Ayat graduated from Parenting Journey I more than a decade ago, but she still has her keepsake book. It’s the story of the family she built with her sons. Years after her divorce and custody battle, now a trained Parenting Journey facilitator with two boys in college, “I still read it. I still go through it and reflect back,” she says. “It’s a reminder of how far I’ve come and the work it took.”
As a young mother in her early twenties, Ayat had found herself fighting a difficult custody battle resulting from the end of her arranged marriage, common in her Yemeni community. She eventually won full custody of the boys, which was unusual; in Yemeni culture, sons would almost always go to their fathers. But Ayat and her kids still experienced housing instability, staying with relatives and moving constantly. “It was very shameful for me going to a shelter, and then trying to parent in the midst of that, and keep my job, was really hard.” Ayat knew something had to change – both her circumstances, and her strategies. “I wanted to parent in a different way, differently than I see moms in my culture parent,” she says.
Ayat had been working for the domestic violence program of a Brooklyn nonprofit. The organization runs several Parenting Journey groups each year, but staff are not eligible to participate as parent group members. When the funding for her position ended, Ayat’s supervisor helped her find a job as a court advocate in Harlem, and Ayat immediately signed up for Parenting Journey at her former workplace.
The other women in her Parenting Journey group “became my spiritual moms.” “People believed in me. At Parenting Journey, we all believed in each other.” The connections she made “opened up a world of resources I didn’t know I had access to,” both professionally and personally. One woman from her group helped her find a rent-stabilized apartment. Another moved back to her home country and offered Ayat her furniture for free. A third offered to babysit Ayat’s boys during the transition to their new home. “It was my first real apartment by myself with my kids and I was so nervous and so scared. It was their support that gave me the courage. Parenting Journey was like my lifeline.”
After working in Harlem for several years, Ayat returned to the Brooklyn nonprofit to work as a preventative social worker. She didn’t run Parenting Journey groups, but she sometimes used Parenting Journey exercises in individual sessions, and attended every one of her client’s graduations from group. She completed the Parenting Journey facilitator training last spring, eager to share her own transformative experience with other Brooklyn families by leading her own Parenting Journey groups.
She moved on from the organization before facilitating any groups, but as a school social worker and postgraduate student working toward her own family therapy practice, Ayat shares Parenting Journey’s mission to strengthen families. “I want to help families who don’t have access to good quality family therapy,” she says, musing about the possibility of running a Saturday morning Parenting Journey group at the school where she works. Saturdays are more relaxed for working parents, and nearby parents wouldn’t have the barrier of paying for a Metro card.
It’s still hard to manage parenting and work and relationships with her relatives. “Carving a new way of family for myself and my sons created a lot of friction,” she says; her decisions were unfamiliar to her family and seen as threatening to their cultural norms. “It was very bold for me to fight for custody.” Ayat was not only willing to fight for her kids, but to work toward healing from the battle. Parenting Journey helped Ayat reflect on the story she wanted for her family. Her graduation was only the beginning.