Of the many lessons collected over the years of my life, the most important one has been the value of The Struggle. Each has their own, and not all in equal measure. Some have too much, while others don’t have enough. As my entire experience has been that of a white American woman, that is the perception from which I write this. I understand and respect that it will look different for others. I hope something from my account will ring true for you.
At fifteen years of age, I was pregnant and married. I dropped out of school to become a wife and mother. The marriage was abusive, and it broke my heart and extinguished my fire for a while. But it also taught me. I learned what I didn’t want for myself and my kids. I learned how to stand up for myself, and, after five years of toxic, immature behavior, how to let go.
For the next ten years I worked a wide array of jobs, all in retail or service, never making enough to fully support me and my small family. We went uninsured for health care for nearly that entire decade, even after I remarried. I visited the community pantry as often as I could to keep enough food on our plates as a single mom. We had the power and phone turned off more times than I could count, and I had many hard conversations with angry landlords that kept me up at night. I still relied on the generosity of others. My mother loading up an occasional grocery bag with items from her pantry she didn’t need. My electric bill paid once by my dad as a Christmas gift. Grandma watching the kids so I could go to work, which at one point I did on foot or by Rollerblades because I had no car. All of these things were helpful and very much needed, but The Struggle was still there and very much mine. While I continued to believe that my life would work out if I kept waking up every day, I was learning that I was also going to have to do more if things were going to improve.
At one point during my time as a single mother, I think I was making $7.25 per hour and had read an article somewhere that said the bare minimum a person needed to make to support themselves where I lived was $10 per hour. I wasn’t going to get there working in retail, and I didn’t have the means or time to go to college. Having taken a typing class in high school, I decided I could be an administrative assistant. Somehow I had learned that temp agencies were a good place to find these types of positions, so I set up an interview. During the interview at AppleOne, they told me that I needed to learn to use Word and Excel and said I could schedule time to learn for free on their computers when I was able. So I did. I went every chance I could, and very quickly was able to test out at a proficient level in each software program.
Another gift I was given during that time were classes that the state of California facilitated for welfare recipients, of which I was one. They were designed to help people on welfare obtain employment and keep it. They taught me how to interview and how to write my own resume. I took these classes seriously, and it paid off. I can remember not getting an offer only twice in dozens of interviews. Pair that with my newly acquired office skills, and I started making two dollars an hour more almost immediately in temporary positions. Within a year, I was making $11 per hour and no longer receiving any supplemental support from the government. A year after that, $14.25 working for a mechanical contractor in Texas. That opportunity then led to more learning and eventually taking me where I am today as a project manager.
While I was given support and afforded some opportunities, I also capitalized on them. Just being given a chance does not a future make. You have to put in the effort. Someone once quoted Tony Robbins to me, saying, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” That struck a chord. I had lived it, and it would come back again when my children were grown.
You might think after witnessing my scramble through life and up the ladder, my kids would have learned a lot of lessons through me. You’d be mostly wrong.
While my kids are better than me in so many ways, self-support and the value of a dollar were not things they picked up on real quick. I was so frustrated and also very worried for years, rescuing them financially over and over, when I suddenly realized what I had always known. Until they had to fly on their own, this was going to continue to be my problem and they would never get better. I wasn’t helping them; I was enabling and therefore hindering them.
Just like it is detrimental to the chick to be helped from its shell or a butterfly to be cut from its chrysalis, so too are we weakened by being protected from The Struggle. When I became pregnant and decided to get married as a teen, I was emancipated and my parents all but washed their hands of my burden. Once I left the kids’ dad, I was, for the most part, completely on my own. Even though I’d never been a full-blown adult before, I figured out how to do it. It’s amazing how capable we can be out of necessity. Because of this, I knew I could better my lot in life. I knew I could count on myself, no matter who came and went or what happened. Any future partner I had in my life would be there because I wanted them to be, not because I need them.
Looking back, I can still remember how hard it got at times, but I am grateful. The Struggle made me a better person. It was a gift. A gift I think we need to continue to pass on.