When I was doing homeless work, there were children everywhere.
I knew children that lived in cars, who got cleaned up in gas station restrooms, and who wrote their school papers on old cellphones that were submitted using the wifi stolen from a Mcdonald’s parking lot. There were children abandoned on literal church doorsteps. Children who ate cold hotdogs for supper, while watching porn with their Dad. Children who had multiple diagnoses, but no services. Children on a rash of medications. And children who had executive function skills off the charts. The latter were often the oldest child, who had to step in as surrogate parents for their younger siblings because their parents were dysfunctional.
So many children.
And then there were the pregnant people. Many of whom were, in fact, still children themselves, having ran away (or were kicked out) when they told their parents they were pregnant. The women I took to the gynecologist’s office. The women I took over to Chapel Hill to the Planned Parenthood office after they made difficult choices. The women I was the only person there when they came out of labor. The women I stood with when the state took their babies away.
There were children everywhere.
One of the biggest populations of people who were experiencing homelessness I came across was people who were anywhere from 18-25, who had been children in foster care, and who had aged out. This means that they had turned 18 and, being adults in the eyes of the law, their foster parents would no longer receive stipends toward their care, so they got kicked out. So many people I knew who were homeless had aged out of the system.
A coworker was pregnant with her first child, and I asked if she was nervous.
“Absolutely”, she said. “There are so many ways to screw this up, it feels like. However, working here makes me feel better, ironically. You see this many babies and you realize there is a wide range of conditions under which humans can grow and develop.”
I am incredibly lucky in so many ways. My parents were just children themselves, having had me when they were but 20. My grandparents either died or were hundreds of miles away when I was very small. We had very little money. And yet I had parents that taught me to love books, encouraged my creativity and curiosity, gave me independence and that loved me without question. It truly was like winning the genetic lottery, without buying a ticket.
A critique of my writing is that I romanticize things about the past. But I don’t see it as romanticizing as much as I do curation. I am really clear I am who I am because of who I come from – because of who my people are. Had I been born under different circumstances, in a different place, to different people, I would be different. Heck, my two brothers and I are all very different, despite having grown up in the same house, with the same parents, and gone to the same schools.
Last week, while in the mountains, some friends were talking about my writing, and they said the thing they connected with the most was my hopefulness that doesn’t attempt to minimize the very real horrors of the world.
There are so many ways people maintain their resilience in the light of the chaos of the world. Some focus on self-care. Some drink. Some become jaded and hard.
I have, on various occasions, done all of those, and more.
But the sustaining belief I hold onto – that allows me to be hopeful in spite of the facts – really comes down to children and ancestors.
When I say children, I recognize that not all of us are bio-parents, nor can we be. But we can all put creative effort into the world, we can all leave legacies behind, and we can all be generative and supportive of people that will outlive us. Many of us have raised babies we did not give birth to. What are children but an investment in the world after we are gone? And all of us can make such an investment – not just those of us who have biological children.
If there is such a thing as a chosen family – and there is – then I can have chosen children.
But if we can all have children, then we are all ancestors. And more and more I resonate with the words of Jonas Salk, who said that our greatest responsibility was to be good ancestors. I am who I am because they were who they were. I am because of them.
Much like the quote credited to Gandhi about being the change we want to see in the world, I believe we have a responsibility to be the person for young people that the younger version of us needed. Even if we didn’t get it ourselves. Probably especially if we didn’t get it ourselves.
By doing that, we are bullish on the future. We are rolling the dice in favor of a better world, we are modeling the world we want to see, and living in such a way that is a defiance of the present darkness that surrounds us. By focusing on being the best ancestor I can be, I deprive the bleak reality of oxygen.
So that’s it, really. The source of any hope I can muster is that I have a responsibility to my ancestors as well as to my chosen children to be an ancestor, and what’s more, to be a good one.