I was recently in a shopping mall, on the second level looking down on the first. I saw a disgruntled woman come out of a teenage clothing outlet, three small children hanging onto her pants and pulling the bottom of her jacket. She looked tired, and worn out. I think she’s in her mid-twenties, but it’s hard to tell. The boys looked about seven and six, the girl about four. The mother has long black hair, and was wearing light flared jeans with skate shoes. Her three young children jumped around her, probably begging for an ice cream or fries. As she began walking down the mall towards the exit, she pulled out her phone and started to text someone, ignoring her hyperactive children. She swiftly and expertly moved her thumbs up and down on her phone and I noticed she has no wedding ring. Now, this could mean many things. She could have a partner, and they have decided not to get married, or she’s a single mother. I chose single mother.
I imagine this woman, let’s call her Tracy, ushering her children onto the escalator. They exit the mall, Tracy with her trusty cell in hand. She calmly stashes away her phone in her faux leather purse as they cross the bustling parking lot. Her children run ahead and she calls frantically for them to wait. Tracy’s car is a beige sedan, with rust around the hubcaps and a cookie-cutter tree shaped air freshener hanging from the mirror. As she buckles each of her children in, they squirm and complain about being hungry and start whining for pizza. She sighs, and walks around to the front of the car and slumps into her seat, exhausted.
As the car pulls into the busting traffic, a shrill screech comes from the backseat. Tracy looks in the back seat to see her oldest boy pinching her youngest. As she rounds a sharp corner onto a suburban looking street, the car purposely screeches to a halt. She looks fiercely into the rear-view mirror, lips puckered, giving all three of her children an icy glare.
“I have had it with you three!” she defiantly yells as she yanks her car into park.
Her children stare back at her with large, unremorseful eyes. To his mother’s dismay, her oldest lets out a small chuckle. Tracy glares at her son, squeaks out half a response and begins to weep. She takes large, shaky breaths and shudders, trying to control herself. To them, this is normal, it happens all the time.
Married at twenty, Tracy had to drop out of University after five months when she became pregnant with her first child, the second to come a year later. At age twenty four, she already had three children to care for. Her husband Toby had left left Tracy four months earlier with an expensive rent, debt and three young children.
She feels awful having to ask her mother for money every few weeks, even though she is on welfare, which is barely enough for her to deal with the costs of everyday life. Tracy has to pay for her rent, try to buy nutritious food and cloth her children. She has been diagnosed with severe depression, but can’t afford to buy medication. She can’t remember the last time she had fun or bought anything nice for herself.
Tracy sits silent in the front seat the rest of the way home, with an occasional unintentional and involuntary sob. Once home, her children run up the stairs to their small, arid apartment and stand waiting impatiently at the dismal grey door.
“Hurry up, mommy, I have to pee!” Her middle daughter anxiously complains, putting an emphasis on up and pee. Tracy sighs.
“Yes, yes I know, I’m doing the best I can.”
Once into the meagre apartment, Tracy begins to undress her children and hang up their thin, ragged winter coats. They all race into the living room, giggling happily and begin to play. She picks up her mail, which she had ignored that morning as she rushed out the door. All she sees are bills, and a reminder from her landlord that her rent is three and a half weeks late. She has been putting off paying so that she can save up to get her car repaired, but apparently that will have to wait for another few weeks or so.
After throwing the mail unenthusiastically on the counter, she notices a white, official-looking envelope. The worn out mother dreads what will be inside. It is most likely another bill. Her heart begins to race as she notices the return address and she shakily rips the top open, carefully easing out the heavy paper. It is from Brown’s Business College and her eyes scan down the page searching for the answer.
She smiles and a single tear slides down her cheek. She has cried enough today. She sighs and dials her mother’s phone number. Someone will have to take care of her children at night, after all.