Moms with the Least Must Do the Most

Calling out Bootstrappers’ Mom/Apple Pie hypocrisy!

Diane Nilan
5 min readMar 29, 2023
Ellie, my Mom, sure could make a great apple pie!
Ellie, my Mom, sure could make a great apple pie! Photo Diane Nilan

Moms and moms-to-be are in the headlines for the latest ravaging attacks by the anti-abortion crowd. I’m not going to plunge into that hot issue, though I’m certainly in favor of women making their decisions without white male legislators or religious leaders “help.”

What gets little media or legislative attention — what happens after the babies are born? I’ve paid attention to that issue for the past 35+ years. Babies, toddlers, kids, teens and young adults often become the sole responsibility of mothers. Often those mothers are ill-equipped financially or otherwise to raise their kids to be healthy and self-sufficient.

This past weekend I stuck my nose in a new book, Bootstrapped, by one of my favorite poverty authors — Alissa Quart. This book is chock-full of examples of myths about self-sufficiency, and those considered to be paragons of this American “virtue,” like Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Little Women world never captured my fancy, and as Quart validates, I was onto something way back when.

On our multi-state Sept. 2022, Pat LaMarche and I visited the Little Women tourist shrine in De Smet, SD, with plenty of opportunities for fans to snatch souvenirs.
On the Babes of Wrath multi-state Sept. 2022, Pat LaMarche and I visited the Little Women tourist shrine in De Smet, SD, where fans have plenty of opportunities to snatch souvenirs. Photo Diane Nilan

Responsibility and Self-Sufficiency (aka Bootstraps)

Quart astutely points out that babies are “radically dependent.” And that mothers often get “blamed for and saddled with babies’ and children’s fragilities.” We, especially lawmakers, tend to forget/overlook these realities.

Having spent the past 18 years traversing backroads of our country to chronicle family and youth homelessness, I’ve interviewed scores of moms, and a handful of dads, who were gallantly trying to eke out an existence for their families while experiencing homelessness. Difficult parenthood on steroids!

I continue to be “dismazed” how we disregard millions of families in these dire straits. My book, Dismazed and Driven — My Look at Family Homelessness in America, highlights several of my interactions with these courageous parents. (You can also view my homeless family/youth videos at my HEAR US website.)

None of the countless parents I interviewed could be considered slackers. Quite the opposite. They are warriors. Parents I’m still in contact with from my beginning days continue to fight the evils of our nation’s disregard of family values. Being gouged by utilities and property managers, badgered by debt-collecting predators, belittled by authority figures, ripped off by money-changers, dismissed by medical care professionals and the legal world…it’s a wonder parents and their kids survive at all.

Why No Progress for Families?

Quart, heavily influenced by poverty guru Barbara Ehrenreich, one of my sheroes, picked a great theme for her book. The bootstrap mentality:

Central to our national mythology in the United States is the belief that hard work and determination will enable anyone to achieve the good life of comfort, pleasure, and financial security…

The big point I’m making is that the American Dream is a lie. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is an impossibility, and it has been since it was coined as a joke in 1834. All the early iterations of this idea were satire, and then suddenly someone believed it was real. (interview in Yes! 2/27/23)

Bootstrap mentality has afflicted public policies and preconceptions forever. She rightfully rants,

More than a quarter of an century later, we still don’t have national day care, adequate permanent support for poor families, or an answer to the question of how parents without resources could ever hope to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Let’s Be Honest

Who has become whatever version of “great” they aspired to on their own? Not me! I’ve had plenty of road-time to reflect on my mentors, from our maid, Minnie, who gave me more lessons on right, wrong and human decency than I ever realized as a kid, to my 97-year-old high school teacher/mentor, Sister Paula, who beams proudly when I pop into visit her in her humble assisted care room.

Our interdependence gets rare attention, which Quart highlights both by her blasting apart “success” myths and suggesting personal improvement techniques to get us over our hump of ingrained bootstrap mentality.

Quit the BS!!!

We are going to need a virtual army of interdependence believers to stifle the bootstrappers. We need to call out the BS — and Bootstrapped offers plenty of examples. The timing on this book’s release couldn’t be better as Congress and the President get into setting budget priorities.

Quart’s strategies for fighting bootstrappers include:

  • revise the framing of our own existence, giving credit to those who helped us along the way;
  • publicly express our distaste for the “bootstrap” mentality;
  • become aware of how bureaucratic systems disenfranchise huge segments of our population by imposing onerous “administrative burdens” on those needing help, and work to alleviate those policies;
  • support activists, many who are financially stressed; and
  • engaging politically and personally in your own community and country.
My heavily-highlighted copy of Bootstrapped.
My heavily-highlighted copy of Bootstrapped. Photo Diane Nilan

My sense of solidarity as I read Bootstrapped soared! My lifelong disdain for these faux public figures and philosophies in the bootstrapping cult were not wrong! I’m delighted to add this now heavily-highlighted book to my arsenal of validating works to help me fight for families and youth experiencing homelessness.

I’m not one for keeping something good to myself. Erasing the bootstrapped mentality and valuing interdependence will go a long way in reaching a higher ground for all sorts of folks now trampled on by the ultra-rich power wielders who threaten all of us not in their circle. Nothing like a little self-interest to motivate us!

My nonprofit organization, HEAR US Inc., gets small contributions from any books purchased from the HEAR US BookShop. Every little bit helps! Thanks!



Diane Nilan

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