San Diego Lillian's small house sits tucked between two dun stucco apartment rectangles in Normal Heights. Unlike most of the residences on her block, she has a front yard, and the walk leading to the tiny, ivy-covered porch is lined with flowers. Shrubs front the house, giving it a cozy cottage feel.
Lillian, a stout woman in her early 40s with thick, gray-streaked, chin-length hair and an expression that suggests thoughtfulness, is a welfare mother, but she is careful to avoid what she sees as the welfare mother stereotype. "I don't come from a long line of poor people," she explains. "I don't have a jillion kids and grandkids. I don't have a big extended family. I grew up pretty ordinary. My dad was a navy man for 20 years." When he retired, he worked as a surveyor for the county for another 10. Her mother was "a homemaker mom. We didn't get along real well, but one thing she managed to impart to me is there's nothing to be ashamed of in being a housewife."
This old-fashioned refrain has become something of a first principle for Lillian, an activist who believes "motherhood is the most honorable job anyone can do" and feels "sympathy for women who have bought into this work [career] ethic to the detriment of their own families. I think they've been conditioned against their better judgment." In the case of single mothers such as her, she thinks it "terribly wrong for our society to expect the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to work a 12-hour day and run the daycare treadmill nightmare."
Lillian has not always been a single mom. In 1976, at age 22, she got married. In 1978, she took "a job, a full-paying job with benefits" as a typist with the county. Two years later, she and her husband, who was graduating from National University with a degree in business, decided to have a baby. "I was working near home, he was going to school, perfect situation," she comments. Then, when she was about eight months pregnant, "the black day came when I was told my job was no longer going to be there for me after my maternity leave. I was ambivalent about going back to work, but I guess the decision was made for me."
The thunderbolt came when her husband picked her up from work. "We pulled away, he turns to me and says, 'Well, guess what, I got laid off too.' He was working temp jobs, mostly light industrial work, so it was iffy anyway, but that happening the same day was pretty much like somebody pulling the rug out from under your feet. I actually thought to myself, my hands resting on my stomach, 'God, can I return this baby for just a few months, then come and get him when everything's okay?' "
God didn't take the baby, and there wasn't much help from her family, either. "You hear about the oriental families, the Mexican families, they all pitch in to help somebody who's got a problem. It just didn't exist [for me]. We don't all have chicken-soup grandmas." The couple turned to welfare, and after the odd experience of getting Lillian's pregnancy verified ("I looked like a basketball! Hello!"), they got it, $450 a month.
To supplement the government aid, "I tried to work. I was a teacher's aide for a while at city schools, and [my husband] still had his little temporary jobs. We were pretty much in a holding pattern at that point; we struggled along for three or four years." But poor money management "and the lack of any money to manage" led to the loss of the house they were renting, and they faced homelessness. "I had to turn to churches. I had to say, 'Take me in, I have no place to go.' I have family that lives in this city, but they were not open nor equipped nor willing to take care of a family member who needed help." Over the next few years, they bounced from St. Vincent de Paul to the Salvation Army to other shelters, and in 1986, Lillian got pregnant again. "Pregnancy is an occupational hazard of marriage," she says.
When she found out, "I thought to myself, 'Well, there are certainly enough ways to go out and have an abortion. I certainly have good enough reason to, if I were to apply that to it. But what if I want to keep the baby? The situation I'm in right now, it's already a living death. Do I want to add another death to that? No, I don't think so.' I knew that I was probably going to be by myself, on a tougher road, but it was a blessing." Lillian was still married, but things were deteriorating, and in 1989, she and her husband divorced.
"[I did it] for me and my sanity," she explains. Before the final split, she went to therapy, did "lots of soul-searching," attended support groups and attempted a reconciliation, but "to no avail. Finances were a primary issue. The cause would probably be lack of family support and my husband's inability to get a foothold on a career."
As it turned out, "Having my daughter set the ball rolling. Nothing was working. I was like a scientist in a laboratory, trying this, trying that. Then one day, there's an accident, and 'Oh my God!' " She began looking for one of the places that was "always proselytizing that 'We'll help you have your baby, we'll take you off the street.' " She found a church in Clairemont that offered to put her and her son up, "sort of a transitional situation, until I got back on my feet." She was lucky enough to get a Section 8 house, which costs her 30 percent of her income of $690 a month from afdc. Recently, she has also landed two part-time jobs, one with a real estate service and another with a social group. One pays minimum wage, the other $8 an hour, "but only for two and a half hours a day."