Alina, age 37, grew up in Pleasant Grove, Utah (which she describes as “neither pleasant, nor a grove”), the third of seven in a Mormon family. She now lives in North Carolina, where she cares for her disabled mother and is on a break from Mormonism. Alina was generous enough to share her journey—including the time she was pregnant and homeless—and I hope you find her story as inspiring and illuminating as I did.
I’ve never felt the need to conform to all of the rules of the Mormon church. I swear a lot. I wear pants to church. I hang out with gay people and atheists. Most of the rules that trouble me are cultural, not doctrinal. My relationship with God is filled with friendly banter instead of submission, and this makes my fellow Mormons a little (OK, a lot) uncomfortable.
But, as much as I feel “outside” the Mormon culture, the teachings are part of my soul and some of the beliefs I continue to hold dear, as if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is part of the fabric of my body and mind. For example, like most Mormons, I believe that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three distinct beings. (Mormons don’t believe in the trinity.) Beliefs like this make it impossible to become part of another church because they’re so fundamentally different from mainstream Christian doctrine.
Still, I disagree with some of the policies having to do with women and with homosexuality (and with sexuality in general) and in the fall of 2008, I knew it was time for another break. I haven’t been to church since then, and they don’t know where I am. The church likes to keep close to all of its members, so this drives them bonkers. The membership department has called my father on several occasions asking if he knows where I am.
What does your father say?
He knows me, and knows I don’t do things without a strong reason. So he understands that if the church doesn’t know where I am, there’s a darn good reason for it. He tells them he doesn’t know where I am.
What prompted your 2008 break?
The LDS church became involved with California’s Proposition 8 voting, and I knew it was time to step back. I became so angry about the whole thing, and I knew it threatened to damage my connection to the church irreparably, which I don’t want to do. I know I will go back someday.
Were your parents OK with your leaving the church?
We’ve never been a family that keeps tabs on each other or has a set of rules for behavior. My mother is no longer a member of the church (she’s had her name officially removed from the records), and my father hasn’t been to church in a while. Plus, of my siblings, I’m the only one who’s consistently been an active member. I’ve always been considered the white sheep of the family.
White sheep. Ha. You said that you’ve been pregnant and homeless. Can you tell me about that?
At the end of 2009, I left my job doing print design to finish my grad school application. At the beginning of 2010, I started to notice a shift in my thinking about children. I started saying that I didn’t have kids, instead of saying I haven’t or won’t have kids.
As a Mormon, the highest and greatest calling for women is to be a mother and I had always expected that would happen for me. I was taught to expect I’d have a whole house full of children (with a loving husband at my side, of course!), so there was this back-of-my-mind dialog about how it wasn’t happening and what that meant about me as a person. I guess the shift in self-talk was more noticeable to me than it would have been to someone who wasn’t so focused on the idea.
Even though I was having the safest sex of my life at that time, by the end of February, I was pregnant. I’m fairly certain it happened on my birthday. I was in shock. I’d left my job so didn’t have insurance or any sort of safety net.
I took myself to the local clinic (in Uptown, Chicago) and they signed me up for Medicaid and got me an appointment with the midwives at the nearest hospital.
By August, just six months later, my savings were gone. In September, my landlord refused to renew my lease. I moved in with a friend and became one of the “invisible homeless”—people who go from family member to family member and friend to friend because they can’t afford to pay for their own homes.
Where was the father was during this time?
He’s a mess. He helped as much as he could, but ultimately just didn’t have enough strength to handle my pregnancy and his own issues. He’s the one who drove me out here to North Carolina and it’s the last time he saw our daughter. His name isn’t even on the birth certificate (still!) because he was out of the country when she was born. He lives in Chicago and I haven’t seen any help (or phone calls, texts, or photos) from him in months.
This sounds like a terrible education in the American health care system. Is that your take as well?
The system as it applied to me as a pregnant woman was seamless and almost invisible. Every month I received a new Medicaid card, and showed it to the office when I went in for my visits. I never had any issues with billing or money or discrimination.
A single pregnant woman in Chicago (and from what I’ve gathered, everywhere else in the U.S.) is well taken care of. I was lucky to have the presence of mind to ask for a midwife, and I’m grateful that it was covered.
That is a nice surprise. Still, this sounds like a difficult ordeal. How did you cope?
I didn’t. I was in a haze. My brain basically shut down for the duration, and I grasped at whatever was placed in front of me. When I think back, I can hardly remember it. I leaned heavily on friends and family and the incredible generosity of strangers.
I’m part of a community of shockingly good and welcoming people on tumblr. We have spent time together and lifted each other and rallied around those who needed support.
I received emotional and monetary help from the whole bunch and was given an unbelievable cash gift from one member of this incredible community, which I cannot wait to pay forward once I’m more steady on my feet. The friends who opened their home to me were friends I met through this community. This world is filled with amazing people who will help if they can. I am in awe of the efforts of good people on my behalf.
And how did you get through it to the point that we’re trading emails on what (I’ve assumed) is your computer?
I stayed at my friend’s home for the last month of my pregnancy and went there with the baby after the birth. About a month after she was born, I knew I had to leave. I believe I would have been stuck in a rut if I hadn’t, and so did my friends. They pushed me out and it was what was best for everyone involved. (We’re still in touch today. It wasn’t an uncomfortable or unwelcome push.)
I contacted my siblings and finally realized that the only option was to come here to stay with Mom. It was the last place I wanted to end up, but it was my only option and it’s turned out to be the right thing.
She’s disabled and no one in the family realizes how serious the situation has become. She has severe scoliosis, ten degenerative discs, arthritis, second-hand-smoke syndrome, bone spurs in her back, no padding in her heels (13 surgeries there), double whiplash, and leukemia. She walks using a cane, which is basically a miracle she’s created for herself by being so strong-willed. We’re eventually going to have to knock her over the head with a mallet.
She needs someone with her and if I hadn’t come, I don’t know if that would have happened. I’ve leaned on government insurance and food stamps and she’s helped with phone bills and credit card payments when I haven’t had the funds.
The computer I’m using was given to me by my daughter’s father; the most significant contribution he’s made to her care. He tried to take it back at one point and I refused to even discuss the matter. *snip* I’ve started working (finally!) and moved us into a larger place and can finally begin to dig out of the hole.
Did you know the average Medicaid recipient is a white single mother who uses services for about two years? I guess I’m average; Leah turns two next month.
I did not know that! Interesting. What do you think of being a parent? Has anything surprised you?
It’s the grandest adventure of my life. My priorities and interests have changed in profound and completely unexpected ways. I don’t know if I could even explain it, but it makes me want to get back to Chicago even more so I can share it with Leah.
I’m imagining it’s tough to take care of your disabled mother, but I’d love to know your take.
She’s in pain all the time. It’s difficult to watch. She’s the sort of person who relies heavily on natural healing and hates medication, so she’ll often avoid taking her pills until the pain is excruciating. Still, she won’t let me do a lot to help her; she does her own cooking and most of her own cleaning. Our relationship was strained for years, but when I got here everything clicked into place and we’ve become much closer.
She and my daughter are best friends. I don’t feel like I’m going to need a support group for caretakers for a few years yet, because we’ve reached a good balance with each other. I do know two things; first, that it’s a very good thing I came here and second, she and I are roommates from now on. She needs someone with her and I am happy to be that person.
When I finally do go to grad school to get my Master’s in photography, I’ll be applying to southern universities because she doesn’t want to live where it’s cold.