My first memory of my mother is from when I was 12. She came and picked up my sister Yolanda and me from our aunt’s house in Rochester, New York. She was taking us to her home in New York City.
Butterflies rushed through my stomach as soon as I saw her. She was pretty. Her make-up and hair were done and she wore a white button-up shirt with long black pants and black boots. She said in a sweet voice, “Hello, are you ready to finally come home?”
I was happy. I had dreamed of living with her since she had been locked up. I also felt nervous. I knew she’d been in jail since I was 2, but I had only recently heard that she killed Yolanda’s father.
Yolanda and I lived with our aunt and cousins in Rochester. When my mom was released, she asked my sisters and me to live with her. She promised me she’d buy me things and be a good mother. She also said that the murder had been self-defense. She looked and seemed like a nice person, and I had always dreamed of living with my mother.
When we got to Brooklyn, my younger sisters Tanika and Lenora ran out of the house to hug us. Things were great at first. I loved being with my sisters, and my mom took me shopping and bought me a phone I liked. She spoke sweetly to us. I had missed a lot of years of mothering, and I liked that she spoke nicely to me and paid me attention. I also liked that she bought me things I needed and wanted.
But after a few months, she started to flip out. One time, no one had replaced an empty roll of toilet tissue, and she screamed at us, “Y'all so f-cking nasty and lazy! It takes one second to put tissue back on the fucking roll!” She could be sweet again five minutes after raging; we never knew what to expect. This made me angry — why yell at your own kids for such little things?
Foster care and lock-up
Once in a while, she'd hit us, hard, and teachers saw the bruises. All her kids went in and out of foster care because she abused us or didn’t take care of us properly. She stopped buying us clothes when I was 17 and my sisters were 13 and 14. She said, “You all are too old; I don’t have to buy you sh-t.”
I felt like my mother didn’t care about me. I caught on to her violent behavior and copied it. I began fighting, and I got locked up several times. At 16, I was in Rikers prison for fighting, and then at 17, I got locked up again at a juvenile detention center called Horizon.
While I was in Rikers, I joined a program called Exalt Youth for teens in detention. I stuck with it for a year, so I was still doing Exalt from my lock-up at Horizon. The program offered alternatives to detention: If we did job training and internships, we could live with a foster parent in a strict setting. Under this program, I ended up moving in with Deborah when I was 17.
Deborah was an African-American lady who wore glasses and dressed classy — nice boots and jewelry and stylish clothes. She worked two good jobs and had a dog named Puffy. It was just the two of us in the apartment, and I had to be home by 6 p.m. and get a school card signed every single day. I also had to get drug tested every week.
I didn’t like all the rules, but Deborah treated me wonderfully. She bought me clothes, and gave me more allowance than she had to. At my mom’s I might get yelled at or even hit if I said the wrong thing. I knew that wouldn’t happen at Deborah’s house.
I was doing well in the program with Deborah, and my lawyer told me I could go home if I wanted. Though I had my doubts about living with my mom, I was sick of the many rules at Deborah’s. I was dating someone and I couldn’t have her over. Deborah’s curfew was too early, too. I wanted more freedom.
As my 18th birthday approached, my foster care social workers recommended that I not go back to my mom. I knew they had a point: My mom yelled at me a lot and seemed like she didn’t love me, which hurt. The social workers said to stay in the system because ACS would pay for college, housing, clothing and whatever else I needed.
Knowing that I wanted more freedom, my workers gave me a goal of APPLA: Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement, meaning they’d help me get my own apartment rather than placing me back with my family or with a foster family. I filled out forms for public housing, but one of my friends told me it took her more than a year to get her studio apartment. I wondered if I could handle Deborah’s rules for that long.
A real teenager
I became impatient. My mind was having rushing thoughts. One minute I was sure I would stay with Deborah no matter what. Then I’d think, just go home with your mother until you get your own place.
Soon after my 18th birthday, I had a meeting at my agency and told them I wanted to be discharged from foster care and go home to my mother’s.
I pushed aside my doubts and focused on the good things about my mom. The last time I lived with her, we and my sisters had to do family therapy. One thing I learned there was that right when she got out of jail, her sisters down in Georgia made her sleep outside. I felt hurt for her. The therapist suggested we do things as a family, like movie nights and eating together, and that did help. We argued less and talked to each other more.
Plus, she seemed like she had gotten herself together. She visited me at Horizon; in fact, she and my sister were the only people who made every visit. She didn’t yell as much as she used to. I liked that I could tell her anything without her judging me. I date girls, and she never had a problem with that.
Mostly, though, I wanted the feeling of her taking care of me. It felt like this might be the last chance to have a mom since I was already 18. I wanted to be with her before I went out on my own, because I wanted to give her another chance and to forgive her. I wanted my birth mother back in my life. I wanted my family.
At first, things were as sweet as a jelly donut. I could talk to my mother about my girlfriend. She treated me like her princess: She talked to me nicely and brought me a pink iPhone.
For the first month, home was better than Deborah’s. I didn’t have a curfew or any rules to obey. My mother bought me everything I asked for. I loved living with my sisters. I felt like I was getting to be a real teenager for the first time.
And I loved my mother. I looked up to her because she knew how to take care of herself, and she looked good.
From sweet to screaming
The father of her 2-year-old was not supposed to be living with us because he and my mom had restraining orders taken out on each other not long after their baby was born. And sure enough, it was fighting with him that made things go from sweet to screaming. She thought he was cheating, and she took her anger out on everyone else in the home.
Plus, I didn’t have her support or interest with school or anything else. She told me, “It’s your life; do what you want.” She didn’t make it to one school event. I don’t know why she keeps wanting to get her kids back, because when she has us, she starts screaming at us after a month or so.
One day this past summer she yelled at me, “I asked you to go to public assistance for me!”
I said, “I'll go tomorrow, ma, it’s too late now.”
But she clearly wanted to fight: “All you do is want to be up under your girlfriend’s ass all day. No job, no nothing! Go do something with yourself!”
I felt angry and upset. “I will. Let me live my life how I want!”
She snapped. “You know what, just get the f-ck out my house and never come back!”
I felt hurt. I had given her chance after chance, and even when I knew she wasn’t going to change I still stayed. I packed two shirts, two pair of pants and two pair of shoes, and I left her house as she wanted. It was only five months after I’d moved back in with her. She threw the rest of my things away.
I stayed with my girlfriend for a while, but she's 18 and lives with her mom. High school was starting again, and I needed to go shopping and get myself together for the fall semester.
After a few weeks, I contacted Deborah crying and asked if I could come to live with her. She said, “You are always welcome in my home,” and we went together to the ACS office. The ACS workers asked a lot of questions: Why did I sign out of care in the first place? Why do I want to sign back in? How does my mother treat her other kids? What kind of mother is she? How did she raise me?
I was nervous, afraid if I said the wrong thing, something bad might happen — like getting my sisters put back in care. But Deborah had told me to never lie no matter what. So I spoke nothing but the truth.
Not ashamed anymore
My mom had gotten me and my sisters to lie to cover up her abuse, and I hated it, especially lying about my sister’s bruises. Lying for my mom and then having Deborah say “always tell the truth” confused me at first. I felt like I was losing my mind. But other people, like the agency workers, reminded me that people who lie are seen as liars. It feels better to tell the truth, and people think better of me.
It was very nice of Deborah to let me live in her home — she came through for me. From all the times my mom let me down, I learned that you can’t love a person just because they buy you things. Now that I’m 19, Deborah has loosened her rules: I can spend the night out.
Going back to my mother’s showed me that you can’t trust a person based on appearances. My mother looked pretty and talked nice to me sometimes, but she’d eventually switch up and be mean. It takes me a long time to trust people now, but I do trust Deborah.
Deborah feels more like a mom to me, because she attends my school meetings and she buys me clothes, even though I’m over 18. She makes sure I eat, and she gives me relationship advice and lectures. She has never hit me.
I haven’t spoken with my mother in five months, since I left. I am moving forward and taking full advantage of being in foster care. They will pay for college until I'm 24 and my apartment until I'm 21. The foster care agency connected me to a paid internship that may turn into a real job.
I have been in foster care before, but this is the first time I chose to be. Before I was ashamed to be in care because other people might think I didn’t have a mother. Now I realize it wasn’t my fault my mom abused her kids. It’s not my fault I ended up in foster care. Signing myself back into care is the best thing I can do for myself, and I’m not ashamed anymore.
The writer, 19, wrote this story as a participant at 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 originally created for Represent, Youth Communication’s magazine written by and for youth in foster care. Names have been changed.