In 1977, at the age of 16, I was emancipated and awarded custody of my two sisters and brother. Their ages at the time were 13, 9, and 4. From that day on my life has felt as if I am pushing a boulder up a mountain. And the thing about pushing a boulder up a mountain is that you can never rest. You can stop to catch your breath, but you still must hold the boulder in place or it will roll all the way back down and you will have to start all over. So, I’m tired. I came home from court that day and took the kids to Rustler Steak House to celebrate that we would not be placed in foster homes.
It was Lisa’s 13th birthday. Our parents had left home about a year prior and my grandmother had come to stay. She didn’t want four kids– it’s a lot of work and expense– but she was hoping that one of the parental units would come to their senses and come back to take care of the children. They didn’t, and she was overwhelmed. I came up with the idea that I would ask the judge to let me take care of everyone. I was doing everything already. Just please, please, please do not put us in foster care. Everything I knew about foster care was horrible. And even if one of us got decent foster care parents, the odds of all four of us being placed in good homes was low.
It is very difficult to describe how it feels to be abandoned by one’s own parents. The thought that runs through my mind is “No one will ever love me if my own parents don’t.” To this day, people think that there is something wrong with me when I tell them my parents left and never spoke to me again. “What happened?” they ask.
“Nothing,” I tell them. We were just like every other middle class family in the 70s. I don’t know why neither one of them wanted us. I still can’t figure it out. We are great people, and we would be even better people if someone had taken the time to care. Now mind you, I did not expect the judge to give me custody of three little kids when I was only 16 years old, but I told my siblings that I would try. I wanted to be able to tell them that I had tried.
I do not know what possessed that man to give me those kids. I couldn’t take care of myself. I was 16. I had no money, no job, and no family other than my grandmother. But you do what needs to be done. You wake up every day and try to figure out how to keep things going– how to keep the rent paid, how to keep the electric on, how to get everyone to school, how to keep everyone fed. And that is what I did for about 10 years. I quit high school and got a job. At first I babysat because that was all I knew how to do, but after a while I started working at a convenience store and then at a pizza place– typical teenage jobs that paid very little. My parents did send child support: $140.00 per week combined. I thought this was a lot of money, but I was wrong. There was never enough money. There was never enough of anything.
Once I turned 17, I could drive. My grandmother gave me $900.00, and I purchased a car. I bought myself a yellow Volkswagen Beetle Convertible. I loved that car! But I did not know that cars needed anything other than gas, and I blew up the engine within six months. I was very sad, but I didn’t have time to weep or think about it for too long. The guy at the Volkswagen repair shop offered to trade me my convertible Beetle for a red hard top Beetle that worked. Done! I took the deal. I also found a new job at a bank. The bank job worked out for a while, but once I enrolled into a community college, I really needed to work at night. I found a job at a grocery store and made better money than I did at the bank. I was able to work less hours, go to class, and finish my school work. Also, about this time we moved out of the house that my parents had bought and into a rental. The house was up for foreclosure and the social worker found me some money for a security deposit on the new place. All the kids would still stay in their same school.
I didn’t get much sleep. I know this because I vividly remember waking up through layers of darkness. I knew that I had to get up– there was so much to do– but I didn’t want to wake up. I would hear the kids calling me, but the journey to consciousness was a long and deliberate one for me. To this day, I do not know why I did not leave. Maybe it was because everyone else had left them. Maybe it was because I was afraid that I would go to jail. I did have legal custody and could be sent to jail for abandonment. But my parents hadn’t gone to jail. Maybe and most likely it was because I was scared– scared to be all alone and scared of the unknown.
We lived in the rented condo for about three years. Lisa was in high school, Brian in middle school, and Jen in second grade. This was when I decided that I should apply to a four-year college, and I got in. Yeah! I was still working at a union job at the grocery store, still making time and a half on Saturday nights and double time on Sundays. Over that summer, I contacted the father and asked him to take the two younger kids. Lisa and I would move out of the town we lived in and closer to public transportation to the four-year school I would be attending. Lisa would drive back to high school for her senior year so that she could finish with her classes. Lisa is a very determined person. If she has a goal there is no getting in the way of her accomplishing it. The father said yes and took Brian and Jen to live with him and his girlfriend and her kids. Lisa and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment.
The father thing didn’t work out so well, and within about a month the other two were back with me. We were now in a not very family-friendly environment and things were not going well. Brian wanted to be back with his friends and skipped a lot of school which led to alcohol and drug use. He was becoming a handful, but we trudged along. The following year Lisa left for college in Florida. Brian was acting up big time, understandably so. He was with me sometimes and other times he just stayed with friends. He was living in terrible conditions and the drinking and drugging was getting worse. School was not on the top of his priority list. It became a struggle to keep him focused. A year passed and then another. I was trying to complete my degree, but it became more and more difficult. I was tired. I had a few friends but no real peer group. I felt isolated. And did I mention that I was tired?
The struggle to stay in school became impossible when the grocery store that I worked at de-unionized and my pay was cut in half. I know Ronald Reagan meant for some money to trickle down to me, but none ever did. I know that I looked bad; guys would make remarks at the mall, call me “dog.” I had very little to offer anyone, but I dated. And that year I got pregnant. I knew that I could not keep a baby. But I didn’t get an abortion. I don’t know why. It wasn’t because of religious reasons or anything like that. I think it was because I knew I wouldn’t kill myself if I had another life inside of me. This would give me 9 months to think and to figure a way out of the hell I called my life.
The movie “Juno” summed up my pregnancy nicely. Except for June Bug having parents, my experience was very similar. I even used the Penny Saver to try to find adoptive parents for the baby. I received letters from the sisters and husbands of women that could not conceive. I received heartbreaking letters from women desperate to have a child. How could some people want a family so badly, while others just threw theirs away? It is a question that still baffles me. In the end, my OB/GYN knew a couple who was looking to adopt and they turned out to be great people.
Giving up a baby is a very sad experience– I cried a lot. But I realized that I could not go to school, take care of Jen and Brian, and work, so I gave up on my education for a while. I found a full-time job in copier sales and focused on the possibility of better days ahead. While at the copier company, I met a really nice guy and for the first time in my adult life, I was given things. He took me to dinner and lunch, and during the year we dated, he even took me to Paris. I was elated and excited and I realized that I wanted to be his kid instead of his partner. I couldn’t be someone’s partner until I had my own adult experiences. I realized that I could never just move past the gaps in my life and that I would be resentful if I didn’t find a way to “grow up” and give myself a childhood. I realized that a person cannot give what he or she never got, and I could not have the kind of life I wanted without going back and bringing that 16-year-old girl into the present.
The nice guy and I broke up, and I got into therapy. It wasn’t so much a decision to go to therapy as it was a necessity. Lisa was graduating from college, and she informed me that she wasn’t coming back to help me with Jen because she was getting married to a ROTC guy and they were going to live in Arkansas. I was devastated. Brian had recently joined the Navy and I was expecting Lisa to move back home and pick up some of the responsibilities. I went to bed and stayed there for about a week. After a week, I had to figure something out. I had to go back to work, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t work. I called a place called Friends Hospital in Philadelphia and asked if I could come in to talk to someone. I stayed there a month, learning abut my family dynamic. My therapist, a wonderful woman named Doris, even called my parents, but neither one would come in for counseling. I went out on disability and worked on healing. I cried, screamed, and read books about co-dependency. I went to group therapy, individual therapy, and various AA and Alnon meetings. Doris suggested that Jenny go and live with the mother– that she was not my responsibility and that I needed to give back that responsibility. Jen was about 16 at the time and it was not lost on me that she was the exact age that I was when nobody wanted me.
I met a new guy, got a new job, and continued to work on my issues. I now looked normal from the outside. I could take better care of myself. I wasn’t so tired. But I was still lonely and still felt un-lovable. They say that you attract people to you that have the same level of emotional health that you do at the time. I had been dealing with unusual circumstances that were way above my ability to deal with for a very long time. I wasn’t crazy, but I saw problems and issues in a very different way than other people. I was always preparing for the worst possible outcome. I had no one that I turn to for advice or help on occasions. I figured things out on my own, and I counted only on myself. This way of thinking was very difficult for my new boyfriend to relate to. He went to his parents for help, when needed; he lived at home; and he had extended family to turn to for advice and support. Despite my tendency to withdraw when I have a problem, we got married anyway, and in 1993 we birthed a baby girl.
Although not without love (or at least lust), our relationship was always tumultuous. But our life seemed normal from the outside– he worked, and I stayed at home with Julia. We lived in a nice neighborhood and took the usual family vacations each summer. I continued with my therapy, taking this time to really work on my issues. When Julia was born I went to Doris and asked her to please help me so that I would not do to Julia what had been done to me. I did not want to see my child a burden but as a treasure and a delight. Doris did help me and I did the work– the really hard work, deep down inside work– not just the fluff of going through motions. At one point Doris asked me to visit my mother. I did not want to go. By this time the mother was disabled, having suffered through two strokes. Doris insisted that this was crucial to my progress and even offered to go with me to find her. It shocked me that Doris would offer to go to some unknown apartment building and seek out this woman when she had no idea what conditions or reception we would find. I said that I would go and that she didn’t need to come with me. I understood how important this step was in my recovery of myself. I did go to see Joan. The person who had held such power over my life was a small, broken, crippled woman who couldn’t make any sense of how her life had gone so wrong. She had been done in by her own childhood horrors and by never facing the truth.
We talked, and I told her how her leaving had affected me. I told her that what she had done had changed all of our lives and had broken my heart. I told her I missed going off to college and that I had given away my baby because I had no means to take care of her. I asked her how she could live without her children. What could have been more important than loving and protecting your kids? How could she live without seeing us, talking to us, sharing our experiences? It was and is and will always be something that perplexes me deeply. Anyway, she cried and said that she was sorry. Doris was happy with my visit to my mother and we continued to work.
I took time off the heavy emotional stuff to just live my life– to enjoy being a family and watching Julia grow. But I always came back to therapy, trying to understand what was okay and what was messed up in the way that I thought about things. When Julia was 5, Doris suggested that I give my mother a gift. WHAT?
“Why would I give that woman a gift?” I asked.
“Because giving her a gift will help you heal,” she said.
Forgiving others is really something we give to ourselves. I had my doubts about that. What could I give her. I thought about this for a while– a very long while. I finally decided I would take Julia to meet her because she had never met any of her grandchildren. I went to see Joan and told her that I would bring my family to visit before the end of the summer.
The next day, we went. Julia didn’t know anyone that lived in a dark, smelly apartment. She didn’t know anyone that was old and crippled and crazy. I felt horrible sacrificing my child like this. We rang the buzzer and Joan came down to let us in. We talked about summer and swimming and Joan kept calling Julia “babies.” Joan tried to share stories about me when I was little, but it was so apparent that she really knew nothing about me. I want to say that my gift of a little bit of time with family made her happy, but it was a happiness burdened with sadness. I felt so sorry for her, and I was more determined more than ever to build a life of love and warmth. I was determined to let people into my life no matter how difficult that was for me.
I never took Julia back to visit my mother, but I did continue to visit periodically and I brought pictures. I slowed down my sessions with Doris. I jumped into living my life and enjoying the here and now. Doris died in 1999, on Mother’s Day. I miss her.
Joan died in 2007. I was divorced in 2004, but I continue to grow and change and gain confidence in myself. I obtained my college degree in 2005 and went back to work. My siblings are all married and have families. I guess it all turned out right in the end.
– Carol P.