A hardship for generations: Escaping the cycle of poverty

How one person managed to escape a lifetime cycle of economic distress.

 (photo credit: PEXELS)
(photo credit: PEXELS)

I want to begin my story with my grandmother.

She came to Israel at the age of eight, and her family lived in a bad neighborhood. Her parents suffered a mental breakdown, and she was left alone.

At the age of thirteen, my grandmother was taken to an institution for foster girls.

At the age of sixteen, she married someone, also from a broken family. At the age of seventeen, she had a child, and her young husband left her.

The baby grew up with a mother who was barely literate. She attended school when she felt like it, and she didn’t often feel like it. She experienced her mother’s lifestyle up close – and it was a terrible lifestyle – with no discipline or boundaries. She did not receive love and attention. Her mother had no strength for her. She did not know, for example, that a baby should crawl on the floor. She did not know that it is possible to talk to a child, even if he does not understand you. She fed her daughter from a bottle on the days when she had money to buy her some food. There were days when there was no money.

They lived in one room, and even if she wanted to crawl, she had nowhere to go. The result was a girl whose physical appearance was normal – perhaps even better than average –but mentally and academically, was deficient.

The second generation of a distressed family

The girl finished elementary school, with more school absences than days of attendance. She did not continue to high school. She started walking the streets, and at the age of fourteen, like her mother, entered an institution, the very same institution that her mother had attended.

The psychologist in charge talked to her and told her what she already knew, that her mother had also spent time in this institution, for the same reasons she had come there. He suggested that she escape from the cycle of poverty and deterioration, and try to rehabilitate herself, learn, and develop.

This institution had all the resources necessary for her development, but what she had lost for the past fourteen years, cannot always be returned.

Although the institution gave her a warm home, educational and social opportunities, she did not take advantage of everything that had been given to her.

She married at an early age, and the age of eighteen, just like her mother, gave birth to a daughter. I am that daughter.

It is a shame to repeat the story for the third time, but it repeated itself; a childhood without emotional giving, abject poverty, malnutrition, terrible neglect, beatings, humiliation, distress, and depression. This is what I remember from my childhood.

Third generation poverty and hardship

Luckily, my mother was even worse than her mother, and when, for the umpteenth time, they found me neglected and hungry, they took me to a closed institution.

Yes, the very same institution.

Fortunately, I was then eight years old. I was spared five further years of deterioration.

I was received by the same psychologist who had known my mother and grandmother. He had the same conversation with me that he had conducted with my mother. I could see that he himself did not believe what he said, but he was very kind and considerate.

Difficult years of ups and downs followed. Luckily, I always had a warm place to return to, and people who listened to me, provided for me, set boundaries, punished me, and gave me gifts and praise.

Over the years, there were girls who joined the institution whose condition was worse than mine, and I certainly learned a lot from them - not good things, which hurt me, but still, my situation was better than theirs.

At the age of eighteen, I married a simple fellow from an even simpler family.

After we got married and he met my ‘nice’ family, I told him that it was time we escaped from the circle we had entered. We began to work hard and earned some money. A year after my marriage, I gave birth to a son, and we went through a challenging time because neither of our families supported us. My husband was already starting to break from stress, but I told myself that I would not let that happen.

I did not take maternity leave. I worked hard to provide food for my child, and I also bought him toys. At first, I purchased toys that were not appropriate for a three-year-old, such as Lego and bicycles. The nurse at the Tipat Halav clinic became interested in me and provided me with games to stimulate my child so that he would develop.

I was uneducated, but I decided to listen to all types of educational programs. I read books so that my son would get better opportunities than I had.

I derived such pleasure from my son, and I loved him dearly, I talked to him even though I felt foolish, and I played games with him.

When he was eight months old, I received an invitation from the institution where I studied, to bring him along for a social gathering. They said there would be a session, and we would receive a children’s game as a gift.

At first, I did not want to go, but my husband convinced me, and I went.

I was happy to meet with all my friends with whom I had grown up. They were all young mothers, and most did not look well. They told of their troubles. They all lived in poverty and deprivation, and only a few of them had husbands still living at home. The others raised the children alone. Single-parent families, just like my mother and grandmother.

Even those who were still married told of difficulties and quarrels that were a result of poverty.

I was silent.

We were given a game to play with our children – plastic rings to stack in the shape of a pyramid. Each mother was asked to have her child build the pyramid.

I was thrilled. I finally have a chance to prove how successful my child is. I was sure that my son would be more capable than the others.  

I sat down next to him, and he began to build. As always, when you want to make a positive impression, your child does the exact opposite. At first, he scattered and tossed the rings, laughing, and rolling with them. It made me laugh, and I laughed with him. Then I said to him, “Let’s build this.” First, he put down the smallest ring, placing the mid-sized ring on top, and then took it apart. 

I told him, “Let’s try again.” I was under pressure because we had not built anything yet. What will they say? He began to build with no set order. He placed one ring next to the other, instead of on top of each other, and then made a circle of rings around it, and when I told him to put them on top of each other, he took it apart again.

I was angry. I said to my son in a clear tone, “That’s a shame. I really want you to build now.”  

He was not used to me talking to him like that, and he began to cry. I was immediately angry with myself.  How could I do such a thing to him?  I hugged and kissed him, and said, “Do what you want. You don’t have to build anything. Just play. I’m a bad mother, and I’m sorry.”

He saw that I was trying to calm him down, and he resumed playing. He did not build the tower but put placed one ring in the middle, and more rings around it, and in the end, he placed a small stick he had found on the middle ring.

I liked it, and I applauded him. They then announced on the PA system, “Please stop the game and leave it as it is, without touching.”

Until then, I had been focused on playing with him. I looked around, and what I saw filled me with shame.  

All the children had completed the task. Every pyramid had been perfectly constructed. 

While mine ...

What an embarrassment! A circle of rings around and with a stick facing up, not in order, not round, and certainly not a pyramid.   

All the mothers all looked at me with pity, and one even said tactlessly: “Perhaps you should take your child to work on his motor development….”  

The others just looked at me with compassion, and I started to cry. What a mother I am! Where had I gone wrong?

Then the psychologist spoke: “We created a competition between the children, and to follow the winners, we filmed you all on video. Now you can all watch the game you played.”

A big screen was brought in, and before I had time to think about it, we saw ourselves playing with the kids.

It turns out that all the kids started scattering and flipping the rings everywhere. Then we saw one mother say to her child, “Take this ring. Not the big one, the medium one. Here, take it,” and the mother pulls the large ring out of the boy’s hands and gives him the medium-sized ring. The boy actually wants the big ring, and he insists on looking for it. The mother is hiding it from him. “You can’t have it.” she says. “Put the medium one on first, and only then will you get the big one.”

The audience is embarrassed. The camera moves to another pair.

The second mother explains to her child what he needs to do, and even before he starts, she builds the tower herself, in quick movements, and says, “Do you see? Like this.”

The boy dismantles the tower, and his mother gets upset and says to him, “Bad boy, is that what you do to your mother? Now I am going to build it, and don’t you dare take it apart!”

Everyone is laughing.

The camera reaches the third pair.

This mother is more sophisticated. She takes the baby’s hand and builds the tower with it. The problem is, his hand is not long enough to reach all the rings, so she stretches his hand, and without noticing, drags the child to the correct ring. He screams in pain, and she doesn’t even look in his direction. With the help of her hand, she drags him back to the game, and puts the ring in place, using the child’s hand. The boy screams, and she slaps him on the cheek and says, “Enough, you crybaby. You’re not letting me build it.”

The baby cries, and the crowd gasps.

This is the same mother, by the way, who suggested that I take my son for lessons in motor development.

By the end, when everyone has understood the ‘principle,’ the camera comes to me.

Everyone sees how I sit on the floor, letting my cute kid flip the rings everywhere, and I bring them back, and how he begins to build, and then tears it down, and rolls with laughter. I laugh with him and ask him to build a tower, but instead, he builds what he wants and dismantles it. I tell him, “Now I want you to build,” and he begins to cry, and I apologize and say, “Build what you want,” and in the end, my child slowly builds what he wants to make, not what his mother was told. He builds something different – his own creation.


Everyone in the audience applauds.

I win the prize. It was an additional prize for the mother, not the child. The psychologist made sure to emphasize that all the children would receive the game as a prize, while the winning mother would receive an additional reward.

He then gave a lecture about mothers who see the child as part of them – as if the child has no will of his own – as opposed to mothers who understand that each child has a different nature and desires, and do not try to impose themselves on him.

I did not listen to the lecture because I was delighted. I finally had proof that I was a good mother.  I think this was enough reinforcement to get out of the cycle of poverty that started with my grandmother.

* * *

Ten years have passed. I have three children. We are not rich – we could even be called poor – but my children are well-raised and nurtured children, and they get everything that children need from parents: love, love, and more love.

We did not get out of the cycle of poverty, because ‘Cinderella’ is only found in fairy tales, but we got out of the cycle of distress.

My mother is still bouncing from place to place, occasionally coming to visit, crying, and kissing me. She is happy to see my family, and it is difficult for her to grasp how I managed to get out of the terrible cycle of distress.

In these days of economic crisis, poverty and deprivation, I urge parents, and especially mothers, not to succumb to poverty and not let it cause distress. Do not let the economic situation affect your mind, your ability to give children love and strength. I succeeded, with God’s help, and only because of Him. He gave me the strength to get out of a cycle of anguish that existed in my family for three generations. It’s easier just not to get into it in the first place.

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Translated by Alan Rosenbaum