Like any kid, I was certainly embarrassed for having less than. I didn’t have a private piano tutor; I had drum lessons inside a dingy basement in Pawtucket. There were no vacation homes; instead, at age 14, I had to get a summer job. We never owned a house, just rented a series of charming apartments and leased used cars that smelled brand new. Eventually, my attitude slowly evolved into appreciation, because my ignorance-fueled insecurities could never amount to the adversities my mother had to overcome.
“So, your father was like, ‘Come on, just get out and walk with me. I’ll get you something to eat.’ Then he asked, ‘Where are you going?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, can I come?’ And, I said, ‘Yeah!’”
This oddly romantic story ended with a two-day drug-induced sleep and a serious pelvic infection that brought my mom back to her home state of Rhode Island, without warning, and away from my future father. He had no idea where she disappeared to. In the hospital bed, my mom swears she saw God — a vision spoke to her and said, “This is your last stop.” Regardless of how questionable that sounds — what if it really was? — it was a miracle that they'd ever reconnect. After all, it was the mid-'80s and not like she could text him, “In hospital. #NBD. Can’t wait to see you again!”
Three weeks later my mom got a phone call, and it was him — Stanley Green. Somehow, he figured out to use the number to her parents' house she'd given him early on. Two weeks after that talk, my dad moved to Rhode Island — and he never left. He quit heroin cold turkey, which my mom describes as brave; it’s this precious, selective way she still tries to shine a bright light on the memory of him that keeps me curious. “For the first six months,” she explains, “everything was wonderful, but as he started looking healthier and more handsome, the more the cheating became a regular routine.”
Actually, a lot of things kind of sucked. She had to work four jobs simultaneously at some points, she was in and out of the hospital for undiagnosed stomach pain, and we had no family within proximity to help out. But, I can’t say that I would have enjoyed life any other way. Of course, it was difficult, but that’s what makes us who we are — how we persevere in spite of our baggage. The Nation and The New York Times have both argued that children raised in single-parent families are the “worst off” of all, but I to beg to differ.
From the moment I was born, I was my mom’s best buddy — she was my Oprah, my superwoman, my best friend all wrapped up into one perfect being. I never had a dad to snitch on mom’s strict rules, and psychologically speaking, some might say we have an “enmeshed” relationship. But, over the years we’ve learned to appreciate each other as individuals and the special bond we’ve taken care to preserve.
Looking back at the last three decades, my mother’s courage, strength, and tenacity have increasingly become all the more heroic to me. According to the 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report, she represents the 25% of single moms leading households, the 45% of single moms who’ve never married, and the 66% of single moms who receive no child support whatsoever. And, I represent the one in three children raised without a father.
Though these statistics should come as no surprise, as a biracial girl already disregarded in social circles because of my “unfamiliar” ethnicity, the insecurities I harbored made it hard to foresee a happy or successful future. A struggle-filled home life became the norm for a while — financially and emotionally. We had high highs and low lows, and when money was scarce, I became resentful of not being born into a stable, wealthy family like many of my friends. Plus, constantly being referred to as “wise beyond my years” made me realize how I was indirectly forced to grow up faster than my peers.
My mother and I both grew from our relationship, and as much as we provided each other with strength and support, we were also each other’s harshest critic. And, that criticism left serious wounds.
As a teenager, having “less than” became more of a personal issue, and I was so desperate to be accepted by my private school peers. I saw my mother working various jobs at once, but I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t born into a family that could afford the latest Abercrombie & Fitch jeans or a lunch card for the fancy food-bar options at school. She always apologized, in moments of crisis, and it crushed me to hear her be sorry for something out of her control.
But, as soon as I could legally be employed, she made me find work. She cared enough about my mental well-being to find me a Big Sister, but forcing me to get a job seemed cruel to me. How would I maintain a social life? Wouldn’t I be a loser working in the neighborhood where all my friends lived? The valuable lessons of responsibility and financial freedom were all obviously obscured by what I perceived to be an evil plan to keep me from enjoying my childhood.
Over the past few years, many people have tried to argue against the millennial generation, saying how the climate of support and accessibility our parents have made possible for us is detrimental to our future success. You know what I say? What’s wrong with stoking the flames of your child’s dream? At a young age, I wrote a poem that my mother couldn’t believe I had written. She remembers it well. “It was then that I said to you, ‘Larissa, you are definitely going to be a writer when you grow up,’ and I'll never forget how your face lit up and you looked at me and smiled and said, ‘I am?!’ And, I said, ‘Yup!’ Somehow, I knew you would be anything I told you you would be, because you believed in my believing in you.”
She encouraged me to try all the arts, like dance and music (drums, duh), but she always encouraged me to be an educated equal. Where she came from, feelings were better swept under the rug, so for our two-person family, open communication was vital. After my father died, we started seeing a therapist together, too, because even though he was absent my entire life, the finality of his death left me with questions, and she wanted me to be able to openly articulate my feelings.
James Baldwin’s words would haunt me as I got older: “Take no one's word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.” I desperately wanted to “know from whence I came.” I didn’t have much to work with: my mother’s mind, addled by her history with drugs; my grandmother’s mind, addled by her age; and my father was no longer around. According to James Baldwin, I was destined to be a lost soul, but then I realized — what if I read that differently? What if, instead, I looked at knowing from whence I came as the beginning of knowing where I’d like to go?
As I begin to practice patience and appreciation and watch my mother age, I savor our phone chats and vacations together all the more. I cry, frequently, thinking about how she’s so far away, how I can’t just cuddle and smell her hair or hold her hand and giggle like I did as a kid. Now, when she leaves to go home after visiting me in New York, I can’t believe there was ever a time when I wanted to move away from her, to keep her in the dark, to make her feel badly for lacking anything a “normal family didn’t have.” You know, as they say, your mother is always right. “We didn't live in a beautiful house — we always had an apartment,” she recently told me. “You went without, but the things you went without, were things you didn't need. You didn't have the best or the newest things — you didn't have what you wanted. You had what you needed, and that was enough.”