It is the holidays and everyone is emptying their wallets to fill the trees with the latest and most expensive toys for their children. It’s generally a fun time of the year being able to make your children happy with trips to see Santa, building gingerbread homes and unwrapping presents, but for a lot of families across America and the world isn’t this reality. The holidays add pressure and guilt to many parents who can’t afford their next meal yet alone the latest toy or gadget for their children.
And on Christmas morning many children will wake up to a bare tree.
I was one of those kids.
And though Santa never visited my home, I learned invaluable lessons from watching a single mother struggle.
1. You have to have grit.
Growing up in a single-parent home that lived below the poverty line taught me a lot about having grit, that external toughness to overcome the lifestyle I grew up in. I watched as my mother displayed a toughness, a type of grit, always doing her best to overcome the circumstances that were at hand. Early on in my life that grit/success was in the shape of school, work, and anything I tried my hand at. Grit has taught me to strive for what I am passionate about and to not be afraid to take risk.
2. Ask for help.
It may not have been easy for my mother to always ask for help when it came to providing food for us, but her ability to ask for help when she needed taught me to do so and has served me well. I was an outstanding student because I always asked for help, received the help, and learned from it. The same with being an employee. If I wanted to figure out how to do my job well than I would simply ask for help. Some may view asking for help as a weakness, but I have always seen it as a strength. It has provided me with the opportunity to learn and grow from others and has led others to trust in me and seek help. Asking for help is bold and has taken me to some amazing places and partnerships. This may be one of the most important lessons that having a struggling parent has ever taught me.
3. Life is hard.
Life is hard. It’s that plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor or middle class you will face some sort of challenge or hurdle to overcome. It’s how you face the hardships that matter.
4. Be resourceful.
My mom was extremely resourceful. If we didn’t have it, then she would figure a way to make it. Everything had a purpose. I still have no idea how she easily figured out how to fix our vacuum and other electronics. That same ingenuity has helped me throughout life and my career. I have learned to adapt to new situations and flourished in them as a creative and “resourceful” individual.
5. Be humble.
I’m far from the poor little girl living in the one room apartment with my mother wondering if I was going to eat for dinner. And though I am fortunate to have more now, I know that it can all go away in a second. Humbleness helps me to appreciate what I have now, not take it for granted and to truly savor it.
6. Don’t worry what others think.
People will judge you. I saw my mother being judged for a lot such as standing in the same line each month waiting on charity handouts. “Why was she there again? Oh my God that poor kid!” People judged me for wearing the same clothes and shoes all school year long. When I finally started to go to college and provide for myself people still judged me. “Why don’t your parents help you?”
I learned early on that you just can’t please everyone and have to do what is best for you and your family. No reason to get caught up in what others think because, well, you just have no control over that. So let the haters hate and you just keep being great.
7. Smile often.
Somehow in the midst of the craziness of our struggles we still found time to smile. We enjoyed the good moments together because, in all honesty, they didn’t happen often.
8. Sit on the porch.
You’ll notice this in a lot in poor communities. We all sit on the porch. It wasn’t to waste time but it was to make time for each other and to enjoy that time together. We didn’t have much, but we did have each other and our community. My husband, son, and I do this often. On those warm summer days the T.V. goes off in the evening and we sit on the porch, chat with neighbors, and enjoy our time as a family together.
9. Don’t waste.
My mother never wasted and taught me to do the same. We never wasted food, because we hardly had any too waste, and things in our home were never just thrown away. We saw new life in that old cool whip container, that was my new cereal bowl. And those old jelly jars made the best cups for juices. I still have a hard time when I watch people waste food or just throw away perfectly good things.
10. Don’t ever give up.
I saw my mother give up a lot. Yes, even in the moments of a struggling mothers weakest points I learned from them. When she gave up, it pushed me to work harder whether that was in school or at my job. I knew that, if I worked hard, I could overcome poverty because I had seen her and too many other people give up and succumb to it.
11. Dream for your children.
My mom was not an outstanding mother. It’s not her fault. She didn’t know how to be. But there was one thing that she always did do for me: she dreamed for me. She always told everyone that I would go to college one day or that I was going to make it. Those simple words empowered me to believe in myself and to do just that. Now that I have a son, I dream for him. He is only two, but he is told daily that he is the smartest and sweetest boy in the world. I call him my engineer, because he loves to tinker and build and truly imagine him creating great things one day.
12. Stuff doesn’t make you happy.
I didn’t have much as a kid and though there were a lot of rough moments with my mother, I genuinely was a happy and content kid. I didn’t need much to be happy. My son currently has too much and I have found myself scaling back on toys. Now that I have done that, I have found that he really is content playing with a ball or coloring. He just seems the happiest to spend that time with me.
14. Education is freedom.
I believe a lot of my mother’s struggles were from her lack of education. She could not read or write and lacking those basic skills left her powerless for so many decent paying positions. Watching as she struggled to read basic instructions or a menu taught me that there was a sort of freedom and empowerment that came with being educated. I believed that, if I did well in school and went to college, then I would be able to escape poverty. Two master’s degrees later, I have found that education is freedom. I am not saying a degree will make you rich, but an education will open your minds eye to the possibilities that you are worthy for so much more. Something I never would had learned from my old childhood neighborhood.
15. The value of money
My mom struggled with a lot and I watched as she struggled to manage money properly. She would try her best to make sure our bills were paid, but always found herself spending money on frivolous things. By the middle of every month, we were out of money and almost out of food. Watching as she squandered the little money we had taught me to value and manage my money wisely. I started working at a very young age and was able to purchase my first car, pay for my own expenses during college, and pay off all of my college debt afterwards.
16. It’s okay to cry.
It wasn’t easy watching her come home crying, but it happened. And I learned that it is okay to cry things out. It doesn’t make them any better, but it can make you feel better and helps you move forward to tackle the problem.
17. Money won’t make you happy, but it does alleviate some stress.
Money does not make you happy. It doesn’t. But it sure does alleviate some stress. The times of the month when we didn’t have to think about food or paying bills we were a lot less stressed. As an adult, I have made sure to always have a substantial amount of money in my savings just in case life throws a curveball my way myself and family will be financially secure for a decent amount of time.
There is a view that many hold that the impoverished are just looking out for their own self interest, but this just wasn’t the case in my poor community and household. We didn’t have much but we shared what we had with each other and with others in our community who needed help. Sharing what we had wasn’t only the right thing to do but it created a community that helped each other when they could.
Watching her share with others taught me compassion and is one of the reasons why I have served in poor communities for the majority of my career.
19. Take care of what you have.
We didn’t have much but what we did have was taken care of very well. Every weekend the house would be cleaned from head-to-toe. Furniture moved out, house dusted, and laundry done by hand in our bath tub. I try to do the same as an adult and raise my son to take care of his toys. There’s no reason to run out and replace a toy or even an item for oneself if I or my children can’t take good care of it.
20. Celebrate your accomplishments.
My mom struggled. We struggled. But when she could snag a few cleaning jobs, then we would celebrate, which mostly meant an actual fast food meal — most likely at the burger spot which was a huge treat for us, since we couldn’t afford those kinds of things.
I still celebrate life’s accomplishments. If my son was helpful we cheer for him, or my husband received good news at work then he comes home to kisses and words of praise. Life is just too short not to celebrate the good and it doesn’t have to be frivolous parties, but just genuine happiness for one another.
So this holiday season, as you are considering spending some money on your child though you know you should pay a bill, stop and think about this. Your child is learning so much from you and how you handle the stress of being a single mother. And I can honestly say that the one thing I wanted more than any present on Christmas was for my mom to be an active and present participant in my life.
So on Christmas morning, wake your child up, celebrate with hugs, kisses, music, draw pictures together, make French toast and just love on one another. They will definitely always remember having a bare tree, but hopefully they will also remember their mother who had a full heart of love and taught them so much about life and love through their struggles.
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