Mother’s Day always makes me think about the up and down journey motherhood has been for me and many of the women I know. I had my first child at nineteen and I still don’t know how I made it. I worked two jobs, with the first one starting at five in the morning and the second one finishing at nine at night. I couldn’t afford full-time childcare, so I moved my son Danny between two part-time centers that weren’t as good as I hoped for but better than I could afford.
One of my most vivid memories from that time was going down to an alley in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco to buy my formula. Because I had two jobs, I didn’t qualify for WIC, and because I worked so much, I wasn’t around enough to breastfeed my baby. A can of formula at my local Safeway was $24, which it took me about 4 hours to earn. Instead, I would go to this little spot downtown that sold the formula for half price. I don’t know where they were getting it, but it was the real stuff and thankfully, despite the many stresses in our lives, Danny was a happy baby and thrived.
What got me through that time were the other young, single moms I knew; we took care of each other in so many ways. We would watch each other's kids, and I never came back from the alley with just one can of formula. We were always teaming up to get things done: grab food and diapers for each other, make dinner, and help our seemingly impossible schedules work somehow.
I am now 31, Daniel will be 12 years old soon and my son Elijah is 4. My life is not as hard, but it still isn’t easy. Rent eats half of my salary and I still can’t afford daycare for Elijah, so he spends his days at work with friends, his auntie or grandma. When all that falls through, he comes with me to work. I am the director of the Center for Young Women’s Development where we support young moms like I used to be. We have parenting classes, job training, support groups, programs for incarcerated women and girls, and amazing opportunities for training, learning and becoming leaders.
Many success stories have walked in and out of the doors of the Center. For each one of the women who has worked hard to beat the odds, there are many we work with who continue to scrape by. I know from my own experience and from seeing them hard at work that it isn’t for lack of trying. Piecing it together in this city is hard at any age, but it is almost impossible to get ahead for young families. It often feels like the amazing views, sparkling buildings and thumping nightlife are mocking our foggy existence.
When I was pregnant with Danny I was semi-homeless, sleeping on couches and just getting by, and the strain of those early years feels like yesterday. But back then, in many ways there was more help for young moms like me. WIC, food stamps, and childcare subsidies were easier to come by. And help like that got many of us through. As we continue to face budget cuts that shred the fraying safety net, I truly worry that the mountain out of poverty is getting too steep to climb. That the young women I see coming through the Center are fighting an impossible battle to finish their educations, get jobs, keep the roof over their heads and feed their families.
Just like we have found in the California budget battles, there are no belts left to tighten. That’s true for these young women, who are balancing rent, formula, diapers, books and bus fare. I know from my own story that the hands to lift me as I climbed made the difference between a life of minimum-wage work and what I have now: a truly rewarding and inspiring career and a happy, thriving family.
We continue to fight for funding for programs that provide meaningful, well-paid employment and long-term education support services. Every chance we get, we advocate for more affordable childcare and quality after school programs. But one at a time, these are all flimsy patches on the net. What we really need is an overhaul. Every young woman who walks into my office has gifts. Each one has the determination to climb mountains, and each one pretty much has. Many of the young women we work with grew up in poverty, experienced violence and sexual abuse, and some have been involved in the street economy, selling sex and drugs to get by.
It is easy to feel paralyzed by the “the cycle of poverty,” but is possible to break. Each of the young women that I see comes in with the determination to do that. To give her kid what she missed out on: regular meals, help with homework, shoes that fit. But it is true that they can’t do it alone. These young women need our help, and they need public support.
This Mama’s Day, the Center and our partners at Strong Families have called attention to the mamas who often get overlooked: young, immigrant, single and queer moms. And as we tell our stories, we see a common thread in our experiences that stigma has a huge impact on keeping us down.
Stigma is the permission to see young moms as at fault for getting pregnant and deciding to keep the baby. Stigma is the disappointment that shows when you meet a cool mom, and then her wife. It’s the agreement we have made as a country that it’s okay to target, detain and deport immigrant moms, leaving their babies across fences and oceans.
So we have two big battles to fight: we continue to fight for funding and support for programs aimed at young families. But we also continue to fight the stigma that lets us balance budgets on their backs.
The Center was part of making this video...it features several of the young moms we work with and our staff. Our goal is to show the power and promise of these young women, to inspire the women and to remind policy makers, service providers, neighbors and friends how hard these moms are working, and how important it is that we lift as they climb. Please join us in celebrating them.