Tuesday, May 6, 2014

I was raised by a single mother and I am not a prostitute

I know it isn't Mother's Day yet. Close enough.

Recently, a story appeared in the New York Times about Terran Lyons, a third shift worker at McDonald's  who is trying to raise two children on minimum wage. Each night, Ms. Lyons shuttles her children to evening caregivers and each day she balances the tasks of parenting on little or no sleep. She works the less preferred night shift because that's where the opportunity lies to work up to a supervisory level. She is twenty-four.


I commented on the article: "This brave, focused woman...is paying some huge dues now. But among the rewards I believe are in store for Terran, is seeing those kids grow up loved, strong, and driven to make a success of themselves. They don't have much, but they have a lot of the right things." 

Here was one response to my comment:  "This is something of a fairy tale response. If Ms. Lyons lives in a low income area, once the kids are old enough, the neighborhood will come calling and if mom is at work a lot, the kids will face peer pressure like they have never known. It's just life. You'd understand if you grew up without."

It wasn't just the "growing up without" comment that gave me pause. It was her assumption that the family is fighting a losing battle.

My parents divorced when I was in grade school and my brother and I were raised by my mother. She worked all day, and we spent a lot of time after school in respective activities which, for me at least, did not include a heavy amount of homework. 

Often, following a parent-teacher meeting, my mother would come home and report that I was performing at an "average" level. I started to dislike the word.

"Don't tell me anymore that I'm working hard and doing average work," I used to say. "There's nothing special about average."

"Well. Maybe you should be sure you really are working hard," she suggested, with her nice mother smile. 

I reacted to this by stomping upstairs and slamming the door, and she reacted to this by starting dinner.

But after that, I worked harder. And she didn't call me average again.

Despite my mother and father's agreeable relationship, and my regular contact with him, this was at a time when single-parent homes were considered "broken" and children living in them were considered juvenile delinquents in the making. Nervous women in the neighborhood kept a closer eye on their husbands when we moved in.   

Many outcomes of our situation were possible. If I'd believed my classmate in the third grade, who leaned forward, shook the back of my chair and whispered "I know what you're going to be when you grow up. A prostitute. My mother told me last night,"  I might have feared I was destined to prowl dark alleys like a feral cat. But I reported the comment to my mother who, with impressive restraint, only iterated her own expectations of me, and made me understand that ignorant and cruel people didn't become that way because of me. She modeled work ethic, independence and class. Moreover, she modeled the ability to turn a deaf ear to people like my classmate's mother every day.  

However hard Terran Lyons works to create an example, she will be dogged by the assumptions people hold about other people living with risk: poor, single-parent households will produce unsupervised children who will meet their need to be loved by becoming pregnant or seeking out the closest gang.

Does that happen? Yes. And those outcomes break lives in half. But when we talk about the underserved in our society it strikes me that it isn't just poverty or the privilege of others that keeps children of disadvantage behind the ropes. Very often, it's the expectation that their circumstances will fail them more than their own resilience will free them.  

The assumptions behind the New York Times comment bring home the reality that people still view hardworking, challenged people like Terran Lyons  and her children  in pass/fail terms. It might have been the way people thought of my brother and me.

But in our house, there was no "probably won't" about it. My mother expected nothing less of us than complete success and to nobody's surprise, we went on to build productive, happy lives, and raise strong, loved children.

My fairy tale experience is that children are resilient, strong creatures. They know more intuitively at young ages than they ever may again. If you tell them something, they will believe it, maybe forever. But when it is modeled for a child that a better life is within one's own control, it is more than hopeful. It is the key to that child's castle.


  1. It's the old "setting the bar higher" attitude isn't it?

    Attitude will often get you much further in life than $ or smarts.

  2. There is so much truth to the motto "children learn what they live." Your mother provided you with a safe home and clearly was someone you could look up to and learn from. There are plenty of married parents who could learn from what your mother did.

  3. True about the attitude - what can really be accomplished if that's not right? And yes, Sharon,she was our advocate always. And gentle. I remember saying, "Don't be so nice about it when I do something wrong. Just say it."

    I was a sweetheart that way.

  4. Mother's come in all shapes. All that matters is that love their children and teach them that anything is possible.

  5. My father grew up in a dirt poor immigrant family. English was not his family's language. None of his siblings went past 7th grade. He went to medical school. THAT was my model. I admire him tremendously.

  6. What a lovely tribute to your mother and a great message about resilience.

  7. Great resiliency all around.That third grader didn't even know what she was saying but repeating.

  8. I loudly applaud you for writing this, and for opening up about your own personal story. I think I love your mom now, and I know she is proud of the woman you are. You are so much more than average in every single way.

    My mom was a stay-at-home mom, and went back to college when I was in kindergarten and got her first teaching job when I was 10. Most moms weren't working then. I didn't think about it until one day recently a friend of mine remarked how my mom had made something of herself but hers never went back to work, even after becoming an empty nester.

    Lovely, lovely post.

  9. Very powerful, Susan. Your mom sounds quite amazing.

    "She modeled work ethic, independence and class."

    That and a discerning deaf ear will take anyone far.

  10. What a great article! How you raise your children is much more important than what you give your children.