“My earliest memories are turbulent, scary and chaotic. In fact, almost all my childhood memories can be described using these 3 words. One of my youngest memories involves being awakened by a police officer in the middle of the night. My biological mother had been arrested for drug or alcohol related charges. I think I was 7. I was home alone with my sister who was 3 years younger. How we never entered the state foster care system is still a mystery to me, but somehow, we didn’t.
My mother was a violent drunk. At 5 foot 10 inches and over 300 pounds, she was already intimidating while sober. Add in alcohol, and she was downright scary. I have two memories that occur at different times, but both involve my mother putting her hand through glass. Once a sliding glass door, and the other a 50-gallon aquarium in our living room. I still live in the area I was raised in and if you asked me to, I could drive you to the house where these incidents occurred, despite the fact that we moved more than 15 times during my childhood. These were scary moments where I feared my mother. I have a lot of memories from the time we lived in this specific house. I was often home alone with my younger sister. On one occasion I was cooking something on the stove that involved boiling water. I remember climbing up onto the counter to try and get something down from a cabinet just above the boiling water. I tipped the water and it scolded the right side of my body on my arm and leg.
We lived in poverty, that is one reason we moved a lot. We got food stamps, but my mother frequently sold or traded those for drugs or alcohol or cash to buy cigarettes.
You might be wondering where my father was. I knew who he was, and I had met him, but he never parented me. I didn’t even have his last name. My mother had a range of partners throughout my childhood, none of which I bonded or attached to.
My childhood memories are blurry and scattered. It isn’t until I was about 13 years old that I start to have consistent and clear recollections. When I was in the 9th grade I began to struggle emotionally with what I was dealing with at home. I had struggled for a while but add in puberty and it was nearly unbearable. I sought out at teacher at my school and began to share with her some of the things I was experiencing. It was also during this time that I formed some very strong friendships at school. From one of those friendships I began to attend a local youth group at a nearby church. I met Jesus as a little girl at vacation bible school and I always tried to go to church when I could. My mother did not attend church so I would ride the church bus as a kid and now as a youth, I would get rides with my friends. I became very active in the youth group and made a lot of really close relationships at my church. I also continued to confide in my teacher at school. Eventually that teacher convinced her husband to let her invite me to live with them. My biological mother reluctantly allowed this while she went away to serve a jail sentence.
I’ll never forget the months I spent with this family. My 14-year-old self wrote a lot of pages in my journal about how happy I was and how loved I felt. This was the first time in my life I felt ‘normal.’ About 3 months into this arrangement, I began to feel like it was too good to be true. I wrote in my journal, ‘I wonder if they’re tired of me.’ One month prior to my 15th birthday, I was volunteering at vacation bible school at my church. While working with the kids in the craft room I made a glittered flower picture out of construction paper and glue. I took the flower home and my teacher hung it on the refrigerator. I was 15 and THIS was something I wrote in my journal as a significant event. Someone valued something that I did, and I noticed. My teacher and her husband are amazing and wonderful people. They were the first people who let me experience a healthy home and family. I am forever indebted to them for that. They are still in my life and I still love them dearly. After living in their home for a year I was accepted to and subsequently moved into an academically strenuous residential high school in my state. After one semester, it was clear this was not a setting I could thrive in, given I did not have the home support necessary.
In the year prior, while living with my teacher and her husband, and still attending my church and youth group, I grew close to a family in my church. The Pates. They were foster parents through the state. They had adopted a little boy from foster care and were currently fostering two other toddlers and teaching foster parenting certification classes to prospective families. I started babysitting for them every week while they taught those classes in the evenings. I sat with them at church, I went to lunch after church with them and began to spend more and more time at their home. It wasn’t hard for me to fall in love with them, they were open and welcoming and showered me with love and attention.
I was 16 and was working nearly full time to make a car payment and pay for car insurance as well as other necessities. One day, my biological mother and I got into a big fight about her life choices and I ran away from home. Despite having a car, I ran away on foot… I’m not sure what I was thinking but I was angry and I just took off. I ended up hiding in a stranger’s garage while my biological mother and local police circled the block looking for me. In a world before cell phones, I used this stranger’s home phone to call The Pates.
‘Hey Lynn, I can’t go home, can you help me? Do you know an attorney who could help me become emancipated?’
They assured me they would work on something but that I needed to go home for the time being. So, I did.
The next week I avoided my mother and spent as much time away from home as I could. The following Sunday The Pates had my mother served with guardianship paperwork, asking that they assume guardianship of me and that I move into their home. I knew she had been served, but she did not mention the papers to me for over a week. Finally one day, she sat me down.
‘I’m going to sign the papers,’ she told me.
The next day she drove me to their house, dumped my belongings at the bottom of their driveway, and left in my car.
Randie and Lynn Pate lived in a blue two-story house with their toddler son, Kyle. Lynn’s two teenage sons from his first marriage visited on occasional weekends.
Enter a 16-year-old girl.
Let’s just take a moment to think about how awkward it must be to suddenly become parents to a 16-year-old girl. But they did it, they became my parents without a second thought.
With a black burly beard and standing nearly 6-foot tall, Lynn looks intimidating, but he is really a big ol’ teddy bear. I didn’t have a dad or any father figure in my life up to that point. I had friends with dads, but I really didn’t know what I was missing. I knew how valuable a mom was, and I knew I was missing out on something there, but I didn’t really know about the dad part. But this guy—he changed all that.
I had an instant attachment and bond to Randie. She was and is everything I longed for in a mother. She was soft, kind, nurturing, affectionate, and she gave me the love, attention and praise I was so desperate for.
Now that I’m much older and I’ve practiced social work for 15 years and worked with foster parents a good part of that, I realize that when I moved into their house at 16, they didn’t immediately love and adore me. I mean, 16-year-old girls can be a bit of a handful.
BUT, I certainly didn’t feel that—I never knew they didn’t immediately attach to me and love me like I had always been theirs.
I turned 17 a few months after I moved into the Pates’ home. They were my parents. In every sense of the word. As my 18th birthday approached we discussed adoption but ultimately decided I would just legally change my last name to theirs. So, on my 18th birthday I went to the courthouse and filed a petition for legal name change and it was signed by the judge the same day. I was a PATE! It was a great day! They were my parents in every way, and I think most people in my life assumed they had legally adopted me. We just didn’t feel like we needed it to be legal for it to be real. It was very real for us.
I lived with them as I started college all the way until my junior year of college when I moved out into an apartment with a roommate. A few years later I got married and my dad gave me away at my wedding. Then I had babies, and they were ‘Nana’ and ‘Grandad’ to my children. We continued to attend church together, have Sunday lunches and regular visits. We were family, just not on paper.
The years ticked on…I went through a divorce and my parents were my rock during that really rough time. I would not have survived had it not been for them. My mother especially. I spent hours and hours crying in her lap and sleeping on her couch. They were overwhelmingly supportive and helped me transition into the new phase of life I was in.
A few years after that we were doing what we did every Sunday after church, going to eat lunch at a local restaurant. As we were walking toward the doors, my dad asked me to hang back because he and mom needed to talk to me about something. On this day I was 32 years old.
Of course, I immediately went to, ‘this must be bad news!’ I was scared of what they were about to tell me.
My dad proceeded to say, ‘I think it is time we adopt you so that everyone else is forced to recognize what we already know – that you’re our daughter.’
I chuckled and said, ‘Umm, I’m THIRTY-TWO YEARS OLD, DIVORCED WITH TWO KIDS.’ He said, ‘Yeah, we need your consent since you’re an adult.’
I said, ‘YES, I CONSENT!’
We visited our attorney the following week and filed the petition.
So, at the age of 32, I was adopted. I got a new birth certificate and everything.
Nothing changed for us, not really. Our lives continued as they had for the previous 16 years. It’s been 5 years since I was legally adopted by my parents, but our heart adoption was many, many years before this.
I work with foster and adoptive parents and people thinking about becoming foster and adoptive parents. Most people are afraid to take in teenagers. I tell people that because MY parents said yes to a 16-year-old girl, the entire course of my life changed. BUT… not JUST my life. My children’s lives, and their children’s lives are also very different than they could have been, all because my parents said yes to scary 16-year-old girl. This is how we break generational cycles of abuse, neglect, poverty and addiction.
Statistically speaking, I should be a lot of things. None of which I am. I am not addicted to drugs or alcohol. I do not live in poverty. I am a homeowner. I not only have a high school diploma, but I also have a bachelors and a master’s degree. I don’t say these things to brag, but to be thankful. I am grateful I have had these opportunities and that I get to be this example to my children. That their childhoods look nothing like mine did.
All because my parents said yes.”
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This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Brandy Shioyama of Arkansas. A version of this story originally appeared on the The Adoptive Mom Podcast. 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.
Read more powerful stories of adult adoption:
‘No one has ever wanted you here. If you find a family that will actually love you, go be with them.’: 26-year-old adopted after years of childhood trauma, abuse, says you’re ‘never too old to need parents’
‘I’m too scared to go back,’ I told my mom. His voice paralyzed me. I lived in fear he’d kill my mother.’: 23-year-old adopted by stepfather who ‘never ceased to fight’ for her during childhood trauma with biological dad
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