Mother’s Day on the Streets

In honor of Mother’s Day this coming Sunday, I want to tell you about a mother I’ve spent a lot of time with in recent months and who has often occupied my thoughts and become dear to me. I met her –– we’ll call her Jennifer, in late January. I answered my phone one afternoon while preparing for an Emergency Winter Shelter and heard a frantic voice on the other end of the line. She had just been released from a psychiatric unit and a nurse had given her my number. She burst into a tearful explanation of her situation –– living in a car, 6 year old son, car towed, severe mental health issues, no money, nowhere to go, no one willing to help. The Women’s Rescue Mission is the only shelter that will accept mothers with children, but it was full, and Jennifer’s combination of paranoia and anxiety left her unable to access those services.

Jennifer and I are about the same age and have gotten to know each other over the last few months as we’ve worked on housing, felt a lot of righteous indignation together, and talked about our boyfriends. I like her so much, and sometimes she brings me drawings from her little boy, “Jr.” When I saw her 2 days before Easter she asked with a lot of urgency if I knew of anyone giving out Easter baskets this year. I thought it seemed a little strange that she was so worried about an Easter basket. She had just finished telling me how her son’s father (who he had been staying with until recently) was selling crack and had taken all their food stamps and maybe sold all of the Jr.’s school uniforms which had caused the little boy to have a nervous breakdown when he got in trouble at school for not having the right clothes. And she told me with grief how they had been eating $1 hamburgers for 2 weeks (even though Jr. has been sick with strep throat) because she was only making $5-6 dollars per day selling papers. “He knows about money now,” she said, “and I hate it. He knows how much things cost, and if he sees me not eating, he won’t eat either.” They have been sleeping on different couches or floors every night, sometimes in separate places, sometimes with strangers. Jr. is small and sensitive; Jennifer can’t read or write because school didn’t work for her, and she dropped out when she kept failing 6th grade. She’s very pretty –– with long red hair, and very desperate, and I don’t have to spell out how vulnerable they are.

So, yeah, when she asked me about the Easter basket, I thought it was strange. I had given her a small grocery card someone donated, and she looked relieved –– “This way I can buy him at least a small basket and some eggs I can fill with candy,” she said. I started to say that maybe it would be better to get some groceries this time around, and she agreed that I was probably right but, “I just don’t want him to start thinking the Easter Bunny isn’t real, you know? He’s having a really hard time.” The part of me that hates fake purple grass and chocolate capitalist bunnies standing in for Resurrection wanted to say that Jr. would be ok without an Easter basket and that this is the least of their worries right now. Wouldn’t it be better to buy some healthy groceries?

But sometimes I am wrong. I realized that she was saying that just for a little while on Easter Sunday she would like her son to have some reprieve from the general terror of his life, to believe that there is something a little magical that can usher in newness, even in dark times (I think we call this hope).

Our friend Hannah with baby Drae, born the same week she moved into housing
Our friend Hannah with baby Drae, born the same week she moved into housing

I’ve noticed that programs that offer aid to the poor are usually designed with some necessary component to address theobvious character deficiencies of the poor. Example: the Welfare Reform Act literally required that women go through “Chastity Training.” This approaches struggling women as though they have done something wrong that has obviously landed them where they are now. 1+1 = 2. If you weren’t a slut (addict, lazy, etc.), you wouldn’t be in this mess now.

Jennifer told me that she applied for work at an “Adult Store” a few weeks ago. They asked her if she would have sex with customers, and she said “No,” and they said, “We don’t have work for you right now.” So she’s worried everyday that she won’t be able to feed her son or that someone will hurt him. These are the everyday choices so many people have to make. She’s doing all the right things, but the promise hasn’t come true for her –– that working hard and following the rules will pay off. What I want to say about Jennifer (and I suspect most mothers struggling in poverty) is that she is doing a good job, and she is doing her very best. She wants to give good gifts to her child, and she wants to protect him and see him thrive, but she is caught in the hooks of a dirty, rotten system that treats her like a criminal and a bad mother and keeps her from the things she wants most –– to provide and care for a happy and healthy child. This Mothers’ Day  Jennifer will not wear a corsage and enjoy a nice lunch with her family. She’s planning to check herself back into the hospital this week because she is teetering on a dangerous edge of depression and anxiety.  Please remember her and so many other mothers who are hurting and fearful and weeping for their children. Please ask, “Why?” and be willing to listen and act without settling for easy answers. For the sake of all these mothers and their children, may we be a part of suspending judgement, offering a different narrative, and ushering in this much needed newness and hope.

Posted by Lauren Plummer