I didn't realize how strong my support network is until I realized my mentee has virtually none

When thinking about the perceptions of foster care, a number of descriptors and experiences come to mind, but one in particular I wasn’t prepared for: loneliness.

Moving about my day, a number of seemingly small daily interactions highlight – without much thought from me until now – a network of people who are invested in my wellbeing and success. For example, the instructor at the 6 a.m. exercise class at my neighborhood gym asks where I’ve been recently after missing a few weeks of classes, a severe cold I tell her. My coworker asks on Monday morning about the wedding of a good friend I just returned from. My mom checks in to gently remind me to book a dentist appointment soon. My husband offers encouraging words as frustrated tears are shed at the dinner table about an interaction with my boss. These all feel normal, expected, nothing out of the ordinary or over the top.

As I started to get to know my mentee, it’s abundantly clear that these seemingly small, trivial investments in my daily routine don’t exist in her world. When a cold took her out of work for a week, no one was there to simply check in and ask, “How are you feeling today? Have you been to the doctor yet?” Small coaching moments, life lessons or words of support and encouragement that seem commonplace to most don’t exist when no one knows or cares that you are moving about in the world.

Instead, the only authority in her life is staff at the group home counting down the minutes until she’s supposed to check in. Before and after that moment, she’s free to come and go as she pleases – while that sounds appealing, in reality it looks like loneliness. Friends are fleeting, disagreements with a roommate turns into the silent treatment indefinitely, extended family are only interested in taking what little allowance and paycheck she’s making not to tell her they are proud she’s excelling at work.

Thinking about my own network, even if I tried my hardest to fail, I don’t think I could. Stumble, yes, but fail, no. There would be someone at every turn offering advice, encouragement, a place to stay, financial resources. For my mentee there is no room for error. She doesn’t have a network of family and friends who can guide her, but this is where DCFYI comes in.

I view my role as a mentor not as a parent or authority figure telling her what she should or shouldn’t do, but rather as a safe, supportive, caring voice to check in and tell her she matters. A quick, “Hey, grab your umbrella before you leave for work today, it’s pouring outside!” before she goes to work or asking if she’s watching the Oscars because we talked about her love of movies. These don’t sound like much, but I try to care for her the same as I do for others in my life. The difference is for those in my network, supporting one another is the norm and second nature. For my mentee, it might be the only caring interaction she has that day.

Despite her circumstances, I am continually impressed with her maturity, her humor and her compassion for others. She’s a remarkable young woman, and it is my joy to be a part of her life.

The unexpected loneliness of foster care

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