Twenty-five years ago, single parents were seen as desperate souls who fell off the track to a “normal” life. However, Choice Moms (a term coined by Mikki Morrissette, author of Choosing Single Motherhood), have gradually forced a dramatic shift in how they're perceived. Instead of the archetype formerly labeled as “troubled,” they’re now seen as empowered women who made an independent choice. Yet, when I was born in 1989, my family was still considered disadvantaged, something to regret. Something to be ashamed of.
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.
My mother, a drug addict in permanent recovery — as they say in the meetings, met my father on a street corner in Harlem after a week-long drug binge. Imagine a tiny cracked-out white girl exiting a cab dressed in a fur coat, and the driver is yelling at her, trying everything in his power to pull away. “In those days,” she says, “cab drivers were afraid that you had someone waiting to beat them up or rob them, so he took off leaving me there alone at like 5 a.m.” She turned around and met a black guy, towering over her at 6’2,” wearing a black velour jumpsuit and a knit hat that read “Playboy.”
“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.”
One year later, while at work at Blue Cross Blue Shield, she took an at-home pregnancy test. When the color showed up in the “You’re Pregnant!” tint of pink, she screamed with excitement. She tells me, “I didn’t care if he didn’t want it again, which he didn’t, I didn’t give a fuck — I said, ‘I’m having this baby, and I hope it’s a girl!’” When I asked what the most difficult reality to face was, she says, “It bummed me out that he wasn’t [excited,] but I didn’t care — I was going it alone.” Oh, and also schlepping to do the laundry sucked, she adds.
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.
When I was a kid, I observed the way she navigated poor customer-service situations and romantic relationships, all while putting me through private school on her own in hopes of raising me to become as savvy, adaptable and selfless as she. Never once did she wince with fear or hesitation, because as she puts it, “I knew I could do it, and I was excited — I couldn’t wait. I didn’t see it as a hardship coming my way, and it never really was.”
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.
Although I felt bad for her suffering from a stomach illness — to this day, we still don’t know much about it, I was the one who ended up with the brunt of her pain. As soon as she’d announce she wasn’t feeling well on any given day, she'd inevitably start taking all her anger out on me. It’s not an easy topic for either of us to discuss, but as a person in recovery, she has an easier time understanding these days. She explains, “I had to finally admit that I’d repeated those awful patterns I’d grown up with; I needed to make amends.”
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.
However, where we lacked money, my mom compensated with affection. Of all the things I’ve learned from my uncommon family structure, the most important lesson has been to value affection and support. Without support, love, and recognition, my mother turned to drugs; with all of that and more, I turned to writing.
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.
At age 7, I found “Santa’s wrapping paper” in the closet, and part of my innocence was crushed. I remember thinking that I was too young to handle it. But, because my mother saw me as her equal, she was always brutally honest — without hesitation, she asked me which religion I’d rather be: Jewish or Christian. She believed that we should celebrate both Hannukah and Christmas, so I didn’t feel left out. I remember openly grappling with the decision to stop celebrating Christmas because I wanted to celebrate my heritage.
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.”