The first time I met you, I was scared like a mother.
You were 17 years old, and your reputation preceded you. Your social worker had warned us that you had a temper, that you were prone to violent outbursts and destruction of property. You posed an intimidating figure at six-foot-one and 200 pounds, and you already had a full beard.
I was expecting a foster child, not a grown man.
When your social worker tried to introduce you to us, you said nothing. You were hard stone. Even after she prompted you, you refused to speak.
I was intimidated. I’d never been a mother before, and the prospect seemed suddenly terrifying, even though your stay was to be brief—just three days, until a bed at a juvenile detention center was ready for you. You were the very picture of hopelessness, unkempt and swimming in a filthy blue polo shirt two sizes too large for your broad shoulders. Your dark hair was a mess, and both your shoes were ripped. You badly needed a shower and a toothbrush.
But our dog loved you instantly, and when I saw your childlike response to his affection, my apprehension softened.
We showed you to your room. I gave you a toothbrush, and you placed your things—two plastic grocery sacks of crumpled clothes and a junk laptop you were determined to fix—on the bed. You had been quiet that whole time, but as the social worker turned to leave, you found both your courage and your voice: “Can I just stay here?”
I was dumbfounded by your question.
We had never done foster care before, so I didn’t know if we were even allowed to let you stay, if we were qualified enough for your “level of care.” But your question made me feel like a mother for the very first time.
You needed a mom—that was why you had come to us. And I needed a child, something to fill the ache of my empty womb. In that moment, I did not care about any of those awful things I had heard about you. I saw in you what my dog saw.
I wanted to be your mother.
So we said yes, and what was started as a three-day stint turned into a year.
You were nothing like the warnings we’d been given. You never broke so much as a pencil in anger. You weren’t violent. Instead, you were polite and sweet, if messy and stubborn. Once you finally started talking, it was hard to get you to stop. You jabbered incessantly about engines and cars and electronics. You loved dogs and Disney movies and popcorn. You danced in your socks and drew cartoons and made us presents. You were so very childlike, despite your manly appearance.
You were not at all what I had imagined, but it was not long before I started to love you like a mother.
You began to tolerate my affections, and eventually, you returned them. The house felt fuller with you in it. We helped you get your driver’s license and graduate high school. But you were 17—months from your 18th birthday. I knew it would not last. Freedom was in your sights.
We feared you were not ready for the responsibilities ahead—though you had come far, you still had much to learn. Your formal education had been fragmented by a decade spent bouncing around the foster care system, and you had missed out on so many basic skills. You didn’t know the days of the week or the months of the year. You couldn’t do basic math problems. You struggled to read and write at a fourth-grade level. Telling time was a challenge, as was counting money.
But you wanted to be an adult, with all its glorious trappings, and in the eyes of the law, you soon would be.
You had grandiose ideas of adulthood, believing it would be nothing but complete freedom from all the responsibility and obligation we were trying to instill in you. You didn’t believe us when we told you that you needed car insurance—you were convinced it was all a scam. You thought you could get by without a job, that you could rummage and scrap at the junkyard, that the government would just give you money the way it had your mother—but you had no dependent children, so no such benefits were forthcoming.
You mother was no role model—she thrived on handouts and spite. As your birthday approached, she became suddenly interested in your finances. She knew that you had a significant amount of money saved for a car, and she began to plant seeds of resistance in the soil of your mind, reminding you that the money was yours, that you should be able to spend it however you wanted, that you shouldn’t have to buy a car if you didn’t want to.
Her suggestions took root.
Even though you did want a car, you bought into this subversive idea. You’d always hated being told what to do, so your mother suggested rather than ordered, and in this way, she manipulated you. With wild promises of wealth, she convinced you to drain your bank account and use your money to buy her an old slot machine, because she believed this would make her rich.
It never occurred to either of you that you would only ever get out of it what you put into it.
Absence from your biological mother had made your heart grow both fonder and forgetful. She swore to you that she had changed her ways, that she missed you and wanted you back. She made grand promises, vowing to help you achieve your independence without pesky government workers breathing down your neck. We feared that she was using you for the money, just as she had always done, but you refused to heed our warnings. We watched in horror as she entwined herself in your finances, as she guilt-tripped you into giving her your entire tax return, as she marched you to the bank and got you to put her name on your account, just so she could drain it entirely behind your back.
I despised her like a mother.
Your social worker tried to intervene, but once you turned 18, she was powerless to stop you—all she could give was her strong recommendation that you stay with us, but her words fell on deaf ears. Your mother had convinced you that we would limit your freedom, but she would let you fly free.
You could have stayed with us—you qualified for extended foster care. In fact, I’d hoped you would stay with us. I wasn’t ready to let you go. We had a vacation planned—your first real vacation, and I was excited to take you. I cared about you, and I wanted to help you succeed.
But you did not want my help.
As was your legal right, your first adult decision was to cut ties with all county support—including us. It stung; I won’t lie. I watched helplessly as you chose the fantasy your mother had created over the reality we were trying to give you.
We said our goodbyes, and you moved back in with your mother.
It did not go well.
We visited you in jail two weeks later.
Months passed, and we lost touch. We took that vacation we’d planned without you, and your absence felt like a crater in the landscape of my heart. You had no cell phone, no means of communication. It felt too late, like I’d missed the chance to truly be your mom.
But that did not stop me from worrying about you.
January is a bitter month in Minnesota, and when my husband learned that you were homeless, living in the back of an unreliable Cadillac DeVille that had been stripped of both its dash contents and its upholstery, we opened our doors to you again, this time without any government involvement. We had only two conditions for you to stay: get a job and keep your room clean.
But even this proved too much. You’d always been stubborn, and you did not want help, even though you desperately needed it. You left us again, choosing the back of your car over the room and board we offered. I had to admire your determination and independence (however foolish and misguided they were), but I watched you leave again with a heavy heart. It grieved me to watch you go.
I continued to worry.
I worried like a mother.
I had once taken such ordinary adult milestones as gainful employment and proper housing for granted, but for you, I feared they might only be pipe dreams. I worried that you still lacked the skills to make it on your own, that you were still vulnerable to manipulation and deceit at the hands of your own mother. I worried that the help we’d tried to give you wasn’t enough to break you free from the cycle of poverty and abuse you’d endured.
But in the end, I think it was.
You’re 24 now, son, and you’ve embraced the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood by learning to accept help. You call with questions about taxes and car insurance, about banking and budgeting and cell phone plans. You have a home of your own. It is, by your own description, “a piece of crap,” but it is entirely yours, and that in itself is an accomplishment. You have a steady job and reliable transportation. You’re paying your own bills. Your relationship with your biological mother is healthier than it has ever been. You seem happy, content, and proud of yourself.
I’m proud of you, too, son—I’m proud like a mother.