“Don’t touch that. Put that down,” my stepfather said to my little sister Donna as she cleaned the toilet. “You’re too pretty for that; you’re my little princess. Where’s Leah? Make her do it.”
I overheard this from a few yards away, where I was hiding behind the bunk beds. I was hiding so I wouldn’t get hit and made to do more grown folks’ work.
It had been like that since I was 6, when Donna was born. That’s when I began performing the tasks of a parent. My mom frequently threatened to leave me in an orphanage and told me that my life there would be 10 times worse. Meanwhile my mother and my stepfather, Fred, put up barriers and fake smiles to make us look like a normal family.
Not everyone bought the act. In elementary school, I was put on the watch list of kids who misbehaved. My counselor often asked, “Leah, is everything OK at home?”
I replied with a shrug, “Why wouldn’t it be?” Thinking of the orphanage threat, I kept quiet.
I haven’t seen my biological father since I was 4, but my mom brought him into the conversation when I misbehaved in school. She would hit me with questions she knew I couldn’t answer, like: “You think your dad cares if you act like this?” Or, “Being stupid isn’t going to make him come back; you know that, right?” These questions never ceased to throw me off. She made me feel like it was my fault he wasn’t in my life.
My mother got together with Fred when I was 4. They quickly had Donna, then Rajon, then Anthony. Fred treated me differently, I think because I was the only kid in the house who wasn’t his. He and my mother turned a first grader into a maid. I did the housework: I swept and washed and bathed and dressed the kids. The adults did most of the cooking.
The dishes were my worst enemy. They would pile in the sink and on the counters and table for weeks. Often there were rogue bowls to take from the bedrooms to the sink. Mold spores grew on the plates while they sat in pools of sticky, stagnant water, drawing flies until my mom made me wash them.
Fred was an electrician, and unless he had a day off, he would be gone before we woke and back around dinner. My mother was a nurse in a senior center, but she lost her job when I was around 10. After that, she often left me alone with my siblings during the day and would wake me in the night to tell me she’d be back in the morning. I don’t know where she went.
Even though I bathed and fed the kids and helped them with their homework, I didn’t feel respected in that family. I was a kid, too, and sometimes I’d fight with my brothers and sister. My parents took my siblings’ word over mine, so I got in trouble when we had conflict.
My mother and stepfather weren’t just irresponsible; they were also drunk and violent. One day when I was 13, I got home from school after picking up my siblings, then 7, 6 and 4. We walked in to find the hall closet door lying on the kitchen floor, about five feet from its hinges. Its white wood was stained purple with wine from a broken bottle — shards of glass scattered all over the apartment. There were also red lipstick marks from an earlier time when I swiped my mom’s makeup and used the door to blot my lips.
Bright clothes made a trail from the kitchen down the hall to the master bedroom. There, Mom lay passed out and naked in her bed. Half-empty bottles of liquor and one completely empty gallon of vodka sat on the floor beside her bed.
It was a familiar sight. Sometimes my stepfather would be passed out with her. Other times, he wouldn’t return for days. I didn’t know where he went, either, but I knew that he’d be back soon, and the drunken brawling would start. Again.
I told Donna, Rajon and Anthony, “Go wait in the girls’ room.” Then I went to find them food and clean clothes before sweeping up the glass and picking up the door off the floor. And for the millionth time, I wondered “Why me?”
I felt sorry for my little siblings and worried about them, but I also resented them. I was 6 when I first realized I had malicious feelings toward Donna and 10 when I began to feel the same way toward my brothers. Looking back, I think it was misplaced anger toward my mother and stepfather for their poor choices and the way they treated me.
The anger conflicted with the love and the pride I felt for these children I’d raised from babies. Those feelings didn’t mix well. There was a constant war inside my head that I couldn’t explain to myself, let alone to another person.
I felt guilty, too, because when that anger grew uncontrollable, I took it out on them. I bullied them verbally and hurt them physically. Part of me wanted them to know the pain I went through daily. I needed an outlet for my frustrations, and the kids were always there.
But I was fiercely protective when someone else tried to hurt them. They would often get injured trying to break up the fights between our parents. During one brawl with Fred, my mother dragged my baby brother Anthony like a rag doll down a flight of brick stairs. His head split open, and other family members rushed him to the hospital to get the wound stapled. I wasn’t able to protect Anthony that time, but other times I’d place myself in the path of violence or keep the kids holed up in my room.
I felt that my youth and my identity were being stolen from me. I didn’t know what my relationship was with my family. My aunts assumed my mother treated me badly because I reminded her of my father. My stepfather may not have loved me like he could have because I wasn’t his child. The relationship between my siblings and me was warped by our parents’ treatment of us. How could Donna, Rajon and Anthony respect me when they saw that their parents obviously did not? How could I love them properly when I was told I was beneath them?
The last fight between my mother and stepfather was severe enough to get them both arrested. With nowhere else to go, we kids went into police custody as well. I was 14. It wasn’t the first time that my siblings and I had spent the night in a precinct, but this time [social services] stepped in and took us away.
We were going to be split up — each child in a different group home spread across the boroughs. That inspired my mom’s siblings to step up. All of them, three aunts and one uncle, were eligible to become foster parents.
The four of them live with their respective families in the same, big house. Nine people already lived there before we four kids arrived. It’s a full house, teeming with life.
My aunt Eloise was singled out to become the foster parent of us four because she was the only self-sufficient adult without her own kids. A single mom was born.
My mother had told us that her sisters and her brother weren’t to be trusted, that they were jealous of us and would do anything to hurt us. My siblings believed her, but I saw my mother as the one who couldn’t be trusted. Plus, Eloise allowed me to be myself.
One of the nicest changes was that the adults in the big house did most of the housework. Like all the kids, I had to clean up after myself, but myself only. My siblings played, then picked up their toys, ate, did some homework, slept. I wasn’t involved in any of that. My aunts never asked me to clear the table, give my brother a bath, separate the whites from the colors. Nothing but clean up my room.
The stark contrast was a little unbearable. In the back of my mind, I still heard my mom telling me that no one would treat me any better than she would. So after every meal, after any act of kindness or mundane exchange that most would take for granted, I made sure to thank them. I was so grateful to not be in a group home, to not be separated from my siblings and worrying about them, to not be a house slave anymore.
Still, I was unnerved by all the free time. My fingers and limbs twitched because they were so unused to being idle, and I would walk through the house in search of something to do to ease my guilt.
Since then, my living situation has changed once, but I never had to go back to taking care of Anthony, Rajon and Donna. The change from living with my mom and Fred was so abrupt, I had trouble letting go of the only self I’d known: an object that could be used and abused, then pushed aside.
I had a lot to sort out — the years of abuse, my mixed emotions about my siblings, and being in foster care with people who respected me and let me be a child. But for the first time, I had time and space to do that sorting. In the blissful quiet of a room I could call my own, I got acquainted with myself as a 14-year-old girl.
I returned to old interests. I picked up some manga and watched anime. I drew. I read, and I listened to music — especially K-pop — Korean pop music. I had always been a little eccentric, but that part of me was suppressed while I was a submissive worker. K-pop expressed angles of me I had forgotten about, and it was a beautiful sensation to regain these parts of myself.
It was a freedom I had never before experienced. I have a lot of interests, and finally, I could finish a book, a sketch, a playlist without being pulled from the secluded, imaginary world I lost myself in. I want to learn some languages and how to play the bass.
I felt like a flower blooming after years of being tied shut. The purple petals springing to life were my joy, my possibilities, my individuality, my true self. I could see for the first time that I am magnificent.
Learning to love myself has been a good start, but I’m still working on my relationships, starting with my siblings. Before we went into care, we were at odds because of how differently our parents treated us. Those tensions were eased when we were allowed to be four siblings rather than three little kids with a preteen mom.
For the first time, there were comfortable silences, mutual understandings and genuine laughter. My brother Rajon will hang on my bed with me, playing on his DS while I read, and Anthony would be with Donna on her bed, all of us surrounded by happy, safe silence. There’s a lot to learn — and unlearn — from our childhood, but I enjoy the new relationship we’re building.
I’m also working on other relationships: With new people, I have some trouble trusting and some abandonment issues. There are times when I lie to avoid potential conflict. When people try to get too close or involved in my life, I have a tendency to push them away because I’ve already been so hurt by family. Affection is still a little foreign, so I overanalyze personal exchanges for hidden dangers.
I’m confident I’ll eventually learn to trust, though, and for now I’m enjoying my solitude and my freedom. My life is my own. I never chose to have kids. I have no obligations other than keeping myself out of trouble and maintaining my grades. I can laugh, explore, create and grow. I can be who I want to be.
Names have been changed. The writer is now 21 and lives in New York City.
This is a teen-written article from our partner, Youth Communication, a New York City-based nonprofit that helps educators engage struggling youth and build their social, emotional and literacy skills. This column was created through Represent, Youth Communication’s magazine written by and for youth in foster care.