Living as part of a marginalized group is fraught with many struggles and pain—a position that is not typically seen as desirable. However, there are some who argue that living in the margins has given them the gift of tolerance, resilience, courage, and leniency toward others. The marginalized other is often invisible, with no voice, no representation, no advocates, no rights, and no power—or so it seems. But on closer examination, it appears that those who are not seen are often those who see, feel, and react to injustice with a powerful force.
Betsy was one of those unseen young women. She was only 18 years old when she first sat on my couch. Her long, brown hair fell to the center of her back, and her dark brown eyes were swollen and bloodshot from hours of crying. She wore black stretch pants and an oversized sweatshirt, but her six-month pregnant belly was visible. As she sat back in the sofa, she put her face into her hands and began to sob.
Betsy came from an abusive home with a very controlling and angry mother who frequently reminded her that she was worthless. She learned to cope with the verbal abuse, but when the sexual abuse started and her mother made excuses that her father was drunk and therefore wasn’t really responsible, she knew she had to leave. She stayed with different friends just long enough to graduate high school. During that time, she used drugs to numb herself and sex to feel connected to others. She became pregnant and soon found herself with nowhere to live. On a particularly dark day, she and her new baby moved into a homeless shelter.
It was a colleague of mine, who was volunteering at the shelter, who first introduced me to Betsy. The call came one evening asking if I could offer a few crisis appointments for Betsy to help her cope with her circumstances and the ever present depression that she was battling. Those few sessions turned into a few years. From the very first appointment, with tears running down her face, Betsy looked me straight in the eye and told me she was not worthless. She reassured me that she was working at a local diner and would be able to make payments on my services. Remembering that moment still moves me to tears. I was witnessing raw courage. The courage it took for that young woman to come to my office, with her shame and fear clearly exposed for everyone to see but armed with her strength to fight for her dignity and the self that she was trying to understand, inspired me.
I saw Betsy for five years — through the birth of her son, the move from the shelter to a subsidized apartment, and the advancement from an entry-level job to a promotion. I watched her network with other single mothers to share babysitting responsibilities that allowed her to take evening classes at a community college. I watched her raise her son alone while she actively participated in therapy working on parenting strategies and self-esteem.
Betsy was clearly a marginalized mother. She was not a white, middle-class, married woman. She was a Hispanic, unmarried woman who was homeless for a year. In fact, the very thought of being a homeless mother meant that you were seen and viewed as a bad mother. The perception of other mothers was that Betsy got herself into the mess by getting pregnant and by not working hard enough to make enough money to provide for her child. Sometimes she herself believed the messages. It was a daily struggle to confront the devaluation by others and herself.
Thirteen years later, after our first session, a package was delivered to my office. Inside there was a picture of a young man wearing a high school cap and gown and a beaming woman with her arms around him. The note attached simply read, “Thank you for seeing me and for making me see myself. Gratefully, Betsy.” Her marginalization forced her to cultivate her own beliefs, to build support structures from other mothers who were in similar situations and to resist the expectations and rules from mothers at the privileged center of society. Betsy found her strength in being part of the other—the homeless mother who was also a good mother. She moved from the margins to the center of society—her own center as she defined it.
William Barclay, a Scottish author and minister once said, “Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing but to turn it into glory.” Betsy endured her hardships in life and transformed the image of what being a homeless mother meant both to herself and others. Her life and example of courage won her the praise and honor of those in her community who knew her story. Betsy was not famous, but in the end she was someone. She was the silent, quiet hero for herself, her son, and for other women who viewed her as the possibility of a life of dignity and value.