Parents are constantly shamed for their choices. From how we feed our children to how we educate them, everyone has an opinion. The result? Moms and dads feel endlessly judged for the choices they make — even if they have no other options. This week, families around the country are sharing their inspiring, funny, honest, and heartbreaking stories with Yahoo Parenting in an effort to spark conversations, a little compassion, and change in the way we think about parenting forever. Share your story with us — #NoShameParenting.
As I was juggling a box of week-old crackers and a bag of apples with brown spots on them while trying to find my keys, my 7-year-old daughter hit the back of my leg so hard with a bag full of cans she was lugging up the stairs that my whole body recoiled. We weren’t even in the kitchen yet when my 4-year-old son, clutching a box of cereal to his chest while grinning from ear to ear, asked me the same question for the third time in a row.
“Can we eat this now, Mommy?” he pleaded, his eyes reflecting the excitement in seeing a picture of a toy prize on the front of the box — a prize that probably wasn’t even in the cereal box anymore because it had clearly been ripped open and then taped back together. Exhausted from the mental toll that the trip to the food bank had taken on me and wanting to buy just a few more minutes of time before I crushed his 4-year-old dreams, I heard myself saying, “We can eat in 20 minutes if you guys go play first.”
Clamoring off and nearly running each other over in their attempts to reach their toys first, I sunk down onto my couch and thought about how I had gotten myself into this position — how I had become the mother feeding her children from a food bank and why I was the mom who constantly had to disappoint her children with the reality of everything that I simply cannot give them.
Looking back at my past, it’s clear to me how I got in this position. One in 10 children are victims of child abuse; I grew up with a mentally ill mother in a household fraught with neglect. My parents reminded me on a daily basis that I was nothing more than a burden to them, and I was desperate to prove them wrong and to find some worthiness in my existence. As a teen, I spent my weekends working at an animal shelter and volunteering with the special-needs children at my church. When I was old enough to leave home at the age of 18, I quickly did, traveling the country as a missionary, helping the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and even volunteering at a food bank.
The author’s children. (Photo: Eden Strong)
But, despite my desire to leave my abusive past behind, I was young and inexperienced, and I married a man with all the qualities I was running away from. Over time, my desire to help the world fell away as I focused on just surviving with an abusive husband. Four years into our marriage, our first child was born, followed by a second child. Three years ago, my husband left, his only legacy a history of drug addiction and abuse and two children who grieve for the parent they lost. I am now a single mom without a college education to fall back on.
I sometimes cry myself to sleep at night as the emptiness of my stomach claws at my soul. I wear donated clothing and recently had to tell my daughter for the third year in a row that I cannot afford to throw her a birthday party. I never expected my life to turn out like this, and I’m sure that the other 48.1 million Americans who are also food insecure feel the same way.
But it might shock you to know that I wouldn’t change much about my family’s journey.
I’m not who I was three years ago, when my husband left, or a lifetime before that — and my children are not who they may have been if their lives were easy. As I said, this is not the life that I initially wanted for any of us, but this is a life that, despite its obvious complications, is not worthless.
I get judged all the time for my situation, but I’m using that judgment as a tool in the way that I mother.
Despite the fact that I work more than 70 hours a week between a day job that hardly pays the bills and a nonprofit I founded that serves domestic abuse victims, I’m far from wealthy. I do not get to come home to a lavish meal in a fancy house; however, I do get to save lives. Unfortunately, many people don’t see that when I bring home my “groceries” from the food bank. They see failure.
However, my children are learning that it’s not what you have that makes you who you are, but who you are that determines the impact you have — and that’s worth more than anything I could buy them.
I’m not able to give my kids what many other children have, and I am well aware of that, but I am able to give them something unique to our situation. They are living in a way that is making them better people, learning things that I don’t always want to teach them but that so many people fail to learn at all — compassion, empathy, perseverance, determination, responsibility, humility, and the true value of self-worth. I know they’re learning, because I see those lessons reflected in the way they interact with the world.
Society has a tendency to view public aid beneficiaries as people who are failing at life. But I’ve met those people, I know those people, I am one of those people, and I can assure you that the vast majority of them are not failing at life, but rather fighting to survive. Eating at a food bank isn’t the mark of a failed life; it’s the sign of someone surviving a struggle.
I’m not proud that my kids had to watch their mother fall, but I am pleased that I continually get to show them how to get back up. They have seen the effects of my rocky past, but, in turn, they are learning from my efforts to change our future. And I am determined to make our lives better.
So, my dear children, I’m sorry there was no prize in the cereal box this morning, and it hurt me when I saw the look on your sweet, disappointed faces, but it’s time to wipe away those tears. Because life is not lived by everything that you are handed in a box, but in what you choose to do with everything you learn when you are forced to live outside of it.
This morning, thanks to my past, my children ate from a food bank, but more importantly, today they saw what it takes to fight for the future. —Eden Strong
(Top photo: Eden Strong)