How personal trauma helped me connect with families 

I am a white woman from a middle class family living in a suburb of Seattle (one of the most beautiful and welcoming cities in the world). To say I was a privileged child, is an understatement- I had an ideal upbringing and I knew everyday how lucky I was. My parents never missed an athletic event, my school lunches were admired by my peers, I was a cheerleader and an honors student. My childhood was nearly perfect. 
With this narrow perspective, I often judged other kids/families. Why did other kids smell? How come their hair wasn’t always “done”? Why were their parents not working? How come they didn’t bring their child to school everyday? I assumed families needed to work harder and get an education and everything would be solved. This sort of mentality was abrupt, rigid and righteous. 
Moving forward into my career as a teacher, I piled on the homework early-on in my tenure. I didn’t understand why families couldn’t fund the at-home project or spend 10 hours preparing a presentation. To me, (at the time) families should be able to commit to at least an hour of homework a night-show up to curriculum nights and make sure their student was prepared with the proper materials. With this mentality, I continued to evaluate, judge and blame.
But as life goes- the longer you live the more likely you are to encounter unexpected events that humble your soul. At the age of 30, I decided to file for divorce. A mom of two children, 2 and 3, I was a part-time educator bringing in $1600.00 a month. With little money, my kids and I moved in with my parents because we couldn’t afford to live on our own and my emotional state was wavering under the stress. I was in a state of survival. Luxury to me suddenly meant my Friday Taco Time visits of an ice water and the bean-cheese and rice cup (plus a free bag of chips). It totaled $1.47. My friends let me stay at their houses as I was transitioning jobs. They took me out and paid for nice meals. Looking back- I don’t even remember much of this time period. I do though remember getting in a car accident because my kids were screaming in the back seat and I looked over my shoulder to tell them to stop. I was “that mom”… the one who looks like a mess and in fact is. The one that for all of those years, I had judged. “Can’t she just work harder and pull it together.” 
And so- life ebbed and flowed and within a year I started to embrace my new normal: divorced – single mom. It was a challenge to accept this. I knew that some would look to me as if I had failed (shoot- I thought of myself as a failure). Though my life rebounded- my emotions were deep with hurt and pain.  
I always wondered where/if my story would help me. How could I use my experience to help others? The greatest blessing has been that my story has connected me to so many people. Helped me to gain a greater understanding and evolve my definition of families. 
I remember a few years back- in an IEP meeting with a mom who was struggling, I had a break through. Resistant to accept help, she first avoided the meeting. I remember thinking- I could say something to help here. So after we convinced her to come to the school- I spoke up in the middle of the meeting. I said…”I am a single mom too. I know how hard this is. This isn’t your fault. Let us help.” She started crying- but then she made eye contact and I knew we both understood each other and had a similar pain.  At that moment, I knew that we, as single moms, were much more alike than we were different.  We had similar concerns, worries, fears and anxieties. And- we both cared for our children immensely. 
These stories keep coming. Just yesterday I told another mom who is currently experiencing many life challenges – “we love your son. We care for your son. We believe in your son. And we also care about your family and you.” She smiled and said thank you and asked if she could send me photos of their family this summer.
Now, when a parent walks in, I make sure to welcome them and try to understand rather than judge who they are no matter the circumstance. Often the defensive stance can be reduced simply by telling them you care for them and their student. Just like our students, our families need to know that we believe in them. They also need to understand that our care for their student and them is unconditional. 
Through my own personal trauma I now no longer believe in traditional homework or at-home projects that take kids away from their family time or rely on the assumption that all families can spend money to create the over-the-top project. I am understanding and sensitive to the reality that sometimes just showing up to school is the success of the day. I now know that each parent, in their own way, is trying their best to raise their child.  
In addition to giving other families grace, I am learning to embrace my own imperfections. My story isn’t perfect- instead it is real and honest. I still have days that look like complete disasters- and I too need a community of people to raise my children. I am now thankful that I can be a part of the supportive village for so many other families just like I count on others to be there for me. In the end, my own personal trauma has connected me to so many others. Yes- I would take back divorce if I could but I wouldn’t take back my evolved understand of families and my ability to relate/connect with them that has come from this traumatic life event. 

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