Meet Rochelle

Rochelle’s world is one of poverty, going back generations.  She is a 28 year old Black single mother with children aged 5, 7, and 10.  She does not know for sure who the father of her elder daughter is, nor does she know the identity of her own father.  Though she did drop out of high school for short periods of time when her living situations kept her from getting to school, she actually graduated on time.  She is the only person in her entire extended family ever to complete high school.  Two weeks before graduation Rochelle gave birth to her first child.  This was a great surprise to her entire family and all her friends.  She had never seen a doctor during her pregnancy, nor had she confided her pregnancy to anyone.  Some friends may have suspected, but she says she just wore baggy clothes and her family wasn’t paying much attention anyway.

I became friends with Rochelle about 11 years ago when we were both working for the same department store.  I noticed her because she was smart, hardworking, and funny.  After several years I retired; I was 63.  Shortly afterward Rochelle lost her job.  She had been a salesperson there for seven years, but the store closed due to changing demographics.  We had stayed in touch, and I noticed Rochelle’s situation take a dramatic downturn.  Just as she was losing her job, she was also losing her childcare.  She could not afford childcare and had relied on her mother. Her mother’s health was deteriorating, and she was becoming unable to watch the children as she had before.  Her mother now required more care from Rochelle as well.  Though receiving unemployment insurance after losing her job, finding a new job without childcare was close to impossible.

I began interviewing Rochelle on a weekly basis when my sister, a professor of cultural anthropology, suggested that I do so.  My sister had been interviewing “never married mothers” and was collecting data for a possible book or article.  She volunteered to pay Rochelle her standard fee of $25 per interview plus lunch, and I agreed to conduct and record the interviews.  I asked Rochelle if she was interested and she said she was. Years ago both my sister and I were volunteers with Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and we became familiar with the problems poverty brings.   Weekly interviews with Rochelle, a friend, brought the situation directly into my own and my sister’s life again.  We have become involved with her life and are increasingly frustrated with the lack of options and solutions.  Just what does society think a person in Rochelle’s situation can do??

I interview and record Rochelle every week, usually in my living room.  Because of my sister’s specific academic interests, I started out with questions about Rochelle’s background and her specific experiences as a single mother. Why do young women, sometimes girls, get pregnant?  These were some of my first questions.  Why do they then get pregnant again, even when they are unable to support the children?  What can be done to reverse the trend?  Rochelle was knowledgeable about birth control but in generaldidn’t use it.  She had no health insurance so going to the doctor for birth control pills was expensive.  She couldn’t afford health insurance even when it was offered as a benefit when she worked at the department store.  When Rochelle was young, she simply didn’t think much about avoiding pregnancy, even after she saw her oldest sister get pregnant at fourteen and drop out of school.  Day-to-day living problems took over Rochelle’s childhood and pregnancy prevention was not part of her thoughts.  With no father and a mother much more concerned with things other than motherhood, she basically grew up on her own.  And growing up on her own is how the story of Rochelle’s World begins.  As we begin this blog, Rochelle and I have expanded our discussions to include not only her experiences as a single mother, but all aspects of her life and her world.

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One thought on “Meet Rochelle

  1. This one has grabbed me and won’t let go. I read the whole site and have to tell you that I can’t read it any more. My reasons are not complicated, just difficult to put into words. I’ll try. I know Rochelle, or at least I know dozens of rochelles. The details of their lives are etched on my brain, and those details never change. The same lifetime gets replayed. I can’t help any of them, except in minuscule ways, but revisiting the particulars leaves me feeling deflated, crushed even, and I just can’t do it. Years ago Jim and I decided that our charitable donations would no longer go to organizations providing direct help to people, because we actually believe these “escape valve” non-profits just allow the country to ignore the depth and breadth of its cycle-of-poverty problem. So we only give to public policy organizations that seek institutional change. That’s what I mean by minuscule ways. Even if Rochelle were all of a sudden my daughter, I would have no idea where to begin to make her life right. She needs counseling, mentoring, quality childcare, a good job, reliable transportation, debt relief…and a new set of habits so that she doesn’t have to keep asking why bad things happen to her when at least some of them are the direct result of her doing things without thinking them through first. Money alone wouldn’t solve the problem — if it would, that would be the easy way out. And if Rochelle has come this far with absolutely no positive influence in her young life, can we at least hope that her own kids will fare better for having an intelligent, thoughtful mother? Maybe, but there’s no guarantee. So I can’t read this any more for the same reason I wouldn’t go out in the desert sun without a hat — I know when something can harm me, and I have to protect myself.

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