There but for the grace of God, go I

I have been struggling lately, and I need your help. When I was very young, it was not uncommon for my mother, who was poor, to leave me and my siblings home alone. I wish that I could tell you she left us because she was out doing something meaningful – like working to provide us with food and a place to live – but that would not be true. My mother was an addict. She set us on a path toward destruction, because she either didn’t want or perceived she couldn’t have more out of life. When she was gone, it was not uncommon for us to heat our apartment by turning on our oven and to wander around the neighborhood and into other people’s apartments without their knowledge in search of food.

Here is what I have been struggling with: How do we help more people see that this incident – and ones like it – is not as simple as it seems?

According to the press coverage, a few weeks ago, a 23-year-old mother left her two young children at home to go to work. The results were tragic. A fire roared through the apartment while she was gone, and the children had to be resuscitated. They made it – thank God. The mother was accused of abuse or neglect of a child and charged with endangering the welfare of a child.

On the surface, it is so easy to jump to conclusions about this situation and judge this young mom as selfish and self-destructive. I do not know this mother or her parenting style. But there is another perspective on the difficult choices she likely faced.

If you’ve never been in a place where you are working hard, doing all of the things that society says is important, and still not making ends meet, it’s hard to imagine the immense stress and uncertainty that comes with poverty. When rent is overdue and you’ve exhausted your income and favors, you are stressed. When you don’t have friends or family you can count on because they, too, are in a bad situation, you are strained. If you have ever been in a place where childcare is unaffordable, you may start to understand why certain decisions might seem like the right—or only—choice. When you are mentally exhausted from weighing the consequences of two challenging options – going to work or becoming homeless – choices must be made.

There but for the grace of God, go I. We need to better understand people who face these situations daily and are trying to break the cycle by working and going to school. We need a renewed perspective on what it truly means to make difficult decisions. This perspective will create an understanding that is commonly missing in cases like this.

As a region, we need to increase access to and awareness of our emergency and non-emergency child care options. We need to make sure that families who are making the right decisions have the supports they need. We need to help families never have to make the impossible choices too many parents and families make today.

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