My first memory of my mother is from when I was 12. She came and picked up my sister Yolanda and me from our aunt’s house in upstate New York. She was taking us to her home in New York City.
Butterflies rushed through my stomach as soon as I saw her. She was pretty. Her make-up and hair were done, and she wore a white button-up shirt with black pants and boots. She said in a sweet voice, “Hello, are you ready to finally come home?”
I was happy. I had dreamed of living with her since she had been locked up when I was 2. But I also felt nervous. I had only recently heard that the reason she was in prison was because she killed Yolanda’s father. She said it was self-defense.
When my mom was released, she asked my sisters and me to live with her. She promised me she’d buy me things and be a good mother. She looked and seemed like a nice person, and I wanted to live with my mother.
When we got to Brooklyn, my younger sisters, Tanika and Lenora, ran out of the house to hug us. At first, things were great. I loved being with my sisters, and my mom took me shopping and bought me a phone I liked.
She spoke sweetly to us. I had missed a lot of years of mothering, and I liked that she spoke nicely to me and paid attention to me. I also liked that she bought me things I needed and wanted.
But after a few months, she started to flip out. When no one replaced an empty roll of toilet tissue, she screamed at us, “Y’all so f-cking nasty and lazy! It takes one second to put tissue back on the f-cking roll!” She could be sweet again five minutes after raging; we never knew what to expect. This made me angry—why yell at your own kids for such little things?
Foster Care and Lock-Up
Once in a while, my mom would hit us hard and teachers saw the bruises. All of her kids went in and out of foster care because she abused us or didn’t take care of us properly. She stopped buying us clothes when I was 17 and my sisters were 13 and 14. She said, “You all are too old; I don’t have to buy you sh-t.”
I felt like my mother didn’t care about me. I observed her violent behavior and copied it. I began fighting, and was locked up several times. At 16, I was in Rikers prison for fighting. Then at 17, I got locked up again at a juvenile detention center.
While I was at Rikers, I joined a program called Exalt Youth for teens in detention. I stuck with it for a year, so I was still doing Exalt from my juvenile lock-up. The program offered alternatives to detention: If we did job training and internships, we could live with a foster parent in a strict setting. Under this program, I ended up moving in with Linda when I was 17.
Linda was an African-American lady who wore glasses and dressed classy—nice boots, jewelry, and stylish clothes. She worked two good jobs and had a dog named Puffy. It was just the two of us in the apartment. I had to be home by 6 p.m. and get a school card signed every day. I also had to get drug tested every week. I didn’t like all the rules, but Linda treated me wonderfully. She bought me clothes, and gave me more allowance than she had to. At my mom’s I might get yelled at or even hit if I said the wrong thing. I knew that wouldn’t happen at Linda’s house.
I was doing well in the program with Linda, and my lawyer told me I could go home if I wanted. Though I had my doubts about living with my mom, I was sick of the many rules at Linda’s. I was dating someone and I couldn’t have her over. Linda’s curfew was too early, too. I wanted more freedom.
As my 18th birthday approached, my foster care social workers recommended that I not go back to my mom. I knew they had a point: She yelled at me a lot and seemed like she didn’t love me, which hurt. The social workers said to stay in the system because it would pay for college, housing, clothing, and whatever else I needed.
Knowing that I wanted more freedom, my workers gave me a goal of APPLA: Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement. This meant they’d help me get my own apartment rather than placing me back with my family or with a foster family. I filled out forms for public housing, but one of my friends told me it took her more than a year to get her studio apartment. I wondered if I could handle Linda’s rules for that long.
I Wanted My Family
I became impatient. My mind was confused with racing thoughts. One minute I was sure I would stay with Linda no matter what. Then I’d think, “Just go home with your mother until you get your own place.”
Soon after my 18th birthday, I had a meeting at my agency and told them I wanted to be discharged from foster care and go home to my mother’s.
I pushed aside my doubts and focused on the good things about my mom. The last time I lived with her, we all had to do family therapy. One thing I learned there was that when she got out of jail, her sisters down in Georgia made her sleep outside. I felt sorry for her. The therapist suggested we do things as a family like movie nights and eating together, and that did help. We argued less and talked to each other more.
Plus, she seemed like she had gotten herself together. She visited me when I was locked up. In fact, she and my sister were the only people who made every visit. She didn’t yell as much as she used to. I liked that I could tell her anything without her judging me. I date girls, and she never had a problem with that.
Mostly, though, I wanted the feeling of her taking care of me. It felt like this might be my last chance to have a mom since I was already 18. I wanted to be with her before I went out on my own because I wanted to give her another chance and to forgive her. I wanted my birth mother back in my life. I wanted my family.
From Sweet to Screaming
At first, things were as sweet as a jelly donut. I could talk to my mother about my girlfriend. She treated me like her princess: She talked to me nicely and bought me a pink iPhone. I didn’t have a curfew or any rules to obey. I felt like I was getting to be a teenager for the first time.
But after a month or so, things changed. The father of her 2-year-old was not supposed to be living with us because he and my mom had restraining orders taken out on each other not long after their baby was born. And sure enough, it was fighting with him that made things go from sweet to screaming. She thought he was cheating, and she took her anger out on everyone else in the home.
Also, I didn’t have her support or interest with school or anything else. She told me, “It’s your life. Do what you want.” She didn’t make it to one school event. I don’t know why she wanted to get her kids back. When she has us, she just starts screaming at us again.
One day this past summer she yelled at me, “I asked you to go to public assistance for me!”
I said, “I’ll go tomorrow, Ma. It’s too late now.”
But she clearly wanted to fight: “All you want is to be up under your girlfriend’s ass all day. No job, no nothing! Go do something with yourself!”
I felt angry and upset. “I will. Let me live my life how I want!”
She snapped. “You know what, just get the f-ck out my house and never come back!”
I felt hurt. I had given her chance after chance. Even when I knew she wasn’t going to change, I stayed. I packed two shirts, two pair of pants, and two pair of shoes, and I left her house like she wanted. It was only five months after I’d moved back in with her. She threw the rest of my things away.
I stayed with my girlfriend for a while, but she’s 18 and lived with her mom. High school was starting again, and I needed to go shopping and get myself together for the fall semester.
After a few weeks, I contacted Linda crying and asked if I could come to live with her. She said, “You are always welcome in my home,” and we went together to the CPS office. The CPS workers asked a lot of questions: Why did I sign out of care in the first place? Why do I want to sign back in? How does my mother treat her other kids? What kind of mother is she? How did she raise me?
I was nervous, afraid if I said the wrong thing, something bad might happen—like getting my sisters put back in care. But Linda had told me never to lie no matter what. So I spoke the truth.
Not Ashamed Anymore
My mom had my sisters and me lie to cover up her abuse, and I hated it, especially lying about my sister’s bruises. Lying for my mom and then having Linda say “always tell the truth” confused me at first. I felt like I was losing my mind. But other people, like the agency workers, reminded me that people who lie are seen as liars. It feels better to tell the truth, and people think better of me.
It was kind of Linda to let me live in her home—she came through for me. From all the times my mom let me down, I learned that you can’t love a person just because they buy you things.
Going back to my mother’s showed me that you also can’t trust a person based on appearances. My mother looked pretty and talked sweet to me sometimes, but she’d eventually switch up and be mean. It takes me a long time to trust people now, but I do trust Linda.
Linda feels more like a mom to me because she attends my school meetings and buys me clothes even though I’m over 18. She makes sure I eat and gives me relationship advice and lectures. She has never hit me. And now that I’m 19, she has loosened her rules: I can spend the night out.
I haven’t spoken with my mother since I left. I am moving forward and taking full advantage of being in foster care. They will help pay for college until I’m 24 and an apartment until I’m 21. The foster care agency connected me to a paid internship that may turn into a real job.
I had been in foster care before, but this was the first time I chose to be. Before, I was ashamed to be in care because other people might think I didn’t have a mother. Now I realize it wasn’t my fault my mom abused her kids. It’s not my fault I ended up in foster care. Signing myself back into care is the best thing I can do for myself, and I’m not ashamed anymore.