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Who do you belong to?

This is my son, Jose. For the first 8 years of his life, Jose did not belong to us. He belonged to a system that, like a parent, kept him safe and fed. Unlike a parent, however, that system did not nurture him, comfort him, or love him. And, in this cold and often loveless context, the system told him day to day where and with whom he would live, where he would go to school, whom he could or could not trust, who his “real” parents were and who they were not.

When Jose was eight, he came to live with us, his “forever family”.

By that time, he had lived in 5 different placements; one of those placements a return home to his biological mother and younger sister only to be taken back into foster care 6 months later.

I’m sure you can imagine, then, that the little boy who arrived on our doorstep, our new son, was a very scared, hurt, and angry little boy. It was virtually impossible for him to put words to his feelings about the overwhelming changes happening in his life. Moreover, Jose spoke only Spanish. Living his short eight years in the barrios of Puerto Rico, he had had little occasion to interact with anyone who spoke anything else. So, even if he wanted to share his feelings, he could only do so with my husband and myself, both Spanish speakers, but also the people that scared and confused him. So, virtually no one in Jose’s “new” life could communicate and understand, let alone connect, with him.

I’m sure you can imagine also, then, that the never-before-parents of this scared and angry little boy were equally scared and confused; the son they had dreamed of coming home to them was not who showed up. This son found every possible way he could to communicate, verbally and non-verbally, that he would never belong to them; that they would never be his “real” parents and that he would never love them. So, like everyone else, his “new” parents too thought it impossible to communicate and understand, let alone connect, with him.

For ten years, we labored to find each other. It was hard, excruciating really – none of us knew how to break through the barrier of emotions built and strengthened over time. For ten years I searched for, if not the loving son I originally expected, at least a less angry version of the one I had. Jose’s pain and anger completely ruled his life – he started getting into more and more trouble – physical altercations and self-medicating. As his mother, I could not, would not, sacrifice him to drugs, prison, or death even as others (and sometimes myself) believed that I would never prevail; Jose was destined to once again be claimed by a system, another institution that decided his identity and his life for him.

Although difficult and often painful, I have learned and grown a lot in the past several years, both with myself and with Jose. I now see that, in actuality, Jose has been my greatest teacher. His deep pain and behavior are a mirror that Jose steadily holds for me; a mirror reflecting back my own pain and need for growth. Finally, I began to truly understand, both in mind and heart, that I needed to accept and love my son for who he is, not for who I expected or wanted him to be. I had to figure out how to stake my claim as his mother right now, as we are.

Even more difficult, I had to figure out how to arrive and stay in this new place with pride and joy and unconditional love. The journey to reach this new territory was exactly what both Jose and I had spent so many years fearing and avoiding; the thought of never finding our destination or, of reaching it only to find that it’s a mirage was too terrifying to name. But, eventually I came to see that, as it goes for most worthwhile things in life, I had to take a leap of faith. I could no longer sit and wait for it to “feel right” or for the two of us to “reach an understanding” on an emotional level to start truly connecting with him.

And so I leapt, fear and all, and we enrolled Jose in a residential equine therapy program. With the help of the amazing staff there, we are beginning to see a new opening from those ten years of hard, intense and painful labor: a new place that is still often intense and, at times, painful but it is also a spot where we can rest and figure out the next leg of our journey together. After ten long, long years, I see my son beginning to emerge. He is often still peering out at me with scared, hurt, and yes, sometimes angry eyes. But now, he is seeing something different. He is seeing and beginning to recognize me, his mother, who will sit quietly beside him as he finds his own way; his own path home, to me.

This is my son, Jose. I am his mother. He belongs to me. And he always will.


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