FREE BIRDS:
COMPLICATING THE COMPLICATED 

By Ellen Reynolds

“She was suddenly a single parent to four young children, living in a new house that needed a huge amount of work.”

“I know she is my mother, and that probably means that I see her through rose-colored glasses to a certain degree.”

In 1988 I turned six years old. My siblings and I spent my birthday with our grandparents in Arkansas while our parents, back in Illinois,  moved all of our things across town into a bigger home. I was given a brown and white stuffed dog with a pink, leathery tongue. In our new home a few weeks later, my parents argued in the living room and my brother Abner quietly told me a story from the top bunk. Shortly after, my parents split and my dad moved out. I misunderstood the situation and thought he was taking a vacation. It never occurred to me that one doesn’t often fly with a desk lamp, so I happily helped him carry his belongings outside, feeling jittery for his new adventure. I didn’t realize that day would eventually become important, so it remains brandished into my brain like a dream that you can still feel but can’t quite remember.  

As an adult with a family of my own now, I can finally grasp the gravity of that situation. I don’t remember my mother losing her mind, or wallowing in depression, or feeling overwhelmed, but she must have. She was suddenly a single parent to four young children, living in a new house that needed a huge amount of work. And although my father’s drinking had become unmanageable and she felt she had no other choice, I imagine she still loved him immensely and vice versa. Even today, nearly 30 years later, on the rare occasion that both parents are in the same room, you can feel the pain of all the dreams they once had that were never realized. The best choice isn’t always the easiest one, and what is right can still hurt in the worst possible way.

In the years that followed, my mother went to college and earned her degree. She continued to work as a stained-glass artist and eventually took on work at the college’s chemistry lab. As kids, we often walked to and from school alone. We prepared our own meals, and took trips to the grocery store alone. We used welfare to purchase our food, and I remember feeling proud of being confident enough to go through the grocery line on my own. And we had paper routes in the early mornings or after school to earn a little extra. But this isn’t a sob story. I never once felt unloved or uncared for. Life felt adventurous to me. I had three older siblings to travel through life with—what was there to complain about?

To be fair, my brothers and sister remember that time better than I do. They have a clearer grasp on the hardships we were facing, and maybe they have more sadness in their memories than I have. My mother has more than once apologized to me for “not being there.” She remembers it as a time where she was absent, and imagines that by today’s standards she would be considered neglectful. But to me there isn’t a better story of heroism and accomplishment. She took a complicated situation and complicated it further to create a better life in the future. She took the burden of being a single parent and added full-time school and work.

I get so frustrated when I hear people talk about how lazy and worthless those on welfare must be. My mother was anything but lazy.  She didn’t for a moment take advantage of the system. She temporarily took help while she worked to increase her value in society, so that she could teach us how to grow up as thoughtful, contributing members of the world. Were there hardships in our life?  Absolutely.  We were poor and raised by a mother who was literally spread so thin that she was probably losing her mind. My sister took on the role of caretaker extremely often. My brothers took on the role of entertainers. We wore hand-me-downs and ate ramen by the pallet-full. We probably looked more like a second-rate circus act than an organized or coherent family unit, but my mom owned it and wore it proudly. I know now that she felt shame at that time. Shame for not being around as much as she wanted to be, shame for being tired or worn out, shame for not being able to afford the things we wanted or to turn up the heat a degree or two. But she still managed to teach us that we were as smart, as worthwhile, as important, as everyone around us.

I know she is my mother, and that probably means that I see her through rose-colored glasses to a certain degree. Still, she was uneducated, in her early 30s, caring for four children, and having just lost the partner she had been with since she was a teenager. There are so many directions she could have gone from there, many of which would have left us on a similar path of becoming poor and uneducated. She chose the hardest, longest, most burdensome path toward becoming better for herself and for her children. That’s incredible to me. That’s heroic.

“I don’t remember my mother losing her mind, or wallowing in depression, or feeling overwhelmed, but she must have.”