Stories of determination and grit, anguish and heartbreak, love and disappointment are found in three memoirs of single parenthood — Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story; Innocent, Confessions of a Welfare Mother; and Dear Self: A Year in the Life of a Welfare Mother. In 1979, seventeen-year-old Judith Dickerman-Nelson had a baby. She wrote about the experience nearly thirty years later, using the voice of her teenage self.
Barbara Morrison went on welfare in 1974 to help support her two children and wrote about it last year after a successful career as a systems engineer. Richelene Mitchell had seven children to support after she left a husband who mistreated her. She kept a journal in 1973, published by her son in 2007, more than thirty years after her death.
In Dear Self, thirty-nine-year-old Richelene Mitchell records the daily frustrations, joys, tedium and triumphs of her New Britain, Connecticut life. She and her children live in public housing. The heat in her apartment doesn’t work, transportation is spotty and the family is without a car, so even getting groceries is a challenge. Food stamps and a monthly check from the welfare department are the only source of income and support, except when the author finds occasional part-time work. Mitchell doesn’t want to take money from the state but needs to make sure her children have a parent at home to guide them. She resists small and demeaning jobs until she finally decides that she must take one to supplement her welfare check. But the work is tedious and frustrating and she longs to be back home. Her journal is full of the small joys she finds being with family and friends, reading popular novels and bowling. It also is filled with Mitchell’s anguish at accepting public assistance and anger at the racism she experiences. She is an articulate writer, a woman with a big heart and big yearning. The daughter of Georgia sharecroppers, Mitchell died in 1975 at the age of 42 of an aneurysm that may have been a complication of the epilepsy that made her life even harder.
Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother is the story of Barbara Morrisons’s struggle to raise her two sons without their father in the 1970s. The eldest daughter of six children of an upper-middle-class family, Morrison is estranged from her parents and her husband and spends two years on welfare in Worcester, Massachusetts after attending college there. She writes of her struggles to find a decent place to live, create a network of support, find a little work, do a little gardening and find some joy in life. She takes up morris dancing, a type of English folk dance, to escape for brief periods from her never-ending struggle. When her mother asks her to help sell the family house, she is able to return to her hometown and live with her parents while she works on a teaching certificate. Later she finds engineering a more profitable career. Morrison’s book has an undertone of dismay and heartbreak but it also clearly conveys her ability to make the best of her situation and find her own strengths.
Believe in Me: A Teen Mom’s Story chronicles the struggles of seventeen-year-old Judith Dickerman-Nelson, a Catholic high school student. Her boyfriend led her to believe he wanted to marry her when the two found out she was pregnant and then changed his mind at the urging of his parents. Dickerman-Nelson was adopted as a baby and was adamant about not giving up her own child. Because the author’s voice is true to her youthful self, the book contains no mature reflection and not much bitterness but plenty of bewilderment. Dickerman-Nelson has fictionalized parts of the book to protect others, but the emotions of her teenage self are genuine. She is a girl who thought she knew where she was going in life until her pregnancy, and then dreamed of being part of a little family. This dream was cruelly shattered.
These stories chronicle difficulties of single mothers in the 1970s and 1980s. The authors’ strengths — love for their children, ingenuity and a willingness to do whatever it takes to protect their families – remind us of how difficult life for single mothers could be.