Moms Have It Toughest

Especially Moms in Poverty and Homelessness

Diane Nilan
6 min readMar 14, 2023
Dawn (left) and the author, Diane Nilan, coming out of Las Cruces city hall.

Sitting in a New Jersey campground in my little camper-van, prepping for my upcoming presentations and meeting, my head is spinning, not just because of the 50-mph wintery wind gusts. A little over year ago, Dawn (on my left) and I came out from a meeting with Las Cruces, NM, Mayor Ken Miyagishima.

Mamas and Mayors

Dawn had courageously agreed to sit down with her mayor to share her family’s experience with homelessness, a pilot effort for my Mamas and Mayors project. I sat in with them as the “national expert” on family homelessness, but I wasn’t needed. Dawn rocked it!

A little more than a year ago, Dawn and her kids (and grandkids at times) spent upward of four months living in a small SUV, swapping out to crappy motel rooms if they could afford it. Dawn, her 2 high school sons, her adult daughter, and a pre-teen girl and boy, and a 4-year old girl toughed it out. And finally, in February ’22 they were able to move into a decent little house in Las Cruces. (See their story in my video.)

The mayor’s eyes were opened to issues of family homelessness often sidestepped in our nation’s grappling with this skyrocketing crisis. Dawn and her kids fell under the category of “not homeless enough” when they first landed in Las Cruces, because they doubled up.

That arrangement soon fell apart, and Dawn and her kids do as so many do, bounce between car, motels, and couches. She explained her family’s terror as a violent fight broke out between the couple in the motel room next door, how she grabbed their little child, shoved her into her kids’ arms, grabbed the battered mother and pulled her to safety, and barred the motel room door with furniture to keep the raging husband out.

Fast forward, a year later, I’m heartbroken

This devoted mother has recently received a dreadful cancer diagnosis. While she’s getting top notch medical care, it will be a major fight by Dawn and her medical team. And it will be a massive challenge for her family.

I cannot say enough about how this family pulled together and worked to get back to what was at least close to normal. But, the deck was stacked against them, as it is for so many in similar circumstances, because of trauma.

Trauma — the Wound

Without misrepresenting facts, let me just sketch out the dreadful reality of trauma using a few quotes from Dr. Gabor Maté, a world-renowned trauma expert.

Trauma is not the event that inflicted the wound. So, the trauma is not the sexual abuse, the trauma is not the war. Trauma is not the abandonment. The trauma is not the inability of your parents to see you for who you were. Trauma is the wound that you sustained as a result.

The wound. So many of us have the wound, but we get trauma wrong. Even doctors don’t understand it. Dr. Maté goes on to say,

In all their [the doctors] education, except in a very narrow sense — maybe of PTSD — they never get a glimpse at the vast literature linking physical illness and trauma or mental illness and trauma or addictions and trauma.

And as a result, people suffer. Millions. Like Dawn.

I won’t go into the many ways Dawn experienced trauma. Be assured, she had/has more than her share of it. We all encounter trauma-inducing experiences in our lives. Some emerge relatively unscathed, some “present well,” some are devastated, some bounce in/out of trauma-related hardships.

As Dr. Maté succinctly explains in his acclaimed newest book, The Myth of Normal, trauma impacts both physical and mental health. And it’s common.

Book cover for the myth of normal by dr. gabor mat
Dr. Gabor Maté’s new book

Most Vulnerable, Least Help

Let me say this in a way that I hope is not misunderstood (but I’m sure it will be). Many women, who end up as mothers one way or the other, are at great risk of trauma, even before their motherhood begins. Some (many?) experienced trauma as infants and small children (you need Gabor’s explanation, not mine). Trauma impacts life-changing decisions — relationships, careers, and so much more. We often don’t realize its influence, until it’s too late.

Trauma carries through to adulthood, impacting how we deal with the hand we’re dealt. (Again, no one is exempt. I’ve had my share of trauma-inducing experiences as a child and adult. But this is not about me. It’s about Dawn.)

Trauma influences our physical and mental health. Big time. It has a major impact, and unaddressed it can be devastating. (Curious about your childhood experiences that might have caused trauma? Adverse Childhood Experiences quiz.)

The impact of childhood trauma chart

Mothers Bear the Brunt of Trauma

I cannot tell you how many mothers I’ve met over the 35+ years of my homelessness work who have shared stories of their trauma experiences with me. Physical and sexual abuse being common. Parental neglect (intentional or not) sadly common, too. Devastating.

Yet these mothers don’t give up. They march on, like Dawn, ignoring the indescribable physical and psychological pain so they can care for their families.

An inordinate number of them stagger under the burden — a burden that often includes abject poverty and long stints of homelessness. Like Dawn’s life. Dr. Maté strongly suggests that the connection to our health issues are directly connected to trauma.

When they crumble under the load, it’s not just them suffering. It’s their kids. That breaks the moms’ hearts worse than their own sickness.

These are families we’ve all but ignored, trampled upon, and discarded, by policies and practices devised by lawmakers and agency leaders under the guise of what’s good for society, and by our own actions and choices.

Another of my favorite experts — Matthew Desmond — has strong words about our complicity in poverty.

Poverty, We Are Responsible

This New Yorker article gives a solid look at systemic issues as dissected by the astute and plain-speaking Dr. Matthew Desmond in his new book, Poverty, by America. Desmond points to our involvement, albeit unbeknownst to most, in creating and perpetuating poverty.

There is, of course, the old habit of blaming the poor for their own miseries, as if Americans were made of lesser stuff than people in countries with far less poverty. But structural explanations are more in fashion these days, explanations that trace widespread poverty back to broken institutions and seismic economic transformations.

Chapin Hall Child and Family Well-Being System

Two-Fisted Approach

What’s good for society would be to honestly and holistically address trauma, its causes and its cures, while simultaneously addressing the multiple systemic factors. We’d have less poverty, homelessness, sickness, and other societal dysfunction. It’s complicated, but we must take a massive swing at it or we will all lose even more Dawns.

In a perfect world, or one much closer to humane than we are now, Dawn wouldn’t be agonizing over how her kids are going to survive as she goes through grueling cancer treatment. Dawn, and countless other moms.

We must implement family-friendly policies and practices, those that support instead of punish. It will take time to help those damaged by physical and mental abuse, worsened by unenlightened policies and practices. We are far from that happening. Moms like Dawn are the collateral damage of our failed approach to truly value and nurture families.

Put Dr. Gabor Maté in charge. Or at least give him the ears, minds and hearts of those ruling our world, because the way we’ve been doing things, as well-intentioned as some may be, is not working.



Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 20 yrs. on US backroads.