By Neil Allen
It has always bothered me when people say, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “Get a better job,” or, my favorite, “Go to college so you can get a better job.” If it was that easy, I can assure you, it is something I would have tried to do long before now.
Recently, I attended a program called Bridges Out of Poverty. It was a two-day training that had the participants thinking about what poverty, middle class, and wealthy look like and how to change our thinking about working with those in poverty. The presenter, Pru, spent much of the time sharing stories from her past and present. In the past, she grew up in and lived in poverty for many years of her adult life. She now lives in the middle class.
So many of the things she said were things that if we were in a different setting, I would be snapping my fingers to say, “me too.” Instead I spent a lot of time nodding my head.
I grew up in a middle class household. While things were not perfect in our family and there were some times of struggle, we always had food, shelter, and new clothes. We went on vacations and did pretty much whatever we wanted, even if it meant saving up for it. I continued to live in the middle class world through my marriage and for 10 years after my husband’s death.
The moment my daughter turned 16, we became a family living in poverty. Half of the income I’d been relying on was gone, and we’ve been riding the line between having assistance and having too much income to qualify (but not enough to pay for the things assistance helped with).
I had started to try to find full-time work before the income disappeared, applying for jobs everywhere I could find, but struggled to find work. As it turned out, despite the many years I held full-time jobs before I became a stay-at-home mom who worked part-time, a decade of not working full-time suddenly made me a risk. Was full-time work really something I could handle? I was actually asked this in interviews or told that was the reason they were not going to be hiring me.
I found myself slowly taking on many of the qualities that a person in poverty possesses. We no longer bought fresh vegetables, I could only afford frozen, and only had fresh meat one or two meals a week. We only bought name brands when they were on sale. Store card coupons and discounts were essential. We started going to the food pantry to get some basics. I found myself asking my daughter at meals if she liked it but now included a new question: “Did you have enough to eat?”
I went from hoping to achieve goals in my life, like a middle class person, to hoping that we would be able to make it through the week without the world coming unraveled because of an unexpected bill or a change in my hours that resulted in less pay that week.
I lost the ability to do middle class planning for future things like paying for a gym membership or saving for vacations or retirement. No matter how much it looked like it would work on paper, it was one small crisis away from no longer being possible.
I never knew why that happened or how to deal with it. I constantly thought I was a failure. Through the Bridges Out of Poverty training, Pru explained it and while it is still frustrating, I understand it so much better. I now know that I am not a failure, I am the product of living in poverty.
And, like Pru, I am never going to not think like a person in poverty but I’m now okay with that now. I’ve discovered living in poverty taught me to be resourceful and resilient when a crisis comes along. I know how to shop within my budget, no longer run to the doctor’s for every little thing, to buy what I need and not always what I want, and learned how to fix things around the house. Most important, I’ve come to accept that I wasn’t a failure — I did the best I could within the circumstances I found myself in and no one can make me feel guilty about it.
It took me six years to understand this and to accept that there have been positive things that have come from living in poverty, and that I can make it work. So many never discover this and go through every day feeling bad about themselves and unable to do anything to change their life.
The parents who work with parent educators at TLC get to hear that they are not failures. They are helped to find resources and ways to be resilient when that crisis comes along that wants to undermine the work they’ve done to create a more stable home for their family. Barbara Brill’s recent post about the family she has been working with illustrates the struggles of the work, the successes, and acknowledgement that there is still more work to be done — but there is hope.
You can find out more about how our programs and staff can assist you in strengthening your family by calling René at 603-542-1848 ext. 302 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Sarah Breisch
“I don’t know how you manage seven. I can barely keep up with two!” I hear this often from women I meet while shopping or walking or any other activity to which I’ve brought along a few of my kids. I feel obliged to tell them the actual number of kids I have when they see two or three with me and ‘helpfully’ tell me that I’ve got my hands full.
I would like you to know, gentle readers, what a mother of seven thinks when she hears someone tell her that they can’t understand how she can handle that many when one, two, or (gasp) three children seem like too much.
My thoughts run thus: Either she is an inept mother, or I am extraordinary one. Neither of these are true. We are both good mothers. She works just as hard raising her children as I do mine. The number of kids one has is ultimately irrelevant; having more or less does not make one more or less of a parent.
We both “succeed” at being good mothers when we attend to the needs of our children and raise them up to be wonderful people. No, my friend, I am not amazing because I have seven kids and am still functioning, nor are you somehow deficient because you have fewer and feel overwhelmed. We both do our best with our own circumstance, and that is what matters.
Of course I don’t articulate all of this in the produce section while my two-year-old is trying to eat all the grapes. I just shrug and say something like “Oh, I don’t manage.” So now this woman thinks I’m not only crazy, but possibly dangerous. Or hopefully she understands that I do not want to diminish her work as a parent by thinking too highly of my own.
As I have matured along with my children, however, there have been a few habits that have developed in my household that makes life with a large family possible. Over the next few weeks, I would like to share some of the strategies that have helped me get along with the crowd of wonderful, fascinating, and unique people whom I have helped to come into the world.
These topics will include:
Everyone has a different set of circumstances that make their day-to-day living more or less of a challenge. Some of us rent, and we cannot control our living conditions to some extent. Some of us do not have the support of a partner who is invested in the care of their children. Some of our children may present with special needs or challenges of their own. I hope that these words will enable any parent to feel encouraged, inspired, or even just amused.
By Barbara Brill
Imagine how you might feel about moving into a community where you have no friends or family. You have four children, limited income, no home furnishings, and you just left your husband due to domestic violence. You are an African American family moving into an almost all-white community where you may not be accepted by everyone.
History and experience have given you no reason to trust, but your children need you no matter how you feel inside. Your faith is strong and you connect with a local church and ask for their help. Generous church members collect furnishings for an apartment and connect you with Turning Points Network (TPN), who helps you locate a place to live. Your pediatrician refers you to TLC.
As the home visitor meeting with this client for the first time, I knew making a connection was critical. Trust is essential and as I began working with this family it was evident that gaining this mom’s trust would be a challenge. After listening to her story I decided that if I were in her shoes I wouldn’t trust anyone either.
And so our work began.
Giving mom a chance to talk about what she needed and what her priorities were was where we started. They were her goals not mine and to her they were overwhelming. I simply helped her prioritize what she needed most and then supported her as she took steps to address each need. Each time she took a risk and reached out to connect to a service I applauded her efforts. Those small steps were not easy, but as she took them things began to improve for her family. Things seemed to settle down.
Then terror struck when she received an eviction notice from her landlord.
She was late paying her rent as another bill took priority. There was never enough money. She had never received an eviction notice before and she was frantic that she and her children would be placed out on the steps. Reading was difficult as she had a learning disability so seeing “Eviction Notice” was all she needed for panic to set in.
She took her children and fled into the night—back to an area where she had distant family, thousands of miles away—leaving everything in her apartment behind. She found it wasn’t so easy to reconnect there either. Supports she thought would be there didn’t materialize. Her children wanted to return to an area where they had started to make connections at school and where their apartment felt like home. She too had begun to feel connected before she left.
She took another risk and reached out to the supports she had identified in her new community—she called them. And with their continued support she decided to return home and try again.
When this mom came back, we began talking about what she might do when future challenges occurred. We used pieces from the Growing Great Kids (GGK) curriculum to design a security quilt made up of resources she could reach out to if something happened.
If the rent was due and money was short there were resources she could access. If she needed a ride when the bus didn’t run—she learned how to contact the local cab companies, she asked what their fees were, and how she could set aside a few dollars each month for emergency rides she might need.
With positive support at each visit her confidence grew.
She took small steps to add supports that would benefit her children such as the All-4-One Play Center and the Claremont Savings Bank Claremont Community Center. Each time we met she received praise for taking steps, for trying something new. Success wasn’t always there but praise was for her willingness to try. Her security quilt became larger and she gained confidence. When issues arose instead of fleeing she looked at other ways she might resolve them.
One year later mom remains connected with TLC and she and her children are doing well. She is a much more confident parent who knows her community, and knows how to access services. She is engaged in her children’s’ education, their health, and she has started thinking about going back to school to further her own education. She knows that she can face challenges that come up as she has a quilt of resources that will help her.
And, her children have watched their mom tackling tough issues, facing them head on, and working through them—lessons they will benefit from when they become adults and face tough issues.
Barbara Brill is a parent educator at TLC Family Resource Center. If you have questions or would like to find out more information, Barbara can be reached at email@example.com or 603-542-1848 ext. 321.
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