Lending a Helping Hand for Mothers on the Edge
by Maria Bellos
For privacy, some names have been changed.
Brunch and flowers, breakfast in bed. That’s what we like to think Mother’s Day means. But some mothers never see a bouquet or a brunch spread that day. For some, just keeping their families going is cause for celebration. This Mother’s Day, Bay Weekly examines the lives of mothers on the edge.
In Anne Arundel County, 7,823 children lived below the poverty line in 2002, the most recent year for which Maryland Department of Social Services census estimates are available. Calvert counted 1,336 children as poor.
Most often, they’re the children of women who’ve suddenly lost a job, whose partner has fallen into money trouble or who have health problems and no insurance, according to Alice Murray, a former hospital administrator who runs the South County Baby Food Pantry. Teens who become pregnant are especially vulnerable. Some can’t stay afloat even with help. These women are “living on the edge. They’re accustomed to it,” said Murray.
With or without, these women must somehow shelter, feed, clothe and educate their children. How do the mothers and children survive?
In Anne Arundel County where 5,180 children entered the world last year at Anne Arundel Medical Center and Calvert County where 910 children were born at Calvert Memorial Hospital there’s help from the start to turn surviving into thriving.
“There are a lot of caring people who come to help women at risk,” Murray said.
High School Motherhood
Brittney was a 15-year-old Anne Arundel County sophomore when she suspected she was pregnant. She told her boyfriend on a Saturday, and they agreed to tell no one. By Monday, morning sickness strengthened her belief and, after getting sick, she called her mother at work. Brittney’s mother rushed home with a pregnancy test. The test came up positive, so she and her mother told her father. They got her to the gynecologist, who confirmed that Brittney was six and a half weeks pregnant.
After talking with her boyfriend, Brittney said, “It was our responsibility to keep her because she was something we did.”
Brittney’s parents took the news well, but at school, many of Brittney’s friends turned their backs on her.
“You find out who your real friends are when you’re in school and pregnant,” she told Bay Weekly. “It’s hard for a teenage girl not to have friends. But my best friend stood by me the whole time.”
Like many women from northern Anne Arundel, Brittney gave birth at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, as the closest hospital, Baltimore-Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, has no obstetrics unit.
Brittney stayed in the hospital for two days after the birth of her daughter.
“Once you’re there, you want out,” she said. She went home to her parents’ house, which she and her daughter also share with her grandparents and eight-year-old brother.
The young mother wanted to finish high school, but she needed daycare. She found the West County Family Support Center in Anne Arundel. Through its Teens Alternative Program, the center provides onsite childcare and classes toward a high school diploma or a GED.
“That’s what I needed,” Brittney said.
The center also offers classes in life skills, parenting and computer literacy. Through West County, Brittney recently went to a local parenting convention where single moms learned how to budget and save money. She also made much-needed friends with the other mothers in the program.
Now Brittney is studying for her diploma and works in retail part time. She plans to graduate next year. In January, if all goes well, she and her boyfriend will marry and he’ll join the Air Force.
“When I graduate, I’ll go wherever he gets stationed,” she said. She says she plans to go to college to be a nurse or a third grade teacher.
“I’m more responsible now,” Brittney said, of how motherhood has changed her life. “I’m not worried about what other people say anymore. And I can’t go out with my boyfriend every time I want to. I’m limited on things, limited on money.” She’s more focused on school, she says, and her daughter comes first.
Seventeen-year-old Melissa was 14 going on 15 when she discovered she was pregnant.
“I was sick with the flu and I went to the hospital. They took some tests and found out I was dehydrated and I was pregnant,” she said of her discovery. Melissa’s mother and best friend were at the hospital that day. Hospital staff told Melissa and her mother her diagnosis. “My mom was disappointed, but it was something she had to cope with,” Melissa said. “In this family, we don’t believe in abortion.”
Coping turned out to be an everyday kind of thing, starting with school.
“It’s really difficult to go to school while you’re pregnant,” she said. “You always have to leave class to go to the bathroom or because you’re having pains, and I was tired. I wanted to sleep. When you’re pregnant you can’t help it; you automatically fall asleep.”
Melissa’s friends, especially her best friend, were supportive. At first, so was the baby’s father. During her pregnancy, Melissa lived with him. The federal Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, helped the young, expectant parents manage. WIC provides food, nutrition education and referrals to health and social services free to low-income pregnant and breastfeeding women and mothers with young children. Women must meet state residency requirements and income guidelines and fall under a nutrition-risk designation.
Once Melissa had her daughter, she said, the father “stopped caring,” and she moved back to her mother’s house. The day after she came home from the hospital, Melissa applied to WIC to recertify her benefits for her daughter. She applied for financial assistance and food stamps but was rejected because she was under 18.
Melissa heard about Annapolis Family Support Center’s Teen Alternative program through her school, but she didn’t sign up until two months ago, in 10th grade. Now she takes four classes for her high school diploma, plus electives, and the center provides daycare for her daughter. She says she also learns about children: “how to understand, how to discipline without hitting, how to talk to them. It’s been a big help for me,” Melissa admitted.
Following the GED to Independence
Annapolis Family Support also offers General Educational Development, or GED, classes to adults. Kate, a 24-year-old mother, is looking forward to retaking the GED test after missing one crucial question the last time.
“I hope I pass,” she told Bay Weekly.
Kate was 22 when she had her second son (her first lives with his father). Soon after, she split with that father.
“I moved out. I got my own place, but I was struggling with bills, and I had no education,” Kate said.
She worked as a waitress in an assisted-living facility until she was six months pregnant. Then she couldn’t anymore, and the bills piled up. She heard about Annapolis Family Support Center through a friend in the program and she signed up. When she earns her GED, she says, she wants to work in a nursing home.
“That’s my passion, taking care of senior citizens,” Kate said. Nursing homes offer a two-week certification course for nursing staff, and she plans to get certified.
An Early Head Start
Kathy wanted a family, and she did everything right. A high school graduate with a job, she waited until she was 30 and in a committed relationship to have her first daughter. But she found that she still didn’t make enough money for her daughter’s early education.
She did qualify for aid for mothers and children, but she didn’t know where or how to get help. When her daughter was six weeks old, she learned from a neighbor about Early Head Start. A program for women whose income falls below the federal poverty line, Early Head Start works with pregnant mothers and children up to age three.
Each week an early education teacher visited Kathy’s friend and worked with her child to develop her social, motor, physical and emotional skills. Every other Friday, the little girl traveled to the Early Head Start Center in Shady Side to play with other children. When Kathy saw how well her friend’s daughter played and talked, she met with the center’s director and decided to sign on.
Miss Lori, an early education teacher from the Anne Arundel County Head Start program, visited Kathy when her daughter was eight weeks old. She started teaching motor skills, moving the baby’s arms and legs. As the child grew, so did the lesson plan.
When Kathy’s daughter was a year old, Miss Lori introduced two containers: one with Q-tips and straws in it, another with macaroni and buttons inside. She’d shake each by the toddler’s ear. “Just with Miss Lori, in that few minutes, she knew ‘quiet, noisy!’” Kathy marveled.
Early Head Start, currently only in Anne Arundel County, also offers half-day preschool to infants and toddlers Monday through Thursday. Thirty-eight children attend morning sessions in Shady Side, the only location.
“We’d love to have an afternoon program,” said director Carmella Hicks. Demand is the deciding factor, Hicks added. Funding is available for an afternoon session, but the program hasn’t had enough applicants to start one. “It would be really nice to get (more) participation,” Hicks added.
Once children graduate from Early Head Start, they can move up to Head Start, until they are ready for kindergarten.
Mothers enrolled in the Head Start programs can take GED or college classes, offered by Anne Arundel Community College, at the center. Head Start staff also drive mothers to doctor appointments, the county Health Department and WIC, Hicks said.
Staff at the Early Head Start center, from left: Lori Buckmaster holding the little girl, executive director Carmella Hicks, Shanee Butler, Lisa Yangia and Kisha White.
Surviving and Thriving
Mothers who struggle on their own can find help at every stage of motherhood, through the safety net of resources available in Anne Arundel and Calvert counties. “If they want to take advantage, it’s out there,” Murray said.
Brittney, Melissa, Kate and Kathy landed in that safety net, and it improved their lives as parents, almost as much as motherhood changed their lives.
What’s different now?
“Raising a child is a full-time job,” said Kate.
“I’m more understanding about what my parents have to go through,” said Melissa.
“I’m limited on things, limited on funds,” said Brittney.
“It’s worth it,” Kathy said.
Isn’t that what motherhood is all about?
Resources for Mothers
Anne Arundel Early Head Start and Head Start
6243 Shady Side Rd., Shady Side: 410-867-8947
Services: Preschool ages 0-5, assistance for pregnant mothers, distribution of formula and supplies, home-based educational services, transportation to health and nutrition services, referrals to additional services; GED classes, college placement tests.
Annapolis Family Support
• 80 West St. Annapolis: 410-269-4478
• Glen Burnie Family Center, 7500 Ritchie Hwy.: 410-421-8500
Services: Teen alternative parent education. Onsite childcare and classes, developmental assessment.
Anne Arundel Medical Center
2001 Medical Pkwy., Annapolis: 443-481-1000
Services: Birthing services available to all mothers.
• Anne Arundel County: 613 Ridgely Ave., Annapolis: 410-766-5433
• Calvert County: 100 Armory Rd., Prince Frederick: 410-257-1402
• National Hotline: 800-550-4900
Services: Free pregnancy testing, confidential help and advice, emotional support, legal, medical, and educational referrals, prenatal information, maternity and baby clothes, housing referrals, social agency referrals, information on other community services, adoption information. Open to all pregnant women.
Calvert Memorial Hospital
100 Hospital Rd., Prince Frederick: 410-535-4000
Services: Birthing services available to all mothers.
Healthy Start, Anne Arundel County
• Brooklyn Park Health Center: 300 Hammonds Ln., Brooklyn Park: 410-222-6620
• Owensville Medical Center/South County Outreach Center: 134 Owensville Rd., West River: 410-222-1966
• Parole Health Center: 1950 Drew St., Annapolis: 410-222-7247
Healthy Start, Calvert County
975 Solomons Island Rd., Prince Frederick: 410-535-5400
Services: Public health nurse case management for pregnant women or those with children up to age 19.
Owensville Primary Care
134 Owensville Rd., West River: 410-867-4700
Services: Primary health care for all ages, applications for health insurance offered to low-income families. Patients accepted regardless of ability to pay.
West County Family Support Center
8379 Piney Orchard Pkwy., Odenton: 410-551-2411
Services: Childcare for young parents earning high school diplomas and GEDs onsite, life skills, parenting and computer literacy classes.
WIC: Women, Infants and Children
134 Owensville Rd., West River: 410-222-6797
Services: Food, nutrition education, referrals to health and social services. Open to low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, and infants and children up to age 5 who are at risk nutritionally.
Maria Bellos, a freelance writer newly based in Annapolis, has written for Washington, D.C. publications. This is her first story for Bay Weekly.