| This is the 592nd story of Our Life Logs® |
I woke up to strange sounds. In the haze of sleep, I could tell something was wrong. There was no normal chatter of friends in the kitchen. There wasn’t the familiar smell of linen. I was cold. Instead of sounds of protection I was used to, it was the sound of cars hitting their brakes too hard and the harsh squeal of tires against the pavement. It smelled like rubber. It smelled like engine exhaust. Then I remembered, I’d fallen asleep on church steps in Newark, New Jersey.
The cold air slapped my face and brought me to attention. The stringent cold burned my airways with each breath. My vision was hazy as the cold burned my eyes.
“Let’s go,” my mother directed. She didn’t say where or why. She dusted off the pillows we slept on and tucked them under my coat, I’m guessing for warmth. Then she folded up the thin blanket and held it under her arms. We started walking.
We walked for what seemed like ages. My stomach grumbled. My feet were getting tired, and I couldn’t feel my face, as the cold produced tears in my eyes. I looked up to ask where we were going, and I saw she had her own tears.
“What’s wrong mom?” I asked. She ignored my question and continued to look ahead.
Eventually we came upon a large building with words on it that I couldn’t read. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a note affixed with tape. She stuck it on me and told me to go inside.
It was on my sixth birthday in 1987 that my mother surrendered me to the Division of Youth and Family Services, more commonly known as DYFS. It was my first time being separated from my mom, and at that moment everything changed for me. I think it was at that point my innocence was lost.
I haven’t had a good birthday since.
To know more about me, you should know a little more about my mother. She was raised in a foster home since she was two. Her mother was 13 and her father was 21 when they conceived her. As a sign of the times, my grandmother was forced into marriage. My grandfather was abusive to her and by the time she was 17, she had had three children and a broken spirit. Feeling like she’d go crazy if she stayed a second longer, she abandoned her children and got away from her abusive husband. My grandfather, refusing to take the burden of three kids on his own, dropped his children at a foster care center not too long afterwards. Handed off to be dealt with by the foster care system, my mother suffered sexual and physical abuse while she went from home to home. She lived a difficult life.
When I came into the picture, it was too difficult for my mother to take care of me. My mother was a disabled veteran with a mental illness by then. Before she received disability compensation from the state, she had trouble keeping a stable job. We often had to rely on friends for a place to stay and shower. We would go from house to house, with no one place to call ours. No place to feel safe. She felt like she had to give me up for both of us to survive. I never knew what a stable home was like as a kid. So, my mother dropped me on DYFS’ doorstep, to be dealt with by someone else, just like her father had done to her.
Since that day my mom left me with DYFS, I’d suffered. In my foster home, I experienced day after day of verbal and physical abuse. I was insulted and mocked for having the normal questions and air of a six-year-old. I was made to feel like a burden. I learned to tolerate verbal abuse over time. When I complained about typical things a young child might complain about, I was beaten. I remember one of my foster parents telling me, “I’ll give you something to complain about alright,” as she beat me. I had to learn to keep my mouth shut, to rarely complain. I learned to be seen and not heard. I also learned that I couldn’t trust people. No one was going to help me. And so, I suffered in silence.
Let’s fast forward a bit. I spent the rest of my adolescence trying to survive the toxic environment of bad foster homes. But I had one light in my life and that was my love, my high school sweetheart. He gave me hope for all the chaos in my life, and on my 18th birthday, we got married. I thought it was a match made by the angels themselves. I soon became pregnant with my first son, and I was thinking that I was finally going to experience happiness. But things changed after my child was born. The chaos I always knew began rearing its ugly head in my marriage.
There was a severe shift in my love’s attitude toward life. Gone was the understanding, supportive rock in the chaos. Instead, was an irritable man who picked at me over the most mundane things, such as what he wanted to eat for dinner and how often the house should be cleaned. I was unhappy, but I didn’t know how to leave someone who was the foundation of my life at the time. So, I did what I’d been taught all my life. I suffered in silence.
Over the next year, I became pregnant again and had another son. I still wanted to leave but I didn’t do anything about it until the relationship became physically abusive. The person I once felt safe with didn’t make me feel safe anymore. It all became too much to bear, so I left him, and we eventually got a divorce.
But I wasn’t out of the woods yet. All my life I’d been mistreated, and for a while I thought I deserved it. So even though I’d gotten free of this abuse, I found myself drawn to more broken people. They say broken people find each other. So, I wound up in a slew of harmful relationships, unable to break out of it.
Now I want to clarify that it wasn’t all bad. There were some beautiful times in these relationships. After my two sons from my first marriage, I had a baby girl with another man. When that little girl turned into a teenager, I met my now-ex-husband, and we soon conceived a little boy. Although we are now divorced, my children have a father. Unlike the other men, he didn’t abandon the children. He wanted to be in their lives. Having a father was something I never truly had, so to hear him say this moved me to tears. And unlike my mother and her mother, I wasn’t going to abandon my kids, either. The cycle needed to end with me.
While it was easy to say I wanted to change things, I knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight. As I was slowly turning my life around, I distinctly remember the day that I did an about-face to direct myself to the path I truly needed to be on and to do better by my children.
My daughter wanted to go on a school trip to a museum in New York. I reflexively said “Sure!” However right after, I remembered the budget was tight because I had to get a few unexpected repairs done on my car. I felt guilt overcome me, freezing me in that spot. I hardly got the opportunity to go on field trips because we grew up poor, and I wanted to do better by my own children. When I felt I was putting my children in the same position I was in, I felt helpless. I went to explain to my daughter that I forgot the budget was tight, and she erupted into tears of disappointment. The same disappointment I felt almost daily. I felt that I failed.
That was the moment that I knew I had to be the change for my children. I wasn’t going to let my past harm my children’s future. I make sure my children know they are important, loved, and that I’m going to be here. I make sure they know there’s nothing they can do that will make me stop loving them. Whatever life path they decide to take, I’m going to support them.
To help be the change for my kids, I worked a full-time and a part-time job to make ends meet, and have some money to spare so my children could enjoy their childhood. Sometimes, my days seemed to blur together because I was so tired. But I don’t regret a single ounce of energy I’ve put into ensuring my children’s dreams can come true.
After a few years of developing a strong work ethic, I saved enough money to move to North Carolina by myself in 2020. I thought to myself, “Me?! Moving so far away on my own, and with four kids?” I was so proud of myself. I was proud that I had stayed true to my promise to my children and proved my doubters wrong. I earned my title as a mom long ago, but at that moment I proved I had the strength of a mother.
Since 2020, I have sought therapy to undo the years of childhood trauma I was taught to normalize. There was nothing normal about my upbringing, and I understand that now. I have also created a detailed financial structure, so I can buy a new car. Then I want to buy a house. After all that I’ve overcome, I know I can do it.
If there were more mental health resources back when I was young, maybe my mother could have gotten the help she needed. Maybe my childhood would’ve been different. The mental illness stigma in the black community needs to be addressed. We go through these patterns to set up generational trauma when what we need is to get help for ourselves and to be understanding of others. I broke that cycle with my own children, and I will forever be grateful that I did.
This is the story of Serena Goldstein
Serena is a mother of four who recently moved from New Jersey to North Carolina. Growing up in foster homes in a life of abuse, Serena had to find a way to break that cycle as an adult after becoming a mother. Now, Serena looks forward to raising her youngest, her four-year-old son, and being there for him the way he needs her to. She is working to gain entry into the medical field to help others with mental illness.
This story first touched our hearts on March 15, 2021
Writer: Bryanna Gutierrez | Editor: Kristen Petronio; Manqing Jin