For A Foster Child, A Backpack Can Be Terrifying

by Sarah Burtchell
Originally Published: 
Black backpack with a pink outline and shapes leaned on a wooden chair at the table
Sarah Burtchell

The sight of a zipped up backpack might elicit a couple of emotions. If the intention is a small adventure, it might evoke a feeling of excitement and giddy anticipation. If the intention is a productive day, it might bring forth a feeling of readiness.

But rarely does a backpack induce terror.

Unless possibly to a person who has spent their formative years as a foster kid, shuttled between homes with a backpack for months on end, slowly and painfully developing all of the qualities of post traumatic stress disorder. And then, possibly, a zipped up backpack brings it all barreling back.

The first time we packed her a backpack, M had been here for 8 weeks. My leave had ended, and I had to return to work the next day. Packing her necessities for daycare got added to the night-before list, and her child-sized backpack, which had arrived with her upon her move to Maine, got added to the line-up of older kids’ school bags and sports bags and parents’ work bags.

So downstairs that evening sat her brightly colored, cheerful backpack, puffy with extra clothes, pull-ups, and a Winnie the Pooh blanket ready for her daycare’s nap time on a little blue mat.

Seeing that entirely undid her.

She saw that backpack, and she screamed. She unzipped it frantically with tiny, shaking hands, threw clothing and blankets in all directions, maniacally dropped her 26-pound body backward, slammed her head on the linoleum several times with full intention.

Stunned at the power and intensity of her fear and fury, I picked her up, and attempted to hold her.

She had very little language at that point, although she was 32 months old, and so even explaining that daycare is seven hours — not a night, not a weekend, not forever — was not possible.

She thrashed, wailed, howled, head-butted both me and my husband. I don’t remember how that night ended, but I do know it was the start of seeing just how terrified she was of leaving a location, packed, and ready for a new one, with no real ability to understand for how long she was going, or with whom, or why.

When she had been living with us for 11 months, we went to a hotel for two nights in New Hampshire. The plan was just a quick get-away from the seemingly never ending Maine winter days of shoveling, sledding, making snowmen, and continuously loading a wood stove. Despite there obviously being snow in New Hampshire, there were also two heated pools and two hot tubs, and a welcomed change of scenery coupled with a lack of responsibility.

We explained “hotel” in every way we possibly could to her for days ahead. We talked mostly about its impermanence, its warm swimming pools, the fun to be had at hotels, and the fact that all five of us were sleeping in one room, and that all five of us would go together, and all five of us would return together.

When we pulled into the parking lot, after a 90 minute ride, her eyes widened, and she began shrieking, immediately becoming red faced and sweaty, while desperately attempting to hold closed her five-point-harness buckle.

“You leaving me? This my home? You leaving me here?!”

Her fear is deeply rooted. Living in homes all over during her years of foster care has left a seemingly irreparable terror within her. Needing to be handed continuously to strangers, to sleep in unusual beds, to eat foods never seen or smelled before — to place a few possessions into a bag of any sort over and over and over again has exhausted and scarred her.

She’s older now, and can understand what is meant by “two nights” or even seven. But her high anxiety remains, and whether that will change is anyone’s guess.

It complicates many activities and events, and is a striking opposite to my long-standing desire to drive on unknown roads and see new-to-me green street signs.

Traveling had been one of my greatest thrills for a couple of decades, though limited when we had our two biological children. But they, like many fortunate children, grew up knowing backpacks meant adventure, with your Mom or Dad or both in the bed right next to yours, eating those new foods, participating right alongside with those new activities. Traveling was exciting for them because it was never once associated with intense fear and complete unknowing.

Lately though, we travel much less, because M’s moments of meltdown and rage are scary and tense and somewhat unpredictable, despite their frequency.

Sunday, I drove M out to Litchfield, just 40 minutes from our town, to meet four other Moms and their similarly complicated children. Before we even got in the car, she began to slightly unravel, the feeling of the unknown stretching scarily before her. She asked me dozens of questions, declared she didn’t want to go, yelled that she wanted to stay home and “do nothing for all of the day,” wiry arms crossed, brown eyes flashing apparent anger (but, in reality, extreme stress).

Managing to practice every bit of calm I wish I could manage 100% of the time, I fed her lines like, “You could say, ‘I’m very worried because I’ve never been there,’ or ‘I am scared about going most places because I don’t know what to expect.’” I had her repeat some of those things to me, and came back with what I hoped were comforting responses. We did that for 20 tiring minutes, and then she finally opened a zip lock bag of cereal, and kept herself briefly busy with that rhythm and sensory input.

Then I turned up the music, rolled down the windows, and almost, ALMOST, got to briefly feel those rippling waves of excitement of following roads I hadn’t been on, and seeing new-to-me green road signs.

But there were open spaces, and cows, and horses, and farm stands, and a fabulous breeze through the fields, and the ability to drive a touch faster than signs dictate on those gently sloping roads. I glanced at her occasionally through my rear view, her hair blowing around her face, eyes set out her half open window to the dazzling green of early June and the bright sun and the grazing farm animals. She was methodically eating Life cereal from a zip lock, and I wished that unusual calm and peace could stay with her, or at the very least, impact her.

For about 10 minutes, it was almost amazing, almost my old life, almost devoid of managing around a small person’s past trauma.


I have learned to be extraordinarily mindful and appreciative of small moments.

Before we got to Plains Road, she escalated slightly again, and by the time we pulled into the driveway, I had to talk her back down: “No, we aren’t sleeping here.” “We will be back home way before supper.” “They have food.” “They have a bathroom.” “I am not leaving.” “I am not leaving.” “I am not leaving.”

We stayed for two-and-a-half hours. I sat in a lawn chair under a tree, and talked to four Moms and drank two mimosas. M played on the swing set, patted two tolerant dogs, ate an astounding FIVE amazing homemade scones, interacted with four other kids with moderate success, drank strawberry juice, ran repeatedly across a large, beautiful lawn, and for moments, seemed like a typical, lucky kid on an early summer day.

Then she started swearing, threw dirt in one of the girls’ faces, and hit the low that cannot be fixed with any outside intervention.

This is the low that I try to avoid, and often do not manage to.

Someday, I hope she can recognize it before she gets there, and choose to step away from the people, the sunshine, the chaos. At this time, she cannot, and often I don’t see the signs fast enough.

Someone else returning her to a functional state is not possible when she’s hit that moment. She is not able to be touched, talked with, or looked at. And so, I rapidly got her into the car, apologized to our hosts, and left.

All the way back, for 40 minutes, she raged, screamed, yelled at me that I was a jerk, along with a few other less than pleasant names, kicked my seat, and pounded on my window. I stopped the car twice. I waited, attempted to have a conversation, tried to give her the words of “I am stressed out because that was a lot of time with people,” turned the music up and then down, put the windows up and then down. It didn’t matter.

When we pulled onto our street, she shouted, furiously, “I AM FINALLY IN MAINE AGAIN!” Her extreme geographical confusion could’ve been funny to me then, but not much is funny to someone who has been driving a car with a heart rate of 160 for 40 minutes.

I wish, as I always do, that I could have handled this differently. I wish I could’ve brought myself to climb into the backseat when I first stopped on the side of the road, five minutes after pulling away from their driveway, to sit next to my tense, flushed, angry daughter. It’s so hard, when I am being screamed at and called terrible names, to get myself there. I wish my hands didn’t shake when she kicked my seat and pounded on my windows with tightly closed fists. I wish my own blood pressure and heart rate didn’t rise to near stroke-inducing levels in those situations.

I wish, for both of us, that those 10 amazing minutes of calm we had many hours before that chaos — when the breeze through the windows was just right, the sun was streaming in, and the car was dipping up and down over roads surrounded by fields — were the norm instead of the extreme exception.

I truly hope someday that combination of peace — intertwined with an undercurrent of bubbling excitement when looking at a packed backpack or passing by those new green street signs — is a feeling she gets to experience.

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