I’m a stay-at-home sister. Let me tell you about The Look.

Guest post by Anya

In traditional terms I wouldn’t be considered a parent. I have never given birth, I hold no legal guardianship over another life, but I was born a mother. My maternal instinct kicked in early. I love taking care of people and kids absolutely melt me. So when my mom started talking about wanting to become involved with foster care I absolutely supported her. My two younger sisters were slightly more hesitant but decided to come along for the ride. So we decided to take the plunge; after about a year of taking parenting classes, being interviewed and evaluated my mom became a foster parent.

Four years later we are still here taking these amazing children into our homes and into our lives. It has been some of my most rewarding, exhausting, and emotional years. But I’m not writing to talk about the ups and downs of foster parenting (although it’s been quite a rollercoaster). I would like to tell more of a precautionary tale to the onlookers gazing from the sidelines…

My family is beautiful. My parents are divorced; my mom works full time as a nurse practitioner saving premature babies in ways I can’t even imagine. Our home currently contains my mom, me, my two younger sisters (15 and 17), my newly adopted brother and sister (both 3), and our foster baby (6 months); needless to say, it’s a full house. After graduating from college I decided to stay home with the kids to give them the love and care they more than deserve. I really love spending time with my family; they are more than I could ever have asked for. I am glowing with pride when they learn to count to ten and discovering news reserves of patience I never knew I could possess. I am not a mother but I am devoted to these kids absolutely.

I am proud of my involvement in foster care and the fact that I am helping these children who have been in various ways neglected by their own parents which makes all the low points and heartache bearable, to get the chance to give them something better.

However, there is one aspect that frustrates me in a way that I can’t fully describe but will simply call: the look.

When I go out to the store with my family, I can only imagine that it does look strange. We are a melting pot of colors and ages. Onlookers can’t help but stare and try to break down how we are all connected, I can understand that this is part of human nature, but when people look at my sisters and me like we are the physical embodiment of their worst nightmares, I want to scream.

They turn to my mom, who works harder than anyone I know, with a look like “why can’t you control your children” or just flat out “you have failed as a parent.” Yes teen pregnancy is not what most mothers dream of for their daughters, but why is this the assumption? Furthermore can’t it just be accepted that we clearly have a nontraditional family end of story? I’m not involved in foster care for praise — but to see my beautiful family tainted in their eyes hurts me, it shouldn’t but it does.

I know we are not the only ones out there who have experienced “the look,” and it just goes back to the age old expression “don’t judge a book by its cover,” something that’s so simple is still so hard to grasp.

I wanted to write this to tell one story, in hopes that people will remember not to judge what they don’t understand because whatever story they have created in their mind may not be what they are really seeing.

I may not have what most would describe as a perfect family, but to me it’s the most wonderful thing in the world.

Comments on I’m a stay-at-home sister. Let me tell you about The Look.

  1. I got the look working as a nanny when I was 16, toting around a 5 yo and a 3 yo. The mixture of pity and contempt on people's faces is incredibly difficult to take. As a result, I try really hard not to make assumptions about other people's families. It's hard not to judge, and I'm not always sucessful, but it is worth the effort!

  2. I just want to say i think it's a great thing you are doing. It takes a lot of dedication to be able to "stay at home" with any child.
    I was a stay-at-home Aunt for a year so my older sister and bro-in-law wouldn't have to pay for a daycare. not that daycare can be bad thing, it's just expensive 😛 and I'm sorry you get the look. I got it when i would bring my nephew out by myself, or go out with the whole family. people would always see me as the odd one in the happy little family and it's almost impossible to ignore.

    also, your family seems awesome!

  3. I can definately relate. I Had my daughter at 22 and my son at 23, and the looks I get when I'm out with them are horrible. I've had people talk and mutter comments without even bothering to lower their voices countless times. It's better when mu husband is with us, but still not great. I look younger than I am and have blue hair and tattoos, and he's got a full sleeve. Apparently people with tattoos and dyed hair can't possibly look after children. Sometimes I want to wear a shirt that says "I'm married with a university degree, mind your own f-ing business." What is worse, though, is that I shouldn't have to. Our family is no one's business but ours, and I wish people would learn to butt out and give us some peace.

    I love your story, and hope to one day be a foster parent myself, once our financial situation gets a bit better. I think it's an amazingly selfless thing to do, and I really admire you and your family.

    • hey… are you me?
      i'm 20, pregnant, tattooed, and I have blue hair! It's been a very interesting experience for me lugging around my belly on my university campus, especially since I look about 14…

      First of all, Anya, I'm in love with your name! Second, you're awesome! I get looks all the time, and I write very sarcastic and witty monologues in my head to say to these ignorant people around me. So far, I have yet to have the guts to actually say something… but one day I will and it will be a happy day! Until then I just try to smile to myself. People are going to think what they want to think, but I know the love my belly has, just like you know the love in your family! All those judgmental lame-os can eat it!

    • It's unbelievable how still (in this day and age) people still judge a book by it's cover. So sad. As an "alternative lady" (many tattoos and piercings) I get looks as it is….I can just imagine how it will be when my hubby and I get pregnant. We babysit a friends' baby every weekend, and when often take him to the mall (he's 7months) and the looks we get…..ugh….makes me want to scream. I'm 23 and he's 25, but I guess we look super young. It's just really sad how people are.

      Keep up with the foster care-you are making such a difference in the lives of so many children, and that's what matters!

    • One of my favorite customers at work is a heavily tattooed and pierced man with a young toddler. He's one of the most pleasant, polite people that I deal with, and it's sad to think that people might judge him as a parent based on his appearance, especially as his kid is very sweet and well-behaved.

    • I know how you feel- only I DID have my son at sixteen. I have pink hair currently, but have had blue, green, red, etc. I get the Look all the time, like I must be horrible. People like to toss boxes of condoms in my cart at the grocery store. I’m 19 now, but my son is 2 and I look about 14 or 15, so… unfortunately people are asshats.

      I like your shirt idea. Maybe I’ll get one that says “132. It’s not my weight, it’s my IQ” or “Yes, my ovaries function”

  4. Great post! Really touching story about your family. Though, it's funny because I feel like I have the opposite problem. 🙂 I'm very young-looking and I was a nanny for a lot of years. When I was working with other families, I always felt invisible and less-than at school pick-ups and the park. Nobody ever bothered to look at me or speak to me. Now as a "legitimate" mother, I still feel excluded a lot of the time at playgroups and play-places. I really do think most people assume I am a babysitter or nanny because I don't look "mommy" enough in my jeans and hoodies. I try to be really affectionate and kissy with my daughter so that they finally realize YES I AM THE MOTHER and they can stop ignoring me….

  5. Having been raised in a mixed family (1/2 brother, foster turned adopted brother, and foster brother – I always get a kick out of explaining my family to others), I really appreciated reading about a family similar to mine. My parents fostered other kids starting from when I was 10 until I was 31 and in many ways I think being raised with foster kids in my life taught me many of my core values and how to appreciate things that most of my friends took for granted.

    As for the look (don’t even get me started about some of the comments I’ve received)… I hear you! I saw the look throughout my teen years. The disdain that comes over people when they think you are/were a teenage mom makes me angry for all of the teen moms out there, and put out by the judgements people pass without knowing anything about you.

    Too often it seems like foster care is placed in a really negative light, thanks for showing the positive side of the extended foster family!

  6. I'm right there with you! My mom started foster care almost two years ago and it's been amazing helping her through it. While I don't live at home anymore, I'm there most weekends to help out or just to play with the awesome kids that we get to spend time with. I'm also familiar with "The Look" since my brother was born when I was 13. Like so many other people here, I got quite a few confusing looks in high school when I would be taking my little brother somewhere. I'm pleasantly surprised that someone else mentioned wanting to make a shirt that said "I'm the sister"! I thought the same thing! It's not as strange now that I'm 27 – when I'm out with my mom and foster children, people tend to assume I'm the mom (even though I joke that I must look terribly incompentent and reliant on my mom!). My mom is still young (47) so she doesn't get too many strange looks when she's out with babies. You and your family are doing a wonderful thing by fostering!

  7. I'm another big sister who often got the look. My youngest brother was born when I was 13. I graduated from high school at 17 and started classes at a community college. Both my parents worked nights so I took care of my bro in the morning until I started classes at 2 pm. I'd take him with me to do the grocery shopping or other errands so my parent could have a chance to sleep after work. Everyone assumed I was his mother. I got plenty of judgmental stares. I have the BEST relationship with him now that he's 15 and I so appreciate how close we are.

  8. That was a great story, thanks for sharing. People can be judgmental in the worst ways. A good friend of mine has done foster care for years, taking in immediate and heartbreaking cases. They had a child in their care because the parent was responsible for burns covering most of the child. You wouldnt believe the comments from people assuming they were the ones at fault. In reality they were that little girls guardian angels. Dont worry about the people, they will always assume the worst scenario. Just keeping doing wonderful things for the those wonderful children. You and your family are awesome!

  9. I can relate to "the look". My youngest sister was born when I was 12, so a lot of my high school years was spent taking care of my sister. We went shopping, to the park, and I often picked her up or dropped her off from pre-school, play dates, and birthday parties… She also looks like a miniature version of me, so you can imagine what people thought when they saw me at 16 toting around a 4 yr. old. I used to want to wear a t-shirt all the time that said "she's my sister". I sort of learned to ignore it, but never entirely.
    People can be so nosey and judgmental, but you are doing a great thing. Try not to let it bug you.

    • Yes! this same thing happened to my best friend and I (we were inseparable) – her mom had a late life surprise when we were 17, and we spent a lot of our time taking our baby brother out to various places. You'd always get this look that said "Whoooooooooorrrreeee!" whenever you'd wheel him through the grocery store or get him a highchair at a restaurant.

    • My baby sister arrived when I was 12, too, and you are so right about wanting to wear a shirt! It was creepy at first how intently interested strangers seemed to be in evaluating our family dynamic, but eventually I stopped noticing. I chaperoned her field trip last year (she's 14 now), and one of her friends said, "your mom is really pretty!". Not sure if that was a compliment, or a scary observation that at 25, I looked realistically like the mother of a middle schooler 😛

  10. Great post! Thanks for sharing your story. It makes me angry, not only on your behalf, but also on the behalf of young parents and caregivers everywhere who are doing the best they can. And what a great reminder that the only thing that really "makes" a family is love.

  11. Oh man, like a lot of people, I get rude comments from strangers when I'm out with my kids because I look like I could be a teenager. Lots of "HOW OLD ARE YOU?", and "he's not yours is he?", and even once heard the lady behind me on the bus say "poor baby (about my son), his momma's just a little girl". What gets me about these comments is that, say I were 16– I'm out doing the best I can with my kids, what exactly does your shame do for me? Do you think I'd be oblivious to this society's problem with that age of motherhood? It reminds me of those psych studies that point to the idea that you become what people expect of you. If we tell younger moms that their kids are worse off because of them as mothers, and that their lives are ruined by their babies, then what psychological and behavioral affects does that have on the relationship between those moms and kids?

  12. My mother ran a home daycare for thirty years, and also raised three daughters (I'm one of them) and fostered two of our cousins at different points in time. It had always been a sort of family policy that if you were walking to the store on an errand, you would bring a daycare kid with you. I used to love doing it…until I turned fifteen and started getting 'the look'. After a year of dirty looks and under-the-breath comments, I refused to take any of the kids out with me on errands.

    I eventually found an unlikely ally when I was out babysitting. I had brought the children to the park, and an older gentleman commented "they're not yours, are they?" I didn't want to defend myself or go off on a rant on how society shouldn't judge younger mothers, so I blurted out "No, I'm just the babysitter." The older man suddenly sat up and in a stern voice told me "Don't ever say that again. You are not JUST the babysitter. You are doing a very important job, and you are doing it well. Don't sell yourself short, young lady." That comment has stuck with me ever since, and I'm not afraid to go out with the toddlers I nanny, or my cousins, or my nieces and nephews, despite still looking to be in my late teens.

  13. While I agree that you shouldn't judge, understanding and caring goes both ways. There are adult women out there who would love to be a parent and feel hurt when they see young girls toting children. I've been at the receiving end of being hurt myself-someone several years younger than me telling me "I have to start having kids right away, I'm not getting any younger." How do you think that feels to someone who is 30 and thought she'd be a mother by now?

  14. Next time you catch someone staring, you should say "Aren't my little sister/brother so cute/adorable/pretty?"

    I was almost 16 when my youngest brother was born, and my stepmother made me push the stroller around when we were at a boardwalk. I remember all the dirty looks I got! When I was a young person, I was very judgemental of these sort of things ( I thought, I didn't let it happen to me, why did you let it happen to you?) I worked at a fast food place when in my mid teens, and I saw two girls younger than I pushing baby strollers. I felt disgusted and sorry for them. My stepfather was friends with the one girl's father, and within a few months I figured out the two babies were actually adopted by her parents. I felt like such a jerk. I have since learned to never judge by apperances, they are quite decieving.

    Your family is beautiful! Don't let anyone let you think otherwise.

  15. When I was 16, I took my 3-year-old cousin to the park. She saw a man with a baby and wanted to say hello to the baby. I told her to be gentle, and she said hello to the baby and waved at it. The man smiled at me and asked if she was mine. I was very embarrassed at the time, but thinking back on it, it's nice that he had such a nice reaction to a very young girl with a small child. If only everyone could be so nice!

  16. I once took my 7 year old cousin to a (small) pool when I was 17 myself. Then another family arrived and my cousin talked to the other children. I was diving a little so I didn't hear everything they said until suddenly one women from the other family told me "your daughter just made you 30something years old…". (I assume they asked her how old her mother was, and she did get the age correctly.) So they'd not only assumed that I was her mother, but they even kept thinking that in the face of contradictory evidence. I did tell them that I was her cousin, but I almost wish I hadn't.

    I have the utmost respect for anybody who's brave and strong enough to take in foster kids! So go you! Especially in the face of weird looks.

  17. You are doing a wonderful thing. It is so sad how people can be so judgmental. As if it is any of their business, or they need to know for any reason what your family set-up is. Keep doing what you're doing!

  18. I can totally relate. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, my parents and now my husband and myself are foster parents. Years and years of pointing and staring, and it still continues even though my husband is in his 30's and i'm in my 20's.

    Glad to see a foster parent story on Offbeat Mama. Foster parents always get the "oh well YOUR NOT A REAL PARENT" from a large portion of society.

  19. I'm a foster sister, too. I love getting to be a good role model to these beautiful little people, and I love seeing my parents get to share love with more children. It is truly a special thing, but "the look" is often frustrating. These kids and families need deserve so much love and support!

  20. you are an inspiration to girls and women everywhere!
    I guess things are sort of the opposite where I live, i was doing a family shop at the local supermarket, nappies and all, and a bottle of wine, that the checkout girl (without batting an eyelid) asked for proof I was over 18 (i'm 28 so I was quite pleased!) It just seems interesting that there are so many young mums here that its entirely usual to be buying nappies but too young to buy alcohol. I quite like that everyone accepts this without pointing/staring etc

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