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Commentary :: Poverty & Urban Development

What A Single Mom on Welfare Needed

This article is based on personal experience, and nothing else. It is not based on statistics, it is not based on what social workers say. It is merely what I experienced as a single mom in poverty, and observations about what would have helped me the most in that situation. My son is now an adult, so I am not in the thick of child care needs, etc. anymore. I can finally write about it. As I was experiencing it, I was too overwhelmed to have the time or energy to have written this down. I find that we make welfare moms invisible by not giving them access to childcare.
What A Single Mom on Welfare Needed
By Kirsten Anderberg (

This article is based on personal experience, and nothing else. It is not based on statistics, it is not based on what social workers say. It is merely what I experienced as a single mom in poverty, and observations about what would have helped me the most in that situation. My son is now an adult, so I am not in the thick of child care needs, etc. anymore. I can finally write about it. As I was experiencing it, I was too overwhelmed to have the time or energy to have written this down. I find that we make welfare moms invisible by not giving them access to childcare.

After a while of being on welfare as a single mom, I was amazed the way the stigma wore at my skin, like saltwater will eat your flesh after too many days at sea without fresh water to wash it off. Or how blowing sand in the desert gets into everything no matter what you do, after a while. I could not wash the stigma of welfare off me and I learned to become invisible in society so I would not trigger that stigma. I had the misfortune of no family to help me with child care and lack of family is often part of landing on welfare. (It is also part of why a homeless teen would want a child.) A homeless teen, who has left home due to abuse, as I had, for example, is a prime candidate, I would guess, to become a welfare mom. Without family, one lacks a huge foundation that most people literally take for granted. And poverty bites away at your soul, day by day on the street, without any buffer. There is a downward spiral of poverty that can act like quicksand. But this is not an article about the politics of the welfare system or what makes poverty. This is about the *reality* of welfare moms and what you can do to help them if you so desire.

This is an example of how badly I had internalized the oppression from welfare stigma. It got to the point that a friend had to *force* me, against my will, to let her help me. And the struggle that ensued became humorous, and I learned a lot from it. I used to only use cotton diapers for my son. But I had no washer or car. So I would either put them all in a backpack and walk to the Laundromat, which was about 20 blocks away, with my son in the stroller, or have my son on my back with the stroller carrying the laundry load. My neighbor was a very unusual gal, Beth. She saw what was going on, as I lugged the diapers to the Laundromat every few days. And she cared when few others did. And by then, I had somewhat become invisible.

I had internalized the oppression, even though I had vowed never to do that. She wanted me to stop having such a hard time, basically. And after you have had a really hard time for so long, sometimes it is hard to let go of that, once things do lighten up a bit. Sometimes, for whatever bizarre brain wiring reasons, our egos even get weird when nice things happen to us after a long streak of bad times. So one day she came over and said she was driving to the Laundromat the following day, and she was driving me so I did not have to walk so far with the baby and laundry, etc. I told her that it was okay, I did not need her help. She insisted, saying it was stupid for me not to go with her, we hang out daily, and she was going anyway. Why not just come with her to the Laundromat tomorrow instead of hauling it myself? I refused again. She got really pissed. I got really stubborn. She then, being my friend, STOLE my laundry. She got up and said, "God damn it Kirsten. This has to end. I am stealing your laundry. You can meet me at the van tomorrow at 3." I got up to try to grab my laundry back, but she ran out the door.

I was actually pissed off Beth did that. But after calming down at bit, I realized, "What in the hell is going on here? You are mad at your neighbor for thinking of you and asking you to join her doing laundry, which would make your life easier? She loved you so much as to actually *steal* your laundry, while you yelled obscenities at her. If that is not love, what is?" And you know, it took someone as unconventional as Beth to finally break down my barriers of pride or ego, or whatever that was. She exaggerated it in such a clownish way, that I somehow realized I was foolish, and came to appreciate her understanding, when few others understood. I learned how to take help again through Beth.

Another woman also forced childcare upon me when I resisted it vehemently. Roxanne, like Beth, saw through my bullshit exterior act of everything being okay, and saw the suffering in poverty and isolation that I was hiding for pride. She saw I never did anything for me, alone, or as an adult. Everything I experienced as a mom. I trusted Roxanne more than anyone, and still she is a solid sister for life in my heart. For Roxanne was in MacLaren Hall, a terrifying child protection institution in Los Angeles, at the same time I was. And she and I know a secret frightening thing about child abuse that makes me have a trust in her, knowing she saw what I saw…so I left my son with Roxanne after her persistent prodding. I had resisted child care primarily because I had been molested at age 6 by my mom's boyfriend when he babysat me, so I was very careful. My son loved Roxanne and did not care at all that I left. I made it about 1 hour before it was too weird and I returned home. Since I trusted Roxanne, I realized part of my aversion to child care, now, was that it had been so long since I had done things alone, it was uncomfortable to go out *not* as a mom now, and that was scary to approach as a change too. Roxanne began to give me free childcare as a friend so I could street perform or write, etc., so I could get a few minutes without a child right there, for the first time in many years. She earned my trust and I was so thankful for the few hours of adulthood I began to reclaim from her just asking if she could take my son to the park with her while she went on a walk.

I decided to go to community college to see if I could raise my income above minimum wage, which was forever keeping me in poverty, no matter how many hours I worked. Or as I realized early on, no matter how many years you are a nurses' aide, you still never become a nurse. I took the GED in a room alone with my son running around my legs when he was 3, as I could not find child care. Then I wanted to go to college, but I could not figure out how to penetrate the financial aid system to be able to afford child care to attend. Finally, frustrated out of my mind by the confusion within the financial aid doublespeak, I marched into the Women's Reentry Program welcoming meeting at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, Ca. and *demanded* abrasively that *someone* there tell me how the hell a single mom with no family on welfare can attend that college, as I was sick of being told I could attend there, then I'd get there, and no one could explain how the child care would work, which is crucial. I was fired up. All of a sudden, three of the women studies instructors began to applaud, breaking the tension. They deescalated me immediately by saying, "Yes, more anger like that! We appreciate your hunger for school, and we promise you, by the end of tonight, we will have you on your way to enrollment in college, with financial aid and viable child care options." And by god, those women did what they said, and I love them forever and ever for it. They got me child care so I could do something myself, as an adult.

I met other women who were trying to figure out who they were besides being moms, too, at the community college. That was comforting. We were all relearning how to speak in adult talk, instead of toddler talk again. We were all poor, and brought our sack lunches and ate together. At first I did not want to be in the Women's Reentry Program. I felt it had stigma. And they made you take this stupid Women's Reentry Class, which I did not want to waste time on. It ended up being one of the most important classes I have ever taken. The teacher was a genius. The support I got in that class was crucial and followed me in spirit throughout the rest of my academic career.

By the time my son was school age, I got several hours of free time from him attending school, so I continued to attend classes. But then I went back into fulltime mom (cooking, cleaning, homework, laundry, after school activities, etc) and also worked at home at night sewing products for stores, and that money came out of my welfare check, so I never got ahead. So even though I had pried some time, I had really only pried time for school, work, and child. Still nothing for adult socialization or anything very nourishing to the soul. Nothing calming, always working. I was in a philosophy of religions class, and we were to spend 24 hours not talking or interacting with others and to journal it. I could not do that assignment. I had a kid and no child care. I wrote a place called Hedgebrook Cottages, that gives women a free three month stay once in their life in nice cottages in the country, to write. I got the application, and even though there was no way I could do it for a long time, due to single motherhood and poverty, I kept the application. Sometimes I would pull it out and say to myself that someday I would be a writer, and stay at the Hedgebrook Cottages, and get to write, alone, for three months. I would look at it and dream, for years and years. I applied last year for the first time as my son is finally adult age, and I was rejected. Oh well. It kept me going in dark times.

By the time I graduated from the University of Washington, my nose was to the grindstone. I had done nothing but work and raise a kid, for years. I had lost touch with my social life again. I was pretty isolated, still in poverty. When graduation time came, I wanted my son to see me handed my diploma on the stage. I know it sounds stupid. Most of the kids were only doing it for their parents. I had no parents to come to my graduation. But I did have a son, and I wanted him to see me graduate for many reasons. But I needed someone to go with him in the audience. I could not find anyone, and I felt really awkward asking people to go to something so intimate. Especially after several people said no. Finally, one night I broke down and cried to my midwife about it. She immediately said she would go. So, I finally had someone to take my son to my graduation. But then I found out the cap and gown rental was over $50. And I did not have that. I did not want to tell anyone about it. I was sick of begging. I was just tired of all the hoops by then and gave up. So, I just decided not to go to my graduation. Finally, in a weak moment, my midwife found out what was going on and intervened. At the last moment, she bought me the cap and gown, would not hear anymore about it, threw me a graduation party, then took my son and me to graduation. Thank god for my midwife. And it was weird going through all that emotional turmoil in aloneness and poverty to the backdrop of other graduates with families being fitted for class rings that cost thousands of dollars in the bookstore as I sold my books back, and the UW being overrun by proud and adoring parents taking pictures of themselves with the graduate.

But this article can maybe make you see how hard it can be sometimes to help single moms who are really entrenched in hell. They do not even want help anymore, they are just sunk into the rut of survival. I had to be shaken out of my stupors, several times, to even accept love and help again. What I needed, time and time again, to change my life, as a single mom, was for people to give me help in the form of child care, predominantly. Sometimes I took quite a while to accept or ask for that help, and I had to build trust in extreme ways due to my own past. But those who challenged me with only love, and kindly and safely helped me with child care, so I could go get some alone or adult time, truly gave me the light at the end of the tunnel I needed. I am most grateful to them.

I think a good thing for events is free childcare. When I had a toddler, nothing offered free child care. I think a good thing for the RNC would be for people who welfare moms know and can trust, to donate one day of free child care to a welfare mom, so she can attend events all day without the responsibilities of child care at RNC protests. That would be a beautiful gift she would always remember. And the empowerment she may experience, may get her through some alone times in poverty you may never even know about, as people hide their poverty and vulnerability in shame. Another helpful thing would be providing child care vouchers to cover child care costs at a trusted child care provider, so welfare moms could go to the RNC protests. Or paying one child care provider that is licensed and already in business to take all the RNC protesting welfare moms' kids, for free, during the RNC protests and announcing that location to the moms. I think CHILD CARE is the number one issue that crippled me most as a single mom in poverty. I think that is where you should start if you want to help welfare moms. But do not force strangers on us as child care as I would not accept that, nor should any mom. If we cannot feel safe about who is watching our kids, we will not be comfortable and will not be able to fully participate in whatever event we are trying to attend. And as I said, sometimes the offer of child care or help is so foreign, that it takes a while for a welfare mom to warm up to the idea, honestly. Or at least that is how I experienced it.

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