18 December 2010

Remembering what I have to be grateful for

People looking at my life now might be inclined to think of me as "having it all". And they're be pretty much right. Oh, there are things we do without, things we'd like to do and have that we can't -- at least not without some planning. But we have enough to eat. We have a home to live in. Increasingly, we have our health. It is not even a major splurge to buy bath soap, toothpaste and shoe laces all at the same time

It wasn't always this way for me, though.

I was raised in a good, working class home with caring parents. They did their best for me -- for all of us. (I had five brothers before I turned six.)

But I was a willful child. I grew up fast -- but not as fast as I thought. I made mistakes. I accidentally got pregnant in my sophomore year of college. Between that and some financial snarl-ups with the college bursar, I decided to drop out and be a Mamma. My beau, also very young, dropped out, married me, and tried to do right by our little boy.

But we were very young. We had never talked about how marriages should work, or how families should work. Turns out, we had completely different ideas about that with little or no overlap. We tried -- but within four years, it was over.

I found myself on my own at 23 to try to make a life for my two little boys, ages four and two. I had no job skills and I didn't know how to drive. I had untreated hypothyroid and untreated seizure disorder, so I was exhausted and "in and out" a lot of the time. I worked what jobs I could find, while taking my kids to soup kitchens and volunteering at food coops to get the free vegetables that were too old to be sold to paying customers.

I dealt with social workers who wanted to know why there was no food in the fridge except some very sad carrots and a soggy cabbage. They wanted to know why my closet was full of men's clothes and where was the man who wore them, and why wasn't he helping? (Men's clothes are less expensive and more durable than women's clothes, so I wore them. Not flattering, but they kept the Michigan cold out.) I dealt with neighbors who saw that our life was a struggle and called the authorities because I wasn't parenting the way they thought I should.

Yep, mine were the kids whose teachers were pointing fingers and blaming, because my kids didn't have clean clothes every day. (I washed laundry when I could afford the laundromat and soap -- about once a month. I washed them in the tub with dish soap sometimes -- but our apartment was very cold in winter and the clothes took forever to dry. The kids didn't have enough clothes to keep them dressed in clean clothes while the others dried.)

My boys often needed a bath. (When we got home, ate dinner, and went to bed, I was just too tired to argue if they adamantly refused to bathe, which they often did. That the teachers at school expressed a disdainful attitude toward me did nothing to enhance my authority with my boys, and it just didn't seem worth the fight. They had to live with it, so if they refused to bathe, I told them what I thought of that and let it go.)

By spring my boys' boots were stinky, because it was a struggle just to afford one pair of shoes for them each season, and the boys simply *would* not stay out of puddles.

Because we relied on buses, and often didn't have money for bus fare, so we walked. A lot. 17 miles in a day wasn't every day, but it wasn't terribly unusual, either. We walked to the soup kitchen, we walked to the grocery store, we walked to school. We walked through the parks to pick up returnable cans from the trash cans and lanes -- on a good day, it bought us our dinner!. We sometimes walked to the plasma center, where I went twice a week, so I could sell my blood plasma to feed my kids. (I thought of it as an extension of breastfeeding -- using my blood to feed my kids, but less directly.) We were always able to take the bus home.

All of that walking was good for us, but it took a lot of time and a lot of energy. Especially when food was scarce.

My guys often didn't do their homework because when we all got home we were exhausted, and there was certainly no time to do projects.

I knew how about personal hygiene, I knew about the importance of education, I knew a lot of things. But I was young and overwhelmed with choices gone bad.

If I could have, I would have given them the life I am giving to their baby brother -- it's not that I didn't care, or didn't know any better. It's that abject poverty and the struggle to keep our heads above water was all I could manage.

I eventually got a Pell grant, went back to college and got a better job. Over time, the jobs got better and life got easier.

My life is very, very different now, of course. We have enough good food, we have a lovely home, we have a car. We can afford health care, even if it does take a big chunk out of our budget -- we can. We have the resources to homeschool, and the time, energy, and resources to stay clean and well groomed. We can afford new clothes when we need them and new shoes *and* boots, if we plan for them.

Yeah, I have *a lot* to be grateful for!

One thing, though. If you would?

Please try to be a little more understanding when you see someone who seems not to care ehough about their children. Are there parents who don't care? Probably. But remember that unless you know the circumstances, you don't know the circumstances. You can't assume that every parent has the resources you have. You may be confronted with someone for whom life's challenges are at or above her ability to cope. I didn't explain my situation to people -- no one asked and there seemed no point to complaining, and I know I am not alone in that.

People sometimes complain to me about families that don't operate the way they think they should, about people who don't seem to care enough, about families that operate the way mine did so many years ago. They try to contrast that lifestyle with the way Rod and I live and are raising Jack -- they think they're complimenting us, but it hurts every time they do it. My life is very, very different now, but I am the same me, with the same heart as ever. I wanted all this for my older boys, too, and it breaks my heart that I couldn't provide it for them.

Unless you REALLY know the circumstances, you don't know the circumstances. Err on the side of kindness. Please?


  1. Men's clothes are not only less expensive and more durable (which means less expensive in the long run) they are also more practical. Pockets are wonderful things. I don't understand why women put up with the silly clothing society expects them to wear. But perhaps you have to be a woman to understand and I am not willing to change just to find out.

  2. >Unless you REALLY know the circumstances, you don't know the circumstances. Err on the side of kindness. Please?<

    well said, Misti. well said.


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