Who Gets The Life Raft: The Difficult Relationships of Foster Youth
Writing for this blog is sometimes problematic for me. I try to be as transparent as possible and talk about the things that are truly affecting my life in the moment. I want it to be honest, and sometimes that means discussing emotions and feelings that are difficult or painful to put into words.
Recently, I was at an event and a woman asked a question that I hear often, “How did you overcome the abandonment of your mother?” The answer is burdensome, and often shocking for audiences. The truth is, I never felt abandoned by my mother. Instead, I felt that I had abandoned her. I had spent much of my childhood taking care of her, worrying about her, and making sure she was OK. When I was13, she disappeared for a few days, then a few weeks. It wasn’t shocking to me; it was my “normal.”
When she still hadn’t reappeared, and my grandmother was going to be evicted from her housing situation, I knew I had to call social services. It was a difficult call for me, and one that I would wish, time and time again, that I hadn’t made. Making that call always felt like I was watching a life raft for one float by, and I selfishly took it for myself.
When people hear this story, I can see a bit of shock across their faces. It is difficult to put into words the loyalty I felt for my mother, and the betrayal I carry in my heart. As an adult I cognitively understand my decision, and most do, but the betrayal I feel I caused hasn’t lessened.
After the Presidential election results started coming in, I was struck with the idea of loyalty, and how the weight of that emotion can be viewed, oftentimes confused for betrayal. As defined, loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance to someone or something. It is a feeling or attitude of devoted attachment and affection. As a society, it is a trait we hold in high regard. In fact, any sign of disloyalty is often met with cries of not being patriotic, a traitor, crybaby or lots of other four-letter expletives.
And, that is why after not seeing my birth mother for over 27 years, I still have feelings of disloyalty and like I am the one who betrayed her. Abandonment was never my trigger or emotion. It is also why I have difficulty discussing those feelings; any sign of estrangement or retreat of creates feelings (and brings accusations) that I was wrong in my decision to save myself.
These emotions are complicated when children enter foster care. Old families, new families, changing families … How can you be loyal to everyone? Can you ever? Who do you betray? How do you protect yourself? Is it ever OK to be disloyal? If so, who decides who gets the life raft? Sometimes you just need to pick up the phone.
Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute an organization focused on ensuring sustainable, implemented trauma care within organizations and individuals. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com