This year, Fostering Media Connections (FMC) launched its first-ever Youth Voice nonfiction writing contest and invited current and former foster youth between the ages of 18 and 24 to submit essays. This year’s theme: “What love is.” Dozens of youth entered the contest from all over the United States. The winning essays appear in the May/June issue of Fostering Families Today (FMC’s magazine for foster parents). Following is a piece by our winner, Christina Parker.
As a child who entered foster care through kinship, my experience with love was complicated. I knew my grandmother loved me but I couldn’t understand why her daughter, my mother, loved the feeling of being high over her womb. Nine months I laid inside her cocoon as she poisoned me with opioids. So the feeling of being high was love before life was forced into my lungs. Love was not being able to latch onto my mother because the system pulled me away prematurely.
Love wasn’t attachment because people’s presence was only temporary. Love was tainted because I craved for a mother’s love but couldn’t comprehend her absence. Love was absent so love was lost before it could actually be found. Love was attention but the wrong kind, and inclusion but without guidance. Love was being lost in rooms with people who paid more attention to what was inside my clothes than to who I actually was as a person. Love was bought through government assistance. I learned that I was a paycheck before I could comprehend payment.
My relationship with my family shifted because I thought my worth was connected to a monthly payment. As an impressionable, vulnerable, innocent child love was being beaten. Growing up in an African American household the use of a belt was words of endearment that stung. Tears were met by further punishment for having the audacity to cry. Tears were dried by the same hands that made you weep. Love was searching for love in dark corners because my feelings were swept under rugs and shoved in closets.
Love was always wanting to be loved but never actually feeling loved. Love is learned. Our interpretation of love can be deformed by impurity, perpetuated through systems and people we trust. Love was lost in systems with good intentions but negative outcomes.
In my case, those systems were foster care, the educational system and health care. Because of what the health care system misdiagnosed as seizures, the education system misplaced me in special education, which resulted in a learning delay. I was stereotyped as mentally incompetent and began to think of myself as so.
Love was self-doubt. Love was being pulled out of one home and put into another without explanation. Love turned into self-hate when everyone who gave me this fictional idea of love was taken away. As an outcast, the words of bullies became my identity. I believed I was stupid, ugly and worthless. Soon love became the idea of death and tranquility. Love was razors across my veins and drugs to shift my brain. Sometimes trauma, pain and misuse of words can redefine how we love and receive love.
My confusion about what love was led me down a dark path. Not having the support and safe environment to process my feelings left me struggling to cope with my past. I had to erase this falsified ideology of what love was to truly find the meaning of love.
I found my voice through writing and reciting poetry. Through artistry, I was able to express being hurt by the deaths of my grandmother and mother, imprisonment of my only brother, physical and emotional abuse. Through art, I discovered the true definition of love. Love is understanding.
My mother was at war with addiction and although she supplemented my nutrition with poison, it was never her intention. Love is forgiveness. Love is not allowing words to have a hold on you. Love is being able to love your reflection no matter how distorted it is. Love is knowing other people’s words are not a representation of who you are but a limitation on who you will become.
Love is falling in love with your past because you understand that it has contributed to your ability to evolve. Love is acceptance, not rejection. Love is allowing others to love us despite our past. Love is unconditional. Love is a process. Love is trial and error. Love is forever learned. Love is selfless yet sometimes selfish and pure.
Foster youth advocacy and leadership programs such as the Educational Opportunity Program and California Youth Connection contributed to my ability to love myself and be loved. I was placed in the care of my uncle by marriage when I was 9 years old. From him I learned that love has nothing to do with DNA, that he will stay no matter how much I push him away. He never whipped me because the thought of hurting me would hurt him more. He loves me from his core, and my sexual orientation didn’t change his love despite his religious belief.
I learned that love doesn’t change because you do wrong or something that is not liked. My uncle as well as my godmother, mentors and others have helped shape my perspective, understanding and ability to love. Many foster youth have had experience with what love is not, and many of us struggle to find what love is.
I feel that I will go my entire life discovering the beauty, complexities and simplicities of love. Due to my experience with love, I will continue to unlearn unhealthy love and relearn healthy love. Wellness is a tool used to achieve love because we have to allow ourselves to heal so we can love. Love is subjective. Our understanding of love is based on experience.
Being a person who has experienced trauma, the interpretation I had when I was younger has completely changed since then because I was exposed to people who didn’t abuse my trust. As a resilient person, I will not allow my circumstances to control who I will become and what I will contribute to this world. It’s not about what happens to me, it’s about how I react to it. I refuse to be a victim when I was born a survivor, and I have dedicated my survival to helping others. Love for me now is transparent, motivational, educational, artistic, therapeutic and a continuous process of fostering healthier ways to love.
Christina Parker is a recent graduate of California State San Bernardino (CSUSB). She earned a bachelor’s degree in Arabic language, literature and culture with a minor in political science. She aspires to earn a master’s degree in public policy and social work. Her occupational goal is to be a California State Senator for the district of San Bernardino. The “Love Is…” Youth Voice contest was generously supported by The Zellerbach Family Foundation.