No matter how rich I might become, I will always be the daughter of a janitor
--Frances Varian, in Without a Net
When I was a tearaway teen my mother gave me only two rules: do not drive out of the county, and do not get pregnant. Of course I didn't listen; I was in a brutal and horrific accident on a mountain road far from home at age seventeen, and I was pregnant the next year.
What I did not understand at the time was that the rules expressed an oppositional philosophy, a desire to keep me close to home but allow me to choose a future elsewhere. My mother didn't want me to drive too far away because beyond the county line, there were no blood kin to rescue me if I had trouble. She didn't want me to have a baby because doing so would mean that I would never escape.
My parents both worked endlessly hard to raise me, against unbelievable odds, and they did not just want me to survive. There was an expectation that I would do more, that I would be different, that I would break away from the sort of life that they had, working too hard for a pittance. I wasn't smarter than any of my cousins, but I was sick, and it was obvious that I would never work with my hands.
What I didn't know at the time was that we were trapped in a classic situation that had clearly defined rules. Frances Varian describes it as a game, in which getting out is the ultimate goal, which you can never win, but maybe your kids can if you are willing to work hard enough.
When I had a child of my own the reaction from all quarters was uniform consternation; it was absolutely wrong to make that choice. I lost my college scholarship, and my precarious health, but more importantly, my future. I was too young to understand that I was agreeing to play the game. My dreams, my choice of friends, everything that I loved, had to be abandoned in service to raising this small person.
Of course there are many parents who do not place a high value on raising their children. Some are abusive, or unstable, and lots of people simply run away. But I was raised with a work ethic and an understanding that it is important to protect and nurture your children, even if that means putting their needs ahead of your own.
The stigma of being poor and young merely made me work harder to prove that I was in fact a good mother. And, even though the child I produced would prove to be on the extreme end of the clinically hyperactive scale, I was never exhausted by the experience of raising her. The only significant problem I ever had as a teen mom was the rude behavior of judgmental strangers, and that served as a catalyst to choose the most respectable and stable possible profession. I was twenty-two years old when I finished a masters degree in public administration.
I worked in government for two years before I found myself in a doctors office asking for sleeping pills and anti-depressants. As the words passed my lips I realized that I was not in fact capable of doing what seemed to be required to change my class status. My education and early career were sufficient to raise us to a certain respectable kind of life, but the tradeoff was severe. I could not be the person I wanted to be while working in government, and although I now joke and say that I quit because I had to wear ugly shoes, the truth is that I would not have survived that job. Being poor and young was hard, but the job that was supposed to save us had rendered me mentally ill. I had to ask myself if my daughter needed new clothes and the latest toys more than she needed a mother with a clear mind.
I was not willing to trade my personality for a paycheck, not even to support my child.
I tore up the prescriptions, typed up a resignation letter, and declared that I would never again work for money. Instead, I would figure out how to survive without compromising my integrity. My partner promised the same, at a critical moment; he could have gone into industry and earned a fortune at the height of the dot.com years but chose to do what he really wanted, which was to pursue pure research. I started from scratch in a new career that took years to cultivate. We have never broken the pact.
Of course we are lucky that we have each other: I was a single parent for years and am aware of my relative privilege now. But the risk at the time was enormous. There was no guarantee that the choice would lead anywhere except failure and ruin. I made a deeply problematic and treacherous decision to have another child when our small family was living on government cheese and a graduate school stipend.
Both of my children were born into poverty more severe than what I experienced as a child. My household is headed by two parents who, while willing to work, have no intention of making any sacrifices.
But words are powerful, and educational credentials have meaning even when they are not exercised. The degree and early career meant that, when I applied for WIC, the intake staff treated me like a friend and asked me to teach health education classes to other parents. I have always been the youngest parent waiting for my kids at the end of a school day, but my status was long ago set at a level that recognizes my professional achievements. This has been meaningful in unexpected ways, and a series of strange and lucky encounters has taken me from one new and interesting project to the next.
This does not mean that the last sixteen years have been easy, or that the choices I made were always the best. But I have created, against all expectations, a new and better life than the one I was born to lead. Having kids forced me to be responsible, but knowing my children has taught me the value of being selfish.
Somewhat mysteriously my contrary behavior eventually translated to economic stability. I did not expect to find myself in my mid-thirties, with this job, living in England. I did not predict that my effort to embrace ascetic poverty would make my children middle-class by default. I'm still the girl who spent most of her childhood in a gas station. My partner is still the boy who was working as a dishwasher and janitor at age fourteen. But our kids, when asked, say my mother is a writer and my dad is a mathematician.
Bee Lavender is the publisher of Hipmama.com and the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Lessons in Taxidermy.