I fell for Ashley hard, and fast. With her gorgeous red hair and wide smile she stands out in a crowd. In fact, I was the guitarist in a band and I first saw her in the audience and wondered, “Who is that girl?” She was so clever, poised, and smart, I didn’t realize she was a teenager. We talked about politics, ideas, and philosophies. I had never met anyone quite like her, or her family. Being brought into Ashley’s world—the world of adoption and foster care—would change my life forever.
I grew up in a Catholic household with three siblings. My mother was the oldest of seven, and my father the oldest of four. They are still married and living in the same house where I was raised. I didn’t leave home until I was 23, and even then, I moved into a place with my older brother. My family is close, reserved, and traditional. I was an Eagle Scout who went camping, my mother sewed our clothes, and we ate the fresh vegetables we grew in our backyard.
Ashley’s families terrified me—both of them. Her adoptive parents Phil and Gay Courter came into her life when she was a preteen. They also had two biological sons. One had graduated from Princeton and was quite literally a rocket scientist. The other was finishing his college degree in anthropology and film. The Courters were educated, well-traveled, boisterous, and active in their communities. Ashley had recently been reunited with her birth family and half-siblings when we met. After many difficult years, her mother was clean and sober, and was a successful electrician. She lived with a guy who restored motorcycles. Her birth mother and her boyfriend didn’t pressure me with questions about my intentions or future so I felt more comfortable with them, but Ashley was on edge because her life experience of broken promises made her wary. I couldn’t understand what it was like to be reacquainted with relatives who felt more like strangers. Ashley always wanted me to accompany her to visit her young adult brother or her mother and sister because she felt so vulnerable. Usually I was the one who felt out of place with the Courters, but in these situations, she was the tense one and often left feeling frustrated, rejected, or sad, none of which made sense to me.
After years of dating (years that were not always easy), I asked Ashley to marry me. We invited her birth and adopted family members to our wedding on a cruise ship. Trapped at sea with both of her mothers and their families on a four-day voyage: What could possibly go wrong?
Like most former foster kids, it’s hard for me to trust anyone. More than five years after my adoption had been finalized, I still thought my parents might “send me back” if I displeased them. During my nearly ten years in foster care, I had more than 14 placements. I was moved home-to-home, school-to-school, often with no explanation. Sometimes I was with my brother, sometimes not. No one knew who my birth father was, and I had infrequent visits with my birth mother, including a two-and-a-half year period where she didn’t see me at all. I felt like I was constantly being tossed out like trash, or returned because of some defect—all proof that I was worthless and unlovable.
To protect myself I became guarded, aloof, and cold. I had shut down my heart so it could not be wounded. This survival mode numbed me from the frequent disappointments as well as the physical and emotional abuse I experienced. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, I was attracted to guys who didn’t return my feelings or who were quick to dump me. I was flattered when an older musician began to flirt with me and I dropped my guard. At first he was attentive and kind, but I soon discovered he loved the spotlight, applause, and the adoration of other girls, more than me. Not only that, he often criticized my appearance, my ambitions, and my friends.
I was still magnetized by this man when I met Erick. Erick knew I was still smitten with the other guy, but listened to me woes and was a safe port in my stormy life. When I attended college in his hometown, he understood when I was busy, but also was available during any crisis. Friends accused me of using him, which I denied, but the truth was that I took for granted that he would be there when I needed him but make himself scarce when I had other plans. While I was aware that I had spent years testing the Courters to see how bad I could be before they got rid of me, I was unaware that I was following the same pattern. Erick wasn’t fazed. He persisted even when I didn’t make time for him for weeks, but he was always available if I needed something from him. Eventually I began to compare other guys to him and slowly realized he was who I turned to more and more often. When I either wised up—or grew up—we began an exclusive relationship. We had been together one way or another for six years before he asked me to marry him on bended knee with a ring proffered and my family standing around to see my reaction. My first thought was that this was a prank. I didn’t believe in fairy tales or that someone could make a life-long commitment to me romantically. Even when I finally decided to take a chance on him, I was still so haunted by my dysfunctional past. I was consumed with worry that I was unworthy, or that I would fail at being a wife and mother.
Ashley Rhodes-Courter, MSW, is the New York Times Bestselling Author of the memoirs Three Little Words and Three More Words. Ashely is also the founder and director of The Foundation for Sustainable Families. She spent nearly a decade in the foster care system before being adopted from a group home after 14 placements. Ashley met Erick during her senior year of high school. They became college sweethearts and are now married with three boys ages two, three, and four. They have fostered more than 25 children and are also adoptive parents.