I had aspirations and potential when I was fresh out of high school in 1997. I graduated from a private school with a 3.97 GPA. I could have gone to practically any college I'd set my sights on, but I wanted to stay in my beloved hometown of Denver and was hell bent on going to school to learn, not to party, so I opted for Metropolitan State University in the heart of downtown. I got an apartment with my older brother, already had a part time job I'd worked at every summer throughout high school, and started college on a full ride, four year scholarship. I planned to double major in broadcasting and Spanish and work my way up the ranks of my favorite local TV station, from field reporter to news anchor.
I was in my second semester when I got pregnant, the first time I had sex, which I've always shared openly as both a humorous and cautionary tale. I am the poster child for why abstinence only education does not work. I petitioned the school to let me take one semester off and then continue the scholarship, which they allowed. My boyfriend was still a senior at the high school I'd graduated from. He was expelled for violating the honor code (no sex before marriage) but allowed to finish his year via correspondence courses. We got married in June of '98, our daughter was born in October, and I resumed a full time schedule of classes the following January. We were incredibly lucky to have our own mothers available and willing to gift us with free childcare.
I was able to keep up a full time class load for another year, but eventually it became overwhelming and I opted to give up the scholarship and drop down to part time. Ultimately I decided that college would always be there but my quickly growing and changing child would not, so I quit in 2002 with 97 completed credit hours. My second daughter was born in 2004 and my primary occupation became homemaker. Both kids have homeschooled and been in traditional school at various times throughout the years, and when I could I dabbled in various home based businesses for extra income and also babysat and nannied, and got involved in volunteering for various organizations and causes.
We were never well off but we managed, and survived on my husband's income as a postal worker. We experienced periods of financial stress when health struggles or un-expected expenses pertaining to houses or cars came up, but we were never in dire straits.
Fast forward to 2013, when my 15-year marriage came to an end. It is so difficult to have experience but not the kind that "counts" in regards to finding housing and employment. Finding an apartment was a hellish experience as I didn't have enough rental history and the competition for rentals in Denver is fierce. Being a homeowner for the past 12 years didn't matter. Finding a job has been next to impossible because I don't have employment history or a college degree. Even jobs that are not paying a living wage have "degree required" in the desired qualifications. I did work temporarily at a retirement community last year but it didn't work out, so I ended up on unemployment and food stamps. I can't help but feel the humiliating burn of needing help, but I try to remind myself that the safety net is there for exactly these types of situations.
My story may be compelling but it's not unique. I have joined the legion of single working mothers who are trying our damnedest to do right by our kids; to not just feed and clothe them and put a roof over their heads, but to show them an example of hard work and resilience.
Since losing my job in mid-November I've managed to get several articles published online, I've reapplied to college to finish my undergraduate degree and am hoping to finish within two years going part time, year round. I have finally managed to snag two very part time jobs, one in retail and one as a facilitator for a homeschool enrichment program, but both are only able to offer me a few hours a week with no benefits. I've chosen to give up my unemployment benefits because even eight hours a week of paid work plus unemployment pushes me ever so slightly over the income limitations for food assistance. I'd rather be working and building employment history than having that small bit of extra income from unemployment.
To top it all off my 15-year-old car broke down a few months ago, but luckily I am able to borrow my boyfriend's car to get to and from jobs and school, and have the option of public transport as well. The day I knew my car was dead and gone I burst into that hysterical, "if I don't laugh I'm going to cry" and "Oh my god I think I've finally lost it" kind of laughter.
I have kept up my extensive volunteer work because it keeps me grounded and busy, both of which likely fend off depression and feelings of uselessness. I coordinate a monthly group to donate, cook and serve breakfast at a youth homeless shelter and am also a Volunteer Coordinator for One Billion Rising, Eve Ensler's global movement to end violence against women. A few weeks prior to my event on February 14, I felt the irony of fielding a call from the mayor's office letting me know he would attend and speak at my event, whilst simultaneously having a million thoughts in my head about everything I needed to do that week: plan meals, shop for food, cook said food, keep searching for and applying for jobs, get an advising appointment at my university so I could register for classes, and so on and so forth. I had the urge to tell the mayor's aide whom I was speaking to that she must have reached the wrong person, for I am nobody. I am struggling.
Yet I know in my heart that isn't true. I am somebody. I have value. I am working, even if it's barely enough to get by. I am putting myself out there through my words, having most of the articles I submit to various online platforms readily accepted and published. I am building a foundation, slowly but surely. I am not currently being paid for putting my words out there, but I will be eventually and I am grateful for the experience and exposure each article provides me with.
My 9-year-old daughter told me last night, "You never rest. If you're not working, you're doing schoolwork, and if you're not doing schoolwork you're doing laundry or cleaning."
"Well, that's my life, baby," I replied.
"Your life is boring," was her response.
I know she meant no malice and was simply stating fact, and I tried to roll with it as best I could but did shed a few tears in private. I know that the last year has brought huge turmoil to her life and her sister's life as well, and helping them navigate their emotions and adjust to this new life is my top priority.
I will simply keep doing the best I can for my children, and I will continue feeding homeless youth even as I struggle to put food on my own table. I will continue ranting and raving about female empowerment and equality while personally feeling far from either. I will keep writing, if anything to simply be seen and heard and hopefully understood. I will survive, and eventually, I will thrive.
Donna's story is part of a Huffington Post series profiling Americans who work hard and yet still struggle to make ends meet. Learn more about other individuals' experiences here.
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