand a generation who would rather not be constrained by historical identifiers for their sexual and gender preferences. You can be gender-neutral, cis-gender, pansexual, non-binary – so why are will still stuck with “foster?” And why has it become such a charged word to refer to a child in our care?

Tiffany was put into foster care a few weeks after being born. She was initially placed with a family friend and when that person passed away, she was handed off to their daughter, who “fostered” Tiffany until she turned 18. Despite spending her entire life with this family, with nary a discussion about adoption, Tiffany never felt at home, never felt she was part of the family. She was not treated the same as the family’s biological children and when she was introduced, it came with the label of “foster daughter.”

“Immediately when she would say that,” Tiffany said, “people would look at me different, you know what I mean? Like, it’s written on my forehead.”

When words become labels – especially if the label brings shame coupled with a host of unfortunate negative attributes – it’s time to change them.

It wasn’t until Tiffany visited her college guidance counselor’s office that the stigma attached to “foster” and what she felt that meant about her – shifted. Her trajectory moved away from a youth who “according to her label” would likely not graduate college, to a young woman who went on to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.

Tiffany at her graduation from Phillips Graduate University. Photo Courtesy of Tiffany Kennedy

So what word can we use to describe our child that didn’t come to us biologically? I’m not saying my answer will work for everyone, but it did for us. A few years ago, my husband and I brought in an older teen who was in the foster care system. We talked about how she wanted us to introduce her. I explained that I referred to my step-daughters (also acquired in their late teens) as my bonus daughters and she loved this idea. Now, when I introduce Laura to people who know me and my family history, she is my bonus daughter. But if a stranger asks if she is my daughter – the answer is always, emphatically yes.

These children who come into our lives are our sons and daughters and if the label that has been used to “identify” them comes with too much baggage, maybe changing it is one step closer to reframing this narrative.

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Mira Zimet is an award-winning educational and documentary filmmaker. She launched The Storyboard Project in 2014 to give foster youth transitioning into adulthood the opportunity to tell their story using a visual medium. She is on the board for Peace4Kids. Follow her on Facebook at /thestoryboardprojectlaYouTube at /thestoryboardprojector Twitter at @SPBYourStory

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