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    Connections | Magazine

    I was raised by a single mother, and I’m finally seeing what she did for me

    As my sister prepares to raise a child, I’m coming to terms with my own conflicted feelings about our mother.

    Alexandra Bowman for The Boston Globe

    She’s not ready.

    That was my first thought when my younger sister told me she was pregnant. Though childless myself, I needed only to look to our childhood to know with certainty that she was not ready.

    I still remember the day my sister was born. It was two days after Mother’s Day. My twin sister and I were 4. I remember our younger sister running around the house in a diaper as a toddler and how jealous I was that she had her own room — and how annoyed I was that she always seemed to be in the room my twin and I shared.

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    Four years after she was born, my parents decided to divorce. The divorce changed things. It changed us.

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    My parents stopped pretending to like each other. We eventually left my father in New York and moved to North Carolina. There our family became another black household headed by a single mother, and I, at 9, took on parental responsibilities to fill in the gaps.

    As a twin born to teenage parents, I grew to accept having few resources. Only we knew what we did and did not have. Yes, we used food stamps, but my friends in New York didn’t know that when they came over for dinner. After the move, our situation wasn’t so hidden.

    The public display started with my mother working at KFC, a job I was happy she quit after two days. I preferred her being unemployed to working there. She eventually got a job as an administrative assistant, making $22,000 a year. Hardly enough to raise three kids, but she had a desk job, so I was pleased. Then she got a second job delivering pizzas. Many conversations with classmates about my mother visiting their homes to drop off their dinner followed.

    I still prefer to endure hardship privately. I believe that is why I have trouble making sense of my sister’s decision, even though she’s not a teenager but 25. My sisters and I saw what single motherhood did to my mother. It debilitated her. Or maybe it debilitated me.

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    It’s no secret that being a single parent is difficult. Being raised in a single-parent home can present challenges for children, but in my case, it made me stronger. Watching my mother juggle two jobs, raise three girls, care for an aging mother, and be an amazing friend to so many people showed me how much selflessness can exist in one person. That same selflessness has grounded my own life.

    If only I could say thank you.

    My mother died seven years ago, and since that day I’ve struggled to make sense of our
    relationship. I was always grateful for all that she did, but I was ashamed of the hardships. Those feelings came back when my sister told me she was pregnant and I thought about the life that awaited my future niece or nephew. But this time I realized how unfair that was to my sister — and how equally unfair it had been to my mother.

    Instead of projecting my own embarrassment about my childhood onto my sister, I will show her the compassion I never showed my mother. I’m fortunate I had a mother who sacrificed so much, who was our biggest cheerleader because she wanted more for us than she’d had for herself. I finally understand that not having the same things as others didn’t make me any less loved.

    For a long time, I believed I became the person I am in spite of my childhood. But I now know it is because of my childhood that I am who I am. I have my mother to thank for that, and so will the new addition to our family.

    Shaniqua McClendon is a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Send comments to connections @globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.