Thursday, March 22, 2012

What Meals at the Homeless Shelter Taught Me About Motherhood

Twenty years ago I was a volunteer at a day shelter for homeless women and children. I would arrive on my scheduled day and spend the morning chatting with the clients or attending their required Narcotics Anonymous meeting with them.

In my memory, I can't think of any way I was particularly useful. I remember blundering through more than one conversation, feeling like I had accidentally insulted someone. Maybe I had. But the shelter, like many others, operated with a very practical principle: the more "normal" people the clients spent time with, the better.

That makes more sense to me now than it did when I was young, idealistic and eager to "fix" people's problems. Back then, my fear of appearing snobbish left me offended at the suggestion that I was "normal" and the clients were not. Aren't we all just people? I thought, with a melodramatic quiver. But now I see the sense of it. The majority of the clients were addicts. Many of them had never known a relationship with a man that wasn't abusive. "Normal" people meant people who expected life to be free of violence or drug abuse. That expectation was powerful.

The woman who ran the shelter was a recovering addict who had been homeless herself, and had a sharp perspicacity for when someone's dire need caused them to break a rule, and when she was being snowed.  I have remembered for twenty years the way she looked a client in the eye and said, "Did not having bus fare ever keep you from getting drugs? Then it doesn't keep you from attending NA."

I have used this method more than once in my parenting.

When lunch was served, the staff and volunteers ate with the clients. There was always more than enough food, and eating together was a mark of respect, a communal sharing between everyone in the shelter.

But while I sat at the table, I never ate.

I was in a struggle with eating disorders, and eating in front of people - especially the heavy food given to women for whom this might be the only meal that day - felt impossible. I could not explain this to anyone. I felt paralyzed. I sat, but the clients noticed I was not eating. Sharing a meal is a way of sharing someone's life, and I was refusing to share.

I have thought of those meals often since then. I have thought of the irony of me trying to help women who, in this respect at least, were less broken than I was. Today, I would eat. Even if I wasn't hungry, I would make myself eat, because sharing a meal is about more than food.

 I have thought about those meals as a parent, because there are afternoons I feed my kids but do not sit down with them. I know that is a refusal to share something with them, as well as a warning sign about old problems re-emerging. So we eat dinner as a family every night. It says to my girls, "Look, I am sharing myself with you. Look, mothers must nourish themselves as well as others. Look, we are a family."

I have thought about those meals when I volunteer at a local shelter now. It is much larger than the one I volunteered at twenty years ago, and serves many more people. It serves mostly men, and the volunteers do not share the meal because every scrap is needed for the clients. If the volunteers ate the meal, it would mean someone else did not get seconds. Instead, we serve the meal, being the waiters and waitresses for the clients, and hope that shows a similar respect. It doesn't exactly, but it's the best we can do.

The economic downturn has changed things, and a friend who runs a local shelter says they see more people now who are destitute for the first time, people with shocked eyes and "normal" lives. I think at dinner about what I am modeling for my girls about "normality." This family does not expect prosperity, and if we are ever a family at the shelter, we will manage it as best we can. But this family does expect a life free from violence and drug abuse. This family expects a life of mutual sharing and nourishment. This family expects love that values each other's dignity, at meal times and all times.

I'll eat to that.


  1. Eloquent and full of truth. Thanks :)

  2. I so often feel the instinct to take my lunch and eat it alone, away from the children. I wonder what is behind that instinct...

  3. I don't comment on blogs very much (often someone else has beat me to what I was going to say anyway), but I just have to say that I'm so glad you've started posting regularly again. Your thoughtfulness and compassion are inspiring.

    I love the thought that the difference is expectations. "To whom much is given, much is expected." This makes so much more sense as an adult. Some of us start so much farther back because of our families of origin. I have issues with my parents sometimes, but the more I find out about how *other* people grew up, the more I give my parents credit for creating a secure, loving home. Could I have come as far or chosen the good husband I did if my environment had been so very different? I've never needed the kind of courage it takes for recovering addicts or homeless people or people with mental health problems just to get through the day.

  4. i found this beautiful. and a good reminder.

    i too have a history of disordered eating. and sometimes meals with little kids are enough to make me want to bash my head into the plate.

    but mostly no. mostly i think, here we are. hello. and i am still trying to teach them that the time is for sharing ourselves and our days, not just the food. but i am grateful at how stable it makes me feel, to have that role to offer.