The Language of Flowers
By Jennifer Friedman
The National Center for Youth Law has launched a project looking at reproductive health care for youth in foster care, with a focus on teen pregnancy. While evidence shows a decline in the rate of teen pregnancy nationwide, data show that youth in foster care are more likely than their counterparts not in care to become pregnant and to experience repeat pregnancies.i Previous articles in this series have presented data showing a higher rate of teen pregnancy among youth in care and looked at possible explanations for the disparity.ii The project has also examined the availability of reproductive health care services under Medicaid, the primary source of health care for foster youth.iii
To date, much of the attention focused on reproductive health care and teen pregnancy among youth in foster care has been from social policy researchers and academics. With the publication of the novel The Language of Flowers, author and foster mother Vanessa Diffenbaugh has introduced a much wider audience to the struggles of youth transitioning out of foster care and facing a wide range of challenges in caring for themselves. The book quickly became a New York Times bestseller and has been optioned for movie rights.iv
The story begins on Victoria Jones’s eighteenth birthday as she ages out of the foster care system. Victoria begins her adult life with $20 and 12 weeks of free rent at a transitional housing facility for foster youth. She has no permanent residence, no job, and no medical care. However, Victoria has a gift for understanding the Victorian language of flowers and finds work and a community by composing beautiful and meaningful floral arrangements.
When one of the characters in The Language of Flowers finds herself pregnant and alone, she attempts to take care of herself once again. She describes the extent of her preparation for the baby’s arrival:
In preparation for the baby, I gathered minimal newborn supplies: blankets, a bottle, formula, pajamas, and a hat. I couldn’t think of anything else. Wrapped in a numb paralysis, I purchased it all without anticipation or anxiety.v
The list is striking in its brevity, but also in the isolation in its creation. There were no newborn preparation classes, no baby showers, no aunts or grandmothers offering advice, no What to Expect books. This vision of pregnancy and motherhood is completely different from the prevailing view of expectant mothers in society today.
Though the book is a work of fiction, it is rooted in Diffenbaugh’s experience as a mother to her own biological children and as a foster mother to teenagers. In a span of 16 months, Diffenbaugh mothered four children, giving birth to two babies and fostering two teenagers. Diffenbaugh says of having teenagers in the house along with newborns, “chaos doesn’t even describe it.”vi But in bonding with biological babies and foster teenagers simultaneously, Diffenbaugh realized that the bonding process is deeply similar.
As a foster mother to teenagers, Diffenbaugh saw clearly how little support they had to confront the daily struggles of adolescence. At the same time, Diffenbaugh realized how difficult it is to have a newborn in the house. When overwhelmed by the newborn’s needs or the trials of early motherhood, Diffenbaugh surrounded herself with support: from her husband, other relatives, neighbors, and mother’s helpers. In facing the juxtaposition of these two experiences, Diffenbaugh began the process of writing the book.
Following the publication of The Language of Flowers, Diffenbaugh received an outpouring of offers to help youth transitioning out of foster care. She co-founded the Camellia Network, which she describes as crowd-sourcing support for the needs of foster kids. Diffenbaugh says the goal of the Camellia Network is to create a platform to put a personal face on a problem that many people in the United States may not yet know about, and to match the generosity of donors with the needs of youth. Through the Camellia Network, youth aging out of foster care post information about themselves along with a registry of items they need. Individuals who register to become “Supporters” can purchase items through the registry and post messages of encouragement. Consider, for example, Shakia, a 21-year old single mother currently living in California and looking for work. Shakia describes her goals as “Finding/Furnishing a living space, Continuing [her] education and Being a great parent.”vii Shakia has registered for a baby gate ($17.99), a baby walker ($24.99), a set of frying pans ($20.55), as well as other household and personal items.viii She has received messages of encouragement from multiple supporters.
The Camellia Network has received funding from the Stuart Foundation and private donations, and to date has over 2,000 donors. In the language of flowers, “Camellia” means “my destiny is in your hands.”ix The Camellia Network stands to make a meaningful difference in the lives of youth aging out of foster care.
Jennifer Friedman is an attorney working with Rebecca Gudeman at the National Center for Youth Law on issues of reproductive health care for foster youth.
- Mark Courtney et. al, Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Outcomes at Age 21 (Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago) December 2007; Mark Courtney et al, Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Conditions of Youth Preparing to Leave State Care (Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago) February 2004.
- “Cause for Concern: Unwanted Pregnancy and Childbirth Among Adolescents in Foster Care” Youth Law News (January-March, 2013).
- “Assessing Accessibility: Do Teens in Foster Care Have Access to the Full Range of Reproductive Health Care Services Under Medicaid?” Youth Law News (April-June, 2013).
- Pamela McClintock, “’The Language of Flowers’ Film Rights Optioned by Fox 2000” The Hollywood Reporter, September 9, 2011.
- Vanessa Diffenbaugh, The Language of Flowers, Ballantine Books (2011) at 213.
- Private conversation with the author, July 15, 2013.
- See https://camellianetwork.org/profile/shakia/2042?page=0%2C0&splash=#registry-top (accessed August 12, 2013).
- See https://camellianetwork.org/about.