Giving Moms What They Need for Mother’s Day…and Beyond

Do we value mothers? Do we recognize their sacrifices?

Happy apple! Photo Diane Nilan

It’s moms and apple pie time. We need something to celebrate. Who doesn’t love Mother’s Day?

In my years of interviewing mothers experiencing homelessness for the documentaries I’ve made (www.hearus.us) I’ve heard and witnessed both inspiring and horrific stories. Some moms spoke lovingly of their moms. Others shared that treatment by their mothers had a devastating — traumatic — impact on their lives.

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A tender mother-daughter moment, at a food pantry. Photo Diane Nilan

In my beginning shelter-running days, I was more than a tad judgmental of mothers. For example: seeing a mother disciplining her young child by shouting and swatting. No! Give your child a time out, we’d declare. And our determination of the mother as a bad parent was set. Not. So. Fast.

My white, middle class upbringing comes with baggage. It took many years and much work to shed my unenlightened viewpoints. I’m sure vestiges still linger.

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Divorce is a pretty common element in family homelessness. Photo Diane Nilan

Let’s agree on one thing. Mothers and their children don’t enter homeless shelters because their lives are going so damn well they want to experience the other side. No. Something went terribly wrong to cause them to lose their housing. They need acceptance, guidance and support, too often in short supply.

Many parents, rich and poor, struggle with parenthood. Divorce can toss a parent, often the mom, and kids into the streets in a heartbeat. Sure, some moms, and parents in general, are ill-equipped to raise children. We offer little help, and often make it worse.

What we fail to understand, or choose to ignore, are the devastating forces affecting mothers.

Two big things that have an impact:

Domestic Violence — direct cause of homelessness for women.

In Parul Sehgal’s New York Times review of Rachel Louise Snyder’s new book, “No Visible Bruises,” she makes critical distinctions, “Far from being a private or isolated act, domestic violence — or ‘intimate partner terrorism,’ as Snyder prefers, arguing it more accurately describes the psychological dynamics — has links with mass shootings and is a direct cause of homelessness for more than half of homeless women.”

Domestic violence is equal opportunity devastation. It’s a major cause of family homelessness. You can go from wealthy and housed to ravaged, impoverished and homeless in moments.

Trauma — the great disrupter, for kids and adults.

The article “Childhood Trauma Effects Often Persist Into 50s and Beyond” describes the impact of abuse on children, and how it doesn’t just fade away as the child moves into adulthood. “Children don’t know how to process a traumatic event or environment, experts say. Those who suffer childhood abuse or trauma often grow to distrust others, having been betrayed by the very adults who were supposed to teach, nurture and protect them, according to the Australian abuse support group Blue Knot Foundation.”

Among the disruptions — to the person who experienced abuse — can be their ability to be an effective parent. “Research has shown that childhood trauma, ranging from parents’ divorce to alcoholism in the home, increases the odds of heart disease, stroke, depression, suicide, diabetes, lung diseases, alcoholism and liver disease later in life. It also increases risky health behaviors like smoking and having a large number of sexual partners.” All these possibilities influence the quality of motherhood.

I’ve written about mothers in previous Medium posts:

  • This post highlights the struggles and accomplishments of 2 amazing mothers.
  • This post contains plenty of action steps, should you be so moved.
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Feature-length documentary aired on PBS affiliates

The moms I’ve interviewed were amazingly candid about their relationships to their mothers. Watch “on the edge: Family Homelessness in America,” to hear 7 women’s stories of homelessness. Our award-winning film aired PBS affiliates on Mother’s Day weekend a few years ago. It’s worth the hour of your time.

Now, to be clear, beyond the above factors, plenty of other issues arise in family homelessness.

But I want to twist this post to actually give a big Atta Girl! to moms out there struggling to be moms.

Despite what these invisible women would say about their “performance” as moms, I’ve met plenty of Super Moms. (Most of the following links are to my short documentaries.)

  • Mothers enduring unimaginable physical pain, often unable to access medical care because of our dysfunctional health care “system,” showing up for their children’s events, parent-teacher conferences, or just walking them to school and back.
  • Mothers who work 2 or more grueling, low-paying jobs (Read Stephanie Land’s best-seller book “Maid” for a spot-on example) so their children can be seen as “normal” by their peers.
  • Mothers who claim to be full as they scrape the leftovers onto the plates of their hungry children.
  • Mothers who convey a spirit of normalcy as they stare down seismic economic disasters.
  • Mothers who go through contortions to keep their families together.
  • Mothers who take in their child’s friend, even when finances are beyond tight, knowing the friend would otherwise sleep on the streets.
  • Mothers who assume another round of motherhood when daughters (and sons) stumble and fall as a parent.
  • Mothers who shield their children from the public’s eye but then stand up for what is right.

Do me a favor. Spend 5 minutes watching this compilation video I made of families I met in the Northwest. You’ll likely grasp the goodness of these moms (and dads) despite their incessant struggles with the web of homelessness.

Instead of a dozen roses, let’s give moms across the land what they really want — a chance to have their families experience the basics as psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined.

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

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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