1 QUALITATIVE Hardesty, Black HEALTH / MOTHERING RESEARCH THROUGH / September ADDICTION 1999 Mothering Through Addiction: A Survival Strategy Among Puerto Rican Addicts Monica Hardesty Timothy Black In this article, the importance of motherhood in the lives of Puerto Rican addicts is examined. Using a life history method, the authors interviewed 20 Latina females in various stages of recovery from addiction to crack-cocaine or heroin. Their lives as mothers took place in a context of poverty, marginalization, and abuse. Motherhood provided an identity and a line of work that grounded them amidst this dislocation. As their life options became more restricted over time, motherhood provided a lifeline through addiction and into recovery. While using drugs, they relied on a number of strategies to maintain mothering. In recovery, children became the markers of success in a treatment program. These findings challenge public images of female addicts as parents. Often the public, policy makers, and academics are quick to judge female addicts, to question their ability to parent, and to penalize them for their drug use by taking away their children. Before rushing to judgments and enacting social policies based on these premises, the mothering life of the addict needs to be examined more carefully. Important questions need to be addressed empirically. What is the bond between the addicted mother and her children? Does female drug addiction involve the pursuit of self-interest at the neglect of children? How do female addicts feel about their ability to parent? In this article, we examine the importance of mothering among a group of Puerto Rican addicts. Our research exposes some common misconceptions about these women. Contrary to popular belief, we found that motherhood is vital. It is a lifeline into, through, and out of addiction. Although seemingly contradictory, motherhood remains central to Puerto Rican addicts and provides an anchor in an embattled and disruptive life. Motherhood serves as a survival strategy to escape problem histories, to sustain the women through drug addiction, and to repair the damage drug abuse has caused their children. Female Puerto Rican addicts recognize that they do not conform to everyone s notions of what it means to be a good mother. Nevertheless, they struggle to bridge the chasm between being a drug user and a mother. Although most falter in this struggle, they embrace a cultural ideal of motherhood in their steps toward recovery. AUTHORS NOTE: We would like to thank Maria Isabel Perez, Miriam Mercado, Ana Sanchez Adorno, Lizz Toledo, and Lani Davison for their assistance in conducting this research. QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH, Vol. 9 No. 5, September Sage Publications, Inc. 602
2 Hardesty, Black / MOTHERING THROUGH ADDICTION 603 RESEARCH METHOD We adopt an interpretive framework that allows female addicts to be the experts of their experiences and understandings as mothers. We seek, rather than impose, an understanding of mothering by asking questions and allowing the women to construct the stories of their lives. Using a life history method for data collection, we gathered information about how they viewed themselves as mothers before, during, and after addiction. To get a more complete story, we conducted three consecutive interviews. The first interview was about family background, children, and drug history. The second interview included questions about health care, pregnancies, and Latino family values and expectations. The final interview discussed relationships with partners, social service agencies, and drug recovery. Our sample included 20 Latina women from the Hartford, Connecticut area. 1 These women were addicted to either crack-cocaine or heroin. Because our interest was in recording a range of life histories, we interviewed a sample of women whose experiences varied. All of them had some contact with a treatment program for Latina addicts, but they were in varying stages of recovery and demonstrated varying commitments to their recovery. 2 Some were still very active in drug use, whereas others had been in the process of recovery for several years and were clean. All were mothers except one who miscarried and subsequently was unable to conceive. The ages of their children varied from newborns to grown children. The ages of the women ranged from 23 to 48, with a median age of 29. Most abused drugs during their pregnancies. All of the women were Puerto Rican, except for one woman who was from the Dominican Republic. Fourteen of the women were born in Puerto Rico, although the majority had spent most of their lives on the mainland. Half of the women began using drugs as teens; the remainder began using in their early 20s. We acquired consent for research from the interviewees at two different points in time. As clients in a recovery program, the women provided written consent to participate in all facets of a program evaluation. Owing to the time demands of the life history interviews and the sensitive nature of the topics, we sought additional consent. We informed them of the interview topics, offered them a small stipend, agreed to conduct the interviews at a place and time of their choice, guaranteed confidentiality, and ensured anonymity in any report of our findings. Interviews were conducted in Spanish by Latina researchers who had worked on an independent evaluation study of a Latina drug treatment program and who had some prior contact with the women (Black & Hardesty, 1996). This familiarity, we believe, was important for acquiring candid information about the lives of the women. Due to the confidentiality and incriminating nature of some of the questions, the interviews took place in an atmosphere of safety in the homes of the participants or at the Hispanic center after self-help group meetings. Each woman was interviewed for a total of 3 to 4 hours. The interviews included open-ended questions about a broad set of themes. Part of the interviews included specific questions concerning their attitudes, expectations, and difficulties as mothers before, during, and after drug abuse. The interviews were taped, transcribed, and then translated into English. Following a grounded theory approach to data analysis, interview responses were coded into emergent descriptive categories, such as kin network, child-rearing
3 604 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 1999 practices, Puerto Rican definition of a good mother, and self-definition of a good mother, to name a few. Each interviewee s coded responses were compared with others in the sample in what is known as the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). From these comparisons of descriptive codes, an underlying pattern of motherhood as a survival strategy throughout addiction became apparent. Rather than focusing our analysis on the differences between women, we analyzed what they have in common (Lindesmith, 1981). With a refined focus on mothering, we reexamined the descriptive codes and transcript data to achieve theoretical saturation of our emerging concepts. That is, we sought exceptions and noted variations until our concepts could account for all of the data we had collected. As analysis progressed, it became clear that participants constructed similar self-images as mothers, which were different from accepted views of female addicts and their capacity to parent. Their stories reveal that they do not accept the commonly held view that they are bad mothers, as someone who neglects, abuses, or abandons her children in the pursuit of drugs. Instead, they develop strategies to preserve a sense of themselves as good mothers. Despite the strengths of the life history method, there is a shortcoming in our method of data collection. We did not interview our participants several times over the long course of addiction and recovery; rather, we interviewed them on three separate occasions within a period of 1 month. Our data, therefore, are reconstructions of their lives as women, partners, and mothers. It may be that they reinterpreted the past to present a more favorable image of themselves. However, we found them to be surprisingly frank about highly stigmatizing conduct: criminal activity, domestic violence, and shortcomings with children. Several of the women broke down and cried during the interviews, indicating these were deeply felt experiences. Also, before presenting any information in this article, we made sure that it was consistent with each participant s life history data. Although we cannot corroborate every story told about themselves and others, we accept the truthfulness of these stories. MOTHERING ON LIMITED RESOURCES: THE PUERTO RICAN COMMUNITY IN HARTFORD To understand Puerto Rican addicts as mothers, one must first understand the place of motherhood in the lives of Puerto Rican women as well as the larger Puerto Rican experience in Hartford, Connecticut. There are few small cities in the Northeast that illustrate the devastating effects of deindustrialization, racial segregation, and increasing concentrations of poverty among Puerto Ricans better than Hartford. Hartford has the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans of any city in the country, with 30% of the city s population claiming Puerto Rican ancestry. Five of the city s 18 neighborhoods have a majority Hispanic population, and all 5 of these neighborhoods are highly distressed communities. Take, for instance, Frog Hollow, the neighborhood with the largest Hispanic population. In 1990, 46% of families in Frog Hollow lived below the poverty line, per capita income was $7,500, 42% of families were female headed, only 47% of adults 25 years and older graduated from high school, 32% of residents did not speak English or else spoke it poorly, 18% of workers were unemployed (a rate that doubled in the 1980s), 55% of households had no
4 Hardesty, Black / MOTHERING THROUGH ADDICTION 605 vehicle, and 92% of housing units were renter occupied, while rent accounted for 47% of household income (City of Hartford, 1995). Industrial decline, the changing labor force, and increased poverty have created conditions that are extremely difficult for many Puerto Rican families. Unemployment and underemployment, substance abuse, AIDS, discrimination, crime, violence, sexual abuse, school dropout, homelessness, and the lack of culturally appropriate social services overwhelm the Puerto Rican community in Hartford. The family-centered dispositions of the culture and the extended nature of families produce some respite against such conditions, but as local community researchers (Singer, Gonzalez, Vega, Centeno, & Davison, 1991) report, High levels of stress due to poverty, cramped living space, language barriers, unfamiliarity with the wider social and institutional environment, and limited cultureappropriate social programs have left many families feeling powerless, depressed, and facing a constant cycle of domestic crisis. Family violence and sexual/physical abuse of children, especially girls, are not uncommon. Young people often grow up having little or no hope, poor self-esteem, and few positive roles. (p. 65) The traditional values of the Latino family have helped to form the backbone of resiliency among the impoverished Puerto Rican community. Extended family networks are life-saving resources in times of need (Schensul & Schensul, 1982). Because women perform the work of organizing these kin networks, it provides them with a special place in their community (Alicea, 1997). The Latino family system and its creative adaptations and nurturing dispositions can help to facilitate family interests and routines or, as in areas of concentrated poverty, can place undue stresses and strains on family members. Families can provide a refuge from a cruel world; the resilience of any community riddled by the historic realities of scarcity and exploitation is almost always rooted in kin networks (Stack, 1974). Conversely, sustaining a nurturing and stimulating home environment can be undermined greatly in neighborhoods in which legitimate income-generating strategies are limited, educational facilities underfunded and overburdened, public services debt impaired, and venues for realizing self-value severely restricted. The reliance on family creates a cultural contradiction for the Puerto Rican woman. For Puerto Rican women, home is an anchor. Through kin work and caring for others, women find rewarding opportunities for self-expression, satisfaction, and recognition. However, because they carry the disproportionate burden of family responsibilities, home can become exploitative and oppressive (Alicea, 1997). If her core identity consists of family duty and motherhood, what happens to a Puerto Rican woman when poverty-beleaguered neighborhoods overwhelm her efforts to be a good mother? What happens when the chaos and disruption associated with economic and social marginality impede the cultural identity through which selfsalvation depends? What happens when partners become abusive or fail in the breadwinner role? Home cannot always be a safe haven from race, class, and gender oppression (Alicea, 1997); hence, the ability to live up to family responsibilities is jeopardized. Culture can act as a double-edged sword: The failure to live up to deeply held cultural convictions about family life can foster destructive tendencies, and yet the resources from which one draws to reorient or reconstitute one s life may be the very same deeply held convictions. As we will see, the failure to live up
5 606 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 1999 to the ideal of being a good mother for Puerto Rican addicts can further deepen addiction at the same time that the identity of mother can become the cultural resource for seeking and sustaining drug recovery. PROBLEM HISTORIES Latina addicts in our study share the painful consequences of economic and social marginalization. Although the majority of Puerto Ricans socially reproduce cultural strategies for adapting to and resisting these conditions, carving out dignity and respect and sustaining communities against the odds, our participants represent the fringe that spins off into self-destructive patterns of behavior. The disruptions that constitute their life journeys begin long before addiction. For the women in our study, problems go back to their earliest childhood experiences, back to memories of instability and mistreatment in their families. Like other female addicts (Tracy & Williams, 1991), they experienced early physical and sexual abuse involving parents and stepparents, brothers and stepbrothers, and family friends, and in a few instances, family members condoned or denied these incidents. Others recalled the damage done by decades of drug and alcohol abuse by family members, and some were initiated into the drug culture by family members. Others told stories of alcoholic fathers and stepfathers who routinely beat their mothers. When talking about these early childhood experiences, the women see themselves as fulfilling a prophecy of instability. As one participant succinctly explained, I am unstable; my mother was unstable. Patterns of abusive relationships carry over into adulthood, particularly in relationships with men. Like other female addicts (Amaro, Fried, & Cabral, 1990), partner abuse was common, even during pregnancy. Most had been abused by their partners, and about one third admitted they were in an abusive relationship at the time of the interview. One woman described abuse in every relationship with men. Abusive partners isolated them, dominated their everyday activities, and sometimes forced drugs on them when they struggled to quit. The constant threats and episodes of domestic violence and the ever-increasing isolation of the victim not only deepened the trauma in the lives of these women but also served to further restrict their already narrowed life options. Of course, we do not know the cause and effect here, but the lifelong trauma of abuse created a situation in which the use of drugs may have fulfilled many needs: momentary pleasure, escape, endurance, or a respite from physical and emotional pain. Drug addiction, however, can further trap the victims in the viciousness of domestic violence. Because many of our study participants depended on their partners for drugs, to give up the abusive relationship with their partners meant taking on greater responsibilities for supporting their drug habits, which also meant reorganizing their mothering responsibilities, creating perhaps more problems than remaining in the violent situation. Problem histories carry over and accelerate in full-blown addiction. To secure a regular supply of drugs to support their $300- to $500-a-day habits, many women sustained a relationship with a man who was a drug dealer or who had a steady supply of drugs. In this way, the women never had to leave their homes, a preferable
6 Hardesty, Black / MOTHERING THROUGH ADDICTION 607 situation for women caring for children. Our participants favored the cultural tradition of men working outside the home and women staying home to care for children. Despite the violence in the home, the women usually relied on the partner until he could no longer provide. This decision carries negative consequences because it increases one s dependency on addicted, abusive, and domineering men. Sometimes partners were unable to meet the increasing demand for drugs, or they were caught and incarcerated. Then the women became more self-reliant and like other female addicts financed their drug habits by entering illegal labor markets (Inciardi, Lockwood, & Pottieger, 1993; Maher & Curtis, 1992). Some women began to deal drugs, an ever-increasing practice among female drug addicts (Fagan, 1994, 1995). Stealing, bartering, conning, prostituting, and pimping were other illegal strategies they employed. Most did not rely on a single method for securing drugs but alternated in their reliance on male partners, drug trafficking, theft, and prostitution. With increased time in the heroin and cocaine street life, women became more and more encumbered with problems, a stage characterized as full-blown chaos (Haller, 1991). The career of the female street drug addict, with its roots in early childhood trauma and repeated physical and sexual abuse in adulthood, moved into a situation of full-blown chaos in which physical annihilation and a predatory street culture became their lives. In full-blown chaos, women become fatalistic; they express feelings of being trapped in their situation, their histories, and eventually their drug habits (Kearney, Murphy, & Rosenbaum, 1994, p. 147). They accept the elevated chaos and its painful consequences as normal; they adopt a belief in the bizarre as the usual (Woodhouse, 1992). The addicts fatalistic perceptions of their life courses have profound ramifications for their views of self. Female addicts internalize an identity as loser, as having very little self-worth or self-value. They recognize a limited number of options for constructing new and different lives and often adopt a strategy of settling for less (Biernacki, 1986; Kearney et al., 1994). The narrowing of options that began in childhood and tightened in adulthood was squeezed in addiction (Rosenbaum, 1979). They accommodate this shrinking control over their lives by protecting the remaining options for selfhood and exert a kind of motherhood control (Kearney et al., 1994). Unlike male addicts, who organize their daily lives entirely around the drug seeking money for drugs, copping, networking, rationing, and so on (Bourgois, Lettiere, & Quesada, 1997) female addicts life organization includes children. Their histories as victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence and their exposure to generations of substance abuse did not deter these women from valuing family and themselves as mothers, even though problem histories make it difficult to fulfill this role. Like other oppressed Puerto Rican women, they continued to construct home as a place of meaning (Alicea, 1997). Motherhood became their symbolic anchor: a culturally reinforcing, self-sustaining identity that grounds them amidst the turmoil in their lives. Even at the point of full-blown chaos, even when women lost custody of their children, children remained central in their lives in fantasies, yearnings, and plans which, as we will see, results in a numbing surrender to self-destruction or becomes the seeds for recovery. By controlling motherhood, the addict sustained an identity not completely defined by her life with drugs. Such connections to children structure the experiences differently for women.
7 608 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 1999 THE CENTRALITY OF MOTHERHOOD AND MOTHER WORK The centrality of motherhood in our participants lives is rooted in the Latino culture. Latino families generally adhere to traditional gender roles. 3 A woman s life revolves around the family and home. 4 Latinas typically hold themselves responsible for the majority of household and child-rearing tasks and stress the importance of mothers in the parent-child relationship (Alicea, 1997; Canino & Canino, 1980; Julian, McKenry, & McKelvey, 1994; Segura & Pierce, 1993). It is the woman s responsibility to provide the day-to-day care and to transmit the cultural values to her children (Segura & Pierce, 1993). Mothers occupy a special place within the Puerto Rican family and community. Cultural activities such as Mother s Day in Puerto Rico, a holiday only exceeded by Three Kings Day in gift giving and celebration, reinforce the normative standards surrounding the importance of motherhood for the Latina (Christensen, 1979). Our participants described their central role of child rearing: Fathers go away, but mothers stay, and fathers are part time; mothers are full time. In the Puerto Rican culture, woman and mother are inseparable. Raising children is the primary role of a Puerto Rican woman, valued above her responsibilities as wife (Christensen, 1979). The ultimate measure of womanhood is being a mother. As with other low-income women, motherhood validates the Latina s womanhood (Gabriel & McAnarney, 1983; Shtarkshall, 1987). When discussing her children, one Puerto Rican addict explained the centrality of motherhood in her life: I would do anything for them. I wouldn t allow anyone to harm them. It is as I told you, I am mother before woman. Failure as a mother is equated with failure as a woman. The death of a child brings unspeakable loss, a loss of self: My baby died, crib death, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I found her dead in her crib. It was too much for me. My addiction began then. I was frustrated. I was feeling lonely.... Crack was something really fantastic. It was like going out of this world, forgetting everything, and that was exactly what I was looking for, to forget everything. It is a way to shut out your feelings. Not facing them. Back then, it was what I wanted to do. I saw those people getting fixed, looking so happy, blind and deaf to everything around them. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to forget everything that was surrounding me. I was having nightmares where I saw my child. I saw her crying. I wanted to get out of this world. I wanted a hole in the ground and get in there, to get into my own world. So central is motherhood to their female identity, Puerto Rican women have been described as being unable to make the choice not to have children (Christensen, 1979); they opt to do it all rather than relinquish the role of mother. When we asked our participants to describe Puerto Rican women, they too spoke about the importance of motherhood. They told us that a Puerto Rican woman is the caretaker of children. She cooks, cleans, and sacrifices for the children. Being there for her children gives her a sense of identity and a place within her community. Children come first in her thoughts and actions. Many described their children as more important than themselves. Through self-sacrifice, they derived a sense of self. Children became a way of marking the important events in their lives.
8 Hardesty, Black / MOTHERING THROUGH ADDICTION 609 Restricted by poverty, joblessness, and addiction, our participants indicated that motherhood is the only positive identity that they possess. Not unlike other lowincome mothers, motherhood reveals the deeper meaning of the Latina s existence and provides a rite of passage into adulthood (Gabriel & McAnarney, 1983). Because a Puerto Rican mother is charged with the responsibility of maintaining ethnic values and social ties, motherhood grounds her within her community as well (Alicea, 1997; Segura & Pierce, 1993). These cultural expectations for motherhood did not disappear when Puerto Rican women became addicted. Instead, the desire to mother intensified and became most important for defining oneself. While addicted, our participants could not, or would not, relinquish their mother identities. This maintenance of the mother identity entailed a considerable amount of work at defining oneself in a positive light in relation to one s increasingly illegal actions. The mother identity was constructed and reconstructed over the course of her addiction and recovery, an activity we call mother work. Doing It All Maintaining a mother identity is not an easy task for the addict. In the beginning, she struggled to do it all, to juggle the responsibilities of motherhood with her everyday drug activities. In a desire to preserve her connectedness to others, she guarded her mother identity. Our participants preserved their identities by claiming to meet four requirements of motherhood. First and foremost, a mother must continue to meet the physical needs of her children: food, clothing, and shelter. One addict described taking care of these physical needs during addiction: I like the children to dress clean, to smell good, that they do not stink or be mucousy and that they eat. Second, she must continue to provide discipline to sustain the child s moral character. They claimed a need to use physical punishment to teach right from wrong: I have to hit them a little bit so that they learn respect, and good mothers know how to discipline her children. She doesn t wait until it is too late. Third, she must continue to meet the emotional needs of her child. One had to be there for them when they need you, and no matter what they do, you never turn your back on them. Finally, she must prevent the harm of unstable child-rearing practices. For those who experienced an abusive childhood, this meant righting the wrongs that happened to them as a child. It also meant preventing or repairing any harm that arose from their own actions as a drug addict. A mother who can maintain a drug habit and take care of her children wins respect in the drug world (Rosenbaum, 1979). Being a good mother is an ongoing source of pride when mothering is maintained through the addiction. The maintenance of discipline and taking care of their children s needs for food, clothing, and shelter are essential elements of mother work. Although mother work involves taking care of children both physically and emotionally, it also involves identity management. Given the stigma placed on addicts, especially female ones, maintaining an unspoiled view of oneself as a good mother despite the addiction serves as a self-survival tool. Many Puerto Rican addicts affirmed that they were good mothers during their addictions. They were able to stay on top of both their drug work and their mother work:
9 610 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 1999 You can be a good mother and be using at the same time because the love for your kids is always there. I take care of my kids. I worry about them. I see that they don t go hungry. I see that they don t get hurt. Wherever I go I take them along. In doing it all and balancing these two lines of work, an addict divided herself into two separate spheres of existence: her habits as an addict and her life as a mother. I was a good mother to my child in spite of being, you know, an addict...inever have taken addicts to my house! The one that used drugs in my house was me, and I kept it hidden. I did it in fear. I never dared disrespect my son by taking people to my house to get high, to drink or to smoke crack. I never dared! To me that is a lack of respect for my son. I always tried to have a house for him, a place for him to live where he could feel safe and sound. A safe home for him. By creating a dual life, the addict attempted to maintain home as a safe haven and to minimize the effects of her addiction on her children. This strategy of compartmentalizing one s life was accomplished more easily by some addicts than others. For one, the dual life was easier to maintain if she had enough money or a regular supply of drugs: If she has enough for her vice, she can be a good mother and use drugs. She has to have enough [money] to meet her children s needs. Because the most important thing is her children, more than the drug. That is what I used to do. First I had my children s things bought, then [I bought] the drug. Many described a regular drug supply as an aid to their work in the home. Some women stated that the daily use of drugs allowed them to perform their mother role more easily and more effectively. Drugs eased a depression that immobilized some of them. They described a new level of enthusiasm that allowed them to get out of bed in the morning, to cook, to complete housework, and in general to be there for their children. For some, drug use provided them with a lift, a more positive outlook on life. With a constant supply of drugs, they could do it all. Paradoxically, this ability to do it all was accomplished most often through active drug dealing. For their identity management to be successful, addicts had to reject others standards of mothering and to avoid facing the label of bad mother. The growing tension between their and others evaluations of their performances as mothers increased the difficulty of their mother work. Like other female addicts, our participants routinely discounted the judgments of others about their negative performances as mothers (Friedman & Alicea, 1995). They insisted that they were good mothers, which required them to meet minimal expectations of the Puerto Rican culture and to compare favorably with the negative mothering they saw in others. Some claimed they did not abuse their children as others did: During my addiction I never mistreated my child. I never did any [physical] harm to my child. Had I seen that I was not able to handle the child, I would have given him to DCF [Department of Children and Families]. Others claimed they adhered to the cultural norms of motherhood as defined by Puerto Ricans: [Do you believe that a woman that uses drugs can be a good mother?] Yes. If you take good care of your children. You have a roof over them to sleep, have their food and all their clothing, take them to the doctor. That nothing is missing, that is being a