But I also loved my mother, even during her worst drinking, and I loved my siblings. Like other children from such homes, I struggled with feelings of shame, guilt and disappointment: shame for what had happened to me, guilt for wanting safety, disappointment because it never happened. Though I probably should have been removed from my home by authorities when I was young, I never was.
By the time I was 15, I was homeless. Sleeping under benches, I pretended I was wrapped not in newspaper but in a blanket, rocked not by the wind but by a mother who accepted my angers as well as my hurts. Being assaulted on the streets, I told myself the truth and promised myself I would never have a family that supported lies. It was through such dreams I fought my way off the streets, becoming a freelance writer and investigator.
In my 20s, I decided to adopt from foster care. I wanted to be a mother, and rather than have children biologically I was drawn to giving homes to children that came from backgrounds like mine.
There are half a million children in foster care, many in need of adoption. They are children like I once was: victims of abuse, molestation and neglect. Removed from their parents, foster children face uncertain futures, without a family to call home or a mother’s love. I decided I would change that. I would create a family where there were hugs in the morning, plates of food and an always-safe bed. I would be the mother that would rock them through their angers as well as hurts — the family that would let them tell the truth.
I ended up adopting three children. My daughter came first, then my oldest son, then my youngest son. All were considered special-needs children, which in foster-care lingo can mean anything from significant delays to merely being older or part of a sibling set. The special need for many children is how difficult it is for caseworkers to find them homes.
My children came with trauma. I won’t lie — it wasn’t easy. For years, my life was limited to an exhausting routine of schools, meals and therapies. I felt alone as friends with kids enjoyed activities that resulted in my children flying apart into fearful rages. So I learned to create fun times right in our own home. I stacked every pillow in the house to make a giant hill to tumble down. I painted the bathroom with stars and put an old mattress on the stairs as a slide. I pulled them around and around on blankets, pretending to be a rollercoaster ride, taking their tickets and calling out in joy with them. There were birthday parties every day with candles on morning pancakes, and every night we would go wave at the moon.
I saw how deep their hunger for love was. Where another parent might see a broken cup, I saw a beautiful thirst. So I filled their cups.
When my oldest son — far too large — wanted to climb under my shirt and be carried around like an infant in my womb, I obliged. While he nestled, delighted, against my skin, I walked up and down our street, waving to the neighbors, who came to expect this game. “I’m having a baby,” I called, and my lovely neighbors shouted congrats in return. Back at home my son would jump out of my shirt. “I’m here!” he always yelled, and I swooped him in the air, covering him with kisses. In this way he was reborn to me, over and over again, into a world without hurt. We played this game until he no longer needed it. His brain and heart rewired: What had happened to him before was real, but now so was our love. The abuse he had experienced was not erased. It was unconditionally accepted, and loved without measure.
Eventually, our world widened, until we were like other families, enjoying trips to parks and the zoo. I felt there was something special about us: We had all walked on the side of sorrow and seen the dawn. Each time I tucked my kids in, singing our silly nighttime songs, each and every morning they woke up safe, was like a drink for my own thirsty cup. When I was that age, I would think, and fill in the blank for all that I had avoided for them. Through them I got to experience what it was like to be loved, to be protected, to be cherished.
It’s been more than 20 years now since I first adopted. My children are now warm, wonderful teens and young adults, going to school and working. They’re the kind of kids to make any parent proud, but that’s not why I love them. I love them for all they are, including their past. I am thankful for the gift they gave me, for the childhood I had lost and regained through them. My dream came true, after all.
Rene Denfeld is the bestselling author of The Child Finder, a literary thriller based on her experiences as a licensed investigator and foster-adoptive mother. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her three amazing kids.