When I was a kid, my mother had this envelope she kept in her purse. It held all those things that one would normally file away in the safety of their home. Instead, she carried those things—the few markers of our meager existence—in a manila in her handbag.
I suppose this was the only way for her to hold onto anything in a life where change usually happened in a moment’s notice. It wasn’t uncommon for us to ditch all of our possessions when the police discovered we had set up camp in a condemned or abandoned building. Plus, as a battered woman, Mamma always had to be prepared to run on the days it seemed Daddy might actually kill her.
That purse was her survival kit. She never forgot it. She often forgot us. But she never forgot it.
That purse—that envelope—may have been an insignificant thing to anyone else, but for a kid like me, it proved that everything outside of it could be taken in an instant. It signified my mother, how she’d come to be, and the struggles of her life.
When I was asked to write this film about a child in foster care, it felt like a little bit of justice. As a former youth in care, I knew that I was someone who “knew.” I had experienced firsthand the significance that a thing, like a mother’s purse, could possess. I knew what it meant to live with the lingering scent of her cigarettes and to long for the familiar smell of her cheap perfume.
Too often people tell our stories for us. Some do a beautiful job, but mostly it just feels starched, because it’s hard to know what you don’t know. You know?
As I wrote Love Is Never Wasted, I tried to infuse it with those things that would make it feel real—those specific feelings and moments that kids in care can really connect to. Like what it feels like to be both held and rejected by the arms that created you. Or how much your mother disappoints you when she leaves you all alone. But also how wildly, untameably beautiful she seems with her hair dancing in the wind, while the scent of her teases in and out of your existence.
I wanted the viewer to understand that, even though nobody likes her from a distance, when you get to know her there’s something about her that you yearn to capture. Yet, you know that you never will.
But here’s the thing: For kids who were raised by many parents—kids like myself—it’s not just about her. Sometimes, it isn’t even mostly about her. Because there’s this foster mamma who feels warm and soft and safe and you never want to live without those feelings (or her arms around you) again. There’s this foster daddy that you just aren’t sure about because maybe he will hurt you like all the other daddies you’ve ever known. But maybe he won’t, and wouldn’t it be nice to have a real daddy like those other kids at school?
What so many don’t get is that our kids in foster care want all of them—want all of it. As growing beings, children need roots. These roots deliver to them life-sustaining understanding: understanding the place they came from, what led them to that place, and what it means to be intertwined into a story that extends so much farther than their own. Our kids long to know what it was like when they were budding in their mother’s womb, because their bodies still remember. Their bodies can’t forget the place it was first fed. So, we must help them connect with and see how the nourishment they did or did not get from that space or in those years affected them. Because it did. It most certainly did.
But let’s not forget that our children need more than roots to grow. They also need to know that they are safe, that nourishment is always available, and that the sun can shine most every day. They need to feel that they belong to someone who actually wants to tend to them—someone who carries enough love that some of it even spills out and showers down on them.
Ideally, our kids would get all these things from the same person. Sadly, that is not always the case. For the over 400,000 kids in the U.S. foster care system (and the countless others who suffer silently under the starvation of abuse and neglect), a solitary caretaker will not be found to meet all their needs. For those kids, our best hope is that love can be absorbed from multiple sources. We hope that, collectively, they get enough of what they need from the world around them to grow healthy and strong.
This is how my life was changed. This is how I learned to love.
It started with the few times my birth mom snuggled me in bed. In the submission of sleep, she could occasionally relax, throw off all her toxic defenses, and offer some warmth. This seed of love grew from the way my big brother protected me, carrying me into the bathroom and locking the door every time he found me in the midst of their knock-down drag-out fights.
His love began to sprout its own seed after the birth of my baby brother. This new little life cried, alone and hungry, from his forgotten pumpkin seat. He screamed for the same kind of protection that my big brother had offered to me. He called for someone to be all that she could not be, and because of my big brother, I knew how to answer that call.
Unfortunately, I could only answer it slightly better than she did. You see, I was only six. Then seven.
By eight, I knew that I was withering. I wasn’t getting enough of what I needed, and I knew that I was going to die. If not on the outside, I was certainly headed for doom on the inside. I called out to the universe for something to sustain—something to feed my body and soul and save me from the pain.
Foster care was the answer I received.
Sadly, it brought more pain. It was that knot-in-the-stomach, tortured, twisting kind of pain that comes from being cut off from one’s life source. I was ripped from the body that had first fed me—the arms that first held me. What did that mean for me now? Could anybody love me here? If my own mamma couldn’t reach me, how could they? My insecurity proved on point. Some of them didn’t. Love me, that is.
Yet, some of them did. Some of them even did without any expectation of return. Most of them, for various reasons a child cannot possibly understand, only did for a moment of my life. These people are the beautiful springtime of my memory. From each moment I got with them, I would continue to flourish and grow.
There were many lonely days that I believed I was withering away under this gloomy cloud that we call foster care. On many days, I was withering and external cuts of self-hatred bore witness to my intense internal deprivation.
But a new day would come.
I would grow up. I would discover that my life had changed. I would finally find that it was all my own. First, I’d become the wife of a husband who loved me selflessly. How did this happen? Of all the guys I could have chosen, including the kind that may have even felt more familiar, how did I know to settle on one like him? The faces of several good foster fathers smiled distantly behind the man I had chosen to spend my life with.
After years of being loved in a way I’d never felt loved before (by my husband Doug), I’d become a mother. Despite the years of worry that I’d be like her or maybe him or her, I found that I was actually more like her and her and him. I found that, despite my tortured and demented childhood, I was now brimming with love to give. I now had enough love that I could even give some of it away without major threat to my personal sense of safety or security.
How could this be so? How could this little girl who was failed in one way or another by every adult who was supposed to care for her find herself building a completely different world than the one she grew up in? It was like two different lives, two different people, and yet somehow they were all a part of me.
I came to see that I had gotten to this place because an alternate reality had blown into my life. It had changed me. Its name was foster care. For me, foster care wound up carrying the faces of seven different homes over seven years. When I was 15, its name became adoption.
Ironically, under this system of child protection that had starved me in so many ways, I finally began to thrive. Foster care had brought so much internal destitution, but it had also brought moments of witnessing healthy, selfless, loving, human interactions.
It is the thing that showed me that I had a choice in the way I lived my life. There was no longer just one possible way to be. Throughout my foster care experiences, I had, here and there, tasted the essence of something sweeter and more fulfilling than my past life. I became hungry for more of it.
I now existed as living proof that love always offers nourishment and that a little bit of it can go a very long way.
A lot of it can make miracles.
A little bit of love carried me out of my tortured childhood. A lot of it led me to this place.
Writer of Love is Never Wasted
A Note from Director Nathanael Matanick:
Love is Never Wasted is part 3 in a series of short films living within the world of foster care. The film follows the story of a little boy who is taken from his mom and placed in a foster family. The boy, caught between the love of two mothers, is forced to learn how to move forward.
A Note from Writer Liz Hunter:
The 3rd ReMoved film is almost here, and I had the privilege of authoring it!
We all fell in love with Zoe from ReMoved 1 & 2, but now it is time to tell a different story. ReMoved 3 is the story of Kevi. Our main character is a boy torn from the only life he has ever known and struggling to make sense of how he fits between two worlds and two mothers.
Kevi's story is different from Zoe's in ReMoved 1 & 2, but it is just as important to tell. The experience of our children in foster care is diverse, and we must be fair to the range of situations, problems, and solutions that they encounter. While Kevi is a fictional character, I believe many kids in foster care will be able to connect with the journey he is on.
As a former foster youth authoring this film, one might expect that Kevi is inspired by my own story, but he is not. My inspiration for Kevi came from loving beyond myself—from loving my own foster child—from loving my son.
Though Kevi's story does not represent my own (or even my son's entirely), and it certainly will not encompass the reality of all our kids in foster care, I infused it with elements of our reality that I hope many youth in foster care will be able to connect to.
Most importantly, behind the story of Kevi is a truth that we all, no matter where we came from, can connect to. That truth is this: love truly is never wasted.
*This film is brought to us by Heschle Productions, Awakened Muse Productions, and the Maskcara Beauty 3D Foundation.