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Babble Voices: Mocha Momma Has Something to Say

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KSID Interiors
Wednesday
Jan022013

Manifesto: That Thing You Want To Say

The first welfare office I ever stepped in was in this one-story dark brown office building that was on the curve of a road that made it seem even more remote than it was. It was unmarked and so drab looking that it made me wonder if, in brighter daylight, it would somehow look more cheerful. Nothing about it seemed as if it had ever been cheerful before so I doubted very much it could improve. To this day, I don't know what other kinds of offices were in there. Maybe realtor offices or tax preparation. It was dank, depressing, and hard to like no matter what kind of tacky wallpaper they tried to put up to enhance it. The building was as hopeless as the people in it, welfare recipients and all.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year was longer than most. I gave birth to my baby in May and didn't finish out the last couple of days of school. Instead, I stayed home and learned to put cloth diapers on her without sticking her with the pins. Nursing just seemed to make sense to my still-young-and-developing body and Mallory and I figured it out together. For the first time I started to wear a nursing bra with pads that ended up being coasters to my unsuspecting friends who came to visit. Well, to the few of them that did. It's difficult to hang out with someone like who has a sleeping baby who might wake at any moment. By the time school resumed in the fall I had a 3-month old and was filled with doubt. My teachers didn't improve that situation, either, as the most common phrase followed the clucking of their tongues and the shaking of their heads was, "All your dreams. Gone."

For a while, they convinced me. The lady at the welfare office helped.

Why are you here?

To sign up for food stamps and help for child care. Didn't she know that when I walked in with a baby wrapped around me?

The father? Where is he?

Gone.

Out of the room gone? Didn't he come in with you?

No, he's gone. His family sold their house and they moved out of state. I don't know where he is. The words 'forwarding address' didn't come to my mouth. My mouth just remained empty after I answered each of her questions, getting ready for the next round of questions.

Tongue clucking. Head shaking. Loads of shame. Little did I know I was in for at least a decade more of what she was serving me.

She waited a while before speaking again. She shot forth a million insignificant questions each followed by her disapproving eyes looking up at me for the answer. It's a look she must have practiced constantly. The waiting room was filled with poor people who were all trying to get help. People with equally poor vocabularies that, unbeknownst to me, would be the very vocabularies I would spend a lifetime avoiding. At the time it didn't occur to me that I was poor. I stopped saying that I needed "help" because it brought the wrath from people who saw me and my misspent youth as a failure. Instead, I used the words "financial assistance" to sound smarter than I was. I was not, though I wanted to be, smart.

My parents were middle class workers who owned their own businesses in the 80s. Reaganomics was good to us and once we moved out of the city to the suburbs we thought we'd made it. Once, for my 10th birthday, I got a stereo system with my first record player. My parents, not knowing what album to get me to accompany the gift, bought me Foreigner. I hated Foreigner. There was a check inside my birthday card for $400 and I cashed it to get a pair of Jordache jeans, a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, and Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall" album. I played that over and over while staring at the picture of Michael on the unfolded album cover. It folded out into three pieces of cardboard that I displayed on the floor in front of my stereo.

___________________________________________

It was a hot and sticky August morning when I woke up and packed up the station wagon that belonged to me with everything else I owned in the world. It wasn't much, so it didn't take much time. But it was filled with my clothes and Mallory's clothes and toys and all the paperwork I needed to start my life. I was 18 and she was 3. A very smart and precocious 3-year old because I had no one to talk to most of the time so I spoke to her like an adult so she responded that way and grew up speaking very well. When I had a novel to read for English class I read it aloud to her, thinking she didn't understand it all. Sometimes I skipped parts in The Crucible because I didn't want her to hear it. She read by age 4 because I was tired of her bugging me to read books to her when I had college textbooks to tackle. In my impatience, she picked up the sounds of the letters and put them together to form words.

Ugh. Come on. The T and the H make the thhhhh sound.

I was doing it all wrong yet she miraculously picked it up all right.

She learned to creatively spell words until I corrected her. One day, she was sitting in the corner with her little knees pulled up to make a lap for the paper she was writing on and, in a tiny voice, she asked me, "Mommy, how do you spell bls?"

"Bowls, like cereal bowls?"

"No. Bls." 

"Bulls, like the basketball team?"

"No! Bls. Like VEG-TAH-BLS."

I looked at her paper and she had the first part of the word down but couldn't figure out how to finish spelling V-E-G-E-T-A-B-L-E-S. My laughter made her jump up and pout at me because she thought I was teasing and making fun of her. That day, I learned not to laugh at her when she was learning something. Inadvertently, I had shamed her when she was trying to master something. Of course, I didn't mean to. It didn't ever happen again.

When I moved out of my mother's house (my parents were separated by this time but didn't actually divorce until years later) I was nervous about going out on my own. When I needed help filling out my FAFSA, my mom did most of it for me and then handed me my tax papers and birth certificate and Social Security card so that it was now in my possession.

In my possession. It belonged to me and now I had to be responsible. That was her most popular lecture for me since I'd gotten pregnant. Twice. The second time I knew how hard it could be so I placed that baby girl for adoption. Pictures I had taken of her in the hospital before her parents came to take her were in the shoebox filled with all my Responsible Papers and I took them to college with me the day I moved out. Words I didn't understand and legal crap beyond my years. At 18 I still wasn't ready to hold on to all that stuff, but I had no choice. Everything in the world that I owned were clothes, toys, and shoeboxes full of papers so I could get food stamps and financial assistance.

My mother was pissed at me that morning for something I can no longer remember. From the time I got pregnant until I left her home, she was mad at me most likely for stealing away her parenting of me and for making her a grandmother in her 30s. She woke up and said goodbye like it was any other day. I cried hot tears as I packed up the car and then, in a moment of weakness, called my dad to come and help me. He drove over and finished the packing with me and followed behind my station wagon for the 2 hours it took to drive me to my new home, a college town.

___________________________________________

College towns are funny places. Full of bars and churches and pizza places next to textbook stores. It took me a week to find a phonebook so I could look up the Department of Children and Family Services. It was almost 2 miles from my tiny apartment and the station wagon died a tragic death right after I tested its limits of driving all the way to Charleston from Chicago. Mallory and I walked uptown to where it was and I was happy that this building was brighter and seemed more cheerful than the one back home. The people, however, were exactly the same.

They assigned me a case manager named Dirinda and ever since the day we met, I have hated that stupid name. Who names their kid Dirinda anyway?

Why are you here?

To sign up for food stamps and financial assistance.

Dirinda was mean to me every time I came into her office. She made me do it every month and I had to bring in proof that I was a college student as well as bring in receipts of the child care that I paid for Mallory to get while I took classes. At the end of the semester I was required to bring a copy of my grades as well. She used all this paperwork, now in its own shoebox since it piled up quickly, to give me a check to pay my babysitter. Every time I asked her whether or not they found Mallory's birth father so I could get child support, she rolled her eyes at me and said he was no where to be found. Her Shame Look was always raised eyebrows and pursed lips that unmistakably said: That's what you get, stupid girl. You fooled around and now where is he?

There were other moms in the office all the time, but rarely families. Dirty, poor, young mothers like me, but not like me. They set their runny nosed babies on the dirty floor and let them play with the toys they kept there. Mallory was always mad at me when we went because I wouldn't let her play with them. She probably thought that the hours we spent in the waiting room seemed like an eternity.

A day care had opened up on campus at the Lutheran church that stood between the married student housing and the buildings with all the classrooms. I was glad because then I didn't have to wake up at 5 a.m. to get ready for my day. We could just leave 15 minutes before a class started and walk in the direction of campus toward the church to drop Mallory off for the day. Then, I'd continue on to classes. The Lutheran day care gave me paperwork to take to DCFS so they knew that payments would now go to them for her pre-school. Unfortunately, the day I was taking it in for my appointment for Dirinda, I had forgotten to bring it with me.

If you don't have the papers, I can't authorize this. You should have brought them. No check until next month.

But I have to get pre-school paid for or else I can't take her and then I'll miss my classes. 

Sorry. You know what you're supposed to bring.

For the first time, I was furious. So furious, in fact, that I didn't know I was allowed to feel that. Is it okay that I fight back? Am I allowed to be angry at the way people treat me? I had things to say to her, but could I say them? Was that even an option? All the time I spent in that office taught me that shame was the first order of business. An incredible amount of mind-blowing, low self-esteem inducing onslaught of shame. They were better than us, the poor people. They held all the cards, gave all the orders, and dispensed all the contrition. Each time she said nasty words to me I cussed her out in my head. There were things I wanted to say to her but I was too afraid. I hadn't yet found my voice or demanded that anyone treat me better than I was used to being treated.

I hadn't yet used my words to tell people to stop doing that.

Until DCFS Dirinda went out of her way to make me feel, on purpose and with venom, like a piece of trash.

You know what? I wanna tell you something. Every time I come in here you delight in treating me like shit. You lord it over me and everybody here with your government job of giving me help, giving me ASSISTANCE, something that doesn't even belong to you. This isn't your money. What the hell do you care? 

Her jaw dropped. I kept going. DCFS Dirinda awoke a sleeping dragon who was hoping and lying in wait that she would one day find courage enough to rain down a fire and say exactly what she wanted to say.

And you know what? I am IN college. I'm not sitting at home doing NOTHING. I'm working to make something better of myself. I want my daughter to have nice things some day that I can buy her from a paycheck that I get from a job that I've earned. Right now I'm doing the best I know how. I don't want to live on welfare the rest of my life! This isn't a career for me! And I hope when I graduate that I get a job I like and can make money from that isn't as depressing and as shitty as YOUR job. Someday, I'm going to be better than you. You can't convince me anymore that you're better than I am. All those dreams I once had? GUESS WHAT, DIRINDA? I STILL HAVE THEM. 

My first manifesto was born that day and so was my voice. I started using it and telling people that I was worth something and so was my fatherless daughter. Shame is a tool people wield over you to conform to their standards. It helps them feel better and live their own dismal lives in the caste system they create. What did I have to be ashamed of then?

Nothing. Not then and not now. Say that thing you want to say to people. I was an 18 year old with a toddler on her hip when I learned to take a deep breath and just say it. How could the Dirindas of the world possibly react when I opened my mouth and demanded they treat me better? If the Dirindas don't want me talking about them now, then they should have treated me better, because I have a voice and a story about being a girl who people tossed aside, ignored, or tried their damnedest to shame.

It was the last of my teen years in the early 90s and I had a daughter to raise and dreams to fulfill. Shame was moving out and speaking my truth was who I was going to have to be.

People would still throw their tongue-clucking, head-shaking shame my way. But I was having none of that.

« Manifesto: Growl at the Bear | Main | An Unlikely Manifesto: Stories of Being a Girl »

Reader Comments (70)

This is an amazing post and I feel like, having known you on line as an ass-kicker already, I'm hearing your origin story. This in particular is resonating: "Shame is a tool people wield over you to conform to their standards. It helps them feel better and live their own dismal lives in the caste system they create. What did I have to be ashamed of then?"

So true!

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSizzle

Such an amazing post, and a powerful story. You are always able to connect to something g in me when I read your blog.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentersteve

I saw you on Oprah with your beautiful red dress and have been reading your blog since! You are such a strong and powerful woman! Thank you. This post was brilliant and I feel like i was right there with you in the room. Your writing is amazing and I look forward to reading your book.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMamaintheburbs

Wow this is a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteralison

I can remember, so clearly, going to the store with my mother and counting out the food stamps with her. And the shame she felt at having to use them. I didn't understand why she was ashamed, but I knew she was. I also knew that she worked her ass off to not need those food stamps any longer than absolutely necessary. And thank goodness for that help when we needed it, because there were no other options.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSherry Carr-Smith

I'm sure as Hell looking forward to that book of yours now.
Just sayin'.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClaire J

Love the new URL. I made the switch recently too!

Incredible story Kelly. So powerful. It's hard to tell people how we really feel, articulately and eloquently, but so important. I find it difficult to do it to people's faces, but if I am passionate enough I will write a letter afterwards, even to just sort out how I am feeling and make sure that I am not giving up my power. Did Dirinda give you the check that day? I hope so.

Speaking your truth is an awesome manifesto.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

What Claire said.

How much you gonna charge to have them signed?

Love you bunches, Kelly.
--Johann

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohann

I have been moved by your writing many times over, but today I had to comment. I, too, had that one real moment where I found my voice. That tipping point moment where I knew that I would never again be quiet when someone else attempted to make me feel ashamed (or sad, or guilty or a whole host of other projected feelings). So much of our power is in our voice and our ability to stand up for ourselves, the ones we love or the ones who can't speak for themselves.

You are such an inspiration and I, too, cannot wait to read your book...and really, just your next post!

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKelly

I love any glimpses into the life of my own Personal Oprah. I just adore you, Kel. You are the sunshine of my life.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterClaire J

Tee hee... you called me an "author."

All I can say is that I wish they made Blogs on Tape so I could listen to you read this. Not because I'm too lazy to read it myself... but because it would be even more amazing with your voice in my head.

They really should have Blogs on Tape.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave2

You. YOU. That post. Damn. Your writing. You. You are fierce and amazing and I am continually so in awe of you. Your posts, especially lately, leave me stunned and unable to articulate what I'm feeling. Just know how much I adore you. xoxo

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeannine

Thank god you found your voice.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Penning

I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of you--of you as the grown woman I've come to call "friend," of that 13-year old girl who took on more responsibility than she surely thought possible to manage, of that 18-year old young woman who claimed herself with that nasty Dirinda. Can't wait for your book!

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKjirsten

<stands>
<claps>

You motivate me.
Proud of you - for what that's worth.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

I'd like to call that Dirinda and thank her for being such a twat. Without her, you might never have had the courage to speak up. She is a thread in your tapestry.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeth

"If the Dirindas don't want me talking about them now, then they should have treated me better, because I have a voice and a story about being a girl who people tossed aside, ignored, or tried their damnedest to shame."

YOU DO have a voice ... and a story and I'm proud of you for sharing it!

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi

I mentioned earlier that I was still thinking about this long after I first read it. I've got three ... wisps...threads...half formed thoughts. The first is how many of us are silenced, have our speech choked off, are rendered mute by others or by our own fears. The second is how a oh-so-very-young mother one day pulled the hands from her throat and changed the future. The third is my ever mounting horror that so many in our country and around the world are still silenced, marginalized, and stripped of their dignity.

Hugs and thank you for saying that thing you wanted to say and sharing your story.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKaryn

You are an author, my friend. Thing is...you always were.

Exquisite.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMom101

Wow. Kudos. You rock.

I've never heard of you before and came across this because Liz Gumbinner shared it on Facebook (along with extreme accolades). She was right. This is tremendous.

Keep saying those things you want to say.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJanelle Sorensen

Dirinda confuses "your" and "you're" now on FaceBook rants, and everyone hates her.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfather muskrat

OMG. This post is so great. It made me cry. In a good way.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCecily

Brilliant. Beautiful. Powerful. You rock, my friend.

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLiza

Your words are so beautiful and powerful.. I want to read more!!

January 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTechMama

I never could do that, much as I wanted to. When I read how you gave Dirinda a piece of your mind, 1997-1999 Adrienne stood up and cheered. Thank you.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAdrienne

Kelly,
This is beautiful. AskMoxie sent me over and said you are amazing. I agree. I'm touched by the moment you found your voice, inspired by your strength and laughing out loud at the coaster breast pads. Thanks for sharing this.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWokie

I so found your next Bday gift: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/no-end-in-sight-very-best/id284531685

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Pepper

I have always been amazed by your ability to call bullshit on behavior that deserves it. Now I know where it comes from. Thank you, this was amazing!

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLisse

I know a bit of what you speak, but you have words that my mind barely knows what to do with because I am feeling so much.

The world needs to hear these words... Thank you for sharing them so incredibly.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

As always Kelly, so very well said. Thank you for sharing your talented writing voice so loud and clear.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJen C

Thing is, I love your voice . . . and the woman to whom it belongs. I believe in you. I'm glad you do too. With love, respect, and admiration, Rane

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRana DiOrio

Kelly, your writing is the gift that keeps on giving. Where our experiences overlap, it's like you're telling our story. Where they differ, you're showing me what I missed, or avoided, or was too caught up in stuff to notice. What ties it together is that I want to read it. In great hulking chunks, and in tiny, perfect fragments.

We all go through life. Some of us experience it. Some of us reflect on it. Some of us find enlightenment in the things we do to get through it. Some of us share that with others in ways that touch and inspire. You do it all.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Taylor

Oh man. I would have loved to see you read Dirinda the riot act. It must have been a thing of beauty. You're the best.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBeta Dad

Wow. Just wow. Thank you for sharing this. I'm so glad you found your voice.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNicole P.

I wish I could articulate into words how much this entry shifted something within my core, Kelly. I always learn something from reading your blog posts, but this time was different. This time I feel...lifted.

Thank you for doing what you do. :)

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

What a powerful post. Thank you so much for sharing it.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKorinthia

Your voice is loud. Clear. Throught-provoking. Brave.

Thank you.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterThe Culture Mom

Wow. This took my breath away.

I love that you used your voice, showed your daughter how, and are telling all of us how to as well.

{All I have left is "wow," again. How's that for eloquent?}

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGalit Breen

This is an incredible piece and also happens to be what I needed to read right now. Crying and applauding at the same time. You are such an inspiration.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrian

I do not know how one gets this kind courage. I don't have it. Maybe because my story is so shameful...shame-filled that I can't bear it.

I was with you in this story...every step. I am with you.

I imagine what Mary... the mother of Christ must have endured. Telling her story of how God sent an angel to tell her she would carry the light of the world. You have lived the scorn. And Joseph standing in the gap...also called to be with Mary (unlike the boy he ran away from you). Your story reminds me of how we label so quickly. How we throw away people so easily. How we choose fear over love.

Your story ought to be shared with young people all across America. Every young person ought to create a manifesto. Yes.

You have again inspired me. Thank you. For every young woman I see totting a baby on her hip I will see you and your brilliance and I will want that for her... pray that for her.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLovebabz

As my son turns 20 this year I could have written almost every detail you shared of those feelings at the very beginning of his life while I was a teenage mom doing to college too. They were tough, especially when you choose to do it differently. I do believe that the people who you encounter influence who you become. You've become such a strong and confident parent with the individuals you experienced in life. Thanks for sharing your manifesto of 2013... it's made me ponder why I haven't done that sooner.

Kelly, this is wonderful. And inspiring. You are a fighter and have been for as long as I've known you- and by sharing your courage, you're helping other women believe that they can fight for themselves and for their families, too. Bravo.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

I have nothing really to say but I felt compelled to leave a comment to just show you that there is another person out here whom you have touched with your words. Thank you for sharing them with us.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCristie

Beautiful.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKatherine Stone

I think this is the intro to your TED talk that goes viral. The one that everyone thinks they'll watch for 1:30 and end up riveted through 20 minutes.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnn

Kelly,

I love your voice. And your story. My story is different from yours, but as a single mom for 16 years, much of it resonated very much. And you and I both know one thing: there's not one effing thing we can't do if we set our minds to it. Not one.

Bravo, my friend. Bravo. Love you and love the route your newest adventure is already taking you!

Shelly

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShelly Kramer

Amazing, amazing post. And you're an incredible writer. And this story will hopefully be what it takes to get some of us to speak up when we should.
Thank you.

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLoukia

Brava! You are so lucky to have found your voice - so glad you used it when you did! Congratulations and way to go!!!

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDC

Shame on them....Beautiful post...

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDee Brun

Well played!!

January 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDarth Continent

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