Single mom of five. Single mom of five? SINGLE MOM OF FIVE!?!?!?!?!!!! Yep, that’s what she said. The owner of the agency who hired me said, “treat this like you are a single mom of five.” Wow, I thought I was becoming an employee in group care. I could not have been more wrong.
The model of this agency was Therapeutic Foster Care. There were two homes, one for males and one for females. This was before society and the system recognized how exclusionary that was for youth who are non-binary. But for the purpose of telling the story I lived, it was a home for adolescent females, next door to another home for adolescent males.
What it looked like was, a single caregiver or a couple were hired to live in the respective home, as the caregivers, or foster parent(s). Other adults were hired to serve roles such as office managers, maintenance, housekeepers. Family support staff were hired to support the “parent” in running the household, and the relationship between youths and caregivers.
We handled their case management, so family-support staff would make medical, dental, or mental health appointments (and more) plus provide transportation to said appointments when needed. Although, most of the time it was the caregiver who took them, just like a parent would. Staff would be there on weekdays during office hours, but evenings, weekends, holidays, and vacations it was just me and them. For several years, my time off was every other week for 48 hours.
So here I was, a single mom of five. Nothing to see here folks, just a single woman stepping into the role of “mom” of two 17-year-olds, one 16-year-old, and two 15-year-olds. In that first group there was autism and developmental delays, oppositional defiant disorder, substance abuse and just plain ol’ rage from complex trauma and being controlled by a broken system; state-run foster care. Oh and, we mustn’t forget…… hormones.
Just like when I started working in early childhood education, I quickly discovered that this was what I was built for. The empathy I was born with had been sharpened by years of work with children, so once again, I knew what they needed, even before I knew why. I didn’t have formal education for working with kids with trauma, but I did have instincts, experience, and a compassionate heart.
There was an adjustment period of course, where I sometimes asked myself, “what the hell were you thinking?” “You don’t know what to do with these kids, this is too much!” Living with angry teens who were bigger than me could be very scary.
But then one day, early on, one of my 15-year-olds, “J” was standing in front of me in a blind rage, screaming with all her might. I could see the silhouette of her as a small child, full of pain and rage. I suddenly realized that my years with small children had equipped me for this moment because just like them teens also act out unmet needs.
These girls were not unlike those angry young children I had helped through my career. Except so many years of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and the experience of living a state-controlled life had filled many with uncontrollable rage, even to the point of assault.
My fear melted. Empathy and compassion took over. I discovered how powerful it was for them just to feel seen and heard, without judgement or punishment. I also discovered the difference it made to not live under staff supervision, but a caregiver’s love. Before I knew it, I forgot it was a job. It was my whole life. Some of the youths would forget too. I became their caregiver, and this wasn’t a group home……. It was OUR home.