Published on January 2nd, 2019 | by Kezia Willingham0
How I Became a Breadwinning Laundry Queen
“Welfare queen” is a derogatory term used in the U.S. to refer to divorced, unmarried, or widowed women who allegedly misuse or collect excessive welfare payments through fraud, child endangerment, or manipulation. Reporting on welfare fraud began during the early 1960s, appearing in general-interest magazines such as Readers Digest. The term “welfare queen” originates from media reporting in 1974.
According to Wikipedia, the term “welfare queen” originated in the year of my birth. I couldn’t have known at the time that the term would have a special influence on my adult development. As fate would have it, I became a single mother on welfare in 1997, the year after welfare reform went into effect, ending AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) grants and imposing five year limits on cash assistance from TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).
When I think of the term welfare queen, the glamorous, indulgent image that Reagan touted is the one that comes to mind, but when you are living on welfare, life is anything but crowns and Cadillacs. My life was not colorful, exciting, or fraudulent. Rather, it was simple, very simple. Also, like most welfare recipients, I am white. While social conservatives like to paint a mostly brown picture of those who receive public assistance, the majority of those I knew personally were poor white single mothers like myself.
When I gave birth to my daughter, the only degree I had was a GED. I was enrolled in college when I became pregnant, but due to the trauma of the failed relationship with my daughter’s father and the fact that I was a single mom without financial resources, I took a break from college to focus on becoming a mother. At the time, I really had no idea what I was doing.
While I may not have known what it would be like to be a mother, I did know I wanted to be a good one. As a pregnant twenty-two year old, I had high hopes of becoming a great mom despite my inherited legacy of poverty, domestic violence, familial estrangement, mental illness, and addiction.
I suppose much of my aspiration toward becoming a great mother was born out of being told that I couldn’t. I was on the most privileged end of the poverty continuum, but because I was unmarried, young, and poor, the middle class people I knew decided it would be impossible for me to attain my goal. This fueled my desire to prove everyone wrong. The flame was fanned by the popular public opinion at the time, which stated that single mothers were basically the epitome of moral and social failure. To have a child out of wedlock placed me pretty low on the social scale, at least by conventional standards.
People were really good at telling me all the things I had going wrong for me.
Rather than give in to their pessimistic beliefs, I instead tried to focus on what I did have. I loved to read. I was interested in revolutionary thinkers and artists and creators. I liked music and new ideas. Plus I was a dreamer, which I suspect had a lot to do with how much time I spent living in my imagination as a child. Between books and paper, I was reading or drawing much of the time, or outside acting out fantasies such as Princess Leia and Rocky. In my fantasies, I could escape the fact that my dad, a cop, used to beat my mom. I could pretend that my mother’s mental illness didn’t define my life. I could imagine that I was going to be a famous fashion designer or artist or whatever it was I saw on TV that looked fun or interesting. My imagination filled in the gaping holes left in the absence of love, family, money, and attention.
So I suppose the seeds of possibility were planted in my childish imagination, because, for as long as I can remember, I desired to be more than the circumstances I was born into. Fortunately my childhood love of books helped me connect with authors such as Maya Angelou, writers who achieved success as single mothers. Reading about other women who defied the odds filled me with determination to do the same in my own life. This vision would be the buoy that kept me afloat as I faced criticism in my path as a mother.
When I was on welfare, I was also on housing assistance, WIC, food stamps, and childcare assistance. Because of this, I was able to live in a modest apartment while I worked part-time and cared for my baby. I appreciated that opportunity and did not take it for granted. I knew how hard decent, affordable housing was to find, and one of my biggest fears as a mother was becoming homeless. I wanted nothing more than to find a way to support my child as she grew through life. Stripping was the only way I could think of to make fast money, but I had no desire to do so, nor was there childcare available at nights in the community where I was living. So I decided I wanted to finish my college degree.
Making the choice to go back to college was met with more criticism, much like when I shared the news of my pregnancy. “How are you going to raise a child and complete college all at the same time?” was a common question that I was asked. I’ll never forget the day I hauled my eighteen-month-old daughter up the stairs of the College of Economics to go meet with my new advisor. Instead of encouragement, she asked the same question. I didn’t need people to question me; I wanted them to tell me I could do it, not that it was impossible.
Luckily, I was admitted to Oregon State University through the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP), which provided first-generation, low-income college students with academic support as we pursued our formal education. It was an affirmative action program that changed lives by encouraging us when nobody else did. We received advisors, access to a computer lab, and tutoring assistance to help us succeed.
While I started my parenting journey as a poor single mother on welfare and former high school dropout, I finished as a highly educated homeowner employed full time by a major urban school district. I had transformed my title from welfare queen to Breadwinning Laundry Queen. I’d graduated from being a welfare queen to paying all the bills (that I could afford to pay) with money that I earned during my forty-hour work weeks. My name was on the title to my house. I got up at five in the morning and went to the gym before I raced off to work every weekday. I was a success! I was even married to the father of my second child for five years. By general social standards, I was finally deemed acceptable.
As a mom who worked full time to support the family, I also did lots of laundry and spent as much time as I could with my kids when I was not at work. Being a breadwinning laundry queen is not as glamorous as it may sound.
Eventually my husband left me, but that was more of a blessing than a curse because we didn’t truly love each other. We desperately clung to one another in order to survive and try to be present in our collective children’s lives, but the truth was that it was a marriage based on fear more than anything else, for the simple reason that I wanted my son to have a father. Whether I took that chance out of stupidity or courage doesn’t really matter. The end result was that with my second child, I had been married and employed and purchased a home. I was now the Breadwinning Laundry Queen, not the welfare queen, so I was socially acceptable in my thirties.
Now that I am in my forties, I can see that I liked being perceived as socially acceptable – a success story, even. But in my effort to fit in to the American dream, I realized that it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. I found it extremely challenging to fit in with my coworkers in management. None of the others came from the same socioeconomic background as I did. I learned that they were not smarter than I was, or more moral people, only that their circumstances had been more privileged than my own. The more time I spent around people of a higher social class than mine, I was able to see that we essentially live in a social class caste system here in the United States.
It sickens me that we live in a country that views single parents and poor people just trying to survive as criminals lacking morals. The truth is, the only thing we lacked were power, family, and resources.
In the end, life is just life. There is struggle and reward. There are cycles of growth and decay. We try to bloom where we are planted. Some of us wilt and die while others thrive. There are no simple answers to complex questions. People with money are in no way superior to those without, period. We all deserve a chance. All of us fail and all of us win. But the world is a kinder place when we provide people with opportunities and resources to better themselves. And to all the other Breadwinning Laundry Queens out there, my proverbial hat is off to you, because I know there are millions of us out here supporting our children and running our families simultaneously without help. We are doing the best with what we have to teach our children powerful lessons of survival, as unglamorous as it all may be.