Everyone has a personal narrative. I am a white, cisgender, middle class woman who went to schools and lived in neighborhoods filled with students and people similar to myself. My education is in counseling, and I spent much of my career working in child welfare. About four years ago, I shifted into mental health work.
“Latinx” is a term that avoids the –a / –o, masculine/feminine gender identity that can be assigned to this word.
When I worked at a provider agency for child welfare in the second poorest city in the United States (Reading, Pennsylvania), one of the mothers we were helping was murdered. She was Hispanic, single, and experiencing poverty. I knew this mother personally and her death shocked me.
No, it shook me. It shook me awake.
It was the violence of her death that made me realize that those of us working in child welfare said we were doing the best we could—but it was not enough. We needed to do more. In my mind, the first step was finding out from the people we were supposed to be helping what help looked like to them.
The agency where I worked provided case management and parenting education for families where child abuse/neglect had occurred, or was at risk of occurring. Many of the parents we worked with identified as Latinx. Oftentimes, our job as parenting education providers was to assess the parenting skills of the caregivers assigned to us. Based on our assessments, we then created interventions meant to “improve” their parenting practices.
The problem, as I saw it, was that we were using white, middle-class standards of parenting practices based on two-parent, gender normative (female/male) families to provide the “rules” of “good” parenting to single or perhaps partnered Latinx mothers, most of whom were experiencing poverty.
The solution, as I saw it, was to embark on a three-year research journey to find out what single, Latinx mothers living in Reading, Pennsylvania had to say about their life experiences, parenting practices, and about what help looked like to them. I interviewed several mothers in their homes.
The process was transformative for me.
Before my interviews with the study participants, I expected to find women who were stressed, angry, tired, and overall just at their limit. What I found were devoted mothers who cared deeply for their children and who were able to find the inner strength to do what needed to be done each day. For the most part, they were full of hope and optimism, and held the belief that they would be successful and their children would be successful far beyond what they had been.
After each interview, I walked away astounded by the grace and courage the participants had shown to me. I was inspired by every one of them. They demonstrated their willingness to be open and honest with me at a level that, quite frankly, took me by surprise.
I learned from them—so much more than I have space to write about here—but the most important thing was that they desired community. They had all been ostracized by their families and had to create a “family of choice.” They shared that their greatest joys came in helping others and they felt best understood when they were with other mothers in a situation similar to theirs.
There is research that indicates social support can moderate the psychological distress caused by experiencing poverty. So now I saw that the provision of group parenting education programs for Latinx parents should facilitate the development of social support networks as the best way to help them.
All of the participants emphasized the importance of help coming from people who knew them, or from people who knew what it was like to be in their situation. They expressed a desire to be seen as individuals with hopes, dreams, and needs. The participants mentioned how helpful it would be to have a place where they could “swap mom stories.” They desired places to go and get advice about navigating the developmental stages of their children. Having this kind of a network of other single Latinx mothers in their area would provide them with child care assistance, or help them gain information and find resources from particularly supportive individuals at the various agencies or community centers.
The most important aspect of being a part of a community of single mothers would be in having the chance to offer praise and encouragement to each other—to appreciate one another. This was something multiple participants mentioned as lacking in their lives. A majority of the study’s participants felt criticized and judged (i.e., the “black sheep” of their families) and had few people offering them words of encouragement or pointing out what they were doing well.
All of the participants mentioned how much they wanted to help other mothers who were in similar situations. They would be both getting help and giving it in “a gathering” of mothers. In several interviews, participants recounted times when they had opened their homes to a friend in need or had loaned money they really could not spare in order to help someone who they cared about. In each case, the pride of taking this action was visible on the participant’s face. It was clear that being able to help someone else made the “helper” feel better, even if her own situation had gotten worse, not changed, or even improved as a result of the good deed.
The mothers described feeling a loss of dignity when seeking help from institutions, but gained dignity and self-respect when they were able to give or receive help from others in their social community. They also discussed that getting together with other mothers like them could help relieve some of the isolation they felt.
It became clear to me that any kind of “intervention” would need, at the very least, to be directed by Latinx parents themselves--those who would know what help looks and feels like in their community. Those of us who work in agencies to play the role of the helper need to stop relying on the “best practices” research that is based primarily on white populations, and start relying on the people who are the real experts- the Latinx parents who we are intending to help.
I no longer work in child welfare, but the lessons I learned from participating in this research are ones I carry forward into my work as a clinician with a high-risk, high-need, low resource population. Because I remain inspired by the women who shared their stories with me, I will leave you with some of their words of encouragement to other moms like them:
Don’t give up. Things change. Life changes. You never know what tomorrow will bring and I say that because you can be in a shelter today and in a mansion tomorrow. God works in mysterious ways.
Like, there’s tons of people out there going through struggles. But these people have become, you know, art––there’s illustrators, big time lawyers, and doctors. And I’m like, oh my God, this is not the end. Like you have––just don’t ever give up. And I tell my son that every time. Like, don’t ever use the word can’t, because you can. It’s never you can’t. And I tell my sisters, I’m not going to be about that, I can’t. We’re going to––we can do this, you know.
Try your best, and don’t let the negatives stop you from doing positive. And use all your strength on positive ways, all the strength you have, all the stuff that you build and all the struggle you do. Just look at it, and turn it around for the better. ~ Julieta
For further reading:
“Tell Your Story: A Phenomenological Investigation of the Experiences of Single, Latina Mothers Living in Poverty,” www.digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2220&context=doctoral
Rev. Thaeda Franz, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor in Reading, Pennsylvania.