|Laura in her element, with her son Henry (holding my Annie) and daughter Rosie.|
"Sue. I want you to pick a plan for me for the next 5 years...If you could drive my life what would you do?"
Her request overwhelmed me. I don't even have my own five-year plan. And Laura's life is infinitely more complicated than mine.
I wrote her back with a couple of broad suggestions– things that were already on her radar (finding less expensive housing and a better-paying job with better hours). I reminded her that life would shift on its own as her kids get older. Hopefully, she'd get some more sleep and have more flexibility for working while they were in school. I told her I thought she should find a way to go back to school so she could improve her chances of finding that better-paying job. That there had to be scholarships for working moms or maybe nonprofits that could help her with childcare or expenses.
A couple years ago, I interviewed a single mom who was pursuing her CNA in central Pennsylvania. Through the United Way, she found a charity offering this stability and workforce development program that supported families as they worked toward more long-term financial independence. In addition to helping poor families make ends meet by footing medical bills, paying utilities and offering access to food, the charity focused on improving participants' job prospects by providing GED classes, financial literacy education, job coaching and training programs. I keep thinking there has to be something similar down here in Virginia that might help my sister.
Everything I shared with her seemed kind of vague and amorphous. Nothing concrete for her to take action on.
I'm just one little, old person. I don't have enough information.
"I want to crowd source your five year plan. We just need to talk to the right people."
Laura told me to do it.
So that's why I'm here today.
My sister Laura needs help. She's not asking for handouts or pity- just ideas for what she should do in the next five years to improve her long-term prospects and stability.
Here's her current situation:
She's 45 with a high school diploma and some college under her belt. She and her husband of 20 years divorced almost two years ago. She's the mother of nine, ages 18 months to 27 years old. Five of her kids currently live with her full time (save for two weekends a month).
Before we move on- because this is the part where people's eyes tend to get wide in disbelief- Laura understands she has a lot of children. And that people question her decision to have such a large family. And wonder about everything from her intellectual faculties to her knowledge of birth control to her awareness about overpopulation. She has been the recipient of endless commentary, joking and lecturing over the years. Yes, she has many, many beautiful, intelligent, big-hearted children. No, today she is not seeking opinions about the lunacy of having a such a large family. Why don't we just shelve those thoughts for a future post I'll title: Why Laura Shouldn't Have Had So Many Kids.*
She was a stay-at-home mom for more than 20 years- though she did have stints working at her kids school and a cafe near where she lived.
Without treading into painful territory, let's just say the child support Laura receives for four of the children who live with her is insufficient.
For work, she drives a bus for her school district. The advantages of this job are that she can take her kids with her to work and that she has the same schedule more or less as her school-aged kids. Through this job, she also has health insurance for herself and her youngest. On the downside, she has next to no take-home pay after the insurance is deducted rom her paycheck. The job also requires that she and her four youngest kids get up by 5:30 each morning to be on the bus. They don't get home in the evening until after 5. She is exhausted. And the kids are exhausted.
Though most of my siblings live in the area, we're at least an hour away from Laura– which limits our ability to help her with the kids day to day. She doesn't have local backup.
At one point, Laura thought about cleaning houses near where I live to bring in some extra income. After her morning bus run, she figured she'd drive the hour to me, drop off her two littlest for me to watch, clean a house and drive an hour back to make her afternoon bus run. But it became obvious that the logistics of this plan were tricky- she wouldn't have quite enough time to clean and then there was all the driving and constant worry about timing.
In order to cut living expenses, she'd like to move out of the house she's currently renting. She'd saved up some money to pay for the move (getting the carpets cleaned at the old place, security deposits at the new place, etc.), but a car repair bill wiped out much of that savings. She has medical and tax debt she is working to pay off as well.
Again, I'm not sharing any of this expecting charity. It's just to illustrate how thin the margins are for my sister. Perpetually living on the razor's edge is a source of constant worry and stress for her. She has no peace of mind and little optimism that she can pull herself out of her situation.
I suspect this is the case for many, many single mothers out there. I know she is not alone.
Laura wants a map out of her current life, which isn't sustainable for her financially, physically or mentally. What's more, she needs some measure of hope that she won't forever feel as if she's drowning while treading water as furiously as she can.
So, I guess I was hoping we– you and me and Laura, too- could build a boat for her. Not a literal one, of course. What the hell would Laura do with a boat? Maybe burn it for firewood. Maybe drag it to the woods and hide in it when the kids are out of control.
No, we need, a metaphorical life raft.
I asked Laura what she thought she'd like to do job/career wise.
"I want to help people," she responded. "I'm thinking social work because I think I can use that in criminal justice- I think I can use it in lots of different capacities, but I can also do nursing and kind of have the same ... Or maybe there is something else you can think of if I got a business degree that would be helpful if we decided to actually put together a business."
(Laura, our two other sisters and I periodically discuss business ideas- selling Laura's delicious cinnamon buns in a food truck, or a boutique for Jen, or a retreat center for world weary women that each of us would have a hand in running. We have ideas for books and podcasts.)
Laura is so people-oriented and so caring- I do feel social work in some capacity is her calling. To this day, my friends and friends of friends still turn to her for counsel when they are going through difficult times. She's an excellent listener, she's warm and empathetic. She helps people feel heard and understood.
She's also hardworking- she's tough. Physically strong and not afraid to get her hands dirty. And having raised such a large brood and now driving a school bus full of wiley kids- she knows how to manage chaos.
So, help me build this raft.
And then, while we're at it, let's find a way to turn that raft into a yacht. Because she sure the hell deserves more than a rowboat for her life.
Laura currently lives outside of Warrenton, Va.
What ideas do you have for her? What suggestions? What advice? What wisdom?
Are there any services you know of she could turn to where she might receive job coaching or career help? Any programs or schools that she should look into for careers in social work or nursing? Any places that might help her make ends meet while she attempts to move up the next rung of the ladder? Scholarships she should apply for? Any resources to help with childcare? Or resources to help her get her finances in order?
What do you think her five-year plan should be? I'm not a great planner- what does an actionable five-year plan even look like? What goals should she set for the short term? What should she think about longer term? What tools should she be using to help reach her goals?
And even if you don't have any specific advice, if you just have words of encouragement. Or have stories or anecdotes to share that might illustrate for her what's possible- I'm sure she'd welcome any and everything.
I know she's not the only woman in the world to feel as if the deck is stacked against her. Or that she must be the idiot for not being able to get her arms around her life when everyone else seems to be managing theirs.
So... I'm putting this out there to the public braintrust. Can we crowd source a better life for my sister and her kids?
I believe in this village.
To share your thoughts, post a comment, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or Laura at email@example.com (our Mom has suggested she change her email address to something a little more self-affirming).
* More than likely, I will never write this post. Her children are each gifts to our planet.