By Danidy Espinoza
As the oldest of eight children, it was my destiny to assume the role of my mother’s sidekick. My role felt heroic, but the older I got, the more I just wanted to be a kid. I resented my mother almost the entirety of my childhood and saw her more like an irresponsible older sister I had to constantly look out for. She was diagnosed bipolar schizophrenic. Her disease made my life physically and mentally draining.
Every day I helped with household duties, cooking and cleaning. I also prepared baby bottles and even changed my younger siblings’ diapers. And if my mother was having a bad day, I was her only support. But I needed her to be mine.
My responsibilities extended beyond what was developmentally appropriate for my age. While my mother slept in, I drove my stepdad to work every morning before going off to middle school.
Academically I did well, but making friends was a challenge. I couldn’t hold a conversation with kids my age. All they talked about was stuff like television, the latest video games or who they had a crush on. Usually, I had more important things going on in my head; none of which I could share with the kids at school.
The truth is, I only liked school for the food. Because my parents fought so much about money, I stopped eating at home and only ate at school hoping it would help our financial issues.
In our culture, it’s normalized for a female child to help with household chores and duties, no matter their age. Even given such cultural expectations, nothing about my life was normal.
After I turned 10, social workers and police officers were regulars in my household, visiting more often than our closest relatives.
Like clockwork, the day before the social worker visited, mom coached me on what to say and what not to say. While her fear of losing us was contagious, I feared losing her and my siblings.
Anytime the social worker questioned me and took notes in her manila folder gripped tightly to her chest, I remembered what my mom and I had rehearsed.
Lying to authorities was paralyzing but I thought it was necessary to keep my family together. I lied about my stepfather beating my mother nearly every other day. I lied about my parents buying, selling and doing drugs. I lied about what my stepdad would do to me in private when my mom wasn’t around. And I lied about being safe in their home.
A ‘Surprise’ Visit
On Christmas Eve 2014, when I was 16 years old, our social worker conducted a “surprise visit” and found my stepdad in our home in violation of his restraining order.
During that visit, my world came to a stop and then it completely crumbled. My stepdad was taken into police custody and my siblings and I were taken from my mother’s care. Part of me was relieved to be away from my stepdad but the other part of me worried about my siblings. Were they safe? Would my mom come back for us? Was this my fault?
We were placed with multiple relatives in different homes and the social workers would repeatedly tell me I was “lucky” to be placed with relatives. There was nothing lucky about being in a house infested with bed bugs, roaches and mice — among relatives who didn’t love us and had no compassion for what my siblings and I were going through.
They bad-mouthed my mom and treated us badly every chance they got. Truth is, I always wished we got placed with strangers instead because if we had been, the lack of love would make sense.
Waiting for my mother in these homes was agonizing. Weeks turned into months and months turned into years. She never came back for us. For years, I was furious at her.
In 2020, at age 22, I was living with a roommate. I was super depressed and hated my life when I got a phone call from my sister Abby. It was her 18th birthday and she called me to say she got kicked out of her adoptive parents’ home.
She came to stay with me and, three months later, we got our first apartment together.
At the time, my 14-year-old sister Michelle was living in the same home Abby was kicked out of. Michelle would constantly call us fearing for her safety. There was a registered sex offender living in the same house as her. Abby and I knew we had to get Michelle out of there.
I reported the adoptive family to the authorities and she went back into the system in June 2020.
The very next day, I applied for her custody but was denied.
I couldn’t believe it — I felt so utterly defeated. Michelle was then placed in a home, this time with another relative.
Flashbacks and Future Plans
As the months went by — with only two approved monthly visits to see Michelle and after being denied custody — I fell into a deep depression, convinced helping her was impossible.
Another Christmas Day came and went without my sisters and with only the flashbacks of the night we were removed from my mother’s care for company.
Those flashbacks were all the motivation I needed to get my life together and bring my sister home.
We wanted to be a family and I was going to make it happen. In January 2021, I applied for custody again, this time with the help of an attorney and a California Foster Resource Agency.
Initially it was challenging, but with their help, I was pointed in the right direction. I started by getting a legit job. I was working at a marijuana dispensary at the time but I needed something more suitable as a prospective adoptive mom.
After all, I was going to be a parent and legal guardian soon. Since I already had an apartment lease with my name on it, I was one step ahead. Next on the agenda was to become certified as a resource parent.
Becoming a Parent
Throughout the process of gaining legal custody of my sister, I sacrificed a lot — school, weekends, support from my relatives and my 3-year-old romance. It was hard for me but nothing was harder than knowing my sister wasn’t safe.
Finally, four months later, Michelle moved in with me on April 12, 2021 and I felt like I’d just won the lottery.
The first few weeks I thought to myself, “I raised her all her life, this is going to be easy.” It was not easy. Suddenly, I started questioning my capabilities.
Raising a 14-year-old teenager unlocked new fears I didn’t know I had, like being terrified of parenthood. In front of me was a girl whose life had been flipped upside down not once but twice in the past few months.
I didn’t feel capable or experienced enough to raise her. How will I help her with her trauma? I haven’t even dealt with my own.
My fears started to show up like hives. I feared disappointing her as a sister and worried I would ruin her future. Most of all, I feared raising her alone. But the bigger my family grew, the more support I received.
Family had a new meaning for me — people who support you during the greatest and toughest times of your life.
My new chosen family was my siblings, counselors and friends I have made along the way. Their support provided the strength I needed to keep going.
Almost every day I had to reassure myself everything will be OK to gain the courage to face change.
Change is scary but also inevitable because it nurtures growth, and growth means better things are coming.
Parenthood became my change, my new identity. I went from wondering if Michelle was safe, and whether she would finally get a bed after years of sleeping on a wooden floor in her foster home to buying her a bed in her own room, getting her into a good charter school and watching her grow up.
Raising my sister as my own also came with unexpected bursts of anger toward my mother and stepfather.
My mom isn’t here to cheer Michelle on at her softball games or make her soup when she’s sick. And her dad isn’t here to play catch or teach her how to drive.
Instead, I am the one filling in for them playing catch and cheering for her at games or making soup when she is sick.
Looking Ahead, Letting Go
The beautiful moments I experience as my sister’s foster parent are the same ones I missed out on because of my parents’ issues.
The waves of emotions make sense to me now. Today, I see life through a new lens. I’m thankful for the experiences of my youth — good and bad — because they shaped who I am.
I thank my parents for making me an older sister. All my greatest challenges came from being a sister, yet being a sister is my greatest skill to date.
Throughout my parenting journey, I’ve not only grown in confidence as a parent, but have also found the strength to release the anchors of my past that had held me captive for so long. My wounds have turned into scars. I can see them, but I no longer feel them.
Now, at age 26, my Michelly is 17 and she is the best thing to have ever happened to me. It’s been three years since she moved in and it seems like just yesterday I was asking her about her ride to her new home — our home. She shines more light in my life than any sunny day in California.
The ghosts of my past don’t haunt my future any more. I no longer worry about where our next meal is coming from.
I no longer have to trade toilet paper for a cup of noodles to feed my siblings. And I do not have to worry about the electricity or water being cut because of past due bills.
For 11 years, I was stuck in 2012 and longed for my mother’s return. The cloud over my head is gone and I look forward to things like Michelle’s graduation and her first day of college.
Our future holds amazing memories yet to be made. Our future holds the chance to finally live a peaceful life vastly different from the life I lost living in fear of my drug-addicted parents and the foster care system.
Most importantly, it holds the one thing I’ve always wished for — a happy family.
Danidy Espinoza is a self-proclaimed stay-at-home sister and a certified resource parent with a passion for making a difference in the lives of children. Currently pursuing a degree in psychology, Espinoza is deeply committed to understanding the complexities of human behavior and emotional well-being. She is an active member of the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA), where she continuously expands her knowledge and contributes to the fostering community. Outside of her academic and advocacy work, Espinoza enjoys immersing herself in nature through hiking, diving into the world of literature and maintaining a healthy lifestyle by hitting the gym. She also finds excitement in attending car shows across Los Angeles, blending her love for cars with her vibrant local community.