From a distance she looked awfully young. As I pulled closer I noticed that her hair was long and dirty blond, but clean and well cared for. Her clothes were dated but the faded knee length jean skirt and light pink t-shirt were clean and neat. She fiddled with the gold necklace at her throat and nervously folded and unfolded her sign. Finally she smoothed down her hair with resolve and unfolded the sign, holding it to the oncoming traffic. My impression was of discomfort. She was clearly new to standing in D.C. intersections asking for money. This was hard for her. I slowed my car early for the yellow light, bringing an impatient honk from behind me.
As I stopped next to her, I looked at her face and saw that she wasn’t a girl. She may have been my age, just south of 40, but her faded blue eyes were older. I pulled out my wallet, buzzed my window down and handed her all of my cash. It wasn’t much; I wish it had been more.
As she took the money, I said, “Please take care of yourself.”
She glanced at the car seats in the back of my car, looked at me with welling eyes and said, “God bless you, mama. I have three little girls of my own.” I met her gaze in silence, feeling for a moment the weight of her responsibility and I felt my own eyes sting with tears.
A car horn blared from behind. I startled and pulled through the intersection.
For the entire three hour ride home I thought about her. I wished I’d done more, been able to offer more, said something more. I thought about how scary it would be as a parent to have nothing and still be responsible for 3 small lives. I thought about what it would take to drive me out into a busy intersection to beg for money. And I wondered why, in a country of such great wealth, anyone should have to.
When I arrived home, I went to my boys’ room and watched them sleep, snuggled together with too many stuffed animals, their foreheads damp as I kissed them. And I thought about how lucky I am, with a lovely home, an excellent education, relatively good health, and plenty of money in the bank. Yes, my husband and I will never have quite enough, but we don’t have to live from paycheck to paycheck. We don’t have to worry about whether we can buy food or clothes for the boys. We don’t have to worry about whether we can take them to the doctor when they’re sick because of the excellent health insurance my husband’s company helps subsidize. We don’t have to worry about whether or not we can pay for childcare so that we can work. We’ve been incredibly lucky in our lives, our parents, and our health. We don’t live in fear, but so many parents do.
As the Republican National Convention wrapped up in Tampa last week, I was reminded of that woman from the DC intersection when Mitt Romney spoke so admiringly of his wife:
[Ann] was heroic. Five boys, with our families a long way away. I had to travel a lot for my job then and I’d call and try to offer support. But every mom knows that doesn’t help get the homework done or the kids out the door to school. I knew that her job as a mom was harder than mine. And I knew without question, that her job as a mom was a lot more important than mine.
I’m sure Governor Romney meant only admiration, but the thought that came to me, and to many mother like me, was “How patronizing!” Once I moved beyond that though, I was even more disturbed. For all of his admiration for his wife and for mothers, Romney hasn’t proffered any policies that might actually help mothers. I mean mothers who don’t have trust funds or billionaire husbands; mothers who can’t choose to stay home and raise children; mothers who don’t just worry about homework and orderly bedtimes. What about the moms doing an even harder job – putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads?
When I gave that D.C. mother the cash I had in my wallet I was frustrated by how little I could do on my own. I’m frustrated by how little any of us can do on our own. But together, we can help parents who lose a job or can’t work because they’re sick. We can offer health insurance so that all mothers can afford it, not just the ones who find the right job. We can make sure that mothers don’t have to worry about how to feed their children, or buy them clothes, or put a roof over their heads.
We can make sure that no mother ever has to stand in an intersection and beg for money.
Our government can help us do together what we can’t do alone. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the world of Julia yet and politicians like Romney and Ryan want to make sure that we never do. So today, as I head off to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, I know that I’ll be thinking of that D.C. mother, folding and unfolding her sign for her kids. And I hope that this week I’ll be hearing real solutions for parents, not just patronizing soundbites.