Is it possible to be a good parent if your parents weren't? If you never knew your mother, will you be able to mother your toddler? How do you raise a child if your childhood included abuse?
These are some of the things Marilyn wonders.
"I've been that parentless child, where you just want love and you don't have it," the 20-year-old single mom said as her 16-month-old son, Dontavious, clambered in her lap.
Seated nearby was the closest thing Marilyn has to a parental role model: LaChé Washington.
Washington, 26, is a home visitor with Bright Beginnings, a nonprofit that provides preschool and day care services for kids in District families experiencing homelessness. Most of the charity's clients come to the Bright Beginnings headquarters at First and M streets NW. But some are visited where they live, like at the apartment in Southeast that Marilyn and Dontavious, formerly homeless, received through the city's "rapid rehousing" program.
It was neat as a pin, the Christmas tree up and decorated. A dozen framed mother-and-son photographs were arranged on the floor as Marilyn pondered where on the walls to hang them.
She doesn't remember very many photos of herself growing up.
"My mom left me when I was born," Marilyn said. She appreciates that her dad stuck around, but he had his own issues with addiction. When she was 14, Marilyn was placed in foster care — two homes and a group home — before living with an aunt for a while in Southern Maryland.
"I always felt like a mistake child, like I wasn't supposed to be born," Marilyn said. "It's been really hard. I never thought I could be a parent."
That's where Bright Beginnings comes in. Washington visits Marilyn once a week for 90 minutes. She talks with Marilyn about how to interact with Dontavious, the games he might enjoy, child-development milestones to look for in such areas as fine and gross motor skills. She brings 25 diapers to each visit, an incentive to keep the appointment.
For Marilyn, it's a way to learn, but also to have the sort of human interaction she was denied as a child.
"I use this as my venting to her," Marilyn said. "Not talking to anybody, that's a big thing. You've got to let it out. If it stays bottled, one day you're going to explode."
Bright Beginnings focuses on parents as well as children. When Marilyn first went there, she met with the charity's workforce development manager, Jeanay Bullock. Marilyn had held low-wage jobs at McDonald's and Walmart. Bullock wanted to know if she had grander goals.
Marilyn confessed that she'd always wanted to be a heart surgeon. "I grew up all my life not believing in myself," she said, "so I just picked something that not everyone does, something big, just to really push myself."
Bullock was honest with Marilyn: That would take years of study. How about starting with a more modest goal that would provide Marilyn with real skills and let her see how she responded to the sight of blood? How about training to be an emergency medical technician?
Said Marilyn: "It was a good point — don't waste all your time in all this schooling to get there and find you can't handle it."
With Dontavious in day care, Marilyn started an EMT course at a school near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro, the tuition funded by the District's Department of Employment Services. Half the class has dropped out, but Marilyn is on track to graduate later this month and then look for a job.
The thick textbook — dog-eared and bristling with Post-its — sat on the coffee table under a pile of flashcards Marilyn made. She said the book and EMT course have been revelatory. Marilyn has learned that even little babies are affected by their environment, by parents who smoke, drink or abuse drugs, or are abusive, or simply aren't around.
"It's got to be some kind of truth, because that's exactly what happened to me," she said.
I asked Marilyn what she's learned about her son since starting with Bright Beginnings.
"I definitely learned that he loves to be sung to," she said.
"I told you," Washington said, approvingly.
"He lights up like a Christmas tree," said Marilyn, holding Dontavious close. "You're the only person who likes my singing, because I don't know how to sing."
I think she's learning.
Bright Beginnings is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising campaign for worthy local charities. Your tax-deductible contribution will help families such as Marilyn's. To give, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says "Donate."
To give by mail, make a check payable to "Bright Beginnings" and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 128 M St. NW, Suite 150, Washington, D.C. 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.