To read in context, please see Part 1: Accepting the Angst
My thoughts and feelings as an adult about my childhood have fluctuated over the years, from nostalgia to gratitude to ambivalence to anger to shame to sadness to a conglomerate of all of the above and more. As difficult as they were to uncover, these are the feelings of an emerging adult who had the advantage of retrospect and the ability to articulate something so complex as overlapping emotions. What is more difficult to discover are the feelings of the pre-articulate child as he or she went through those painful moments. If you’ve never allowed those kinds of feelings to flood to the surface, I’d say to proceed with caution, and also with a trusted friend, family member, advisor, or therapist present. I’ve chosen each, at various times and in various situations. They offer a form of safety/comfort if you’re exploring emotions from a time when you didn’t feel safe as a kid.
What I discovered as I re-opened that chapter of my life is a wide range and depth of emotions the young me experienced in the early stages of foster care: confusion, shame, sadness, and anger that I didn’t permanently belong anywhere. I missed my family of origin, and I felt guilty for missing them because home life with them hadn’t been ideal, and it seemed I was expected to be grateful for being rescued from them. Relationships with the new family weren’t naturally affectionate, and I longed for those displays of affection at the same time that I pulled away from them because they didn’t feel real. Extended family members of the foster parents weren’t quite sure what to do with the new temporary additions to the family, and they were discouraged from hugs and other innocent familial touch because of how it could be misconstrued.
I was never sure who I could trust to protect me, or to simply be around in a few months—several different homes in several different weeks, and social workers were constantly being reassigned to different cases or leaving their jobs, highlighting even more the discontinuity of relationships and the seemingly futile task of forming attachments with anyone new. I tried my best to feel “normal” at school and fit in among peers who, for the most part, lived with at least one of their original parental figures. When they heard me call my caretakers by their first names instead of Mom or Dad, that always brought on questions that made me feel like an anomaly among my friends.
Above all I was afraid. Afraid of every disapproving look and every word of criticism. Afraid to express my longings and my sadness, afraid of being a disappointment to people who had the power to decide whether I stay or go, afraid of being found unwanted and worthless. So I hid all of those “unpleasant” and “displeasing” emotions and tried the hardest I could to please everyone around me—in a futile attempt to eliminate the risk of rejection.
I’m not the only foster kid who felt this way. From what I’ve read by various psychologists and from what I’ve observed from my own family, I’ve discovered that almost all foster kids feel distress from the displacement. They usually fit into one of two categories when it comes to how they react to that distress: 1. Rebellion, and 2. Absolute compliance. My siblings who grew up in foster care with me fit into the first category for a number of years, and I fell into the second. We all turned out relatively well-adjusted in the end, but a little emotionally-distant and with, at least for me, a plethora of deep-rooted insecurities to continue working through.
I think that once you have identified that there is (or once was) pain you suppressed (part 1) and can identify and begin to understand the pain (part 2), you can start to sort through it and find some healing. I hope to touch on that process a bit in the next part of this topic, Part 3: Healing the Angst.