Nature has a way of tethering children to the heart of a mother. Every day mothers all over the world drag themselves away from their dreams and out of bed to veil an attitude that exudes confidence. Motherhood demands engagement in an odd dance of negotiation with offspring, extended family and community that all have expectations of whom she is, what she should do and more importantly how she should do it.
I don’t doubt that fathers love their children and that many are exceptional parents, but the bar is agreeably lower for dads. Even those that show up periodically with diapers and smiles get lots of undeserved parenting credit. Unfortunately, no credit is given to mothers for keeping the shitty parts of parenting at shoe level. Mothers especially those that are poor and single are expected to wade through turmoil, suffering and anxiety while looking grateful and chaste. These poor mothers have the added burden of being subject to reprehensible policy decisions that often push their fragile families even closer to the fringes of sustainability. We love children in our society so long as we don’t have to finance their care or engineer their futures.
Recently, a young mother in upstate New York made an unspeakable choice to gather her babies into a minivan and drive off a boat dock into the Hudson River. Her name was LaShanda Armstrong and she became a mother when she was 15 years old. She should be remembered beyond the night she made a choice that changed everything. The night she died she experienced an emotional storm that probably left her throbbing with a pain she that could no longer reach or avoid facing. She was a mother fleeing a domestic dispute that reportedly involved “tumbling around” with an abusive paramour.
LaShanda’s choice cut through my heart and I thought about the many moments I’ve been at the mothering tipping point only to be saved by an overpriced cup of coffee, dinner with friends or a quick “mani-pedi.” I like many middle class moms can buy a little bit of happiness on a stressful day. I scrolled online at pictures of her bright smile, her home, and her babies and decided that LaShanda deserved a proper public eulogy. Apart from vilifying LaShanda and labeling her as selfish, no one has slowly, sympathetically picked apart the scarce details that have emerged about her life before the drive into the Hudson River. I will try….
LaShanda’s story is more than its tragic end. She loved her children, seemed fiercely independent and was a good neighbor. Yet LaShanda will be an ignored footnote of feminist mythology where “having it all” is an unaffordable, elusive irony for poor women. Poor women, in fact, have it all – the burden of their own aspirations, work and kids and they answer to many systems.
LaShanda was a woman desperately trying to juggle it all in a swirl of loss and an erosion of hope. What woman doesn’t melt for an alluring smile and possibility of unlimited joy? It’s human nature to submit to chance. But Boogie-men don’t glow. And as much I’d like to see it invented there is no digital display that scrolls across the forehead of your soon-to-be nightmare.
So, piecing together parts of LaShanda’s life it’s clear that hope doesn’t always stand a chance against reality. LaShanda was dying long before that night. She was raising four plump, happy children with limited means. People called her paranoid. She was the subject of gossip. A woman that carried on a relationship with her estranged paramour during her last pregnancy sadistically befriended her. LaShanda poured out her pain in her diary and sought refuge through Facebook posts. No one was there to soften the darkness that her haunted.
I’m sure she panicked when she watched the news and heard about the severe cuts to programs that support women and their children. I’m sure she worried about childcare and how she would be able to afford it so that she could work and provide for her children. I’m sure she worried about the skyrocketing housing costs that leave families vulnerable to homelessness. I’m sure she worried about where her children would attend school and what the world would offer them.
There was no vigil for LaShanda, at best clusters of black women created a makeshift memorial tossing flowers and teddy bears into the Hudson to remember. But, I am going to give LaShanda back to herself. I am going to imagine that she loved laughter, fresh flowers and dancing on that dock near her home and overlooked the Hudson. Her favorite color was Robin’s egg blue and she liked buttered popcorn with good wine. She enjoyed cuddling against the warmth of a lover during the rain. She recited poetry and read Shel Silverstein to her babies as they lined the couch for a bedtime story. She had friends. She was a friend. She needed friends. I’m sure that we’ve all had our own minivan moments. I confess that when I’m on the brink of despair it is difficult to anchor myself in reality. I know what it’s like to have all that you believe in violently erode around you. In many ways, despite some differences, she was me.
Written by Benita Miller – Founder and Executive Director of The Brooklyn Young Mothers’ Collective