A Tale of 2 Mothers. And Plenty More.

I’m not a mother. But in a unique way I’ve been privy to mothers and their challenges. And the way we celebrate Mother’s Day just doesn’t cut it.

Motherhood isn’t all snuggling with a sleeping baby. Photo by Diane Nilan

When I get to know mothers, as I have in the past 14 years as I’ve filmed documentaries on families/youth experiencing homelessness, I learn more than I want to know, leaving me flabbergasted. They share, knowing I’m not judging.

I’ve known “Gina,” a mom I met as she was about to be kicked out of a motel room because she ran out of money, for about 10 years. She was hugely pregnant, the result of a relationship that went bad, leaving her with a lifetime souvenir, a girl. She had 5 other kids at the time, all boys. Little ones, 6 and under.

She willingly shared her story — one I’ve heard too many times to count in my 3 decades working with families in various forms of homelessness. Childhood abuse. Bad “choices” in sperm-donors who left her after they tired of seeing little ones around. One pregnancy by rape. Her realization that any plans to “be” someone would have to wait for a long stint of motherhood.

Despite all the baggage, she’s a tremendous mother!

“Mandy” and I have known each other a little over 3 years. She and her young daughter were stuck in a really bad arrangement — she was providing home health care services to an invalid in return for a tiny room she and her kid shared. The guy she worked for quickly showed his slimy side — a pervert in a wheelchair. She adeptly kept her daughter out of his path as she deftly defied his pathetic advances.

Her years of homelessness, bouncing from one faux promised haven to another, caused her to have to turn to her ex to take temporary care of her older daughter. Motherhood for her was a broken heart. But she could do nothing about it.

Spend an hour with 7 women, mothers who’ve experienced homelessness. on the edge: Family Homelessness in America

My “journey” with these moms has been probably the most solid relationship they’ve had over the years. As a filmmaker, I try not to interfere, but sometimes I have to eschew professional boundaries when disaster is nigh.

In return, they teach me the realities of poverty and homelessness as experienced by mothers. I’ve gone with them to appointments. I’ve strategized with them over navigating the dysfunctional “safety net.” They’ve pointed out to me multiple failures of programs theoretically designed to help.

I’ve learned a new respect for the term “bureaucratic bullshit.” I’ve witnessed calloused, cynical and cruel “case” workers shred the last ounce of worth of these beleaguered mothers.

Both women have experienced sexual abuse as children, chronic parental abuse and neglect, brutal abuse from partners, and abuse from society. They are far from alone. And they’ve gallantly fought to care for their kids as best they could.

Unfortunately, but to no surprise, often women going through the perverse crap thrown in their path find themselves stumbling as they crawl out of the pit of homelessness. A few things that trip them up:

  • Relationships. Plenty of predators out there, some “charming.” You can figure out how vulnerability makes for disaster.
  • Money problems. If the father isn’t paying support, or if he’s trashed their joint credit, the mother’s screwed. “Welfare” is largely a myth.
  • No child care, affordable housing, transportation. Nada.
  • Inadequate health care. Paltry food.
  • Impossible barriers to employment.
  • High risk of addiction, fueled by a heap of severe traumatic experiences as kids and adults.
  • Desperation fueled by abject poverty that can lead to making life-shattering choices.
  • Disasters awaiting around every corner.

Motherhood gets you no points if your life falls apart. It’s tough shit, even if you have little babies. Gina spent months with her little boys in a tiny camper during brutal heat and cold of the Southwest. Pregnant. The “pro-life” crowd disappears once a baby is born, leaving the mom with with a handful of diapers if she’s lucky.

Mandy’s current fragile situation — no way to get a decent job, even though she’s got enough education, ability and desire to be a good worker, because she can’t leave her daughter alone— makes her vulnerable to the abundant temptations of other ways to earn money.

Elizabeth got a handmade rose from her beloved who was doing time. Photo by Diane Nilan.

Mother’s Day will be the big economic stimulator this weekend. Meals. Gifts. Cards. Breakfast in bed. But what about those who don’t have a bed? Or a place to call home? Or those so worried about losing their humble abode that they’ll do anything to keep it?

47.6 percent

The nation’s poorest kids primarily live in households headed by a single female (pdf). Nearly half of all children with a single mother — 47.6 percent — live in poverty. Indeed, the children of single mothers experience poverty at a rate that is more than four times higher than kids in married-couple families.

Growing up in a shelter is a sure way to miss out on a healthy childhood. Photo by Diane Nilan

The brutal truth is millions of mothers and their kids in this crazy-ass country are going to sleep in parking lots, fleabag motels, doubled up in a frightening situation, deep in the woods, crammed into a dysfunctional shelter, or in other places unfit for human habitation.

If you’re really a glutton for punishment, here’s the link to my YouTube channel. You can see for yourself. I’m not making this up.

Instead of hyper-focusing energy and resources on mothers with abundant symbols of love and stability, what would happen if we shifted the excess to families in the community who are struggling to survive? It might not do much for the greeting card and restaurant business, but motherhood would get a big boost.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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