Tammy’s house looks little from the outside. It doesn’t look big enough to hold her family of fourteen people: herself, her husband, twelve children, and three dogs. Inside her surprisingly roomy and tidy home in Brunswick, I find Tammy frying bacon on the stove, Gracey at the kitchen peeling an orange, Gabrielle chasing a dog named Delilah, and Alexandra tying flowers in Rosie’s hair. It’s a maintained chaos, and it’s how Tammy thrives.
She didn’t anticipate that this would be her life. When Tammy married her husband, they had envisioned that they would have no children. But, with the pregnancy of her first child twenty-eight years ago, Tammy knew: “I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Her story is intertwined with the powerful stories of the many children that call Tammy “mom” and her house “home.”
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FAMILY.
We have a large family. My husband and I currently have twelve children and one grandchild. We have done foster and adoptive care for nineteen years. We have four biological children, six adopted children, and two foster daughters and one foster granddaughter.
WHAT ARE THE WAYS YOUR CHILDREN HAVE COME INTO YOUR LIFE?
Well, obviously my biological children came biologically. Through the foster care system, we have adopted four of our children. One of our children came through a private adoption through an agency in Texas. One of our children came to us because we were hosting medically needy children in third-world countries. She came over for treatment from Burkina Faso and she really had no home to come back to. And when she came into our house, we knew she was home. Thus, we adopted her. My foster daughters have come to us through the foster care system, and in some instances they are able to go home.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM YOUR CHILDREN?
You know, each one of them does. I have to say that people look at our family and look at what we do and say, “Oh, you are so amazing, I can’t believe you do that.” And I don’t say this because it’s not true or in a depreciating way, but seriously, what I feel is how fortunate we are. Look what these children have given to us. I really believe that because each and every one of them has been a joy and an honor and brought so much to our family and our home. Even the ones that come and go. Globally, all of their stories, what they have taught be about is resiliency. They have taught me hopefulness. Even in the worst of circumstances, they never give up. Whatever life looks like, it’s going to be okay. I have learned to really understand how different people are, and how each person has a different summit, a different journey to be who they are going to be. And who they are going to be is so different from one another. I have a very firm belief in the importance of biological connection. So, I have worked very, very hard to try to keep those connections in place when those connections are safe and appropriate. For all of my children, whether they are adopted or not. And the lesson that I have learned from the families and the children is that people do the very best that they can do at that time. And there’s not a child that has come into my house whose parents haven’t loved them. It’s just that whatever circumstance, place that they are in their life, mental illness they are battling, or substance abuse they have, they just can’t care for their children at that time. And that’s very different from not having love for their children. I’ve learned to not be judgmental.
TELL ME SOME OF THE STORIES OF YOUR CHILDREN.
Let’s start with Gracey. She was born in Burkina Faso. She was born out in a field. Her mother was handicapped, and her grandparents did not know her mom was handicapped. She could not care for the baby because of her disability and the grandparents didn’t have the resources to care for her. So they took her to the orphanage in Burkina. She was there for eight months and they could not get her to be healthy. She was a “Failure to Thrive.” Their medical infrastructure is very poor. They would take her to the hospital, they would stabilize her, and she would take two steps backward. She had malaria twice, and had been infected with salmonella. They contacted an organization I was volunteering with that would bring children over for medical assistance. Maine Medical Center, a gastroenterologist and both of my pediatricians agreed to treat her for free; because that’s part of how the US will let someone come over with a medical visa. We fundraised for her transport, and when she got here she was eight months old and weighed seven pounds. When I picked her up in Chicago, her little legs were the size of my fingers. I brought her home and they immediately admitted her to the hospital. It was something as simple as her digestive system couldn’t break down the protein in the only formula they had at the orphanage. She needed a specialized formula. I have to tell you, when I would be up at night feeding her when she got here, I would think to myself, “How many children in Africa die because of such a simple, correctible reason?” We brought her home, got her healthy, and realized that her family couldn’t take her back, and we started the journey of adopting her from Burkina. The will of this child to survive is incredible. That strength of will is now used to boss everyone around in the house! There’s a reason why that child is here. She wakes up everyday joyful and happy, with a little bit of a First Grader ‘tude goin’ on. She’s an amazing little girl.
This fall, my daughter Alexandra will have been with us for five years. She came to my house through the foster care system. She was thirteen years old and eight months pregnant. And she wanted to parent. So, I said, “Okay, we’ll see how it goes.” So, she came in November, she turned 14, and had her daughter and has parented her since then. She just turned 18 and her daughter is four. And beyond being a single parent and young mother, she has been very involved with young single mom parenting groups and supporting other moms. She has been to the statehouse and spoken about her experiences. She graduated from high school with A’s and B’s and just got accepted into Empire Cosmetology School and will be going there in September. She has beaten the statistics. She’s got a mindset that she wants something better for her daughter. It’s incredible. I admire her. She’s taught me an incredible amount as I watch her navigate motherhood.
WHAT DO YOUR CHILDREN NEED FROM YOU?
At the end of the day, I think most kids just need a safe place to stay, and they need somebody who believes. When a child arrives in a new place, they don’t know the dynamic, how people are going to treat them. It must be scary. You need to establish the space for that, to respect them. They need me to honor and respect their families. They need me to get their needs met. They need me to believe with them that it is going to be alright. Because it will.
WHAT DO THEY NEED FROM THEIR COMMUNITY OR THE SYSTEMS THAT SUPPORT THEM?
That’s a really good question. I live in an amazing community. As far as Alexandra getting through school, if it had not been for the Brunswick School System doing way above-and-beyond what they could have done, I’m not sure she could have done it. They supported her every step. Even individual teachers went out of their way to help her because they saw someone who wanted to do it. I think it does take a village to raise a child. I’ll use the example of my son, Wahid, because he is the most difficult child I have ever had. I am not sure that he is going to be able to stay in a family environment because of safety issues: safety for him and safety for other children. It is with a broken heart that I say that because I cannot imagine a child of mine not living here. But Wahid would not be home now, or able to stay home, if it weren’t for the tremendous community support that I have gotten. Wrapping around me, supporting me. I mean, he is not a one-family child. His needs are such that he is a community child, and the community has stepped up. These children are everybody’s children. I have a father who doesn’t believe in what I do. He is very old-school, very traditional, military all of his life. He was raised in the Depression-era, very poor. He believes you take care of your own and that is it. And he says to me, frequently, “Why do you take other people’s problems?” And I cannot explain to him, they aren’t other people’s problems, they are all of our responsibilities. When you live in a world and a society, you live in relationship with everybody. Not everyone can do what I do, but they can do something. And it’s not just about children. My daughter Gabrielle is a budding social worker, but her cause is abused animals. The community here has been amazing, whether it’s providing support, activities for the kids, or respite. The systems, specifically the Child Welfare System, I really believe that it is in crisis. I think they would agree with that. It’s not because of anything they have done. Some of the most incredible people I have ever met are caseworkers. There are no resources. Their caseloads are too high, they don’t have what they need to meet the needs. The problem is not money, it’s that the money isn’t managed correctly. It’s the kids that end up paying the price. It’s hard for kids, and it’s hard from a foster parent’s perspective.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR HUSBAND.
He’s a lobster fisherman. The more kids that come in, the more he fishes (laughs). He does trip fishing. He is really supportive, and he’s a very independent person, and I am too. He graduated from Maine Maritime Academy, and was from generations of fisherman. He decided to go back to it. We are lucky enough that he has a federal permit, which means he can go way off shore. But he trip fishes, so he can be gone maybe four or five days at a time. This was something I’ve always wanted to do, with these children. So it’s been wonderful that both of us have our independent jobs. We can’t work together too much. For example, if we try to carry a piece of furniture upstairs, we get in an argument! There can’t be two bosses. I very much support what he does and he very much supports what I do. I would say that he is an absentee father, because he fishes, but when he needs to be here, he is here. He’s not good when the kids are little, like babies. But when they get older, he is amazing.
HOW DO YOU HOLD ONTO YOUR OWN IDENTITY? DO YOU FIND TIME FOR YOURSELF?
I struggle with that. I would say that’s another lesson I am starting to learn, probably because I am getting older and more tired. It’s about really understanding and recognizing that if I don’t take care of me, I can’t take care of everybody else. It’s not a selfish perspective; it’s an unselfish perspective. As I age, I am understanding that piece more. I have wonderful people in the community. The kids in the house are awesome. For example, last night, I was fried. And the kids said, “We’ll finish up here.” I could go in my room. I could watch Duck Dynasty. Just decompress. They are fabulous. It’s difficult, but you need to do it. You need to keep that piece. Otherwise, you are no good.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
My children. Hands down, that’s it.
WHAT IS A LESSON YOU HAVE LEARNED IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?
The lesson that I am learning is that I need to let my children go. Obviously, I am rescuer (laughs). What I am learning from my children who are older is that I need to not continue to enable them by solving all their problems. And that is really, really hard for me. Because when something happens, I want to go fix it. They need to learn to fix it themselves, because I am doing them no favors. That’s my lesson I am working on right now. My eldest daughter, her car bit the dust, and she has student loans. She’s 27-years-old, she has to figure it out.
WHAT’S THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY FOR YOU?
What comes to mind if when they are all getting on the school bus. No, I think it’s not a moment, but I love the morning when the kids get up. They are all staggering, you know, so it’s not like they all get up and thunder downstairs. Oh! And sometimes, when we are all together sitting at the dinner table at the same time, which doesn’t happen very often; that’s an incredible moment. Or, the moments when one of the kids accomplishes something. When Alexandra got her diploma. When Amethyst finally got a job. Those are incredible moments.
HAVE THERE BEEN THINGS THAT YOU HAD TO LET GO OF? THAT YOU’VE HAD TO SACRIFICE?
The one thing I gave up is that I used to be an insane reader. I don’t read anymore. I used to read a lot. That was one of my personal things that I gave up. As a child growing up, I grew up in a household where my father was an alcoholic. And one of the things growing up that always intrigued me was that when a child acted out there was something wrong with a child, as society’s perspective. We had an incredibly chaotic and dysfunctional home. And I was the middle child. I was the child that acted out. I was the source of the dysfunction. And now society has figured out that if a child is acting out, there’s something going on. What I have gotten from that upbringing, is that it allows me to function in chaos. One the kid’s therapists once told me, “Tammy, chaos is your form of organization.” And that enables me to do this! I feel comfortable in that. I’ve given up having nice furniture. I’ve given up having nice vacations. But there’s just no comparison to what I’m paid. I mean, how many people get to do exactly what they want to do in their life?