ONE in every FORTY-FIVE children experience homelessness in their life time. Children of addicts are EIGHT TIMES more likely to develop addiction. ONE out of every TWENTY children will lose a parent by the age of fifteen. 2,650 babies are born each year with a Cranio-Cleft or Cleft Palate and 4,440 babies are born each year with a Cleft Lip. I was born with both and this is my story.
My name is Ashley and my 29th birthday is just around the corner. I have an amazing husband and we are blessed with two boys, Cameron who is 8 and Maxwell who is 19 months. I am a business owner, a twin, a teacher, a lover of thrills, but first a wife and mother.
Just after my sixteenth birthday I ran away from home. No one came to look for me, no one asked me to come home. In fact; I announced my departure and my mother promptly called me a cab. This was the turning point in my life. Did she want me? Was I in her way? Was her life less stressful without me in it? To this day, I am not sure of the answers to any of those questions. What I am sure about is that this was the point that I had to make a big decision. Would I become a statistic or will I beat the statistics? That was the question that carried me through the next 13 years.
Let’s back up a bit here. I was born with an amazing gift, my twin sister of course, and yes while we are best friends now, she has her own story as life took us on separate paths and placed us promptly back together in time to be adults and best friends. She too left home at 16. She too had to make a choice to be a statistic or not to be.
We were born on a warm November day in 1986. I like to joke that she had it “out for me” from the beginning because they did an emergency cesarean due to her hogging all my space and “breathing room.” Out came Ashley in under a minute and a minute later came pretty little Aimee. As the doctors began checking for ten fingers and ten toes they noticed something a bit different about me. I was born with a Craniofacial Cleft and a Cleft Lip. Ok, so let me put this into English: I was born without a cheek or chin and my mouth sat on the right side of my face.
I was a day old when I had my first corrective surgery. I would endure 10 more until I was 22 and could call my face complete. In the meantime what I endured were the harsh words of children. I was called things like “pancake face” or “crooked mouth.” The worst? All the way through high school I could hear people call me “the ugly twin.” Even worse, I took it out on my sister. I hated her for being normal, pretty and popular. It was the epitome of peer pressure and I would have done ANYTHING for a friend.
At 18 I had a surgery that left me in ICU for seven days. I had no idea that my breakthrough was coming, but when I could finally look in the mirror and I saw a smile that fit right on my face I was overwhelmed with a feeling of happiness that to this day I cannot explain. Thankfully an amazing team of doctors exists for children like me, and while it did not get visibly corrected until I was 18, I am forever thankful and love the team of doctors who were determined to allow me to feel beautiful.
Our father (already divorced from our mother since we were 2) passed away from lung cancer at the young age of 36. While my father was NOT perfect, he struggled a great deal with alcoholism, he was an amazing dad. I am filled with memories of packing lunches and biking to the park, root beer floats after dinner, and fishing off and sometimes under the bridges of beautiful Sarasota. I was the tomboy, to say the least! We were both Daddy's girls. Death might be the most confusing thing as a child and even now as an adult to confront. Who could take such an amazing creature away from two little girls that needed and loved him so much!? Does he know how much we miss him? Does he know my children? Did he miss me walking down the aisle? Again, who can explain this? Even an adult has a hard time processing the loss of a parent.
After the death of my father all I had was my sister, my mother, and my stepfather. There were days my mother slept all day. There were days she screamed all day. There were mornings we raced at 5 am to the methadone clinic because my mother was an addict. Truth is, she had been an addict since we were five. Interestingly enough, I never realized how different other’s childhoods were until I became an adult. I thought that even though what I had experienced was painful it must have been “normal.” My husband and sister's husband could only ever guess how old they were when telling a memory. But my sister and I can undoubtedly tell you our age and surrounding simply based upon the amount of times we moved in our life due to a drug habit. We can pinpoint the school we attended, the decorations in the home and we can tell you exactly how long we lived there. We can tell you how terrifying it felt to be at the methadone clinic and have more than a vivid memory of a screaming match because my mother lost her right to free methadone after testing “dirty” at a random test morning. We didn't know at that age what everyone was yelling about, or what dirty was, but it was horrifying nonetheless. We lived on drug time, my sister and I were the girls that were late for everything because of addiction.
By age 8 our mother’s drug habit was completely out of control. Our mother had wiped the bank account, and we moved into hiding in her business to survive. We lived on food stamps and while my mother slept or yelled her days away my sister and I made peace with our childhood by doing what any normal kid would do - we kept our “family secrets” and played as hard as we could while we could. Every night, we were called in and we blew up air mattresses with blow dryers. My sister and I used to try to get our sillies out by telling each other jokes as we lay on the floor. Before we knew it the sun was rising. Before the business opened we quickly deflated, folded and hid the mattresses in the supply closet. This type of life pattern continued. I look at my sister as a gift, without one another we would not have made it through our early days.
Fast-forward! I am sixteen and out on my own. I tried staying in school but the truth is I couldn’t support myself financially and go to school at the same time. So I made an extremely tough decision to drop out. This was hard for me, I wanted to do everything I could to NOT be a statistic. I also did not want to be homeless. I worked three jobs. I was an asst. manager at a retail store, I hosted children's birthday parties, and I pieced together those awful mailers you love to throw away. I was making it, barely! However, it felt good. Of course there were many times I made mistakes and certainly made decisions I am not proud of, but I was not a statistic!
Then the day came, age 19, my boyfriend ( I never thought I wanted to be married) and I found out we were expecting! This was very exciting and very scary! After all; I had been on my own for 3 years. Wasn’t I an adult? Didn't I know everything!? Ha! We spent 9 months preparing for baby, buying what we could and making the best of what we had. Then it happened. On February 15th 2007 I went into labor. I wondered why everybody at the hospital was treating me as if I knew nothing. Like I made a mistake? Everyone assumed I wouldn't want to breastfeed. DCF visited me to make sure everything was ok. Then it hit me. I WAS A STATISTIC! I was a pregnant teen, nobody thought I could do this…
That was the day I looked in the mirror and said the very same thing I say to myself today. I no longer fail myself, I fail my child. Failing my child is NOT an option.
I made the commitment, after the birth of my first child, to never accept government assistance and to not repeat the mistakes of my own parents. Sadly, like most teen mothers, my child's father and I ended up splitting apart when my son was two. The new challenge then became being a single mother at age 21. It was a struggle to work, pay for daycare, food, doctors, clothing and all of the other things necessary for a young child. I worked days, nights and overnights for years while I provided the best I could. I picked that bright eyed boy up every day with a smile on my face so he would have one on his, because that was my job. I can't tell you how many days I just wanted to cry. It was not easy being a single mother without my own parents available to help like most people have. That feeling of loneliness cannot be compared to anything that I have ever experienced. Additionally, I wanted nothing more than for my son to be able to experience the joys of having grandparents and all of the things they can do for a little one. I wanted to scream out to anyone that would listen that my child needed more than just my love.
Interestingly, amongst all of these obstacles, I was becoming a strong and independent woman. My career was taking off. My son was challenging, but doing well. I wasn't just scraping by or making it, I was successful. I had proven to myself that if I didn't give up I could achieve anything. More importantly I was showing my son that hard work always pays off, a lesson that I believe is so valuable.
What I have revealed to myself, on this incredible journey, is that I have more inner strength than I thought I did. In the moment that I realized this inner strength, I realized how much power I actually had to achieve anything I wanted. I was also showing my son that he too could do anything. I powered on, and while I envy moms that get to stay home every moment with their children, I am, to this day, a very proud working mother.
My message to women is empowerment. This story will not resonate with everyone, some parts may resonate with some and not with others. It does not matter. I don't want people to feel sorry for me. Society has trained women to need a partner to survive. Society expects a traditional family unit and mother child relationship. I want women to look in the mirror and say to themselves the only thing that I need is a belief in me.
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Sending love, luck & calm vibes.