By Juanita Hotchkiss, as told to Barbara Hustedt Crook
In 1986, Woman's Day ran an article about Marjorie Hotchkiss, a 70-year-old single woman in upstate New York, who adopted a baby girl (Juanita [left] was 5 when our article appeared). Click here to read it. Here is the rest of her story. Photo by Susan Pittard/Studio D; hair and makeup by Jen Navaro
No child should go through what I did-which is why I turned my own tough times into a career helping others.
When I was little, I knew my life wasn't like other kids'. My mom was as old as their grandmas, for one thing, and didn't drive, so friends would take me to doctor's appointments and dance class. But she was warm and wonderful, always singing show tunes and reading me poetry. It was her lifelong dream to have a child, and I felt very loved.
Then, in 1990, when I was 8 and she was 78, she was diagnosed with cancer. I was terrified that she'd die-sometimes I cried myself to sleep with worry. The more time she spent weak and in bed and the less she could pay attention to me, the more scared I became, and I began to act out-badly. By the time my mom's cancer was in remission a year later, I had failed fourth grade and I was an angry, sullen child.
Things got even worse when she broke her hip, and I started to tangle with her home health aide, who had a lot of control over her and didn't want me around. It was tense, so I avoided the house, running wild with my friends. By age 13, I stayed out smoking and drinking until 3 A.M. I missed so much school that I had no idea what was going on. I kept hoping someone would notice, but no one seemed to.
Then, on a day that I happened to be at school, some scary people came and told me I wasn't going home. My mom couldn't handle me and she asked that I be placed in foster care. It was a nightmare.
Outwardly, I acted like I didn't care. Inwardly, though, I was in tremendous pain and shock. I loved my mom and I knew deep down she loved me. I thought, I am such a bad daughter! I didn't think I was worthy of her-or anyone's-love.
I bounced around among several families and group homes, and ran away each time, usually with another girl. Mostly we lived on the streets, and ended up in four different states at various times, surviving by begging for money or a place to stay. We'd tell people that we'd been separated from our family. They'd look at me, with my cute freckles and smile, and they'd help, believing my parents were on their way. But they weren't.
I was lucky I wasn't raped, like my friend was. When the police finally picked me up as a runaway, I was in New York City. I was sentenced to juvenile detention. I didn't show it, but frankly, I was relieved.
At the center, I played along with the counseling program. I didn't have much faith in it, but I decided that as long as I was locked up, I might as well get something from it-plus, the quickest way out was to be on my best behavior. A counselor helped me realize that I wasn't a bad kid, I was just hurt and let down. I'd been going on adrenaline for so long that I was numb, but with his help, I saw how scared I was of being abandoned. After a few months, I started to believe that I really could change, that I had a choice: I could stop blaming myself for being so hard to manage and others for not taking care of me, and I could have a future. I began to excel at my schoolwork, and did so well that after a year, at 16, I was released to distant family friends.
Finding My Way
My mom and I had spoken on the phone sporadically over the years, but right before I was released I learned that her cancer had come back. In July 1998 I visited her in the hospital. She was in a coma. I held her hand, told her I loved her and promised I'd be OK. The nurses said she couldn't hear me, but I knew, from the way she squeezed my hand, that she'd heard.
The very next day, she died. It hit me hard: Even though my mom hadn't been able to care for me, she had loved me. Now I had no one.
That's part of why, when I met a man at church and he proposed just two months after my mom died, I accepted. I had my son, Michael, when I was 17. But soon my husband and I were fighting so much that I knew I had to go.
I was 19, a single mom with a ninth-grade education, and not a penny to my name. I had no idea how I'd make it. I was driven by fear: that I'd hurt my son by staying in an unhealthy marriage, and that I'd wind up one of those teenage moms whose child is taken away because she can't care for him. I needed to be OK for him. And for my mom. I wanted to keep my promise to her.
I didn't want to leave Michael with anyone, so I got a job at a daycare center. It turned out I was good at caring for the kids, and my confidence grew. I also met a wonderful guy, Ron Schmadel, as he dropped off his niece at the center. It was love at first sight! We've been together ever since.
Soon I landed an entry-level job helping the children of victims of domestic violence. For the next seven years my coworkers were like a family to me, and I felt that helping kids-making sure they didn't fall through the cracks as I had-was my calling. Eventually I transferred to the agency's homeless shelter. I knew firsthand the impact I could have on the kids just by listening to them, as my counselor in juvenile detention had listened to me. I know that we're all just one tragedy away from homelessness, poverty or abuse, so I developed a program to get parents what they needed, too.
It felt so good to finally have that support in my own life, at home with Ron and at work. My supervisor had been telling me for years that I was too smart not to go back to school. So in 2007, while on maternity leave with my daughter, Ava, I took the GED exam just to see what I needed to work on to pass it next time. But I passed!
From then on, there was no stopping me. In 2009, I started taking college courses online, and with life credits, got my degree in three semesters. Now I'm studying for my masters in social work and working to pay my student loans. I hope to open a nonprofit someday.
Ron and I have been very happy for the last 11 years, and he's a terrific dad. But as important as stability is to me, I kept finding excuses not to get married. I didn't want my son to go through another breakup, and deep down I was afraid of losing another person. But I finally said yes to Ron-10 years after he first proposed-and we were married two months ago. I have the family I've always wanted, with children who feel safe and loved. I'm still a bit of a helicopter mom, but I'm working on it!
These days, I feel lucky and philosophical about what happened to me. I had horrible experiences and have been disappointed by a lot of people in my life. But many, many others were kind and saw potential in me when I didn't see it in myself. I'm grateful that I learned forgiveness and resilience. I think, in the end, everything turned out the way it was supposed to.
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