By Lisa Bennett, NOW Communications Director
As I’ve been helping my retired mother prepare to move closer to me, it occurs to me just how much her life illustrates the relevance of key feminist issues — such as women’s economic security, their ability to juggle work and family responsibilities and their access to adequate, affordable health care. For more than a decade, I’ve been writing about issues like Social Security, pay equity and caregiving, and as I look closer at my mother’s history, the importance of NOW’s work on these issues becomes clearer than ever.
My mother was not married when she became pregnant with me. The man that my mother was seeing denied being the father (this was long before DNA tests). He even had the nerve to suggest that maybe the real father was her boss — she had confided in my father that this boss was sexually harassing her (though there wasn’t a term for it at the time). My mother never got a penny in child support or any kind of assistance from my “father.”
Because my mother didn’t have a college education or a good paying job, and she had a child to raise, she lived much of her adult life with her parents. My grandfather had a stroke when I was very young, so it became important that my mother remain at home to help care for him.
My mother suffered from depression and anxiety throughout her life. She was never adequately treated for this — why exactly, I’m not sure, but I can make an educated guess. She was busy taking care of me and my grandparents and working, and I don’t think she had very good health insurance. This lack of attention to her mental health affected my mother’s ability to care for herself, to try to pursue more challenging (and better paying) jobs. We never seemed to have enough money, so my mother unwisely depended on credit cards to buy the things she couldn’t afford. My grandfather eventually needed to be cared for in a nursing home, which added greatly to our expenses. My two uncles helped out some, but the day-to-day pressure was always on my mom.
When I was about 15, not long after my grandfather passed away, my mother went into a deep depression. She didn’t work for a year and rarely came out of her bedroom. This was a scary experience for me. As I was applying for college loans and financial aid, this was the period that went on all the applications. I admit that I was ashamed that these applications showed that my mother had not been bringing in any income and that my father was completely absent.
In the time since then, my mother had to claim bankruptcy once and more recently had to consolidate her debt and give up credit cards for good. My mother is 70 now, and she receives a pathetically small monthly income from Social Security — due to a lifetime of low-wage jobs, being out of the workforce for several extended periods, and working for a number of years as a live-in nanny for families who wanted to pay her off the books. She has no pension, no 401k, no investments, no property, no savings. Finding her a safe, affordable place to live near me is proving to be a challenge. Even with Medicare, her prescriptions and doctors’ bills make her monthly expenses a constant juggling act. Without our society’s imperfect but essential safety net my mother would be in much worse shape.
My mother lived her life the best she could, but she didn’t make much money and she was a single mom and that makes her retirement years that much more difficult. It is in her honor that I continue to work for women’s rights. With more educational opportunities, better paying jobs, enforced child support, improved child care options, sufficient health care, and additional policies designed to help women balance work and family, hopefully fewer women will find themselves in my mother’s situation.