Drowning on Dry Land: Moms Can't Cry
“That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight losing my religion.”
This lyric plays in my mind when I contemplate the progression of my journey as a single parent. The on-going attempts to level the playing field of support occupied my days, my evenings, and thoughts. Legal matters stole my attention from work, my family, and my ability to find the floor in the laundry room.
I cycled in moments of strength and sunken hope for over five years. When I recall the anguish of the dissolution of my marriage nothing compares to the time I parented an infant alone. Nothing matches those toddler years with no one to tag in when I felt absolutely wiped out. Nothing.
During this time I described each decision making moment as having two piles of shit in my hands. Neither choice provided optimal results. As a fairly smart person with a background in education and social services I constantly questioned every move: Will this choice turn us into a harrowing statistic? Will this option present any opportunity for resiliency building?
With each rotten selection more options for stability experienced a new sets of limits. That’s how working with few resources and choices works--- when you choose without optimal conditions it begets further less optimal choices. Thus, a pattern develops. This is one reason why so many of those living in poverty struggle to get out poverty (poverty altogether is complicated so forgive my glossing over here).
What do you suggest to the woman who’s pulled herself up by the bootstraps so much she has no bootstraps left? In fact--- once she added a new pair of laces but those broke too. And so on.
R.E.M loops. That’s how it feels to know you NEED to get out the patterns of poverty—but you’re stuck in a corner. And hope dwindles. You constantly lose. But everyone tells you to just change your attitude. Have faith. I’m sorry you have no idea how hard it is to have faith when the world seems to constantly feel like its caving in. Nor the challenge of not sounding like a complainer or victim when you simply state the circumstance. It’s terribly defeating.
I’m lucky. Despite the long distance of family and some strained relationships they have charged in to help during some very dire times. And they’ve sat back and watched as I climb to reach my desired goals of sustainability. They allow me to trudge without purposefully pulling me down.
I use centering thought and goal statements to help me weigh the potential costs of decisions. Parents, especially single ones, become nuanced in this skill. My friend Jackie uses her desire to experience life with her child as the focal point for budgeting decisions and vacation options. She chooses based off her goal to keep her son involved in activities and to share in fun adventures together. Another friend of mine examines her choices with the priority of her children feeling less blows from her recent divorce.
An outsider might question the process for critical decision making of women like me. It’s a very judgmental world out there. Family, friends, and strangers will vilify a parent’s choices in times of crisis or in times of ease. Let me implore you: Don’t be one of those people looking at a single mom and saying “Just sign up for help and rent an apartment.” Accessing help, qualifying for housing, managing childcare, and juggling a variety of high priority items isn’t as easy as making a bullet journal with SMART goals. In fact it requires the tactful art of shifting, saving, and sacrifice. Even then, the option to just get an apartment may not exist.
Rentals in Greeley, CO alone run over $1000 for a modest space in a possibly undesirable location. Recently separated individuals may struggle to meet the deposit due to the high costs of divorce. The minimum wage for a mother working a shift in Colorado rests at $10.80 per hour ($480.00 per week) and the cost of childcare can run upwards of $200 a week. How can a single mother of two children maintain those costs when the economy absolutely hasn’t caught up to the needs?
Between coupons and creative planning to feed her children a decent meal she runs short each month. Her toddler requires full-time care and her preschooler needs picked up after lunchtime. The math, no matter how you swing it, will never work in her favor.
Her family lives in another state—she moved here when married and as she waits for final court orders she cannot craft any plans to move. She pleads for her ex to pay child support. He won’t. She applies for assistance and takes a day off work to turn in the paperwork she’s carefully filled out and filed. They tell her her ex owes her money through child support. She agrees. They add the support in as her income (she has never received a payment and the child support office is behind on the case) and inform her she requires one more paper to process her case. She will have to come back and ask her new boss for another day off. Despite her previous work experience, she stayed home to parent during her marriage—losing her footing in the professional landscape and credit building opportunities. He loved her then so she felt safe agreeing to those circumstances as a means to foster a healthy, thriving family.
She borrows the lawyer’s retainer, maxes out her credit, and hits the pavement looking for work when the realities of divorce set in. Her missing paper back to the office for child care assistance for approval? With child support she’s surpassed the threshold for a subsidy. She now must make a decision: stay home with my children and qualify for assistance or keep my employment with no way to afford childcare? She racks her brain for solutions.
She secures an apartment after learning she will be on the Section 8 housing wait-list for three years. She’s paying the $1000 come hell or high water. She convinces herself she doesn’t belong in Section 8 housing anyways. Researching online and at-home options for additional income sources leaves her short on ideas. She attempts to schedule shifts around school schedules and when her ex-spouse exercises visitation. A friend she likes well enough watches her toddler. The friend helps as best as she can but mama also knows her toddler spends the day in front of the TV.
Mama comes home tired with aching feet. The kids vie heavily for her attention while she attempts to switch laundry, make supper, finish bath time, and answer emails from her attorney. The babies should sleep in their beds; however, they nestle on each side of her while she silently panics managing her finances for the month.
Despite no TV service, using her neighbor’s internet, and limiting the use of AC/Heat she’s not cutting enough costs. Her mind wanders towards seedy, dark means to make money. She snaps out of trance and she falls asleep settling on solving the problem tomorrow.
This pattern continues with curve balls thrown in such as each kid getting sick back to back, increasing legal fees due to garnishing of his wages (he wants more custody to decrease his support obligations), attempts to enhance her education, a new set of snow tires, and the ex’s new girlfriend.
She changes employment often--- chasing higher wages and more opportunities to afford childcare. Her nights are sleepless, her days long, and she keeps wondering when her choices will start to pay off.
This continues for years. While the kids grow and attend school she’s constantly playing catch up. She’s dated, but potential suitors feel dissuaded by two children, a difficult ex, and she just doesn’t seem to be “quite on her feet.” Her peers placate her but know she has very little time to socialize and they notice her feelings of misplacement among husbands in golf shirts and wives renovating the kitchen. I mean if she could just get it together it would make things less awkward for everyone. It’s been several years now. It shouldn’t be this bad.
Are you kidding me? This woman that is holding it together by a thread and with frayed fragments of her former self is doing nothing but keeping it together. She’s operating in a deeply flawed system, raising children struggling to cope, and she’s killing it if you ask me. I’m an expert in this arena.
I look at her choices and I’m stunned she’s done so well. She’s cultivated support by reaching out to people who can help, she’s examined her needs and the priorities for her children. So what if she co-slept during toddler and preschool years? The littles felt loved and close. That was important for her at the time. Acquired debt? Who cares? She pays her minimums and the kids never went without food or electricity. Worked too many shifts? Not a big deal in the long run. She uses the shifts as a means to support her children and she is present with them when she gets home. She’s chosen caregivers that give them love and nurturing in her absence. She’s developed a team.
Her esteem sucks but she tells her daughter everyone is beautiful and her child believes her. Her son shows manners and tells people he loves his mama. Despite the fact the easy choice of “getting an apartment” did not pan out she’s generated a means to make it without considering those scary ways to garner a quick dollar.
So while her family thinks she should be married by now or her co-workers find her resolve almost annoying this woman’s success stands firm. No, she can’t move. She’s not interested anymore. No, she can’t join yoga classes or send her son on a trip to Washington DC yet she can save for him to get new shoes and join the baseball team. Her daughter got glasses this year and she thanks her lucky stars she qualified for CHP insurance for the kids.
Last month she planted flowers for her apartment patio and she’s sleeping a little more now. The kids still get sick, she still spends every last dollar in her account, and there’s still a pesky new girlfriend to manage for the kids. Her ex-husband tries to exert control but she’s different now. She’s got an edge and blockades in place to keep him at bay. Maybe she’s a “bitch” or maybe she just understands assertiveness now.
Poverty changed her. She doesn’t fuss over the throw pillows and plans for the kitchen. She uses hand-me-downs pretending the décor is “vintage charm.” Her children know the budget and learn to accept “NO” in the store. They take part in re-using items and know mom will say something if they waste dinner.
Her eyes sink in, her hair limp with new grays, and there’s a blue undertone to her skin that she can’t explain. She tells herself that’s just the color of depression as she slides on fake tanner. She cheers on her kids at sports events and gives a nod of approval to the younger version of herself tackling this whole single thing at soccer. There’s a solidarity in the sacrifice it takes to do this.
And sometimes her choices feel like they’ve paid off. On occasion she feels defeated by the cultural expectations of mothers married or not. The bills still add up and she still weighs some choices like two piles of shit in her hands. Which shit can she live with? Which shit will keep a roof over her head? Which shit will make her feet hurt less? But unlike the years right after divorce, begging for assistance and parenting with almost no support, she’s not hiding in the corner. She’s in the spotlight revealing the sheer determination to cultivate tenacity as a spiritual experience. She lost the two car garage but gained herself. Don’t judge her. She’s a damn hero to women like me.