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My single mom didn't teach me these 5 life lessons. It made me stronger.

A Mother's Day celebration of brave, badass single moms everywhere.

My single mom didn't teach me these 5 life lessons. It made me stronger.
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Mothers Everywhere

When I was a child, I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with my mother.

Sometimes, the sound of her keys unlocking the door late at night was all I heard from her. When my parents’ marriage ended, my mother worked day and night to support us. I remember her handwriting — from all the little notes she left us about dinner and chores — better than I remember her beauty regimens or her favorite meals.

I used to wish that things were different. If she hadn’t worked so much, she could have been home to teach me the things that moms usually make sure to teach their daughters. I used to feel like I missed out.


Image via iStock.

But now I realize that even though my mother didn’t have a lot of time to spend with me, she was always teaching me something important.

1. My mother didn’t teach me secret recipes.

There’s no secret to rice or ramen or spaghetti. She showed me how to cook ground beef and pour a jar of sauce on top of it. My sister and I would take turns picking out a box of cereal every week, and we were never allowed to have more than one bowl for breakfast. We rarely got to pick what we wanted for dinner. Sometimes she left a box of macaroni and cheese on the table for us to cook for dinner while she was at work.

I don’t have family recipes to pass down to my children, but I teach them my mother’s sense of duty and responsibility. My exhausted mother rarely indulged us with a comforting home-cooked meal, but she worked tirelessly to make sure that we were never hungry.

2. My mother didn’t often have time to play with me.

In my fondest playtime memories, she is absent. I remember when she’d emerge from her bedroom, tired and groggy, preparing to leave us for the entire day again. She never sat and played with dolls or pretended to have tea parties. If I asked her to play, she would say, “Where is your sister? I have to get ready.”

And so my sister became my companion, an extension of myself, my other half.

Image via iStock.

Instead of waiting for time with my mother, my sister and I took care of each other. We woke, we cooked, we played, we cleaned, and we fell asleep always together. The love we built throughout our childhood made us inseparable. My mother made sure my sister and I took care of each other. She couldn’t entertain me, but I was never alone and she made sure that I always knew that.

3. We didn’t take family vacations.

My mother was too busy working. My summers were spent in our apartment or outside playing with neighborhood kids. Sometimes I spent the whole day at the restaurant where she worked.

We didn’t have many beach days or family trips, but when she had the time to take us to the park for a picnic, it was enchanting. My mother could make a frugal day seem like a lavish outing. When she would take us to McDonald's or let us get ice cream, I felt like royalty. My childhood memories aren’t filled with vacations or grand adventures, but my sweet mother showed me how to find joy in the simplest things.

4. My mother didn’t make sure life was easy for me.

She worked and slept and worked and slept for most of my childhood. She didn’t have time to shield me from many things kids shouldn’t know or see. There were times when both of us were deeply hurt and broken. She couldn’t stop the world to soothe me, but she showed me how to find the will to carry on. When my mother’s heart was broken, when she grieved and when she was weary, she never let her sorrow overcome her. She faced each day with determination.

She showed me that through hard days, you can just go through the motions. On other days, your will can be strong and steady. And on really bad days, you can get through even if you barely make it. I never knew the feeling of a coddled, carefree childhood, but my unstoppable mother showed me how to dig deep and find my own strength.

5. My mother didn’t have time to teach me how to be a "lady."

When it came to navigating traditional aspects of femininity, I was pretty much on my own. She didn’t show me how to put on makeup. The pretty dresses she owned became dusty on hangers in her closet because there was rarely an occasion to wear them.

What I learned from my mother, though, was how to be a bold woman.

She fearlessly showed me her strong yet breakable heart, time after time. She taught me how to rise to an occasion: crisis, joy, terror, or celebration and look straight into it, ready and able.

Photo via Nuffer/Pixabay.

My mother danced in our living room. She wept in our kitchen. She raged when she was angry. She fought when she was attacked. Her laughter echoed through our home when she was joyful.

She wasn’t always right and she wasn’t always wrong. But my bold, authentic mother was always a woman, always herself.

Now, I have children of my own and I have precious time to spend with them.

The mornings when my tired mother would emerge from her bedroom are long gone too. Now my mother is retired, and she gets to sleep as late as she wants. But like every mother, she often wonders if she did enough for me. She worries that we missed so much and tells me she wishes she could go back in time.

When I look back, though, I see an unbreakable, courageous woman. I see the kind of strength that builds a legacy. I see a mother who didn't have a lot and gave everything she had. I see love poured out through hard work and small joys.

I hope my children say the same about me.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

This article originally appeared on 11.21.16


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