By Sabina Mollot
Like many people who’ve retired, former teacher and Stuyvesant Town resident Margaret Gonzalez had fully intended to write a novel. But after joining a writing group, she was instead encouraged to get out her own story, which involves the lengthy and often frustrating process of becoming a foster parent and eventually adopting her daughter, who’s on the autism spectrum. Now a grandmother living in Cape Coral, Florida, Gonzalez said she’s now glad she took this advice, and over the holidays, self-published the memoir, Body in Space: My Life with Tammy.
Gonzalez, who had a career as a French teacher at Friends Seminary for 34 years, became a foster parent after hearing from a friend about five children who were placed into foster care, four boys and a girl. Due to privacy regulations in the system, Gonzalez never learned the full story about the situation, other than that the father was incarcerated and the mother may also have been involved in illegal activities. Her friend had taken in the four boys and Gonzalez decided to take in their sister, Tammy. At that time, Tammy was already living with a foster family, though it wasn’t their intention to keep her.
She was four at the time, and so speech-impaired that she couldn’t say her own name. Then, like now (at the age of 40), Tammy isn’t one to talk about her biological family or the system.
“I still to this day don’t know what her family was like,” said Gonzalez. “Now she’ll say, ‘Been there, and it sucked.’”
But what Gonzalez did know after doing some research is that that foster care, without adoption, increases a young person’s odds of ending up incarcerated or homeless, those odds increasing with time spent in the system.
“I saw firsthand how damaging it was with Tammy,” she said. She recalled how the girl told her then that her doll had “went with the bad guy” and “she wanted to know if her doll was in trouble. I figured, ‘She wants to tell me about something,’” said Gonzalez.
Unfortunately, getting Tammy placed into her home proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare, one that lasted between eight and nine months.
“It took as long to get Tammy as it did a regular baby,” Gonzalez joked. “You’d think they want to get these kids adopted, but they were very overwhelmed and underpaid and understaffed. If there was a kid who was not in harm’s way, they put her on the back burner.”
According to Gonzalez, she could never get the employees within the foster care system, based in Florida, to complete the required paperwork. So eventually, she appealed to the president, then Ronald Reagan, for help cutting through the red tape — and to her surprise, his administration swiftly answered her letter.
“At the lounge at Friends Seminary, they said, ‘Marge, there’s a call for you and it’s from the White House,’” Gonzalez recalled. After the administration’s threatening to cut federal funding if the foster care paperwork wasn’t completed, suddenly it was.
But the process still wasn’t over. Despite being released into Gonzalez’s care, another six years would go by before the adoption was finalized.
“It was very frustrating,” she said of the wait. “I felt they weren’t doing their jobs. Their jobs aren’t to warehouse kids, but to place them where they can thrive. I think the foster care system has improved, but from the statistics I’ve read, it’s not good. With siblings, you’ll hear about one who will open a restaurant, and the other will have an opioid addiction.”
Meanwhile, Gonzalez found herself new to the world of parenting, not to mention parenting to a child with special needs.
Tammy at first attended Friends Seminary, but then enrolled in local public schools PS 40 and later Simon Baruch Junior High School’s special education programs.
At one point, when Gonzalez was still feeling the high of saying bye to the foster care system, she heard about a Mother of the Year writing contest for children held by this newspaper. So she nudged Tammy to enter it (and ideally, win her some prizes sponsored by local businesses). Tammy did so, writing a letter about her perspective on being adopted, and to Gonzalez’s surprise, her contest entry won.
“I was dumbfounded,” said Gonzalez, who devoted a chapter in her book to the contest.
The book also delves into what it was like for her to become a parent yet again, or more specifically a grandparent that’s a child’s co-caregiver when Tammy grew up and had a child of her own at 22. Tammy’s son, Paul, turned 18 this month, and lives with his mother and Gonzalez.
For a while, Paul’s father also lived with them, but Gonzalez threw him out over his drug use and inability to hold a job. He is no longer in his son’s life. Today the family lives in Florida, and has done so since Gonzalez took an early retirement at 62. She left Stuyvesant Town for the Sunshine State, she explained, in order to find a home she could afford that fit her newly-extended family. It recently became even larger with Gonzalez having remarried at the age of 70.
While Gonzalez called Tammy a good mother, she stressed that it was necessary for her to co-parent Paul. This was due to Tammy becoming unable to control her frustration when her baby became a toddler and all of a sudden “started saying no.”
While not autistic, Tammy is on the spectrum, with an inability to read others’ social cues. As an adult this has meant she hasn’t worked. Despite being a talented manicurist who often does her mother’s nails, she’s never been able to get hired anywhere. When Gonzalez suggested this could be due to her disability, Tammy responded that she hadn’t disclosed it during interviews. “But you don’t have to,” said Gonzalez.
Then on the other hand, Tammy has had abilities that surprised her mother. The first time she went ice skating as a child, as the other children fearfully gripped the walls, “She was skating with her hands behind her back,” Gonzalez remembered. “She skated all the time.”
For Gonzalez, a motivating factor in writing Body in Space is that she hopes it will inspire people to take on the challenge of fostering, in particular children who have special needs.
“I feel as though there’s no shortage of people who want to raise children,” said Gonzalez, “but even people with fertility issues think that (foster) children are trouble, and they are trouble, but so are biological children. It’s crazy the way people will take in a rescue dog, but they only want a replica of themselves for their own children.”
Body in Space: My Life with Tammy is available on Amazon for $13 in paperback or $8.50 on Kindle.