It’s the brother taking care of his siblings while their single mother works. It’s the girl without a mother who’s mothering her brother, while no one mothers her.
These miniature adults are often raised in single parent homes, though not always. They’re the kids in school that are spaced out because they haven’t had enough food or sleep. They’re smart but get bad grades, responsible but forget their homework, and though they have good hearts, are often judged as troublemakers.
These kids aren’t like the others. They relate more to adults than other kids, often. They rise or fall based on their decisions.
If they turn in an assignment, it’s their work that gets them a B-. No one’s checking or proofing their notebooks. There are no story tale readings before bed; often there are few books, if any, in their homes.
And school and getting an education is the least of their concerns. Their shelter could be taken away any day. When they get home, there will not be enough food for dinner, and these pint size parents know their siblings will be hungry. They carry the weight of this burden and at the same time feel their stomach eating itself inside out.
Anxiety comes standard with instability.
When basic needs aren’t met consistently, the human body goes into overdrive. If you don’t believe me, read this.
Every body and everybody is vulnerable, meaning we’re all needy for the basics in life: food, shelter, clothing, love. It’s a shame I have to add this last one, but I’ve come to believe it’s the most important of all the categories, and the most overlooked.
So many children feel unwanted, like they’re a waste of time, a mouth to feed, a whine to put up with, when all they really want is time. They want to throw a ball, take a walk, go on a family trip, and this isn’t a reality for them.
Recently I went into speech mode with a teenager, saying if she wanted the better things in life, she’d have to learn to do the right thing even when others are doing the wrong thing. In this instance, my words were related to her teasing another little kid, but this girl’s had a lot of wrong going on all around her.
Now this girl is also whip smart, but doesn’t believe it. People follow her, but she doesn’t get that. She dreams of living in a brick home in one of those manicured neighborhoods, and she said, “That’s not true, Miss Katie, rich people are snobby, they don’t do right (speaking of the people she aspires to be like someday).”
Touche, tiny adult. I was stuck, didn’t have an answer. Some rich people are snobs. I gained my composure and returned with a sentiment that I would like to believe; that those who do right even when others do wrong will succeed in this life, if not monetarily, then they will in relationships.
If we give love, even when others hate, we are bound to get love, but it’s not always a 1+1=2 equation, which is why I don’t believe in karma.
Finding the Nurturing We Need To Grow
This same young adult wanted to know what my childhood was like and she asked “What were you like as a teen?” She wants to know how I made it out, how I have this family, and this home. How I have this love. We have some things in common, she and I, and she wants to know my path. I hesitated to answer.
Like her and the generations of women before her, I know what it’s like to feel insecure, to not know where my next meal or dollar’s coming from, to have to turn in rolls of change to make rent. I experienced it as a young adult on my own and when I was a young child (though I don’t remember ever thinking we were poor).
It can be painful to go backward, but if going back in time helps someone move forward, it’s worth it to share our stories.
My own experience with what would be considered poverty was short lived. It was one Kmart Christmas, three apartments and two rooms in people’s homes, a string of babysitters, and only later in life did I see the insecurity of our family’s circumstances.
There was one day when our fridge was empty but for a few condiments and something rotten, while inside the freezer was one package of Popsicles. At the age of five, this was a win, dessert for dinner, but for my mother this was a fail. I didn’t know enough to understand an empty fridge and pantry meant no breakfast in the morning, or that we were days away from breaking our lease and moving in with even more vulnerable relatives.
The Very Worst Thing Can Be the Best Thing
My most influential memory, the one I carried with me for the better part of my life, is of me hiding behind my mother’s leg when people were around, and then having no leg to hide behind. With a few exceptions in my early years, I think I was a very shy child.
And I felt thrust upon my dad, like a curve ball he wasn’t ready for yet. After custody changed, and more than once, I packed an insufficient suitcase and said I was leaving dad to go back to mom. She lived two thousand miles away.
In the early days of missing her, I kicked doors, cried for long spans of time, and acted out in disrespect. I’m sure my dad felt like that curve ball hit him in the face more than a few times because of me. I was right there with him.
After watching the movie An American Tale: Fievel Goes West, I remember looking at the stars and wishing my mom was looking at the same ones and singing, “Somewhere out there underneath those same bright stars…” I mean like night after night after night.
Fast forward to now and getting out from behind my mother’s leg was the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s how I made my first friend (who I talked to on the phone two days ago) and it’s how I developed enough swagger to be on a dance troupe, play on the softball team, and be a cheerleader for the basketball team.
Sometimes It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better
My seventh grade year, we moved from that state, from our school, from our friends, and into a new environment, yet again. It was middle school for me- the above average awkward years. From 1992 to 1999, it was a slow and steady drop in self-esteem. There are all kinds of insecurities and not all of them are related to the basics of food, shelter, and clothing.
My brother became sick. We were in a new place, new school, new friends, and a member of my family was missing. He would be hospitalized for one year. My focus wasn’t on school. It was on him. It would remain this way until 2003.
But what I learned through this time was that I could do nothing for him by worrying. I stayed in school, got a job, continued this recipe of hard work and education, and eventually was in a place to help others. It was drudgery sometimes, but I stuck with it.
And if I could tell Kid Parents anything, it would be this: You are loved, not only by your parents and siblings, but also by many others who see your pain and know your struggle. So much is out of your control now, and you look to others to make things right for you. I know because I did this. I put so many people on pedestals and wanted to be just like them when I grew up. The problem is all the people we look up to are just like us, and if we place them too high, they will one day fall on our heads.
One day you will be in the place you desire, and when you get there, remember all of the children are our children, especially the vulnerable, lift them up when you see them.
If you were a Kid Parent, and would like to add your story in the comments, I know that would encourage me and others. If you’re a Kid Parent now, my ears are open.