From Welfare to Work to Entreprenette

She had her first child at 18, but with faith and tenacity, she made a better life for herself and her children.

by Tanea Smith • Member { View Profile }

At the age of 18 and 18 years ago, I became pregnant with my first child. My mother was, and still is, a very loving but stern woman. For much of my childhood, she worked two jobs to support my sister and me. Looking back, I know that my mother did the very best she could with the tools that she had. I learned some very important lessons from her that continue to serve me to this day. As my sister and I got older and began to experience puberty, her mandate was clear — “Don’t Get Pregnant.”

I come from a pretty decent sized family — my mother is one of 8. When the news of my pregnancy spread throughout my family, some ostracized me, and others rallied around me. I remember the weather outside on the day my aunt Missy took me to apply for welfare. She and I joined the long line of people waiting to get inside. The stale, dead smell inside that city agency is one that I will never forget. It would be my uncle who took me to Irving Place in downtown Manhattan on that rainy day in August to take my photo for the plastic card I would need to pick up my monthly benefits. My welfare budget was $109 bi-weekly and $212 monthly in food stamps. To this day, no one can stretch a dime like I can.

In September 1994, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. I named him Brandon. When he was born, my sister was away at college, and my parents had just purchased a new home. My mother gave me the option to move with them but something inside me knew that it was time to cut that cord. So there I sat in my childhood apartment with a twin bed, a newborn and my mother’s old gray couch. I was officially an adult. Making my own decisions, trying desperately to find my own way, paying my own bills and in a relationship with a man-boy that I knew even prayer couldn’t help. They were truly dark days. At times, I would stand at Brandon’s crib and watch my child sleep. I was dumbfounded. I had nothing to offer him, but what I did know was that I was all he had. Motherhood changed me in the most profound way.

My sister graduated college and came to live with Brandon, his father and me. Within months, she was employed at a Sixth Avenue law firm. One day she called to tell me that one of the attorneys was giving away an old typewriter and asked if I wanted it. It was blue, and it was small. That typewriter changed my life. While my son napped, I taught myself to type. After putting him to bed, I would sit on my mom’s gray couch and write these words in my journal: “This is not our reality.” I would write that statement every day. I would write down the plans for our life, what I saw for myself, what I wanted my life to be. I didn’t know it then, but I was breathing life into our future. I had a vision.

My parents lived within walking distance. Within three months of learning to type, I would put Brandan in his stroller and took him to my mom’s house. He would watch Sesame Street, and I would sit at her computer. I used her books and learned WordPerfect and Lotus, which would later become Excel. After a year, I ventured out into Corporate America. My first headhunter, Ellie Giannelli, who I am friends with to this day, helped to keep me busy as a temp receptionist. I was undisciplined and a little rough around the edges. I learned as I went. It’s been 16 years, and I’m still learning.

In 1999, I decided that it was time to become an executive assistant. Not because my skills were the best on earth, but because I had decided that it was time. My headhunter reworked my résumé and off I went. In 2007 after five years at my present job, I gave birth to my daughter Jada Jasmine. While at home on maternity leave, I decided it was time to begin thinking about my next phase. And I began working on my own business — She’s Got Papers. In 2008 I debuted my witty, eclectic stationery collection — chock full of personality and reflective of my life’s experiences. I’ve found my sweet spot. I’m a Mom of two, an entrepreneur, an inspirational speaker, and an executive assistant. But, best of all, I’m a survivor.

I’m a walking example that a little faith, tenacity and determination can go a very long way.

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