The stories of my mother’s childhood are ones I know well, but they aren’t mine. They’re hers, and they aren’t just stories. They are truths, her truths. Her truths, like so many other children in this country, are filled with hunger, abuse, and neglect. For the thousands that are reported each day, there are just as many that go unreported. The forgotten, unheard, and unseen.
These are her truths…
Can you describe your childhood before your parents’ divorce?
It was a pretty typical childhood. My mother made a big family dinner every Sunday. My father would invite his friends over, and they would entertain us with music. Santa came to our house every Christmas. We were happy. We felt safe. I knew what it was like to have a normal life.
When was the first time you felt a change in your family dynamic?
I believe it was the summer after kindergarten. My mother began leaving the house to go places, and we were not allowed to go with. This is where the life we had began to unravel. The mother we knew began to change. This was especially prominent for my older siblings.
Can you describe the changes you witnessed in your mother?
After she and my father separated, the normal everyday life we had was ripped out from under us. The questions went from “What are we having for dinner?” to “Are we going to eat?” “Is my mother going to come home tonight?” “Can we collect enough pop bottles and mow enough lawns to purchase a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter?” Sometimes the answer was yes, and many times the answer was no.
Why do you think your mother changed?
She had her children young, so she was still young when our family moved from a small town to a big city. She got caught up in a whole new lifestyle and she loved it. She loved socializing and going out at night. She became first and we became second. My mother was seeing a whole new side of life–the music and people. It was exciting, more so than being at home raising her children.
Did the friends in your mothers life see a change in her?
My mother was very good at showing people only what she wanted them to see. She painted herself as the loving, single mother who was doing everything she could to take care of her children, when in reality her wants and needs were priority. Of course, the majority of people she spent time with were from the bars she worked in. So it wasn’t as though they paid much attention.
Was there a difference between your father and the men your mother chose to spend time with?
My father was a family man. He worked hard, came home every night, and spent time with us. When my parents separated, my mother began choosing violent man. I remember sitting with my siblings watching the clock, knowing that with each passing hour “he” would be more intoxicated and more angry by the time he reached our doorstep. We went from a happy, safe home life, to hearing our mother screaming with each beating. Then wondering if this was the time she was going to die, or if he was going to come after us.
Was your father aware of your current living environment?
No, not entirely. My father use to come by the house on a weekly basis to drop money off to my mother. On one of the those occasions she wasn’t home, and my older siblings told him there was no food in the house. So he came by the next day to check on us and see if there was food. My mother’s boyfriend was there, hangover from the night before. He was belligerent and got in an altercation with my father. While I believe my father never knew the full extent of what our lives were like living with my mother, he did have a much clearer picture after that day.
Did your father take you and your siblings with him that day?
No. In those days the men went to work and the women raised the children. We lived states away from extended family, so there simply was no one to take care of us during the day. While my father was a nice, good looking man, the amount of children he had sent many women in the opposite direction.
Was there a turning point in your childhood?
Yes. One afternoon my sister was going to see my father on her bike. I begged to go with, but she was hesitant. I had stepped on a rusty nail a few days prior and couldn’t walk. She wasn’t sure she could push us both on her bike, but finally agreed to bring me along. Around the same time my father had begun seeing a woman who had a few children of her own. When we arrived she immediately noticed my foot and asked what had happened. Then, she looked to my father and explained that I needed to go to the hospital immediately. As a child, it was a traumatic ordeal! I remember receiving several shots and overhearing the doctor telling my father if he had waited a few more days, I would be dead due to blood poisoning. After that, my father drove straight to my mother’s house, picked up my siblings and me, and we never went back.
When was the next time you saw your mother?
She came to my father’s home once to take us for a visit. The second time she came to my elementary school and pulled me out of class for maybe a few minutes. Aside from those brief encounters, I did not see my mother again until I sought out my other siblings as a teenager.
Can you describe what life was like with your father and his wife?
Stable. We always had a place to sleep, three meals a day, and clothes on our backs.
Can you describe the home environment?
My stepmother made sure we ate, but beyond that she was a rather cold woman. When my father was at work, she made it well known to us that she ruled the house. She did not want us to spend time with our father when he was home, telling us to go outside. Since we weren’t allowed the opportunity to enjoy time with our father, he didn’t learn what she was like until years later. By that point we were adults. Our clothing was minimal and always came from the Salvation Army. Christmas warranted no excitement or joy for the season, as we only received socks and underwear each year. Her rules were strict and allowed no wiggle room. If we were even one minute late getting home, then we were grounded for multiple weeks at a time. Although, we were rarely allowed leisure time anyhow. Birthdays were never celebrated. We were there to do chores and raise the younger ones. She kept a majority of my father’s wages for herself, I assume.
When you became a mother for the first time, did that change your perspective on your childhood?
Yes. I took a more in-depth look at all I had endured throughout my childhood. I became more angry with my own mother for allowing our once happy, safe childhood to become unpredictable, unsafe, and unloving. It was in those first few days of being your mother that I knew with every fiber of my being that I would be nothing like her. My children would always be my number one priority. You would never know what it was like to go hungry or wonder where I was, or if I was coming home. You would never have to wonder where you were going to sleep each night. I was determined to be the BEST mother possible and give you the best life possible.
My mother did just as she promised me all those years ago. My younger sibling and I had the most amazing, loving childhood anyone could ever ask for. Our home was filled with more love and laughter than anyone I know. She is a strong woman, my mother. There are many more facets to her difficult childhood then could possibly be shared in one post. She, like so many others, was one of the unheard children. Luckily for me, her story didn’t end there. She used her past to pull herself out of the life that was chosen for her, to create a happy, beautiful life for her family. The difficult truths from my mother’s past are part of her story, but she didn’t allow them to become part of mine.
If you are in the midst of a similar story, facing hunger, abuse, neglect, or need help for whatever reason, please reach out. You are not alone. Your story matters. We have many great resources available locally to assist you.
United Way of Johnson County
Got questions? Don’t know where to get help? Confidential, free connection to human services and more. Dial 2-1-1 or 1(866)IOWA-211 (1-866-4692)
(through the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital)
(of Unity Point Health Cedar Rapids)