Choosing Myself

Life with my mom was unstable, so I made the difficult decision to live with my cousin to prioritize my wellbeing.

by Faith Ornstein

fizkes, iStock

In 17 years, I’ve had to move more than 10 times throughout New York City. In 3rd grade, I attended five different schools. As a child, I never understood why my family moved around like a military family, but now I know some of the reasons. 

When my twin brother and I were born, my mother was in jail for a year after allegedly robbing a clothing store. By the time my brother and I were 7 years old, we had lived in two women’s prisons, a family shelter, and multiple relatives’ homes—sometimes with my mother and sometimes without her. 

My mother had different jobs but didn’t keep them mostly because in addition to her criminal record, she has many physical and mental issues. When my mother couldn’t pay rent, we got evicted; when we overstayed our welcome with friends and family, we eventually had to leave. Still, she did everything she could to take care of us, but whether we like it or not, sometimes everything isn’t good enough. 

Surprise ACS Visits 

When I was 7, my family was placed in a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartment in the Bronx. I wasn’t expecting it to be nice, but I was surprised to see how tiny it was. The only furniture was a bunk bed and a bed across from that for my mother to sleep in. There was a small bathroom and an even smaller kitchenette. Walking in for the first time, the only thing I felt was tiredness. 

We lived there until I was 12. ACS workers visited us a few times with vague explanations like, “Someone called to say you’re neglecting your kids,” or “We were told there was some form of drug abuse going on here.” I didn’t believe everything ACS reported because they often blew things out of proportion. For example, they said my brother and I had knocked on people’s doors for food and slept in the library down the block. These reports were false. 

I wished the workers had left us alone. I was tired of seeing them, especially at school. They showed up at random times to speak with me without my mom present. I felt embarrassed and worried that people in my school might spread rumors about my family.

As much as I wanted ACS to leave us alone, there was some truth to their reports. My mother had a drug problem. This created a lack of structure for me and my brother. I hung out with friends till whenever. I smoked weed and cut school. Eventually, my brother and I both got sent to summer school after failing the 6th grade. As a result, my mother thought it would be best for us to stay with my cousin in Woodside, Queens for the summer. 

Experiencing Stability for the First Time 

We ended up staying with my cousin for two years. My mother lost custody for reasons I’m not sure of. When my mom and cousin broke the news that we would be staying in Woodside more permanently, I felt a whirlwind of emotions. I was shocked since I had been expecting to go home; I was sad not to be able to see my friends in the Bronx again. I was pissed off and I said “What the f-ck?” to my mother. 

But on some level, it also made sense to me. 

The more I thought about it, the more relieved I felt, which made me feel guilty. I loved my mother, but there was less stress when I lived with my cousin. There was always food; my cousin gave me spending money when I asked. Most importantly, there was structure. 

When I was in the Bronx, I loved having the freedom to stay out all night with my friends. But after staying with my cousin, I realized something: staying out all night and focusing on having “fun” wouldn’t do me any good in the long run. My cousin pushed me to look at high schools and think about colleges and got me to really think about planning for my future. 

With my cousin’s help, I passed middle school with flying colors and eventually applied to high schools that I had researched from a book that was as big as a dictionary. I got accepted into one of my top choices, a selective high school in Manhattan. On the weekends, my cousin took me and my brother on drives to the countryside, which we all enjoyed. 

I hung out with my mother occasionally–we went to diners, and I liked eating burgers while she ate breakfast foods–but my time with her dwindled as I became busier with school. 

Reuniting With My Mom

Approaching the end of my first year in high school, COVID-19 hit. Although I had mostly thrived within the structure of my cousin’s home, we had a fight early in the pandemic. I wasn’t allowed out for about the first five months of lockdown, and I was depressed and mad and finally exploded. 

After the fight, I decided to leave my cousin’s house to live with my mother. Being upset with my cousin amplified my feelings of missing my mother. That night, I packed up and told my lawyer I was ready to leave. My mother had been staying with her parents, and now we would have to find a new place to live together.

I felt a mix of emotions. I dreaded having to go back through the PATH (Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing) intake center in the Bronx, where we would be assigned our next living situation. Although I was happy to get the chance to live with my mom again, I knew I was going to be in for a lot. I was also still pretty mad at my cousin. 

I think there was a little part in the back of my mind that was regretting the decision. 

When I eventually saw the Morningside Heights “apartment” (I use the word loosely) we were assigned, I dropped my bags and walked away, upset. It reminded me of the Bronx studio, except this one was even smaller, which shocked me. I was trying not to think of the comfort of my cousin’s house because I knew I would regret my decision. 

I caught a reflection of my face in the bathroom mirror, and I saw bags under my eyes. Like in the Bronx studio, there was a bunk bed and a stray bed next to it. There was only one small window with a fire escape. There was no cupboard or pantry space to keep food, nowhere to keep our clothes, and absolutely no privacy. I turned to my mother and brother and said: “It looks like Ken’s dollhouse and even Barbie would leave him after seeing this…at least the bathroom is pretty big.” I usually used humor to cope. I didn’t know what else to say. 

Difficulty at Home, Again 

In Morningside Heights, my schoolwork suffered. School was still online because of the pandemic, and there was no reliable internet in the building. Frustrated, sometimes I just shut the laptop, not attending classes. My grades dropped from being in the low 90’s to below 65. When my guidance counselor asked me why this was happening, I only said, “I’ll get my grades up next quarter.” 

What I didn’t tell her was that my home life was stressful, especially with the three of us in such a tiny space with no privacy. It was depressing to witness my mom’s drug addiction eat away at her. I was terrified she might overdose. I couldn’t handle being inside with her for long periods of time. 

I didn’t express my feelings because I thought I needed to be the strong and stable one. There were times when I said I was going to take a shower, but I cried the whole time in the bathroom with the water running so nobody would know.

Prioritizing My Well-being 

There wasn’t a single turning point that made me realize that I was ready to live with my cousin again. I always knew my life would be better there. And although my grades were suffering, I knew, deep down, that I wanted to be the type of person to excel in my schoolwork and she gave me the environment to do that. 

Eventually, I got her to realize it wasn’t a choice between her and someone else. It was me choosing me. 

So when the opportunity arose for me to leave my mother’s home again, I took it: ACS told me I couldn’t live with my mother anymore after she failed to keep an official appointment. That’s when I decided that I was done moving around. I told my cousin I would stay with her permanently. She was proud that I chose the healthier option and I was proud of myself too. By this point, our previous fight was old news. 

I had been at my cousin’s house for a couple of weeks when I called my mother on the phone one evening. Lying in my bed, I stared at the ceiling. At first, I made small talk. Then I told her that going from place to place wasn’t good for me. 

She didn’t take it well at first. She said, “You’re my daughter. You shouldn’t want to live without your mother.” She started to cry, thinking I was choosing someone else over her. 

I sat up. I started to feel frustrated. I didn’t understand why blood ties mattered more than my actual well-being. 

Over the next hour, I explained how it affected me to watch her go into a rabbit hole that she wouldn’t be able to come out from. I was scared for her life. I was also angry that she was being selfish by not getting the help she needs—the help that would make her a more reliable parent to me. Eventually, I got her to realize it wasn’t a choice between her and someone else. It was me choosing me.  

Now, having entered kinship care, I live a calmer life. I still worry about my mother and brother, but I don’t need to worry about myself as much. I go to school and I’m doing well in my classes again. My cousin, other family members, and I have dinner every night in the dining room and play board games a few nights a week. On Fridays, I go out with friends after school. All without worrying about what I’m going to eat every night or if ACS will be at the door. In other words, it’s tame. I can heal here and try to live a “normal” teenage life.

No matter how much I love my mother, she can’t be there for me financially or give me the emotional and physical stability I need. I used to think I would be as bad as the Evil Queen from Snow White if I “broke” my family apart. Now I realize I didn’t break apart my family by choosing what was best for me.

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