here's - Foster Care Alumni of America

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here's - Foster Care Alumni of America

60FLUX: Life After Foster Care


Ch a p t e r 4:Bio Fa m i l yThe most powerful ties are the ones to the people who gave us birth. It hardly seems tomatter how many years have passed, how many betrayals there may have been, how muchmisery in the family: we remain connected, even against our wills.—Anthony Brandt, authorWhen people ask about my family history, the honest answer is that my mother is aviolent schizophrenic and my father is a murderer. But how do you say that withoutsilencing the room? I Google the word ‘schizophrenia’. (How do you spell that?) Iwant to understand if my mother has this disease. Is it genetic? Will I be schizophrenic?Am I already? What about my daughters? These thoughts run wild throughmy head.A few years ago I began having nightmares. The dreams were waking me and my husband,at all hours. Dreams about my biological mother. My husband suggested wehire a private detective to find her. So we did, and we found her. Months went by. Ihad an address, but just couldn’t bring myself to make the first move. Finally, I wrote aletter. A thick envelope that smelled of smoke came in response. The rumpled pageswere her history, her accounting of circumstance and choices made, and the price shewas now paying for it. We corresponded this way for a couple of years; her life wastragic, always. Her childhood spoke of unimaginable abuses which she continued inmarried life with my father.Eventually it was too much to take and I stopped responding. I was being pulled intoa misery that would probably never stop. I could not save her. I needed to stay presentfor my own family. My own health. After no communication for a couple of years,she called and talked about how her neighbors were watching her and following her.She talked about how she sits next to my father at the Laundromat, even though myfather has been dead for many years. She warned me about the people coming afterme. She is toxic for me, but I can’t quite let her go.- Murry Aliberti, alumna, age 47, CA, 10 years in careWhether it was neglect, abuse or the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, we all end up in fostercare for a reason. How did you end up in foster care? Do you think your bio family has changed (note,by “bio family” we mean your original family—whether they were related to you by blood, marriage, orrelationship)? Whether you know your family inside-out, or haven’t heard a peep in years, there is oftenan intense urge to be connected, to know them, or at least to know about them. To see if they look the61Chapter 4: Bio Family


same as you remembered. To see if they are okay. To see if they want to make amends. To find out ifthey missed you. To see if they can finally nurture some part of you.If you’ve got the urge to connect with your family, don’t feel crazy, just be prepared. It makes sensethat we seek out our families. It also makes sense that we have conflicting feelings about them. For us,family is probably the most complicated topic there is. Understanding your bio family—whether thatmeans by actually spending time and having relationships with them, or just holding on to memories,culture, and traditions—helps fill in pieces of your big picture. The more you know about yourself,the better off you are.But First, Are Your Basic Needs Being Met?Let’s be clear. If you’re hard-up, and need a place to stay, a relative might be just the place to turn.Often when basic needs like food, shelter and safety are at stake, you do what you have to do—whichmight include getting in touch with family. Tolerance, kindness and second chances are great, but clearout if they’re bringing you down. Being abused isn’t okay, no matter what your age or situation. Makinga life for yourself doesn’t mean disrespecting anyone. It means respecting yourself, and everyonebenefits from that in the long run.Remember that when you’re not meeting your basic needs, you are much more vulnerable. Being hungry,lonely, tired, or afraid is the worst time to make big decisions. Most decisions can be deferred forjust a little while if you need to. You are the boss of you.Endings: Taking Stock & Letting GoTo figure out what you want regarding your bio family relationships, start by thinking of family membersyou already know and have contact with. List their names, and ask yourself:• What works about this relationship?• What doesn’t work?• Can I keep the parts that work and toss the rest? Is it possible to continue with the activitiesand conversations and people that are safe and meaningful to me while avoiding those thataren’t?• What are my expectations for the relationship? What are theirs?If you don’t have contact with members of your bio family, but want to establish it, ask yourself:• What do I want from my bio family? What do I envision? Sunday dinners? A place to showup for the holidays? A heartfelt apology scene?• What might my bio family want from me? How will they remember me? What feelingsmight they have about me?• What do I have to offer? Forgiveness? Anger? Blind desire to belong? Curiosity?62FLUX: Life After Foster Care


• How, if at all, do I want to talk about what happened to bring us to this point?• Who else do I need to consider in this—my children? My sweetheart? My foster/adoptive/chosen family members?When you establish contact with your bio family, make sure that someone from your existing supportsystem is available to back you up. A friend to go with you for the first visit, even if they just wait outin the car. A roommate who makes sure you get home and that you’re okay. A mentor you can debriefwith. If it’s been a long time since you’ve seen your biological family, be prepared that they mightnot be exactly as you remember. Parents often look smaller and older because you’ve grown. Plus, thetwo main reasons that children end up in foster care are mental health problems and substance abuseissues—those struggles can really change people over time.When you decide to have contact with your bio family you have to understand what you’re leavingbehind, what you have to let go of. Some of those things might include:• The fantasy that they’ve solved all the problems that got you into foster care in the first place.• The assumption that they are either all good or all bad—monsters or heroes.• The comfort and space of just not dealing with them.• Your own privacy and protection of who you are, where you’ve been.• Pieces of your victim identity, blame of yourself, blame of your family members, blame ofthe system.• The fantasy about what your reunion would be like.63Chapter 4: Bio Family


Over and over again, alumni of foster care talk about the need to have space and distance from theirbio families in order to establish a healthy life of their own. If the timing isn’t right for you, try anothertime. If the timing is right, then you gotta think through your boundaries.A boundary is something you put in place to protect and take care of yourself. Some boundariesare like concrete walls and nothing can get through. It’s the rule, the end. Others are more likethe emperor’s new clothes. You think they exist, and look great, but really you’re walking aroundcompletely exposed. Open to everything. Of course, there are infinite variations in between. It’sjust true, though, that you cannot have any healthy relationships without some kind of boundaries.Think about it—can you envision a relationship where absolutely nothing is off limits? We all drawlines, but too often, we don’t think through where those lines are and where they should be. Decidingyour boundaries on purpose gives you a chance to make a careful choice, when your emotionsaren’t running so high.Sometimes it is scary or embarrassing to make boundaries. You might be afraid of other people gettingmad or thinking you’re selfish if you’re not willing to do what they want. The people in your lifewith whom you can have healthy relationships will be there even when you start setting boundaries. Ifyou’re not willing to insist on respect, you will not get it. You teach people how to treat you and youhave a right to the same consideration and respect as anyone else. Part of your happiness in life is goingto be developing healthy interdependent relationships. You can only develop those relationships byfiguring out give and take with healthy boundaries. Kind of a contract of “here’s what I need from youand here’s what I can give.”64FLUX: Life After Foster Care


I wasn’t able to set healthy boundaries for myself until after my children were born.I related to other people by being self sacrificing and a major people-pleaser. I wasalways afraid of losing the people in my life. Then one day I was playing with my twolittle daughters and was hit with the realization that I had once been just like my owntiny, sweet little girls. I knew how fiercely protective I was of them and I started towonder why someone didn’t feel that same way about me as a child. Hadn’t I oncebeen just as sweet and innocent? Suddenly I understood that no one should have letall those things happen to me. I saw that sweet little girl inside myself and realizedsomeone should have protected me. Once I understood that I deserved protectiontoo, I was able to start being more assertive about taking care of myself. This was abig turning point in my life. Whenever a situation happened where I felt threatenedor mistreated, I would ask myself…’how would I feel about this happening to one ofmy girls and how would I advise them to handle it? Would this be okay with me if ithappened to my daughter?’ As hard as it was to admit, I now knew that if anyone wasgoing to take care of me, it was going to have to be me.-Murry Aliberti, alumna, age 47, CA, 10 years in careNo one can say of his house, “There is no Trouble here.”- Oriental ProverbSome hints for thinking about boundaries:• See the little boy or little girl within yourself. How would you set boundaries with others ifyou were in charge of protecting that little person?• Observe how you interact with others. Do you often do things you don’t want to do? Whenis this most likely to happen? Pay attention—are you losing your healthy boundaries whenyour basic needs aren’t being met? Are you using chemicals that get in the way of protectingyourself ? Are you just so damn lonely that you’ll try anything?• Hold on to your identity, your own positive labels for yourself, and use them! See yourstrength, your worth, and the world you’ve built for yourself. Take an active role in makingsure that the best parts of your life are not put in jeopardy for anyone else.• Prepare yourself for some challenges as you make changes in your relationships and start toset new boundaries. Know you might risk losing relationships if you have to take a stand. Fearcan cause you to stay in unhealthy situations. Decide who is good for you and who is not. Youcan choose who you want in your life, including bio family and foster family.• Don’t feel guilty about the decisions you make or enforcing the boundaries that are right foryou. You have to take care of you. Your bio family, at least to some extent, has already proventhat they can’t take care of you.• If you are having trouble understanding what the boundaries should be and how to set themappropriately, consider seeking help from others in your support system, or even a therapist.This is a difficult process and it takes a long time to find the right boundaries for you.65Chapter 4: Bio Family


New Beginning: Celebrating The New You/SuccessesIt’s not easy to establish, reestablish, or redefine relationships with your family of origin. Rememberthat transition is a process and it will take a good deal of exploring, soul-searching, and trial and errorbefore you settle in to the bio family relationships that work well for you. These will change over time,perhaps getting deeper with some family members, and more distant with others. For some of us, thebest choice we can make is to have no contact, for others it is possible to be a “real family” to each other,and there are a whole lot of in-between options.No matter what the outcome of your efforts, celebrate your strength and your personal power. Someideas about celebrating the new beginning:• Figure out what you like the best things about your bio family—are you music lovers? Doesyour family have the most elaborate Halloween costumes? Does your grandma make the besttamales or lutefisk or black-eyed peas? Take the rituals, traditions, and characteristics that youmost appreciate in your bio family and include them in your own life, make them your owntraditions.• Notice when you have set successful boundaries. Make sure you understand why you chosethat boundary and how it serves you. Give yourself a pat on the back, perhaps even rewardyourself with something you’ve been wanting to splurge a little on. Boundary setting is notfor wimps!• Stop and celebrate the little bits of progress as you go. If you’re just looking for your family,recognize your bravery and initiative when you manage to find an address, phone number orMy Space page. If you’re just getting to know your family again, give yourself some credit forshowing up, for being willing to take a risk. As your relationships with family members shakeinto comfortable forms, enjoy the give and take that is there for you.66FLUX: Life After Foster Care


• One time to especially take notice is when things go terribly, terribly wrong—and you dealwith it. There can be an unbelievable amount of pressure, high levels of emotion, big potentialfor heartbreak or anger in our relationships with our bio families. Having a bad experience andhandling it in a way you are proud of is a huge accomplishment.• If having a connection with your bio family is a little shocking—you look around and think,“I’m not really like these people—I have different values and my life is better than what I seehere”, take the time to notice that YOU have built a life for yourself. You have broken out offamily cycles and learned a new way.• Celebrate your family of choice, every chance you get. If you’ve had 3 father figures who havebeen helpful to you over the years, send them all a card on Father’s Day. If your bio family orfoster family also happens to be your family of choice, rejoice in that. Share your affection andyourself with those that you love.67Chapter 4: Bio Family


"Think about how much learning, un-learning, and re-learning you’ve had to do. Witheach change (move, placement, family, situation, shelter, couch) you’ve had to unlearnthe old rules and learn or re-learn the new set of rules. It's like earning a degree fromthe system. If you can do that, you can do anything. "TM

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