The first time I met Najah Hull she was checking in for her volunteer shift at the elementary school our children attend. Right away I was taken with her warm smile and calm composure.
It was later that I learned she has a Superwoman tattoo on the back of her neck.
A tattoo that all of us would agree is merited. Consider this. That warm smile was offered by a woman with four kids under the age of 8 whom she is now raising as a single mom.
And with her spare time? She’s enrolled full-time at the
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That if you or I were in the same situation the strain would be oozing from every pore, through the split ends of our frazzled hair to the nervous tic we couldn’t control?
“I think women in general are strong. Like Tim Gunn says on Project Runway – ‘Make it work!’ That’s the kind of mindset I’ve got.”
How Does She Do It? First and repeatedly thereafter, Najah credits her survival to “the Grace of God.” She was raised with the Church a constant presence in her life, attending with her family every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday when she was growing up, and her faith continues to sustain her.
Najah speaks of her life and her choices with a straightforwardness and candor, as if she has enough on her plate already without adding the burden of doubt. Once on the long list of other responsibilities she carries, doubt got checked off a while back. But not until she had spent years getting to the point where she could accept divorce as the best solution for her and her kids.
“I kept thinking, can I do this on my own? How are my kids going to fare without their father? I had to weigh what was most important for my children. Are they better off in a home with two parents who are fussing at each other or living with just one parent and visiting the other? It took a long time to figure out.”
And then there was the change to her identity – both the way she saw herself and how she feared others would see, and judge, her. “That was one thing I was aware of when I filed for divorce – I’ve become a stereotype – the single Black mother. I never wanted to become the stereotype.”
Even before the divorce, Najah, knowing the toxic power of peoples’ pre-judgments, went to great lengths to make sure she didn’t get put in that box. “When I was pregnant with my son I was in the hospital, and I made them wheel me downstairs to my parenting class. I wore my wedding ring around my neck because my finger was too swollen, and I made sure to touch it every now and then to point it out. I wanted everyone to know, ‘I’m not your stereotypical single Black mother.’
“And now, I still have things left over from when I was married. Like, when I walk into the welfare office with my Coach bag, I want to say ‘That’s from my past.’ People may look at me and think I’m misappropriating funds, but this is left over from where I was before. I work hard to prove that, (unlike the stereotype), I haven’t given up. Going to school full-time, raising four children, volunteering for the community. You can’t look at me and think, she’s doing nothing but living on welfare.”
And finally there was the Church. Always the rock in her life, now she found it difficult to face the close community of people who couldn’t understand her decision. “People at church, all they see is marriage, sticking with it. Relying on the Grace of God to bring you through. To them, my marriage looked great on the outside. And for a long time I let others, my parents, my pastor, make the decision of whether I should stay or go, and that’s one of the regrets I have. The decision you don’t make is always the one you’re going to regret.”
But it was also the Church that finally gave her relief. She knew the verses from the Bible that admonished women to obey and stay committed to their husbands. But she also knew the Bible laid down strict laws about infidelity. Once she was certain this line had been crossed, her faith released her. She let her husband take the first step and then readily agreed to divorce.
Then came the reality of her decision. She had stopped working when her first was born, leaving the breadwinning responsibilities to her husband. She had no place to live, no means of income, and a college degree that was halfway complete.
She moved in with her parents and turned to social programs to support her family. Then she applied to the
“I’m benefitting greatly from programs that support single parents. I see it almost as a reward for all the effort I’m putting in. I never would have anticipated that this would be how I would get my degree, but I’m grateful that things are being afforded to me so I can finish it.”
After leaving school with an AA from
Her six and seven year-olds are in Kindergarten and first grade, sandwiched between before- and after-school care. She has a four year-old at the EEU preschool program at UW (“where I can visit him when I’m on campus”), while the two year-old is in childcare near their home.
Najah’s four children
“Beyond the Grace of God, I could not do what I’m doing without my parents, friends and family” who help watch the kids and drive them to activities when Najah can’t. “And my PDA – oh my God! – everything is all in here,” she says, extracting the device carefully and holding it as if it were an offering to the gods.
“I used to rely on my memory, but there’s too much now. I leave myself reminders on Outlook and on my phone all the time. Like this interview today. I had just turned in my last paper for the quarter and thought I would go home and take a nap, but then I got the reminder that I promised to see you.”
Great – we’re keeping this woman from a much-deserved rest. “But if my story is an inspiration to someone, I’m happy to tell it.”
Her 400-level courses are demanding, but Najah spends much more time in our interview talking about the demands of parenthood.
“There’s a lot that goes into being a decent parent. It’s a hard job. You’ve got to have lots self-determination. I see other single parents who could be doing a whole lot better for their kids, but they’ve just thrown their hands up. I couldn’t do that. It takes a
Always wanting to take on just one more thing or help in one more way, Najah is realizing that many things have to go. Most of the activities she signed up to help with at school she has had to let slide. And she has learned to let the housekeeping go so she can enjoy family time with the kids.
“You have to make the best of your situation. Everybody has to. For me to think that I was going to be given a life with a silver spoon, no, that’s not my story. I have to do the best with what I’ve got.”
Although she recognizes that her children are too young “to appreciate the magnitude of what I’m doing” she is confident that they will once they are older. And by that time, she’ll have her degree. “It’s an accomplishment, a milestone. Something I can show to my kids. After all, I didn’t accumulate all this student debt to not finish.”
One unfinished item on Najah’s plate is her relationship with her Church. She hasn’t returned since she and her husband filed for divorce. “Part of that derives from the scrutiny of people there. I used to be married and now I’m divorced. It’s almost like there’s a little bit of shame. I don’t want to face that crowd and answer those questions.” Her mother takes the children each Sunday and is now giving Najah the space to find the right time to return.
“It’s not that I don’t believe the Bible anymore, but it’s kind of like I’m taking a break. Every day I think I’ve got to get back to the life I used to have. God knows I’m overwhelmed, I’m wandering. But I know at any time I can go back and be forgiven, be made whole again.
“I would hate to be in this position forever. I want to become self-sufficient again. I was very successful, before my marriage. I shifted my reliance on to my husband.”
And now she’s on a path to get it back. Checking off those responsibilities one at a time. And all the while, smiling that beautiful smile.
Najah’s (not so) secrets for how she does it:
- Her PDA, which holds her life
- Friends, family, and teenage babysitters she met through church, all of whom love her kids and are willing to help out whenever Najah can’t do it all herself
- The Grace of God
- She hasn’t read much that wasn’t required for school, but she has The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren on her bookshelf and would love to get to it some day.
Whom does Najah want me to interview next?
- Her Pastor’s wife, who “epitomizes femininity. She has her hand in so many pots. She is compassionate, soft spoken, and passionate about empowering women.”