"IT HURTS TOO MUCH to talk about all the hurt the kids have been through," says Margaret Armstrong, 33, divorced mother of two young sons.
"They've been through so much and they still smile. They've cried. They've gotten up in the middle of the night when they've heard me crying and they've sat with me. They know there are things they want and they can't get them, but they're willing to wait. They love me for what I can do."
Margaret Armstrong is the woman behind the statistics emerging from the federal government these days: statistics that tell us that the number women heading families has tripled since 1960 from 750,000 to 2.1 million - that 40 percent of divorced women get no financial help from their former husbands after the first year and that although most of these mothers are working, their median family income is around $6,800.
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission told us this week that these women are doing no better now than they were in 1960. Despite the women's movement, despite new laws requiring equal pay for men and women, these women are worse off now than they were in 1969. The only thing that has changed is that more and more women are getting divorced and raising children alone, in poverty because employers won't hire them or won't pay them as much as they pay men, and because the child support system doesn't work.
The Civil Rights Commission is telling us the story of a new, growing class of poor people. It's the story of women who are expected because of divorce to be mother and father and who don't have the time to be either. It's the story of women putting children into whatever day care they can afford and of women forced to spend so much of their income on housing that they can't afford clothing, medicine, or a birthday cake for their children.
Margaret Armstrong is among the new, poor women, but she's doing better than most: she's off welfare and earning $8,500. Since February, Armstrong has been working for the United Labor Agency, which is funded with Comprehensive Employment Training Act money. It was the 20th job she applied for. "Employers don't want to give a single mother a chance. She's a risk because she needs time off when the kid needs braces, or she has to go home because the commode's overflowing. I applied to 19 different employers. They wouldn't hire me because I was grossly overweight and a single mother."
So for 2 1/2 years, Margaret Armstrong and her children - Richard, 9, and Jeremy, 4 - lived on welfare, moving out of the apartment she and her husband had in Forestville moving in with her mother, and finally getting an apartment through the Housing and Urban Development department. After she paid her rent and paid for her food stamps, she had $13 a month for other things, such as corrective shoes for Jeremy. Things most of us buy every month, the Armstrongs did without or postponed buying. "The first month I bought toilet paper. The second I bought toothpaste, and the third month I did my wash at the laundromat." In between, she stole toilet paper from the rest room at the courthouse and she did her laundry in the bathtub. "I can laugh at it now, but I couldn't then."
"Now you'd think things would be rosey, but they're not. I'm still trying to raise two children on $8,500 a year. My rent has gone up, food is higher, I don't qualify for (subsidized) daycare, so I have to pay for a sitter myself. That's costing me $35 a week for a teenager and I don't know what I'm going to do this fall when the teen-ager goes back to school. The closest day care center is in Seat Pleasant and I lived in Chillum."
Margaret Armstrong tells you she's making it. "I won't give up; I will survive. What's most important to me is to be the best mother I can and have my children be proud of me. They're wonderful kids. They don't deserve any of the things they've been through."
Since she doesn't have the money, she gives them time.She cuts corners. "Once a month we'll go to McDonalds. They like to play pinball. So I'll save on the laundry and take them for pinball. We go to the parks a lot. To libraries. Those are free and they're educational."
And she survives with a lot of help from her friends. "In my apartment building there are 12 apartments. Nine of them are single mothers, all are working or trying to go to school." They share clothing - the oldest child is on the third floor and his clothes make their way downstairs. The women buy food in quantity together at co-ops. They look out for each other's children. They share baby-sitting time.
"That saves us money. We do the laundry together. We all pile into a car while the kids are in church and make a day of it. A soda and a doughnut at the landromat may not sound too hot to you, but to us it's the highlight of our day. It's a chance to relax and get the work done and still have some fun at the same time."
Margaret Armstrong is a tough cookie and she's surviving in what she calls a "rotten situation." She talks about better jobs for women, equal pay for women, the equal rights amendment, and sometimes she uses the slogans but more often she doesn't. More often she talks about her children, about being able to earn money that will buy things for them - new clothes, a trip to a movie, a proper dinner every night, corrective shoes for Jeremy.
"When my sons says, Mommy I wish I could make it better for you, I still cry," says Margaret Armstrong. "I think of the things my children should have and they can't because no one will give me the opportunity to give it to them.
"Maybe some legislator will realize, hey, those women are really having a tough time. They're not just out there whining. They really are having a tough time of it."
Yes, they are. So are their children.