I sat in the dark room of a battered women’s shelter in Omaha, Nebraska, surrounded by my three daughters aged 9, 7, and 5 while holding my 16 month old daughter. I had driven nearly 24 hours from New Mexico. I was stunned, numb, scared, overwhelmed, and crying as my daughters watched. How did I get here? This was not supposed to be my life. The reasons of how I got here raced through my mind. I was filled with self-loathing. The sullen and frightened eyes of my daughters pulled me out of the “poor me” thoughts and into the now.
I had four daughters to take care of. I couldn’t mourn the me I was supposed to be. I had to fight for my girls to have it better than I had. I considered the choices that brought me to this moment in the dark room in this new city after running away from … Running away from the American Dream of a husband, wife, kids, a roof over our heads, security, stagnation, oppression, the theft of my potential, the loss of the me I wanted to be.
Why should my story be included with the stories of women sharing their struggles in the realm of reproductive rights? I had the marriage and the kids. Abortion was never a consideration. I was a 20 year old newlywed. My husband was in the US Air Force. I had two years of college under my belt towards my degree in radio/television. My dreams of being a radio DJ, travelling the world, and being in the military were about to come true. I enlisted in the USAF and was selected to be a broadcaster for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service like Robin Williams’ character in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” All I had to do was wait from October to January then report to basic training in Texas. I had it all! Or so I thought.
My new husband who was supportive suddenly became concerned that I would be a success and “forget all about him.” Well, I always wanted a baby, I told him. We could try for one month. One month was the soonest I could see the Dr. and obtain birth control. I just had to make through October. At the end of October the Dr. wanted to make sure I wasn’t already pregnant before starting me on birth control. The morning of Nov 7th, my twenty-first birthday, I was awoken by a call from the nurse congratulating me on my pregnancy. This is what I wanted, right?
One child became two, became three in a manner of five years. I still fought for my dreams. I was back in school. I was a part time DJ at a local radio station. I was also battling depression. I was keeping up the façade of the American Dream happy family. Yet even after three kids, my husband remained worried that I didn’t need him. In the fights leading up to the death of our marriage I told him that I had goals and needed to pursue them, he answered, “Don’t I provide enough for you?” I stopped, stunned. Those words echoed in my head. It’s not about his ability to provide. It’s about being the me I’m supposed to be. Looking back I understand the control men feel they have when women are kept barefoot and pregnant. Was his choice for me to have kids designed to keep me in the marriage? I left him so I could be the me I was supposed to be. Nothing prepared me for what happened next.
Single mom, three kids: While discussing child support, my divorce lawyer said to me, “You’re going to be on TANF anyway.” TANF? I hadn’t heard the term before. It stands for Temporary Aid for Needy Families. Most people call it welfare. Once home, I explained to the father of our kids that we qualified for food stamps, public housing, and other programs. He said, “Sounds like you’re doing pretty good then.” The me I was supposed to be took that comment as a slap on the face. How dare my soon to be ex-husband? How dare that lawyer? The thinking that single moms are welfare queens seems to be a forgone conclusion. I made the choice with my husband to have my children. Why am I suddenly cast as a welfare queen? This was not the me I was supposed to be.
Single moms with kids are a prime target for abusive men. Single moms should feel grateful for the attention. Enter the abuser. Birth control is only so effective. Enter daughter number four. Enter escalation of the abuse and control. Exit me and my now four girls. I owed it to them to escape. I owed it to them to drive nearly twenty four hours from New Mexico to Omaha with a daughter on crutches, a toddler, a surprise April blizzard, to a women’s shelter in a city where we knew no one knew us. A place to find the me I was supposed to be.
My girls and I struggled. There were times the only food they got was the free breakfast and lunch supplied by school. School, jobs, home, an undiagnosed illness, I faced these things head on because I owed it to my daughters. The me I was supposed to be didn’t have a choice.
I still wrestle with the stigma of being a single mother. I wanted my girls. I wanted my dreams. I want my girls to fulfill their dreams. I should never have had to make a choice between my dreams or caring for my children. No woman should. Pro-choice means so much more than reproductive rights. Having choice means having the ability to be the you you are supposed to be. I never chose to be abused, impoverished, and stigmatized. This is why my story belongs here, because we deserve to choose who we want to be.
Pamela Kelly is a mother, grandmother, IT geek, podcaster, radio personality, and Pagan. She is disabled, an activist, traveler, Third Wave feminist and so much more in no particular order. She believes sharing stories creates community.