Photo: “Adopting a Teenager” – Nicole Blaine Family Archives
Something happened when I was a teenager that ripped the bootstraps off the worn-down old boots I kicked around in. I could no longer pull myself up by them. I tried. Several times. My fingers would slip through the broken straps, and I’d fall back down. Those boots were done. That life was done. I was unable to pull myself up by the bootstraps; I had to completely reboot.
What happened to me? That’s a story for another time. This story starts with a simple question, one I get asked all the time: “How many kids do you have?” Tricky question. Short answer: Two. Long answer: One by land, two by vagina. And by land, I mean she walked into my life as a teenager instead of pummeling through my uterus to get here.
You may have some questions. Please refer to the following FAQ’s:
You adopted a teenager?
Yes. (I’m crazy.)
When did you adopt a teenager?
While I was pregnant with my second child. (Super crazy.)
Had you been looking to adopt?
So, why exactly, with one child, and one on the way, did you ever consider adopting a teenager?
She was homeless. (Who doesn’t invite homeless teenagers into their homes?)
Was she, like, all dirty and gross, like a young bag lady?
No, actually, she looks a lot like Scarlett Johansson. (Who’s crazy now?)
Um, okay. How did you meet her?
She was my husband’s high school student. (Ummmmmm…)
It got weird. I know. Clearly I crossed all the lines. It just seemed right. And nuts. I connected to her. On some other level. A level my escalator has only reached a few times in my life.
Madison was a cheerleader at my husband’s school, and she sucked at it. They all did. Being the captain of my high school, and college, cheerleading team (take a moment to picture me brushing off my shoulder), I couldn’t watch one more basketball game where the cheerleaders’ toe touches made it to their knees, and their angles were so unsharp, they’d make a circle. Being six months pregnant, I knew it was the perfect time to volunteer to coach a cheerleading team.
Madison was different than the other girls: smarter, wiser, independent, one of those “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of kids. I could just tell. We bonded over an absurd joke none of the other girls understood. Yes, Madison was a beautiful, smart, independent, funny, homeless cheerleader. I realize this sounds like a Lifetime movie.
Before I even knew Madison was homeless, I asked her if I could buy her dinner after practice one day. I know, terribly inappropriate. Borderline creepy. For some reason I felt drawn to her, and since she was starving (literally) she accepted the invitation.
While inhaling six giant plates of Indian food, Madison told me her heart-breaking story: a childhood spent feeling misunderstood, sad, confused, lonely, angry and severely neglected. Madison spent her childhood in and out of foster care, juvie, and hospitals. She eventually landed in California with her drug addicted mother who figured out how to jump from homeless shelter to shelter every 30 days. After our meal, I ordered a couple more dishes for Madison to take home, and dropped her off at the shelter du jour. I couldn’t believe I was going to let her out of the car.
“Wait,” I grabbed her coat sleeve before she turned to leave, “If you could have anything, anything at all, what would it be?” I knew in that moment I needed to give her something. Anything she wanted. Someone had to give her whatever it was she truly longed for. I prepared for the worst.
She didn’t hesitate. Her eyes widened. “I’d love a prom dress.” That’s it? Out of anything in the world, this homeless teenager just wants a prom dress?
Done. “I’ll take you shopping this Saturday.”
Not only did I buy Madison her prom dress, I took her to pre-prom and stayed for all of the photos, at her request. I was her replacement parent for the evening.
I hung with Madison regularly for the next few weeks, and one day, instead of dropping her off at yet another homeless shelter, I asked, “Do you want to live with us?”
She grabbed her backpack, a box of clothes, a zip lock bag full of mini toiletries, her prom dress, and drove home with me. She didn’t look back. We drove in silence. I heard her breathing, long contrived breaths. I felt her gasping for air. I couldn’t look at her. I wanted to reach out and touch her, but I barely knew her. Her mother never contacted me. Nor did her father or extended family. No one bothered to check on where this teenager was living or who was taking care of her. No one seemed to care, which made me care even more.
There were no lengthy conversations with my husband about whether or not we should take this homeless person, who was practically a stranger, into our home. No debates about the financial burden, how this would affect our marriage, impact our children’s lives, or the safety of our family. We were both on the same page: she was a homeless kid who needed a family. We were a teacher, a struggling stand-up comic, a three-year-old, and a fetus living in a small two bedroom apartment. You know what we were missing? A homeless teenager!
“If you could have anything, anything at all, what would it be?”
As right as it felt, it also felt completely overwhelming. That summer, I spent night after night with her on my living room couch (a.k.a. Madison’s bed) sobbing. Wailing. Figuring out how to get her into City College, understand a syllabus, write a thesis statement, and arrive on time to class. All while wondering why her parents didn’t want her. Or look for her. Or love her. Getting up in the morning was close to impossible for Madison. Falling asleep at night was futile. Madison was sinking into a hole in my couch.
I wanted to save her. That’s the truth. Looking back, as unselfish as it seems, I know now that deep down inside I was being completely selfish. I was saving myself. I remember when my own world collapsed at her age. I remember feeling the incredible pain of my heart actually breaking, not from a lost love, but from a broken childhood. I remember every morning, right before I opened my eyes, I’d wish that the life I was living was actually a nightmare and that it would all be over. Every day I opened my eyes to find myself in the same world I went to sleep in, I’d be overwhelmed with panic and despair. If I could love her like I had wanted to be loved, I would be the one who made it out on top. I would have successfully come out of my own trauma still intact with the ability to love others. I wasn’t completely damaged if I could mother three children… right?
I shared my story with Madison. Hoping it would give her comfort. I did everything I could so she would feel taken care of. From making her favorite labor intensive vegan meals every night, to teaching her how to drive, to staying up late writing papers on Greek Renaissance Art. (Turns out, I still get straight A’s – brushing off the other shoulder.)
Her 18th birthday was coming up. I wanted to make it a great night. She deserved that. The best medicine? Laughter. I bought her tickets to see her first stand-up comedy show – which she had been looking forward to for years. At the last minute Madison called, “My mom wants to spend my birthday with me! She remembered. Can you pick me up later?” Not a big deal. This just meant that I would have to lose money to change our comedy tickets for the late-night show, ditch the midnight feeding of my newborn son, and force my husband to introduce the bottle to my titty-loving son when none of us was ready for this transition. I mean, come on, her homeless, drug-addicted mother, who hasn’t checked on her for months, and has no idea if Madison is safe, hungry, or alive, wanted to see her for her birthday. I should totally throw my life into chaos for this crazy bitch who should never have been allowed to have children, right?!?!
“Sure. No problem,” I said to Madison. I would have given anything at her age to have my own mother come in and save me from my depression. At the time, it seemed like my own mother was the only one who could piece my world back together, and I saw that that’s where Madison’s head was at. “You have fun, and I’ll see you after.”
We went to the late show. Sat in the front the row. I never told her what I gave up in order to give her a special birthday. I wanted to just watch her laugh. When we got home I found my husband, struggling to feed our son at two in the morning. I grabbed my screaming baby and nestled down on the couch next to Madison. “So, did you have a great birthday?”
“Eh,” she said awkwardly. “I imagined it differently. My mom was really out of it. So…” her voice trailed off. We sat silently.
Both of us swallowing our tears. My son cooed as he nursed and curled up into me. A wave of warmth washed over me. My son and I, so deeply and naturally connected. Madison saw this. She looked down.
I wish my love for Madison was enough. But it isn’t. Because I’m not her mom. And no matter how many papers I write with her in the middle of the night, or how many birthday shows I take her to, it won’t fill the holes in her heart that were made so long ago. But if I continue to love her, and show her the love I share with my husband, and my other children (that happened to have come out of my vagina) hopefully she will one day be able to give and share love too. My wish for her is that when she becomes a mother, her heart will fill and retain the love. And the prom dress and mended bootstraps that she has pulled up on over and over will be able to be handed down to someone else that needs them. Because Madison will be rebooted. Just as I have been.
Over Thanksgiving Madison murdered my husband in bed and kidnapped our two children (in the Lifetime movie version).
In real life, she transferred into a four year University this past Fall. She is living in the dorms, getting the college experience she always dreamt of, slated to graduate early next year. My children know her as their sister and love her unconditionally. She came to her senses and is not a vegan anymore.
If you or someone you know has the space in their heart to adopt or even foster a teen please consider reaching out to the Alliance for Childrens Rights. Many teens end up aging out of the foster care system never having the stability of a real home.