“When I was three years old, my father committed suicide. While that action alone sounds horrific, this was not the first act of violence he committed. He was physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive to my mother, siblings, and me. I’m often asked how I could know that. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night being told by my mom to be very quiet. She wrapped me in a childhood blanket and we left. I still have the blanket, but the memories of everything else surrounding that time are foggy.
My mom set out after that to provide for my siblings and me. She worked hard and would make sure we had necessities. I get my drive and work ethic from her. I learned from her not to let the things that happen to you knock you down, however hard they may try. My mom, while generally good, was not perfect. She was abusive. I endured years of heartbreak at her hands. Yet, I loved her.
I was in second grade when she had her first heart attack in her mid-thirties. I watched as she drove herself to the hospital because she knew something was not right. I stood in the hallway of our small-town hospital as I watched her fall back onto the gurney because her heart stopped, and my whole imperfect world began to fall apart. I’ll always remember the doctor’s words, ‘Get those kids out of here,’ as they began chest compressions to save her life.
She would go on to survive that ordeal, and she had many surgeries for what was later diagnosed as heart disease. I was in fifth grade when she had her final heart attack. One Sunday morning, I heard my mom’s alarm go off. We had begun going to church and getting more involved, so I knew she would be waking me up shortly. I let myself go back to sleep. I woke up later to her alarm still going off. I knew instantly something was wrong. I walked down the hallway to find her on the floor. Something was not right, I tried to wake her. She was cold. I got her a blanket and covered her up.
There was a small part of me that hoped she was only cold, and the blanket would help. The child inside of me wanted so badly for her to still be here. But the part of me that grew up years ago knew my mother was gone. I shut the door so my younger siblings would not see her. I got my younger brother and we called my grandmother, who called 911.
The police and ambulance made it to our house before my grandmother. I remember it being confirmed she was gone when the paramedics came back out of her room with their gurney and medical supplies still packed up. This was the day my imperfect life crashed down all around me.
My siblings and I went to live with extended family for a couple of years. We went to counseling and tried to work through our grief. It reached a point where my extended family felt they could no longer provide us the support they felt we needed. We were placed in a foster home when I was 12 years old.
My siblings and I were separated. While we lived within walking distance of each other, the only consistent family I had was now living elsewhere. I was so confused. I felt unloved, and I felt as though my mom’s wishes for us to be with family had been thrown in the trash.
I went through three to four years of being moved around from foster home, to shelter, back to a foster home, before finally landing at my final foster home. When I moved into my final foster home, I had not seen my siblings for six months, I missed them greatly. While we had our differences, they were the only people who understood what I had gone through. They were my family.
I remember the first time I walked into my final foster home when I was fifteen. This is the foster home I would live the longest in. This home would be the one that fought for me. I remember looking at the picture frames in the home, wondering what kind of ‘normal’ lives they lived. The pictures told stories of a happy, large family. Would I become a part of that? Would I ever have that?
For the next three years, I worked through my anger and grief. I was angry at the world, family, and my mom. I felt abandoned, lost, and forgotten. When I turned sixteen, I began taking classes called ‘Preparation for Adult Living’ or ‘PAL’ classes. Is there really a class that can prepare you for being an adult? I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is important.’ But it wasn’t lost on me that the type of things they covered in these classes were things a family would have taught me. My mom should have taught me. The class covered things such as ‘how to budget,’ ‘how to shop,’ etc.
My junior year of high school was one of my favorites. I began to open up and settle into a routine. I joined my high school student council, and I was a part of the drill team at school. It was at the end of my junior year when my foster parents had to have the hard conversation with me about quitting those things.
It wasn’t because they did not want me to do them, it was because I had to face the hard realities of my situation. When I graduated, I would have to move out and live on my own. I had to get a job and work. I needed to save money. I cried. I cried for the sacrifices I was forced to make. I finally felt like I belonged and had found things I enjoyed. I did end up quitting all my extracurricular activities so that during my senior year of high school, I could work as much as possible.
This made me realize I would be ‘aging-out of care.’ This is the process when a child, who is in foster care, turns of age, in my case this was eighteen and enters adulthood on their own. This means I was not legally adopted by a family. I would have to figure out where I would go to school, if that was an option, where I would live, work, how I would feed myself, etc.
When I left foster care, I went to college full-time for a semester. However, I ended up needing to work, so I began working full-time and going to school part-time. Going to college and getting my degree has always been a dream of mine. While I could only go part-time, I was not going to let anything get in my way of attending college. After leaving foster care, I kept in contact with my former foster parents. While we did not speak every day, we kept in touch often. I did obtain my bachelor’s degree after many years of part-time schooling.
When I was nineteen, I began working with an organization in my local area. This agency worked with former foster youth to help them get connected with jobs, school, and other services. I began sitting on panels with former foster youth sharing my experiences. I partnered with a State Representative in 2008 to help them understand the perspective of foster youth, as they were considering bills and items on the legislative agenda pertaining to foster care. It was then I knew my voice needed to be heard. I wanted other foster youth to know your past doesn’t have to define you. I wanted foster youth to be represented by actual foster youth and not by social workers or by those who thought they knew.
While I was not adopted, I always knew I wanted to adopt. I knew there were children across the USA of all ages who wanted a family. After getting married and discussing this desire with my husband, we began the adoption process when I was 27. Going through the various trainings was tougher than I realized it would be. It brought up things about my own trauma I had to process.
Our journey through adoption would be two and a half years before we received the call about my now son. I will always remember walking into the hospital room and meeting his mother. My time in foster care has always made me respect the biological family unit. I wanted my biological family respected, so I knew when the time came for us to adopt, I would always make sure my child’s parents were comfortable, loved, and respected. This was their child they were choosing for us to parent.
The first time I held my now son is one that will always be burned into my memories. I was so nervous. I remember taking off his hospital newborn hat only for a full head of beautiful, black hair to pop out. His mom and I had good laugh about the amount of hair he had.
My experience in foster care does not make me a better mother, but it does make me very aware of the precious value placed on family. It constantly reminds me to embrace the quiet family times as well as the busy, loud times. The biggest impact foster care has on me being a mother, especially to an adopted child, is that I’m constantly aware of where my son comes from. I want him to be proud of that as he grows up.
I am now in my thirties and there is not a day that goes by where something from my past comes up. I still have to work through grief of past tragedies. However, through it all, my faith in God and my perseverance have helped me to overcome my past. They’ve allowed me to find joy in my everyday life. No matter what it may seem is missing from the outside, I’ve gained so much more in my life than I’ve lost.
It’s important for foster youth and former foster youth to not let the events of your past define you. The world and the negative statistics do not define you. I remember when I was in high school, I was informed less than 3% of former foster youth graduate from college. It was then I decided I would never let the world tell me what I could and could not achieve.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jessica Cawthorn of Dallas, TX. Follow Jessica on Instagram here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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