Mothering Against the Odds: Live Well in Spite of Those Bad Statistics

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I inteviewed a man recently and had a mini-ephiphany. The man was Ken Brown, who after working 36 years for the the United States Postal Service, retired. In the latter part of his postal career, Mr. Brown served as the postmaster of Westfield, NJ. While developing the story, I figured the changes Mr. Brown had witnessed in the postal system with the advent of computers and the terror of 9/11 would be interesting to readers. What I didn't figure was that I had something to learn about my fears as a mother, some of which I'd presented to my ex-husband while discussing divorce. After finishing the story, I saw how those fears weighed me down, stressed me out, and clouded my vision of the future with doom.

Mr. Brown told me that he came of age in Westfield. He said that his mother had moved from Brooklyn, NY, to the quiet, affluent town when he was 12 after she separated from his father. He told me it was a painful adjustment for him, and I nodded, thinking of my own son.

When my marriage hit the rocks, my son, now 16, was about 12 years old, the same age Mr. Brown had been when his parents divorced, a tender age. I remembered appealing to his father that we hold off on the divorce, try to work things out even if only temporarily, because I'd read and remembered how difficult adjusting to puberty can be, how entering middle school buckles with challenges to which we would add divorced parents, and how the odds fell against my son if he were suddenly a young black male without a father in the home. I wasn't thinking about whether or not I was happy in the marriage. I was doing the mom thing and wondering "What about the children?"

Well, the divorce happened anyway. We moved to Scotch Plains, which is right next to Westfield, and I spent many nights reflecting on my son's struggle to fit in at a new school in a new town and find his way. So, when Mr. Brown spoke of how painful the adjustment was for him at age 12, the son of separated parents, I immediately identified with images of pain, of defeat, and the sounds of burden. The sights and sounds overshadowed whatever else I heard because I sat in a state of fear.

I finished the interview, wrote the story, received applause from my publisher and fellow reporters and went on my way. It wasn't until the evening after publication, during a little down time, that I had my revelation. You see Mr. Brown is not only a retired postmaster but also a married man with two daughters who's been active with his children's schools, a steady member of his church, and a servant of his community. From all reports, he's been a loving husband and good father. Consquently, I say Mr. Brown has beaten the odds that say "children from divorced parents are likely to divorce as well." How did I interview him but miss the implications of his life for my own son?

The answer came clearly to me; the answer was "focus." I tend to focus on facts, including statistics which can sometimes be skewed. Absorbing "the facts" I've heard about children of divorced families, I missed the other story of Mr. Brown, that he'd beaten odds against him. Yes, I focused on the worst outcome and listened and heard only my own fears, what it's like to be the son of separated or divorced parents. As this revelation hit me, I heard my ancestors yelling, "You wimp! You'll let anything stop you."

I descend from American slaves, and while some people learn that they descended from slaves and internalize the evil deeds done against African-Americans under the system of slavery, I have learned to listen for the stories of triumph. I hear a story of the evils but look with pride and wonder at a people beaten down who stive to survive. Yet somehow, despite looking at my ancestors in wonder, I had not applied a survivor mindset to my son's future.

Perhaps it was the trauma of a bitter divorce that stumped me here. Truly, dealing with divorce is like dealing with a death in the family, but in the case of divorce, the dead may breathe, killing dreams of a good future. But now I ask, "Is facing the trauma of divorce more dificult than facing the terrors and mistreatment my ancestors faced? Is the trauma of divorce worse than the blatant discrimination, violence, and potential poverty cycle my ancestors faced following slavery?"

I will not recount here some of the obstacles my great-grandmother, the first woman to be a licensed midwife in a certain Alabama county faced, nor the hurdles my grandmother, wife of a minister and the mother of five children in Louisiana leaped. Nor will I go into the details of my own mother's life, the tale of a woman who became a teacher when she returned from Memphis, Tenn., to her hometown New Orleans and was told the city's social welfare system had enough Negro social workers for the time being, a quota system that limited hiring blacks at her supervisory level. I will simply say that some of their challenges, those not mentioned, were more difficult than anything I've faced yet, and yet, they survived.

They survived and raised children who are survivors. They survived by seeing the challenges and meeting the challenges. They simply did what had to be done the best way they knew to do it and then hoped for the best. Isn't this all any mother can do, to do what has to be done in the best way they can and hope for the best even in the face of great odds against them?

Immediately self-doubt reminds me that the women I've mentioned from my family, those after slavery, all had and "kept" their husbands. But I don't listen to that voice because I live in an age full of women who've divorced and produced beautiful, well-adjusted children anyway. I can look around and see friends who've done just that.

How we accomplish our best surely is rooted in faith that we can do well, and unlike trail blazers who are the first to succeed at a thing, mothers can find examples of women overcoming tremendous odds all around them. I know that some of us have not had the best examples in our own families of womanly strength, but even in those cases the intelligent woman can look beyond her own family to women as a whole, in the present and the past, and find examples that tell us, "My life has challenges but I can overcome them for the sake of me and my children. I can overcome my challenges because I see others who overcame theirs."

I didn't see Mr. Brown's mother for myself. I don't know how she did what she did, but I can see the result, a man who has led a full, honorable life devoted to his wife and children, proof that a woman who couldn't keep her own relationship together can still supply her offspring with the tools to be successful and content, whether success and contentment includes marriage or not. And more fortunately for me, I don't have more than Mr. Brown's mother. I can look at my own mother, if not her then my grandmother, if not her then I can make a point of looking at mothers who overcome bad odds every day, especially the odds that suggest the children of divorce are doomed to unhappy relationships.

This is the mindset I take into the future, to look at what could go wrong for the purpose of planning and finding solutions, not to see bad odds as proof that I and my children won't make it. I also see that I need to groom my mind for the positive and focus more on what goes right in people's lives. So, I will seek patterns of success by which to build my life and aid my children in building healthy lives of their own.

Edited for formatting errors July 9, 2009, by Nordette Adams.

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