Just Holding on Through the Curves
By CRIS BEAM
Published: August 29, 2013
My daughter just turned 30. How is this possible when it seemed like only a week before she was a scrappy, sassy teenager? Like mothers everywhere, I don’t think I’m old enough to have delivered a baby girl who could hit such a milestone.
In my case, it’s true: I’m only 41. I didn’t give birth to my daughter. I became her mother when I was 28 and she was 17. Call it an unplanned delivery, very late term. Christina was one of the 135,000-plus teenagers nationwide in foster care, most of whom are abandoned when they age out of the system between 18 and 21.
I was lucky enough to snare one of these gems, to share my life with the smartest, most beautiful, resourceful and hilarious kid around.
Want proof? I have pictures. But be careful what you ask for: like mothers everywhere, I’m insufferable that way.
I say I’m lucky because I didn’t plan for this life. Back when everything happened, Christina was just my favorite student in the high school English class I was teaching. When her agency made her change schools, we stayed in touch.
There was something both fierce and vulnerable about Christina, and I liked being with her. She is also deeply intelligent, and I wanted to ensure that no matter how the world tossed her around, at least one of her teachers had shown her that she mattered.
I also wanted to keep an eye on her safety. Christina is transgender, which meant there were fewer beds available to her within the system and fewer protections over all.
Sure enough, at her new school, disaster struck: After a security guard told some of her fellow students she had been born male, they threatened to kill her, so she fled. I was the first person she called, and my then-partner and I offered to let her sleep on our couch until we could sort things out with the agency. Anyone with a conscience would have done the same.
What I didn’t understand at the time was how profoundly child welfare can fail its teenagers. I didn’t know that fully half of all the teenagers in foster care are institutionalized in group homes or more serious lockdown facilities because families don’t want them.
I didn’t know that, by age 19, 30 percent of the boys will have been incarcerated. I didn’t know, as Christina’s first night bled into a second and a third and as we went to Home Depot to buy containers for her clothes and cleared her a shelf in the bathroom, that 30 percent of the homeless in this country were once in foster care.
Most of us can’t survive our first jobs, first apartments, first loves or first big mistakes without family to fall back on. We need money, love, advice and encouragement well past our 18th birthdays — especially if we celebrated that birthday in an institution with state-financed guardians working eight-hour shifts.
What I did know, as I tucked sheets into Christina’s makeshift bed those first few nights, was that I had a hurt and angry child on my hands who was frightened of being rejected one more time. And I knew that child because I had been one, too.
When I was 14, I left my mother’s house and never saw her again. I moved to my father’s house 30 miles away. My mother didn’t reach out or call, and I was too afraid to reach back to the woman who didn’t want me.
When I graduated from college, I sent my mother a letter, and she sent me a note on a paper scrap, wishing me a good life and misspelling my name. Later I recognized the signs of mental illness in her; I recognized it in the men she brought around, in the nights she didn’t come home, in the way she’d drift into corners and lose herself all day.