Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Motherhood and Poverty: How Ministry and Motherhood Have (re)Shaped my Perspective

Motherhood is the most magnificent, maddening experience I have had in all of my days. Magnificent because you get to witness and shape this little human being as they grow into their purpose. Magnificent because of the joy you feel when you look into their eyes and hear their laughter. Magnificent because you know that through them you are participating in God’s work of creation. At the same time, it can be maddening. Maddening because you second guess every decision you make. Maddening because as you as you gain confidence in yourself as a parent, someone else comes along and (loudly) second guesses every decision that you make. Maddening because the toddler (and teenage) years are real doozies. I feel this profoundly when I think about the geographical distance that separates me from my mother, my sister, and my closest sister-friends. Every day, and most especially on Sundays, I am grateful for our New Hope Baptist Church family—particularly the women. As I’ve written before on this blog, and in an article I published for Urban Faith Magazine, motherhood thrives in community. It takes a village to raise a child. But I firmly believe that it also takes a village to guide a woman as she grows into motherhood.

Poverty is defined as the state of being extremely poor. The poverty line is the estimated minimum level of income needed to secure the necessities of life. According to the National Poverty Center, the poverty threshold for a single parent with two children in 2010 was $17, 568. I cannot imagine securing much of anything for a single person, let alone a family of two children, making less than $18,000/year. Admittedly,  I have never been poor. However, I know the profound effect that poverty has on individuals and communities. Homelessness and food insecurity, to name a few. As such, poverty can lead to desperation. Just yesterday, the Academy award nominated actress Viola Davis was on the Ellen show talking about growing up poor. She admitted to dumpster diving and stealing from grocery stores as a child just to secure meals. Poverty can cause good people to sometimes make bad decisions for the sake of survival. This is illustrated in Erykah Badu’s song, “The Grind.”  The chorus is hauntingly true for many in our society:
Every day is a struggle
How to hustle some doe
If you was raised in the hood
Well then you already know
It be days that be good
But mostly money be slow
Have you ever been hungry before?
Have you ever been hungry before? Have you ever been homeless before? Have you ever not known how your basic needs would be met? In the verse of "The Grind" Stic-man from the hip-hop group Dead Prez rhymes about the necessity of crime in order to survive. Ethically speaking, in this case crime is not the end, survival is:
Mommy got a job makin' bout six-somethin' an hour
She became the breadwinner when daddy was unemployed
Working forty-plus hours and kissing ass
Seeming like the only honest way she can get some cash
She struggglin' - she don't know I be hustlin' pulling my own weight
I be hearing them fuss and fightin' at night mad late
Over economics; it's logic meaning they don't got it
Living in the projects, money's the only object
She makes $280 a week, standing on her feet
The ends aint even meeting - the family ain't eatin'
Cause if taxes is 10%, and the rest if for the rent
Then crime is what u get and niggaz is innocent
See it really ain't about if you eatin' or not eatin'
It's breathin' or not breathin' - freedom or not freedom
'nother day, 'nother way, 'nother dollar spent
Gotta make a revolution out of fifteen cent.

I believe that poverty is a sin against God. Not that it is a sin to be poor, rather structures that support and propagate poverty so that a few thrive in opulence—while many others remain shackled by lack—breaks the very heart of a loving and just God. Jesus, in his initial sermon found in Luke 4, echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah as he describes the ministry for which he was sent: 
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. (NIV)
And so we don't over spiritualize his ministry, in Jesus' words, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10b). In a close look at Jesus' deeds, we see that while his coming was to secure eternal salvation for humanity, his embodiment in human flesh caused him to be concerned with the real physical needs of people—Jesus healed bodies, invited his disciples to rest, and fed the multitudes. With all of that in mind, I wonder how Jesus would respond to the story of Shanesha Taylor, an Arizona mother who left her two babies in the car while she was at a job interview. I know his heart would ache for her children—because children held a special place in his heart during his earthly ministry—but I wonder how he would feel about this mother being charged with felony child abuse. 

I know how I respond.

First, I am grateful to be in a position where I do not have to make such decisions. I am grateful to have resources to provide for our family, even beyond our basic needs. And even on days when I feel most alone as a mother, I have a loving husband, parents who are just an hour away, a few neighbors that we trust, and a church family to care for Big Girl should an emergency arise. And trust, when you are homeless and trying to get your family on its feet, a job interview is an emergency. In her situation, I cannot say whether or not I would have left my children in a car in an effort to secure a job that would provide food, clothing, and shelter for them. Hear me: I'm not saying she was right. I'm saying she was desperate. As I said above, poverty can cause good people to make bad decisions for the sake of survival.

A few years ago, upon hearing the story I would have immediately judged her. But now that I am a mother, and a minister of the Gospel, I cannot judge her. I also cannot justify her actions, either. In fact, her situation raises many questions for me. If she was homeless, chances are she could not afford childcare. The cost of childcare in the country is crazy to begin with—it is the reason even well established families opt for mom (or dad) to stay home with their children until they are of age to attend public school. Surely, she would have cost herself a job if she brought her children up to the interview and asked a receptionist to watch them. Which is why I do not fault this mom.  I fault the system in place that does not provide adequate support to women trying to provide for their families. What are the childcare options for homeless moms? Do homeless shelters have clean and caring childcare centers should such a need arise? Why was she criminalized and her children taken away from her, when the intent of her actions was far from abuse and neglect? Where was/is her village? Where is the children's father, and why is he not being discussed in the story?

All that said, I believe that Shanesha Taylor did what she thought was best to care for her children. She did what I set out to do every day. She did what most mothers set out to do every day. But, her circumstances—the reality of extreme poverty in one of the richest nations in the world—have thrust her story front and center. Perhaps, instead of condemning and criminalizing this mother, we would take this opportunity to condemn and criminalize the system that caused her to make such a tough decision just to survive.

On another note, I heard about this story around the same time that I heard about Lisa Atliff, the Pennsylvania mother who left her baby in a car for five hours while she was drinking in a bar. To be honest, I am quicker to judge this mom. She was at a bar, not trying to secure a future for her family. Even still, her story also makes me wonder about her village and her mental state. Post-partum depression is real. Isolation is real. Mothers, especially first-time mothers, need all the support they can get to raise happy and healthy children. 

image taken from,  copyright Zadeshe Freeman

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