Betty was a foster child when I met her. We were both 16. She believed that her foster family had taken her in only to help around the house. Who can say if that was the truth, but it may have been. They had a toddler, and the mother did seem like a “cold fish”.
They lived a two-minute walk from our house – a quick jog through the park where we used to sit on the swings together and talk about life.
She was a Cheerful kid who laughed easily. Even in the saddest times she was to experience later on. When she moved back into tbe city to live with her mother again, I visited her a few times, and kept in touch periodically once we became working adults.
She “got herself pregnant” as we used to say, but Jimmy and Betty seemed to live happily together. Eventually we drifted off into our separate lives – hers from 18 on, a typical life of poverty like the one she’d grown up in, and mine that of an independent working woman entering my first job at 19.
One day when we were 20, she called and wanted to talk. She came to my apartment that evening after work. Through her sobs, she told me that Jimmy was gone and she had given up her two-year-old for adoption. The unbearable story was that Jimmy had apparently experienced a severe depression and breakdown, then disappeared.
In those days, there was no quick welfare fix available. Betty did have a social worker from her days as a foster child, and had gone to her looking for help. The social worker, had convinced her that the most loving, considerate thing she could do for her two-year-old would be to give her up for adoption and a ‘better life’.
I cried with her, as it was easy to see the unbearable pain this had created. Though I had not yet experienced motherhood, I could see this would be a permanent wound. I raged inside at the unfairness of it all.
We did drift apart again, no doubt fading in each others’ memories. Then many years later, it all came back when I adopted a two-year-old. Now I understood at a deeper level, for the first time, that a two-year-old is not a baby, but a person. Unlike adoption of an infant, with a child that age the situation is more like an arranged marriage. I could see and experience some of the emotional adjustment my two-year-old had to go through – her own little ‘shock and awe’ so to speak. Taking her away from her foster family – where she’d been from the beginning – was akin to ripping someone’s arm off, then putting it back and trying to make it heal.
Now, 27 years later, I can still remember the wounding of my daughter. And I still sometimes wonder how Betty’s daughter has done in the world. These events deeply inform my beliefs today as a witness to the reality of poverty.
Whatever cynical myths I hear about ‘poor people’ can never change the bitter truth forever imprinted on my heart.
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