So this week I have been digging up photos of one of our foster children’s birth family. Not something I relish, knowing what I do about these people.
Our foster daughter, Esme* is about to embark on some Life Story Work – a way for her to process what has happened to her and to help her understand why she is in care. It takes the form of regular sessions where Esme looks at photos of both her foster family and her birth family, and discusses her feelings and memories. Her support worker will then try to unravel some of the confusion which reigns in Esme’s head. Confusion which still leads her to state that the abuse which happened to her was ‘no big deal’.
The photos were buried deep in the back of a filing cabinet, and in some long forgotten files on the computer. I opened them up and was immediately catapulted back into the horror of Esme’s first year with us, when she was still having contact with her parents. The chaos, the defiant, oppositional behaviour, the constant sexual approaches. That year pushed me and my husband to the edge of our sanity and nearly the end of our marriage. I have tried to compartmentalise these memories, and, with time, I have been mostly successful.
Seeing the photos whipped away all the protective layers I had put in place in my head. There was Esme’s mum again, in one shot posing and smiling on the beach, in another sticking her tongue out at the camera, in the next she was cuddling one of her many babies, then unwrapping Christmas presents with Esme. Esme herself stares vacantly out of the pictures, her eyes ringed with dark circles, her mouth pinched, her hair hanging in greasy clumps. She looks anxious and unkempt.
You have to understand, well, actually you can’t understand how much time I have given over to hating Esme’s mum and step dad. I don’t like to admit it, even to myself. It’s not something I’m proud of, and it is a pointless exercise, as my husband often reminds me.
This time, as I scanned the photos again, I allowed myself time to relax, step away from the judgemental, hateful me and see Esme’s mum from an objective point of view. (OK, not fully objective, but I’m trying.) I set aside my disgust, my horror and fury. I saw a very young mum with her children. A mum who was struggling to live on benefits and had been evicted from five different properties due to non payment of rent and anti-social behaviour. I saw a mum who comes from a family where inter-generational incest is the norm. Where boundaries and positive role models don’t exist. Where mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, grandparents, uncles and aunts are all intertwined in a chaotic sexual melting pot. Where everyone lives in close proximity to each other and keeps to the family code of silence – about what happens behind closed doors.
For the first time, I felt a rush of sympathy for Esme’s mum, despite the fact that she had horribly abused Esme and her brothers. I’ve had years of social workers telling me that Esme’s mum is a victim too. I guess if I am going to support Esme effectively through this difficult work, I have to cast off the hate and find some acceptance within myself of her family.
So that when she wants to look through those pictures and talk about her mum and her siblings and her step dad, I can do so without anger. If I want Esme to understand and then forgive, I have to do those things too. Somehow.
*not her real name