I believe that I can most understand who I am by looking at the long line of strong women before me.
My great grandmother had 12 children, two of whom died at birth. I have two children, both of whom flourish today. At times when I am convinced that there is no way I could handle a third child, I consider her twelve. Today we view working mothers as a fairly recent debate, but I know that my great grandmother taught school, and that her second shift included 10 children and farm work.
My grandmother, her 3rd daughter, had a smaller family, but she spent 18 years working in a smoldering Detroit factory. I didn’t find out that my grandmother had an illegitimate child in the ‘50s until I was pregnant with my own in the year 2000. I was feted with baby showers, pink clothes, and excited congratulations. My grandmother suffered the stigma of those times and had her first baby sequestered in a home for unwed mothers.
My mother was her second child and had a normal life, that is, until she became pregnant out of wedlock and immediately married up, all within three days at the tender age of 15. That was me. 1977.
A couple years later, longing to leave welfare behind, my mother ended up in the same factory as my grandma, working alongside her for many years. But I was a cognizant witness to a passion that pulled her out. She got her GED, and I still remember my father dropping her off at community college…”to make a better life” she said…a life that didn’t include welfare nor factory work.
My mother finally achieved her masters degree at the same University I eventually attended, and where I now work. But I didn’t entirely escape my familial cycle. Accidentally pregnant with my own girl in 2000, I briefly quit college, and worked a clerical job for $18,000 per year.
But I knew my daughter needed to see something better. Something more. She needed to see a woman acknowledge the women before us, the women that we came from, to harness the passion and drive that happened before her. Just three weeks after my second child, a son, was born via emergency c-section, I began the last two years of my own college degree. I have since found balanced work and a balanced life that fulfills my needs.
When I think of where I came from, I literally look back along a mental timeline. I picture the babies that died at home in their mother’s bed, the grueling farm work, babies born in quiet convents, welfare babies born to teenage mothers. I picture the oil and noise of the factory, struggling students, and always-working mothers.
I know that my daughter has 100 years of strength in her, and can prevail against adversity, just like the women before her. I look at her, and I look behind us, and I know that we’ll all be just fine.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.