It’s Not Where You Come From, It’s Where You Belong
by Rachel Giese
It’s funny that we didn’t discover ABC Family drama The Fosters until this spring. Funny because our family, made up of two white lesbian moms and one Indigenous Canadian pre-teen son adopted from the foster care system, is part of the rather tiny demographic that the fictional Foster clan represents. The show centers on a lesbian couple — white police officer Stef and biracial vice-principal Lena — who are the mothers of five teenagers. There’s the eldest, Brandon, Stef’s biological son from her first (hetero) marriage; then Jesus and Mariana, 15-year-old Latino twins the couple adopted at the age of five after they were abandoned by their drug-addicted biological mother; and new arrivals 15-year-old Callie and 12-year-old Jude, a pair of white siblings who’ve been bumped from one bad foster home to another and need a place to stay until they can find a permanent home.
You don’t have to be as complicated, diverse or non-traditional as the Fosters to appreciate them. They are funny and flawed and enormously likable. Lena and Stef and have a loving, lived-in marriage with uncommonly legit lesbian sizzle and the kids are regular teenagers with good hearts and iffy judgment. The show draws heavily from other middlebrow, middle-class family dramas, with its Pottery Barn aesthetic (if you squint, it could be Parenthood) and dialogue that occasionally slides towards Afterschool Special. But it is miles sharper and stealthier than that: wise and frank about family dynamics and bold in dealing with conflict and grief. On adoption and fostering, it gets the details exactly right: the harried social workers and the Soviet-grade bureaucracy. The way foster kids guard their meager backpack of belongings. The cheery over-enthusiasm of people who tell your child how “lucky” he is to have been adopted and how “wonderful” it must be to have two mothers. The adoptive parent’s muddle of guilt, bitterness and gratitude towards their child’s biological family.
The Fosters felt immediately familiar, intimately so. I hadn’t registered exactly how invisible families like mine were on television until I saw Lena and Stef flirting and drinking wine on the couch, Stef’s feet in Lena’s lap. Or the bunch of them, moms and kids of different races, teasing and bickering through the breakfast rush. The novelty of catching something like my own reflection was startling. But it was for other reasons that I watched the show obsessively on Netflix, one episode fading automatically into the next. I’d watch at home during the day when I was supposed to be writing a book. When my small stash of sleeping pills ran out, I watched at night when I couldn’t sleep.
Let me explain: in late January, my mom tumbled down a flight of stairs and broke her collarbone. I learned about it nearly a week after it happened. She had been drinking, her partner told me over the phone. He went on to explain that over the past decade she had graduated from heavy drinker to alcoholic. She had hidden her addiction, guarding it from us and I think trying to protect us, through earlier falls (dizziness from the flu, she had told us at the time), through her growing isolation (she enjoyed her quiet time at home, she had explained) and through previous hospitalizations and illnesses (she was simply getting older, she had said). This time, though, the situation was dire. She had gone into acute alcohol withdrawal and was suffering from delirium tremens. Her doctor believed she was dying, and had told her partner that it was time to tell my sister and me about her condition.
My mom’s alcoholism may have been a secret but it wasn’t a surprise. The soundtrack of my childhood alternated between laughter and shouting, slamming doors and heavy silence. My sister was the first of us to go, leaving for university and to get married. My dad followed soon after to get divorced. When it was just my mom and I, we drifted through the empty house like ghosts condemned to haunt it. I made my escape midway through my final year of high school, transferring to a school in another city and renting a place with friend. After that, it was easy for my mom to hide from me. I stopped looking for her.
Twice after I heard the news about her fall, I made the three-hour drive back home to visit her in the hospital. She was heavily sedated and nearly always asleep. One time she looked at me without a hint of recognition but smiled brightly, as though I were a nice stranger arriving at her bedside to deliver a package. Another time, she glanced at me, then looked away as her eyes widened in fear, and muttered, “oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy.” A few days later, my mom’s partner called to ask me whether he should allow a doctor to insert a feeding tube into her stomach. Her organs were failing from lack of protein and she would die without the procedure. He was uncertain about her wishes. I had no idea of them at all.
When I got off the phone after our third conversation that day, I stood in my kitchen for a long time and imagined ripping the doors off the cupboards, smashing the plates and breaking the windows. I went outside and sat in my car in the February cold to stop myself from doing it. Two days later, my mom was dead.
Several episodes into The Fosters, my wife started watching it with me, curious about what I’d vanished into during my weeks of shock and grieving. She was the one who suggested that we watch it with our son. For the past year, we’d been trying to talk to him about the sorts of issues The Fosters handled so deftly, all the big ones, like sex, underage drinking, racism, self-identity and bullying. There are plotlines about keeping a marriage together, overcoming addiction, deciding whether you want a relationship with your birth parent, and understanding when it might be ethical to lie to help someone. The show is upfront about the inevitability of loss and suffering and it also trusts, deeply and almost radically, in the power of empathy and resilience to get you through. Growing up, after all, has always been a concurrent experience of ending and beginning, as raising a child has forever been both an unmaking and making of parents.
My son is affectionate and boisterous, and he doesn’t like to talk about himself much. He often seems perplexed at having found himself being raised by two such process-y dykes. A few years ago, we signed him up for a boy’s club at school to provide him with male mentoring. When I asked him what he liked about it, he looked at me pointedly and said, “we play basketball and we don’t have to share our feelings all the time.” The Fosters seemed like it might offer a way for us to talk about the things he doesn’t much like to talk about.
My son took to it immediately, and we did find ourselves talking, about why the characters behaved the way they did (my son worries a lot about the kids getting in trouble) and riffing on jokes and story lines to create alternate second lives for them. I thought my son might identify with Jesus, who shares his swagger and sweetness, but he, like my wife, fell hard for quiet, observant Jude. Of everyone, including the adults, Jude is the one most true to himself. He admits to a crush on his male best friend though that might mean losing him. He wears nail polish to school even after he’s teased for it. And when his sister Callie tells him not to get too comfortable with the Fosters because he’ll get hurt if they decide not to keep them — this is Callie and Jude’s sixth or seventh placement in as many years — he decides to make himself part of the family anyway. “I already hurt,” he tells Callie.
Callie, jittery as a cornered animal, has been raped and beaten in foster care, and has also been locked up in a juvenile detention center. Her woundedness makes her attractive to boys, a sweetly dopey classmate named Wyatt and, more troublingly, to her new foster brother Brandon. But what Callie needs most urgently is not romantic adoration but parental love, mother love, in particular.
It’s of course perfect and painful that she’s found a home with two moms, a veritable embarrassment of riches. Stef and Lena are competent, confident parents. They stock the bathroom with condoms and insist on talking problems through with their kids (the kids, realistically, don’t much enjoy these conversations). Callie would like to relax into this stable home, but she can’t believe she’ll ever have a family again, and has long vacated her childhood. There’s still hope for Jude, though. In one lovely, astute scene, he sasses Lena and Stef. They are taken aback, because he’s been an unfailingly dutiful kid, and they reprimand him. But once he leaves the room, they do a little dance of celebration: his rebellion is a sign that he finally believes himself safe enough to not be perfect. As Willa Paskin wrote on Slate: “Stef and Lena can’t fix complicated situations entirely — they are moms, not superheroes — but they do, consistently, make these situations much, much better. On The Fosters, parents are to be trusted, which means kids get to be kids.”
When I was a child, my mom used to disappear at night, driving off after threatening never to return. I’d stand at the window in my room in the dark, picturing her car wrapped around a tree, or nose-down in the lake. I’d imagine my vigil at the window as a tether, keeping her alive like an umbilical cord in reverse. Sometimes, I’d curl up on the floor under the window, and as I drifted into sleep, I’d bargain with the universe. If my mom came home, I’d do everything I could to make her happy.
Years later, when I came out at the height of AIDS crisis and first heard the phrase “chosen family,” I embraced it. It was seductive and potent, the idea that you could build your own loyal circle from scratch, without the baggage of biology or history, little bands of misfits and armies of lovers rising up in a peaceful insurgency against the families that chucked us out and the broader culture that hated us. I loved the fluidity and freedom of these improvised families and when same-sex marriage was first legalized where I live, I was a conscientious objector. Queer people didn’t need a broken institution for legitimacy. I also suspected that I was too broken myself to make a marriage and family work. My wife, the beloved child of a happy marriage, knew both our potential and our fragility: when we first met her own mother was dying of cancer. As my wife likes to remind me, she proposed to me twice before I relented.
When our son came along, I spent the first year believing that I didn’t deserve a child so precious and beautiful. Never did I doubt my love for him, but I feared that our lack of a blood connection, our racial difference and my queerness would cast doubt in others’ minds that we were a family. More than anything I worried that he could see it that way someday. And he might. Or he might see the particular magic we created in our coming together, how we crafted a family out of found objects, some of them chipped and damaged.
After he’d watched a couple of episodes of The Fosters, my son announced that he loved the show’s theme song. The bright, swoony country pop ballad by Kari Kimmel isn’t his usual thing (his taste currently runs to Wiz Khalifa and Fetty Wap), but it’s infectious. The show’s credits depict lovely, gauzey domestic scenes ending with a shot of Stef and Lena’s entwined hands between them in their bed. Over these images, Kimmel croons: “It’s not where you come from, it’s where you belong/Nothing I would trade, I wouldn’t have it any other way.” It’s sentimental and sappy, and it resonates.
My son likes to crawl into bed between us to watch the show. None of us can carry a tune, but when the credits come on, we sing the theme song anyway, loudly and ridiculously and together.
Rachel Giese is a journalist in Toronto. She’s writing a book about modern boyhood.