Giving Too Much, Part Two

Photo from Kierstyn King: "Grandma, Me, and Mom – Dance Recital Circa 2003."
Photo from Kierstyn King: “Grandma, Me, and Mom – Dance Recital Circa 2003.”

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Kierstyn King’s blog Bridging the Gap.  It was originally published on December 12, 2014. Read Part One here.

When I was 11 we came home one day to find someone we’d met at a homeless shelter/food kitchen/church thingy on our doorstep, with her infant. We’ll call her Missy.

I don’t know how she got our address, or why she was there.

But she was.

And I gave up my bedroom and moved in with my sisters and Missy stayed with us for a very long time.

She stayed with us through the aforementioned foreclosure, where my parents stopped paying their mortgage in lieu of paying someone else’s.

She stayed with us so she could get her two other kids (and nephew?) back in her custody.

*****

Our house was foreclosed on and we were facing homelessness – not just for our family, but for Missy’s as well.

My parents traveled all over the city, and even a few hours north of where we lived, trying to find some place to live, but because we were being foreclosed on, no one was taking my parents + another family, because they didn’t trust they’d pay.

On the day we had to be out (the people who bought our house granted us an extra week or two on account of they were nice and we had a shit ton of people to move – although, Missy did most of the packing because….I think mom and dad were busy looking for houses and also hanging on to “god saving our home”) we had nowhere to go, we were looking at being homeless, and Missy was still going to follow us around.

The plan was for me and my siblings to stay at my grandparents while my parents continued to travel anywhere to find somewhere who’d let a two-family-one-income household rent from them. It was a really terrifying day. Not knowing where we were going to sleep, or live, or if I’d see the people in my homeschool group ever again…

But then my grandparents mentioned that the house next door just went up for rent, and so my parents went over and the guy who bought the place just wanted the land, so he didn’t ask questions and said as long as we’d paid the rent we could stay there. So we did.

And the house was a 3 bedroom + bonus room, and one of the bedrooms had it’s own private bathroom and entry, so that was where Missy stayed with her 9 year old and infant (the timeline is fuzzy, because it was around the time we moved there that she got partial custody of her kids, but I don’t know if it was simultaneously, or a little later), and I eventually shared a room with Missy’s 15 year old. My dad put up a false wall in the bonus room because it was connected to the master bedroom and my sisters slept there, and my brother literally slept in a closet.

When Missy’s nephew joined our party, he slept on a futon outside my bedroom, in the dining room.

*****

When I was 12 mom got pregnant again, which meant that pubescent Kiery got to take over everything again, except this time….not only was my mom telling me what to do, and having me run the house, but Missy was too.

I was cooking and doing chores not just for my family, but hers as well.

Let me mention this again: I was 12 years old.

I was taking care of two families single handedly.

I was not okay.

Eventually my parents confronted Missy about using me as her slave too, and set up a chore list so other people had to also cook and clean and do laundry. Mostly, just that Missy had to take care of her family’s stuff, and we alternated cooking days. Zero introspection on the part of my parents regarding…I don’t know, placing too much responsibility on a twelve year old.

My parents got mad at me for my “attitudes” (because I was adolescent, exhausted, run ragged, burnt out, and barely keeping up with everything, including school), and blamed it on Missy’s 15 year old daughter’s influence (because I shared a room with her – even though we weren’t close). Very little came of this besides my trying extra hard to be totally happy all the time.

It was Missy’s older child who alerted me to the fact that my period had started when I was studying in a tree with my brother, her cousin, and some of the other kids. My brother was very concerned, and I panicked. Missy had then asked me, at random, if I was pregnant or not because I would sometimes wrap my arm around my abdomen (because cramps and no meds.), and I was mortified. Half because I didn’t know what sex was or how to do it, and half because that’s not something you ask an isolated twelve year old who just started having periods.

*****

My parents paid Missy $40 a week to stay with us and homeschool her kids. That way, she could say she had a job to the CPS people, while still fulfilling her god-ordained plan to be a stay at home mother and educator. I…don’t remember this going well. To be honest I’m not sure if she even did anything more to educate her kids than through books at them, like my mom did with me, but I don’t remember. I was otherwise occupied.

Missy was, however, a far superior cook than my mom, and fish and frog-legs aside, she made some really good food. This is the only pleasant memory I have of her. Graham cracker cake and home-made Chinese food.

*****

Shortly before/after my 13th birthday, my parents discovered that Missy had been abusing pharmaceuticals and kicked her and her family out.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved that I only had one mom around any more, and my own room. Also, my brother got to move out of the closet and into Missy’s alcove, which was nice…and I was maybe jealous.

The second stillborn happened two weeks before my 13th birthday.

*****

After Missy, my parents decided not to let random families live with us again. Turns out my mom didn’t like having another lady in the house either.

*****

My mom got pregnant almost instantly after the stillborn and I had to get my own rides to ballet (which meant asking my teacher to pick me up and coming home with my grandma). My ballet teacher was a wonderful adult to have in my life at the time. She made me feel valued and cared for at a time when I really needed it, because I wasn’t getting that from my mom.

In fact, that was often one of the things that hurt me so much as a child – I never had time with my mom, and I’d get upset and we’d have a mother-daughter day, but that would happen all of three times before she would get pregnant again and it would end and I just became an object. I tried to explain this to her once, but she never really understood it.

She spent so much time talking to and being there for other people, acting like she knew all the things about being a good wife (helpmeet), homeschooling, and parenting – but was never there for me, never there for her kids.

I never doubted my parents’ heart for giving.

I’ve always doubted their love for me. 

Why I Don’t Trust the Homeschool Community to Self-Police

undertherug

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on September 8, 2013.

When I was a young teen I made some new friends, a couple of homeschooled girls like me, both right around my own age. They were the oldest in a large homeschooling family that in some ways was very much like mine own. In other ways, though, their family was very different.

As far as I could see, unlike my mother their mother never lesson planned, never sat down with her children to work on multiplication tables, and never pulled out the science supplies and a biology book. Their mother was very involved and active in an all-consuming interest of her own, and the children were pretty much left to their own devices. The children had interests, but they never really had the tools they needed to carry those interests out, and they certainly never had the basic education in a range of subjects like math, English, and science that we so often take for granted. And while I won’t get into specifics, the repercussions of missed opportunities have followed my friends and their younger siblings into adulthood.

What’s most baffling is that no one said anything.

To my knowledge, the other homeschool parents (including my own) not only didn’t report this family or intervene and try to help, they never even said that what was going on was wrong. It’s true that someone might have said something that I didn’t hear, but I was pretty up on the homeschool community gossip (homeschool moms do talk, or at least they did in my community), and I knew well who was disapproved of for having the wrong religious doctrine or being too submissive or not submissive enough. I’m pretty sure I would have heard something.

Anyway, this is why, when homeschool parents inveigh against outside oversight and say that the homeschool community provides its own sort of internal accountability and self-policing, I want to bang my head into a wall. It doesn’t work. The culture of the homeschool community in which I grew up was such that I’m really having a hard time imagining anyone ever reporting anyone, or even simply calling them out for what they are doing.

Why is this? There is a range of factors.

There is the idea that family always knows whats best and that the family unit should be sovereign. If a family decides not to educate their kids, then, that’s their business. Inviting the government into a family’s affairs, or even questioning how they run their family, is a violation of that family’s autonomy.

There is the idea that even going completely uneducated is better than being sent to “government” schools. We saw this in HSLDA’s response to Josh Powell’s story, a story that in many ways mirrors that of the family I knew growing up—except that unlike my childhood friends, Josh ultimately fought his way into getting an education.

There is the idea that failure to educate is simply “unschooling,” and therefore a perfectly legitimate way of homeschooling. John Holt would probably be horrified to know that his ideas are today being used by some to justify robbing children of an education. But then, maybe he would have agreed with HSLDA and argued that even no education at all is better than “government” schools.

There is the idea that the importance of education is overrated.—that it is life experience, family living, and the passing on of religious values that matters. It doesn’t matter whether a child knows algebra or can write an essay, the argument goes. If they love Jesus and have a heart dedicated to serving others, that’s enough.

There is this idea that government involvement in anything ever is always a bad thing. The highest value is the individual freedom of every adult citizen. To get the government involved would put people under the thumb of bureaucrats intent on telling people what to do and result in corruption, child-snatching, and worse.

I don’t trust the homeschool community to police itself—I just don’t.

It’s worth noting that some of the ideas listed above aren’t isolated to the Christian homeschool community—they’re more endemic than that. In other words, it’s not like this problem can be solved by telling the homeschool community to self-police better—they don’t self-police because they can’t self-police given the nature of their beliefs. As long as these ideas remain knit through the homeschool community, I will be an advocate for outside oversight. To be less would be a betrayal.

Because here’s the thing—my friends’ mother wasn’t a bad person. She just needed to actually be required to educate her children and to be held accountable for doing so (this isn’t the first time I’ve written about this need for accountability). If she’d lived in a state with required subjects and periodic assessments to verify that instruction and learning were taking place, things would almost certainly have been different. She would have pulled things together, and while the education she provided her children might not have been perfect, it would have been something.

The Psychological Cost Of Not Being Provided For

Screen Shot 2014-06-15 at 5.28.22 PM

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on October 3, 2013.

Children not getting what they want certainly does not constitute child maltreatment, and historically isn’t uncommon. The societal construct of childhood has changed several times in last few centuries, with ebbs and flows in the level of freedoms, rights, and responsibilities children have at various ages.Children have not always had childhoods. However, children have always depended on their parents to provide for them. Sometimes children who are not cared for are removed from their parents, and historically some children who were not cared for died. Children who are not provided for, know.

It is a painful realization that through choices made by parents of their own free will, a child was not given what was needed.

My siblings and I had more responsibilities and less rights than is considered typical in current society. Part of this including not really having our own possessions, and not being given new belongings except for a few
notable occasions. We were not entitled to our own space, in fact having a right to possessions and space was contraindicated because of my parents’ belief that having too many rights would make a child feel entitled and cause corruption.

It isn’t the loss of possessions ‘that could have been’ that is the problem. The loss factor in not being “provided for” lies in the reason it happened. In the case of my family, there are several reasons that we lived an essentially impoverished lifestyle. My father did not work regularly, although he did have several different jobs for short periods of times over the years. There were simply too many children in the home to properly care for on the child tax credit. The choices my parents made, including various business attempts, meant that even when there was money, it was not spent in a way that contributed to the well-being of the individuals in the family, or the family as a whole.

My father believed that he should not have a job in an organization where a woman was in a position over him in the company hierarchy in any way, even if he never interacted with them. This belief came into play over time, as he further and further restricted his job options by becoming more strict over the years about what his interaction with women could be in the workplace. It had originally started with not being able to be a peer with a women or have an immediate supervisor who a women, and then expanded to include most organizations by default. Not having a job most of the time naturally resulted in not having enough money to provide for the family. My mother never worked because my parents believed that her place was in the home being a homemaker.

My parents disapproved of welfare, and in hindsight I realize that they would certainly have not been eligible for welfare, given that two able bodied people cannot sit at home and receive welfare.

They did receive the Canadian child tax benefit, and when you have 9 children under the age of 18, it turns out that that benefit is not an insignificant amount of money – still not enough to properly care for that many children, but there was more money than we were led to believe as children. This money was spent mainly on groceries and “business expenses”, and on housing costs, however my family never had very high housing costs because my parents owned properties and stacked many children into very small spaces. They also kept expenses under control by gate-keeping the use of heat and lights.

My parents had a number of businesses over the years, so many that it is difficult to keep track of all of them.  There was a furnace selling business, in which my father spent a great deal of money on pamphlets and a floor model and a trailer to pull the floor model (it was the size of a garden shed), entry fees to farm shows, and advertisements, and in the end sold less than half a dozen over two years. There was a wood selling business in which my father bought chain saws and other equipment like protective pants and helmets and gloves, and then piled firewood up near the road and behind the house and sold it to passersby. The money earned through this simply could never pay for the amount of labour (child labour and his own) and start up costs. We did not burn wood in our own house.

There were yearly attempts at market gardens. These were family exercises, in which we all went out in the spring (homeschooling did not interfere with this) and dug up the garden by hand and with a rototiller that my dad spent thousands of dollars on to maintain every year – for some reason it never worked and he had to take it for servicing literally several times per year. We then put about $100 worth of seeds in the ground. Most of it never came up. My sisters and I tried to water the garden with buckets, but we couldn’t water an acre of garden by ourselves. Depending on the year and what stage of child-bearing my mother was in, some of it was picked and some of it was left to rot in the garden – my father had always lost interest by this point and was off working on some other ‘home business’. We never really sold much. We sometimes paid for a farmer’s market booth and tried to sell there, however never earned as much as was spent on seeds. We also preserved some of it through canning and freezing.

Because of all these financial decisions, my parents did not provide the basic necessities to us. Instead they depended on the charity of acquaintances, even for such dubious items as hand-me-down underwear. Underwear for children, even 9 children, is very cheap, but my parents decided to ask other families to give us their underwear that was no longer wanted. And they did. They were also given ratty dresses and shoes and pants and shirts for the boys. We sometimes wanted new items, but we were shamed for not being grateful to the church families for giving us their castoffs, and were forced to wear the cast offs to church and thank the parent and the child who gave the clothes personally.

My parents always seemed to be able to provide for their own needs.

My mother wore hand me down clothes sometimes, but usually other women made clothes for her. My father always bought his own clothes, likely from Salvation Army, but it did not go unnoticed that he was allowed to not prostrate himself to others and beg for clothes. They also seemed to be able to squeeze in date nights, even when they were barely speaking to each other and we were on a steady rotation of oatmeal, rice, and rice. They sometimes bought steaks and had them after we went to bed. They always had coffee in the mornings, even when they couldn’t afford anything else.

It was very hard for us to see other children get some of what they wanted and everything they needed, and even to see our own parents have what they wanted, while we were not allowed to have what we wanted. When we did have treats or get new things, we hoarded them and saved them and bragged to our siblings. We would take as much as we could of free things. Our parents tried hard to make sure that we viewed desiring things as a sin. Even expressing a desire for something was enough to put it completely out of reach. We were taught to put ourselves down for wanting things. We were taught that others were entitled to what they wanted, but we were not. Because we had to take what others no longer wanted, we felt like the trash of the church. We were taught that what we wanted was not important.

The psychological cost of not being provided for was a loss of self-worth. It took many years to realize that we are worth the same as others. It was quite an experience going shopping for what we wanted in the mall. Now that I work full time, and I get cheques regularly, it is still a weird feeling to see that we have enough money for what I want – not to mention what I need. I sometimes have to force myself to see that it is ok to buy a few new shirts even if I still have some. The decision to withhold basic necessities of life and let children depend on the charity of others, by choice, is intrinsically harmful and teaches children that the world is a dangerous place.

Teaching children that they are not as important as others is self-serving and abusive. 

Giving Too Much

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 7.21.22 PM

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Kierstyn King’s blog Bridging the Gap.  It was originally published on May 20, 2014.

Ever since my family became devout, they became regular tithers and givers. Before I go further, I should point out there is nothing wrong with giving as long as that giving isn’t negatively affecting your life (or that of your kids/family).

Which, I realized somewhat recently, is the case with my own family.

They started out giving 10% (the actual biblical definition of a tithe) all the time. Then, they realized that wasn’t enough, and “god told them” to give more and more and more until the last time I remember was them “tithing” 50-60% of their income and waffling with giving more, because their faith, at one point, wasn’t strong enough to give 70% because they had hungry mouths to feed.

When I was 10, my family chose to allow our house to be foreclosed on because “god told them” to pay another families’ mortgage, and when my parents couldn’t financially afford to pay both, they decided (knowing full-well the consequences) to stop paying their mortgage instead, trusting that “god would provide” a way to keep our house, or a new place for us to live.

“god’s provision” happened at the hand of my grandparents who noticed the building next door was for rent and the landlords weren’t picky about having a family who’s house had just been foreclosed on (every other place my parents looked turned them down), renting from him. This happened the day we had to be out of our foreclosed-on house and we were looking at being homeless.

My parents refused to pay their mortgage and take care of their family because “god told them” to do that for someone else. 

Not to mention, at this time, we had another family living with us because my parents believed god brought them into our lives so this woman could get her children back from CPS.

Because my large family + this additional family who my parents payed to live with us, so she could homeschool her kids but still say she “had a job” were moving in to this house, my brother’s room was a closet, literally, he lived in a closet. My sister’s all roomed in a portion of the master suite my dad partitioned off from their room, and I shared a room with the other families’ eldest daughter, and the rest of her family had the separated off room/bathroom combination. At one point their cousin came to live with us too, and he slept on the floor outside my room, in the dining room.

My parents didn’t really mind the fact that this mother was taking as much advantage of me as my mother until I had a breakdown one day and they decided everyone should do chores and cooking, not just me. Eventually, my family had to ask the family they invited to live with us for free to leave, because the mother had started abusing pharmaceuticals again after regaining custody (which was part of the reason she lost custody of her kids initially).

At some point between these two events my parents did stop paying the other families’ mortgage, I think because they found out and asked them to stop (how they didn’t know, I don’t know, I was a kid,  this was all foreign to me).

This whole time my parents have been tithing more and more – by the time we moved to GA to live in the house my grandparents bought for their retirement, my parents were tithing close to 50% of their income. After my dad found a job that payed significantly less than the one he had previously, they tithed 50-60% of their income, fully believing that “god would provide” and by refusing to acknowledge that my grandparents are the reason we had a house, food, and shoes that fit, “god” did provide.

There were multiple times, aside from being forced out of our house, that I was worried if we’d even be able to eat, and I remember my mom talking to my grandma, and at one point, there was a series of weeks where my grandparents paid for an Angel Food subscription for us because we couldn’t afford groceries.

At birthdays, and even in-between them my grandparents would buy us new shoes and clothes (which was always really nice because most of what we wore was hand-me-downs from pitying church folk, or old clothes of mine passed down to my sisters) because, really, we couldn’t afford a lot of that either – at least not at the rate that 8 kids grow. I think it was a relief to them when I stopped growing at 15, and had only grown an inch or two between then and age 12 (stunted at the I-can-still-technically-shop-in-the-kids-section size – I’ve since grown curves, so, yay?).

But you know what we could afford? buying and donating a shit ton of everything to the Crisis Pregnancy Center, throwing extravagant donation-only christmas parties, putting together lavish packages for the Shoebox/Samaritan’s Purse group, making a ton of cookies and buying presents for everyone in church (and only keeping the cookies that didn’t come out right for ourselves after slaving in the kitchen for a week), putting together care packages for nursing homes, buying presents and making gift baskets for the entire neighborhood, and since I’ve left: creating the most elaborate easter baskets for all of the church kids (but my siblings only get the $1 chocolate and whatever is cheap and on sale or left over).

My family gets the short end of the stick because they have to support 6 kids-at-home on 40-50% of whatever my dad makes. Everything else goes to churches, people (projects), and random “ministries”, in the name of “god”.

I remember having long devotions about tithing and how you have to tithe to be a good christian (also, the more you give the better christian you are), and how if you don’t tithe, your life will be horrible and “god won’t bless it”.

I’d heard so often that if things aren’t done X way, then your life will be bad. Given my already hellish childhood, when I was a teenager I was actually scared of what would happen when I left home.

I was afraid that I would have to live my childhood all over again, on my own, but worse, because god would be after me, specifically.

Part of the reason I didn’t want to get married for so long was because I couldn’t imagine having to go back and make all the decisions my parents made and live through that all over again.

When Alex and I were getting serious I tried to get him to promise me that we would always tithe. Because if we didn’t, I knew that there would be horrible consequences – because my family was “so blessed” and doing everything right, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if we didn’t. 

I couldn’t imagine how dire the consequences of not tithing would be, after living my entire life in a house that was so other-centric it neglected their own children’s needs. I thought it would be a nightmare. I was just so so afraid of what would happen if I left home, if I didn’t tithe, if I didn’t live exactly the way my parents did, because I knew what that was like and I hoped that eventually it would get better – that they would get their 100 fold, and everything wouldn’t be so scary.

I was terrified at the thought of having to walk that path again, myself, starting from square one.

As an adult now, and learning how the world works…I was lied to so much, and so much fear was ingrained that was completely baseless. Never once have I had any cause to be legitimately worried about food (not to say that I haven’t, because an empty fridge is a huge trigger even if it just because we ate out all week instead of shopping), never once has my life been anywhere near as hellish and scary as it was in my childhood.

“god” has not come after me like the mafia for “his money”, and I have a lot more satisfaction giving what I can to who I want, than giving more than is financially wise to whatever church I’m in that day.

My family could have, at any time, started paying their mortgage, or maybe cut-back on tithe for a month so we could eat. Instead, my family decided to bring financial crises upon themselves because they thought “god told them” and it made them better christians. 

And that’s really all that it’s about, isn’t it?