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“You need to move closer to your family and never leave them again.” I still don’t know whether the property manager was being shady or honest, whether she was backhanding me out of frustration at my inability to budget well enough to pay rent or sharing wisdom she’d won the hard way about trying to escape the people you most need.
I left Louisville fifteen years ago to escape the reach of my mother’s swinging belt. I told myself I’d never return to live, even if that meant limiting contact with my other family members who’d loved me best they could in those terrible teenage years. I missed my father’s last years staying true to my promise to myself and here I was, here I am, home again. Begging favors. Needing help. Leaning on a momma who long ago put down her belt.
In those last months in Baltimore, I’d lost my mind. I’d taken a job at a rich private school that didn’t pay me enough to afford the rich private preschools they suggested for my daughter. I’d chosen an apartment out of my budget to live closer to the administrator who eventually felt embarrassed, betrayed by my inability to play nice with spoiled students who called her by her first name. Baltimore was a haze of eviction notices, disciplinary meetings, and weed. Copious amounts of smoke settled into the clothes I’d strewn about my apartment as if to illustrate my giving up. My being overwhelmed. My failure to “build community” while grieving my father, learning a new job, raising a child, and getting used to a city whose inhabitants were always wondering how a person could leave a city like Atlanta for a city like Baltimore.
I should never have left Atlanta. It was a city people dream about. I had friends. I had arts. I had access to the resources at my university. I had enough connections to gain meaningful employment. I had depression. And the latter made all the former nearly invisible, shrunk their magnitude like a funhouse mirror, made it seem like the whole city was on fire and Baltimore had the only hydrant. A brain with depleted levels of serotonin does strange things. It makes an ex-girlfriend look like the only person who could ever have loved you, the last person who ever will. It makes the acquaintances she dates without regard to your feelings about it seem like close friends who’d stabbed you in the back. It throws around phrases like “stabbed you in the back” to describe pain that a person with enough serotonin would register at papercut level. Stinging, unfortunate, ignorable.
I felt like I had to leave. The professionals I’ve since seen call it a lack of coping skills. My friends called it short-sighted. Some spiritualist might call it fate. The Buddhist woman who is trying to recruit me calls it self-designed suffering. I call it fucked up.
Every day since my father died has been at least a little fucked up. There is no such thing as a non-fucked up day when you are a Daddy’s girl without a father. The world doesn’t feel safe anymore and to say that is to admit to being crazy, under-medicated, out of touch with reality, too hung up on the past, or “without good insight.”
Baltimore’s was the second welfare office I’d visited. The first was in Atlanta where I’d tried to access Medicaid for my daughter when I decided to continue a pregnancy that all the people who loved me said was ill-timed. There is no good time to be broke and a mother, but that’s another story. The third welfare office I’ve visited is in Louisville, KY, just minutes away from my mother’s house. This office has been the cruelest, causing my pre-existing serotonin deficiency to turn everything gray.
Maybe the property manager was saying that broke mothers need family most. Maybe she lived that reality. Maybe she’d also wanted to leave her birth city, but had thought of her first child as an anchor to a place she didn’t want to be. Maybe she’d been close to eviction without a plan B. Maybe she’d been a piss-poor budgeter with a penchant for shopping at thrift stores. In those Baltimore days, I didn’t even see the inside of a mall, but I spent chunks of change at Goodwill on things that in hindsight, I could have done without. Maybe she saw me in herself or herself in me or maybe she was just being mean. “And don’t ever leave.” A warning. A curse. A thing I obey because what I remember most about my mother’s belt is that stepping out of line is painful. Maybe I live in my hometown because I am still afraid of life’s leather sting.
This is what I know now, serotonin deficiency notwithstanding: I survived the lash once and I can do it again. I am doing it. Mine is the story of a bulldozed first plan, a razed second one, and a fledgling third. Mine is the story of a margin momma sharing the journey as she finds her way home.
Mama Outsider is a series about single motherhood at the margin. It’s about queer parenting that doesn’t fit the gay-married, donor-pregnant perceived norm, race and class, and learning to find love in the dark.