Trying To Be A Good Mother
Reclining in the chair behind the teacher’s desk, Dāvis is presenting his homework on Astrakhan. He has tried hard, even using Prezi software. His text is full of mistakes though, as he has translated it using the internet, while visiting his father who lives in a farm house that hasn’t seen repairs for many years and only partly has electrical wiring.
Next up with her homework is the straight-A student of the class, Katrīna. She has drawn her presentation on cardboard. The artistic touch of her mother Natālija is apparent — she teaches art at the school and keeps a close eye on her daughter’s studies.
Natālija is a single parent and earns extra money working at the student lodging facilities of the school. Katrīna is an example of poverty not interfering with good marks at school. But poverty often goes hand in hand with stress, which significantly influences the professional development and even the health of children.
A study done in the early 1990s in California revealed that experiencing trauma in childhood (such as parents’ divorce, alcohol or drug addiction in the family, or physical violence) increases the probability of children smoking twofold, and the chance of becoming alcoholics sevenfold. Such children also tend to become sexually active early.
Paul Tough says stress experienced in childhood often manifests itself as discipline issues at school. Such stress makes it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions. Many of these kids cannot react to their peers’ provocations in a composed manner. «When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet,» Tough writes.
Dāvis lives with his mom in a modest house four kilometres from Brocēni. Santa (37) is a short, dark-haired woman, with some of her curls highlighted red. Santa has five children from three different fathers, and an unfinished elementary school education. School was not a priority, as she had to babysit the younger children of her alcoholic mother. They were ten altogether, including Santa. Some of them ended up at an orphanage.
Santa doesn’t know who her father is. At the age of fifteen she started working at a neighbour’s horse farm. A year later she was already living with the owner. «I got out, went to a rich man, did well. The one from among all (my siblings) who had a breakthrough in life,» says Santa. Māris and Zanda were born in that relationship.
A few years later the father of her children found himself another woman. He bought a run-down farmhouse in the name of his son, Māris, and Santa moved in there with the little ones. Soon she married another man. Dāvis and Ketija were born.
When Dāvis was five, Santa left the children to her husband and went to England to earn money to repair the house. Meanwhile the husband met another woman, and spent the money Santa sent. After Santa returned home a year later, she underwent treatment for depression . Her youngest children had become easily agitated and cried often. Similar news about her elder kids reached her from the school.
Santa then had a new relationship, which ended with the man dumping her at the maternity home, right after the birth of her fifth child, little Nils.
For the last three years Dāvis’ mom has been living with a man who works as a construction worker in Germany. Her eldest daughter Zanda (17) has left her mother’s house, and custody court has stripped Santa of custody over her middle daughter Ketija (11), who since last year lives with her father not far from Brocēni. Santa’s boyfriend had hit her in the face. Santa thinks her daughter consciously provoked him, so that she would get to live with her lenient father.
«At my place you have to wash the dishes, wear slippers indoors, at his place it’s OK to wear boots,» says Santa. Her daughter told the custody court that Santa yells at her at home. «But I tell her something once, she doesn’t hear, the third time it’s louder,» Santa explains. «Nowadays your kid can tell you to f..k off, and you can’t say anything,» she sighs.
Dāvis also says he bickers with his mom, as «she’s always yelling at me». Dāvis feels his mother doesn’t appreciate the things he does daily. Every morning Dāvis takes his five year old brother to kindergarten on the school bus and picks him up after school. That’s why Dāvis cannot participate in any extracurricular activities. At home he washes the dishes, heats the wood stoves, as Santa is often too tired when she returns from work at a bakery.
To earn more, Santa works night shifts as well. Sometimes she travels to the bakehouse, located 100 km away, even five nights in a row. She earns about 500 euros a month and receives an additional 200 euros in alimony. One hundred and ten euros a month from that income goes for the car lease, and 75 euros is the monthly payment for a used computer she bought at a pawnshop with very high interest and is paying off within a year. Since they own a car, the family is not eligible for benefits from the local municipality.
Although she is worn out, Santa thinks she’s a good mother. When the school summons her, she always turns up; she cares about her children’s grades. She takes the children out to a cafe. Sometimes they all cuddle together in the big family bed and watch movies. She has no idea where she has gone wrong in raising her children.
Only once have social services offered Dāvis’ mom psychological help — when the stepfather hit her daughter, both Ketija and Santa were assigned a session course with a psychologist. «My past was all brought up, how I lived with my first husband, then the second. Where all our problems started,» Santa remembers, and admits the psychologist did help a little. She was advised to talk more to the children and not to argue with her boyfriend in their presence.
Santa travelled to Saldus for these sessions, as a full-time psychologist has only been available in Brocēni since July this year. Saldus is often brought up as an example, because the local municipality gets the whole family involved in solving teenagers’ problems. «You have to work differently with these people. You can’t just call them into your office and wag your finger at them,» says Ina Behmane, the head of Saldus social services. She elaborates: parents don’t know how to raise their children, as they have experienced similar attitudes when they were kids themselves.
Paul Tough writes that trust in the world and a healthy self-confidence in a child is instilled by a close relationship with the mother in early childhood. But, «when a woman has to battle poverty, insecurity and fear, she needs superhuman powers to give a sense of security to her child. If a mother hasn’t felt secure attachment in her childhood, it’s even more difficult for her to provide it to her child.»
When creating relationships with these students, teachers should take into account the environment that has shaped them. But that does not always happen. Robert Starratt, professor at Boston College, points out that schools consider the curriculum to be the most important thing. «At many schools the message is — leave your personal and social life behind the door.»
And many teachers in Latvia think this way. In the study on leaving school early, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, school employees said in a survey that «educational institutions should not be solving broader social and economic issues that lie outside their direct range of competence.» A similar conclusion appears in the study by lecturers at University of Latvia: «In cases when issues are caused by students’ behaviour, the school tries to avoid them, and pressure the children to change schools.»