2020 Writing Contest 3rd Place: Community, Acceptance, Love

I have spent most of my life as a chameleon. How can I do well in a way that makes everyone around me happy or content? To most, this is just a classic case of people pleasing; to me, it was survival. In August of 2011, I called Child and Youth Services. I officially entered the child welfare system and my life changed forever. What also changed was my perception of the world. More specifically, my ideals and representations for what family is and what it means.

I grew up in a home where family did not mean much, or at least it did not mean what most of my peers knew of family. A clean house, three meals a day, working plumbing, electricity, and most importantly a safe and loving environment in which I could grow and succeed. My biological father was abusive. Not only sexually and physically, but emotionally. Emotional abuse leaves the least of the physical scars but will scar your mind. Which, as I have aged and undergone more trauma, realized those are the hardest scars to heal.

However, as I have grown older I realize that family is a social construct that does not define what family has become to mean to me. Before I explain, let me say that in my eyes I have many families. My boyfriend and his family, my foster parents’ families, my foster parents and I, friends, and even some members still from my biological family. 

I always resented my experience in foster care, the fact that I had such a broken home that I needed to be removed from it. That while most people were worrying about permits and prom dresses, I had spent the summer of my junior year in high school in a group home. Worried about court cases, my future, my family, group home drama, advocating and surviving. When I should have learned about living. What did I like to eat or what hobbies would I enjoy? What style would I have? How can I set healthy boundaries and daily routines in my life? Little did I know for the time being, that group home, some of the other kids there, and particularly the staff became my family for the time being. And even after, as I was taken in by my group home’s supervisor to live with him, his wife, and our two pets, where I still live to this day. So, the big question, what does family mean to me? Well, to answer that question I need to start at the beginning.

I was born in Thousand Oaks, California. My biological parents were born in Russia, my mom in Moscow and my dad in Siberia. They met in New York. My mom had signed up for help with her English and my biological dad was the instructor. The rest was history. They got married. I was the fourth of six siblings, my oldest brother born in New York, my older brother and sister born in Colorado, and my two younger brothers born in California like me.

My childhood was very traumatic, so forgive me if I am not as detail-oriented as most people when it comes to reliving my past. It’s hard to think about, talk about, and especially difficult to write about. You worry about other people’s perspectives, your own memories, and the exact phrasing of horrific moments. Do not get me wrong, there are flashbacks. Quite often in my dreams, where I am back in that house. Helpless. And I see myself or my sister beaten with the belt, my mom struck, my little brothers hungry, and I wonder how I could live with people who call themselves Christian, Russian Orthodox to be more specific. Ironic that I put faith in a religion that was systematically created to brainwash an entire population of people, almost how I felt growing up, not just at home but at school. I was constantly bullied for my “family drama” and my appearance, more specifically the extra weight I carried around. “How are you so fat for being a vegetarian,” peers would often say, not knowing that I would walk to the dollar store across the highway to feed myself and my little brothers. Not exactly the “healthiest,” but we survived. I survived.

As a young child, there were some happy memories. It was not until middle school that I fully grasped the desperate situation my siblings, myself, and my mom were in. She was not free of innocence, but I had seen how a hard childhood of her own and an abusive marriage wore on her. How she really loved and cared for my siblings and I, but she was stuck thinking she was helpless. Thankfully, my call to CYS proved to be good not only for me, but my little brothers in that situation and my mother. She worked multiple jobs, got an apartment, and did everything she could for those boys. She even landed a permanent job where she helps other abused and battered women or men. I could not live with her, though, when she did not protect me and MY innocence. I see now, after my own mental health struggles, that it was not all black and white.

My biological father suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. After being diagnosed with bipolar and having experienced firsthand the depravity of mental illness, much changed. Which brings me back to my idea of family. I still talk with my biological mother and some of my biological siblings. I love them. They are part of my ever-growing family. And while I have not spoken to my biological father since the trial and jail time, I still find myself loving him — the man he was when he was not sick. When I was young, he would wake up earlier to read scripture with us and make us breakfast before school. When he was my hero. I have not had any contact with him since I was 16, and while I do not wish to change that, I hope he is OK, healthy and staying out of trouble. However, I learned fathers do not have to be of blood relation,  which brings me full circle, back to my experience in the group home.

I lived there for about a year and a half. I learned what safety meant. What supportive and loving adults who wanted me to succeed and were proud of me meant. But most importantly, I realized life is about living, not merely surviving and hoping that for the moment, no one would hurt you. The summer before my senior year of high school I went to live with my group home supervisor and his wife. They are still my best friends and I live with them, our cat Millie, and our pity mix Roxy. I went to Duquesne University, worked hard to not have loans, and graduated Cum Laude in December 2018. I met the love of my life junior year, and I know whatever family I have in the future it will be with him. However, it is not a fairy-tale ending.

My junior year at Duquesne I was put on an antidepressant, which in a small minority of people can make them manic, which is exactly what happened, and I was 302’d. After another manic episode, several depressive episodes, a sexual assault, three suicide attempts, and multiple hospitalizations I am mostly me again. However, it was not the mental hospitals, the “medications,” or the therapy that helped fix me and create the woman I am today. I had friends who stuck by me. My boyfriend, his family, friends, my biological family, my foster parents and their families helped piece me back together after my rape. They loved me and supported me through everything.

So, what does family mean to me? It means more than shared genetics. It means being connected to a large COMMUNITY of people who love me, which has helped me learn to love myself. It means being accepted unconditionally by people who have chosen to know me, who have stuck by me through good times and bad. This is what family means to me. 


Maryana Stern is a 24-year-old first generation Russian-American living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She graduated with honors from Duquesne University with a degree in social studies education and a minor in history. She recently accomplished two major lifelong goals, especially for a former foster youth: getting her driver’s license and her own car.

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