Just like the use of the symbol “&” can grow into a startling, mind-bending, run-on sentence, the work of Ampersand Families can grow a teenager’s life into a long-running, lifelong story of unexpected twists and turns made in the context of something many of us take for granted: a caring, committed (and sometimes startling and mind-bending!) lifetime family.
Not long ago I realized there was another kind of family – also represented by a grammatical symbol. In some ways, this family represents Ampersand Families’ anti-mission: The Asterisk Family. We meet them all the time in our work. Many people who work with youth think that kids are just fine in an Asterisk Family, so we find that a big part of the work of the AF Permanency Specialist is convincing people to move a teenager from an Asterisk Family to an Ampersand Family. I’m talking about the foster family.*
I had a moment of clarity not long ago. I had spent a day with one of my Amper-teens. When I dropped Lauren** off at her foster home, her foster mom was sitting out on the deck with a friend. I said to the youth, There’s Dorothy!** – or do you call her ‘Mom’? She answered, I like to call her Mom. She says it’s okay to call her that. But when I do, my stomach is always in a knot because I’m afraid her real kids will resent me for calling her that. I thought to myself, She’s an asterisk kid! I started to imagine all the asterisks that will be added to her life if she remains in and eventually ages out of foster care. Let’s look into Dorothy and Lauren’s future for a couple illustrations:
Dorothy has an old friend visiting who, while looking at the pictures on the mantle, asks, Are these your kids? Dorothy answers Yup, all of ‘em with their families. Love those grandkids! But…*** Meanwhile, Lauren and her babies are crashing at a friend’s apartment for a while. She’s still looking for her own place. Her friend picks up a photo of Lauren with some woman from a stack of Laurens’ stuff. Her friend asks, Is this you and your Mom? Lauren takes the picture and says, Yes, well…kind of…****
That took some work, didn’t it? …jumping around between all those asterisks. Ampersand Families simply wants to smooth out the stories. Every child and every parent should be able to say: This is my mom! This is my kid! No asterisks needed. Just a lifelong story of belonging, dignity, and hope – and an endless string of Ampersands!
*In my first use of an asterisk in this article I want to make clear that kind, competent, caring foster families do crucial work keeping children safe and cared-for while society keeps their promise to find these kids families of their own. But, children are never meant to languish in foster care – and AF’s hope is to never let kids age out of foster care only to drift into adulthood alone.
**Not her real name.
*** Dorothy continues, Wait, wait, wait…she starts digging in a drawer and pulls out a photo. There’s also Lauren. You remember her! She was our foster kid, you know, back when the kids were in high school. She just called the other day. I guess she’s got a couple kids now. We’re hoping they can stop by at Christmas.
****Lauren continues, She was my foster mom when I was still in high school. She was really nice but I haven’t seen her in a long time. I just called her up the other day and she said maybe we can spend Christmas there. I’d like her to see my kids, but, you know, she’s got kids of her own and I guess a bunch of grandkids now. I don’t know. I’m gonna think about it.