You may think the constantly changing landscape of the teen drama unfolding in your home week by week is enough to send you running for a 5-year spa retreat, but I went from being a single welfare mom stressed about the basics of finding food and shelter for me and my son when he was 5 to being a government employee with a healthy salary and Masters degree, all while nurturing a warm and supportive relationship with The Boy (who is now a super-together 18-year old).

I started to consciously prepare for the teenage years when my son was tiny. All my life I had listened to adults left and right speak with disdain and despair about teenagers, so I knew that despite my difficulties with a toddler things were probably going to get much worse for me as a parent the older my kid got. This was discouraging and frankly, kind of terrifying. Especially having a son. Everybody knows that teenage boys are supposedly the most annoying, aloof, and angry human creatures on the planet. I figured I had some time to get ready so I started to prepare.

Unfortunately, as The Boy neared school age our living situation became extremely challenging. The summer before he started kindergarten we were couch surfing with different friends because I couldn’t find a place to live. I was on welfare and looking for a job. I had no phone, and no family for hundreds of kilometres. At that time I didn’t have a degree or any special credentials. We have all heard tragic tales about how children who grow up in poverty blow up in their teen years and drop out of high school, suffer with low self-esteem, turn to substance use, and get involved with the criminal activity; but I refused to let this be our story.

Luckily I was able to stick to the long-range plan I started developing when The Boy was just a baby. The evolving plan eventually involved things like volunteering with teenagers, attending monthly women’s groups, and reading about educational reform. I was also part of a group of people that met regularly to discuss our own teenage years.

One month before kindergarten started I began volunteering at a recreation centre to help with sports and activity programs for pre-schoolers, This was on the advice of a friend who knew that I was amazing with kids. After 2 weeks of volunteering the recreation centre offered me a job! The first week of September, just as kindergarten started we were able to move into a small basement suite I found out about through a former neighbour. And things began to look a little rosy. I struggled to make rent some months but I could always put food on the table (even if I did use the food bank one time). But I never took my eyes off the prize: I wanted a close and supportive relationship with my son through his entire childhood to prepare him for life as an adult.

But here’s what surprised me. I ended up working at the recreation centre for 7 years, with children from newborn to 18 and their parents in a huge variety of programs and activities. The recreation centre was in a higher income neighbourhood and almost all the parents who participated in my programs owned houses, owned vehicles, were married, went on regular vacations to Hawaii or Mexico, and yet they couldn’t seem to meet the needs of their children. These parents looked on the outside like they had their whole act together, yet their connection with their kids was weak and the quality of their parenting was for the most part what I could call mediocre.

My life was far from easy, but it was pared down to the very basics: put food on the table, pay the rent, and meet my son’s needs for loving attention, active play, interesting stimulation, and emotional safety. I was not preoccupied with things like maintaining a car (we rode the bus), making financial decisions (I had no money), doing yard work or home renovations (I rented), planning holidays, or shopping (no money to spend), or even keeping up with favourite TV shows (we had no TV).

We spent our time:

  • playing with the neighbourhood kids on the street
  • visiting the beach
  • going to the playground
  • attending free programs at the library
  • taking advantage of the $1 swim at the pool on Tuesdays
  • reading a lot of books
  • running around the forest
  • picking berries along the creek

I knew that science is certain about connection being the number one protective factor for children; it isn’t anything to do with having a master bedroom with an ensuite or an SUV. Those things can be serious distractions from the essential work of parenting! My mandatory to-do list each day consisted of:

  • keep The Boy’s long-term development and his needs in mind constantly
  • tackle present-day crises
  • strategize about tomorrow’s possible crises

I didn’t get to where I am today alone. Far from it! I was lucky to have many, many loving friends and family members along the way. As I figured my sh*t out, supportive people and exciting opportunities kept showing up. And I was courageous enough to grab on tight and run after my dreams.

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