Nancy: Broken Homes and Hand-me-downs

I felt like an outsider, as a child of divorce.”

When I met Nancy Marshall nine years ago, the circumstances of the meeting really reinforced my sense of Otherliness. Not because of who she is, a researcher in women’s and gender studies, but because of the unusual way in which we are related. I met Nancy because our daughters are siblings.

It’s a complicated story, but this unique relationship gives us a lot to talk about as mothers and as women fascinated by social dynamics. It’s not only unusual, but it’s also very interesting to have kids who share genes and have grown up thousands of miles apart.

I asked her about the concept of ‘Other’ and, being Nancy, she surprised me with a story from her childhood that she felt contributed to her feeling different from everyone else. As I’m discovering, what I perceive to be different about people isn’t always what they identify with most. Nancy, thank you for reminding me of this.


When I was growing up in a small suburb outside Philadelphia, I was royally clueless, and felt that I was like everyone else. But after my parents divorced when I was 10, I felt very much the outsider.

That was around 1962, and the only other people I knew who were divorced were ostracized. There was a couple in our church. The man had an affair with a married woman, so the two couples swapped. He married the other woman, and his ex-wife married the other woman’s husband, and the kids from each family had to choose which couple to live with. Really!

The other family that I knew was a girl in my class whose parents divorced, her mother remarried, and the girl changed her name. The girl was ostracized by the other kids in the class, who wouldn’t let her play jump rope with them at lunch.


So I felt like an outsider, as a child of divorce, visiting my father in the city (my mom lived in the suburbs), every other weekend. Also, because my father paid very little child support, we were poor after the divorce. My mother had four kids, the youngest of whom was less than a year old, so she couldn’t work for the first three years. I wore hand-me-downs to school (until I started making my own clothes in high school), and learned later that even my best friend thought I was “different” because of that.

 I was in my 20s before I had any insight into this; growing up, I was oblivious. But I would say spending my formative childhood years poor, and with a single mom, has shaped my entire life. The experience guided me to seek out certain conversations and experiences that helped me to get some perspective, which in turn led to my interest in a career studying the lives of women and children, particularly those whose lives are affected by poverty.”

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