“I love my babies. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy”: One mother’s struggle to survive in pro-life Texas
PINELAND — Destiny Williams sank to the floor of her apartment, wailing.
For the better part of a year, Williams, 24, had been on the way up. She’d gotten a steady job working at a chicken plant and moved into this tidy duplex in the same complex where her grandparents raised her. She’d gotten big leather couches and squeezed a heavy set of wooden bunk beds into the back bedroom for her two children.
Williams was clawing her way out of the insidious poverty that had such a stranglehold on her life from the day she was born. This positive pregnancy test threatened to send her tumbling back down.
Texas politicians would have Williams believe she lives in the most pro-life state in the nation. But she knew firsthand the long, lonely road awaiting poor mothers and babies in Deep East Texas, far beyond the reaches of the state’s ragged social safety net.
Lying on the apartment’s nubby carpet, Williams let herself consider what was, in February 2022, still somewhat of an option in Texas. She could drive three hours south to Houston, get the pills, swallow them alongside her qualms about a procedure many in this area have been raised to abhor. It would all be so easy, compared with the reality that awaited her.
“I didn’t want to, but I was just so frustrated,” she said. “I’m going to be in this by myself, again, raising three kids alone.”
But as her initial terror subsided, Williams made her decision. She would do as the billboards instructed — she would choose life, keep the pregnancy, assume the mantle of motherhood once more.
She would pursue the same aspiration that animates every parent the world over: She would try not to mess it up.
Williams’ experience over the next year demonstrates how ill prepared Texas is to support the families it currently has, let alone the surge of mothers and babies expected as a result of the state’s near-total abortion ban.
As motherhood plunged Williams deeper into poverty, Texas did little to help. If there was better out there for her family — and she had to believe there was — it would be on her to find it herself.
“I love being a mom,” she said recently, bouncing her daughter on her lap as her 4-year-old son clambered over her. “I love my babies. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s not.”
It was the middle of the night when Williams felt that familiar rush. Finally, she thought. She was past her due date, and more than ready for this particularly challenging pregnancy to come to an end.
At 4 feet, 9 inches tall and barely 100 pounds Williams’ ballerina body was physically incongruous with pregnancy. She was prone to passing out and recently broke her hip, leaving her all but bed-bound.
“I was just ready to have my baby and not be pregnant anymore, because I was so miserable and I was so big,” she said. “I was ready to get it over with.”
But nothing comes easy in rural Texas, least of all babies. The nearby hospital closed its labor and delivery unit in 2019. The next-closest option was an hour away, in Lufkin. After Williams’ car broke down, she was forced to construct a precarious house of favors to arrange rides and child care for her weekly appointments.
So when her water broke at 3 a.m., she didn’t call anyone right away. Instead, she waited, taking deep breaths, until the sun came up, four hours later.
This is life in Pineland, population 899, a speck of civilization on the edge of a vast national forest. There are no hospitals, few jobs and sparse social services.
In Pineland, community is currency. Williams was raised by her grandparents and grew up surrounded by family in the widest sense of the word. Her father died when she was a baby, and her mother was in and out of her life.
At 15, she moved out on her own, working two fast food jobs in nearby Jasper to support herself while she got her GED.
“I know everyone thought, like ‘if she’s so dead set on being on her own, then let her fall on her face,’” Williams said. “And I did fall on my face, but I always picked myself back up.”
When she was 19, Williams was taking a customer’s order when she suddenly passed out. At the hospital, she got the news: She was pregnant.
Indya was born in 2017, Izrael a year and a half later. She loved her babies, but each pregnancy introduced a crack in the fragile foundation of her life. She worked as long as she could, even when pregnancy made her sick and tired, but it was hard to schedule around doctor’s appointments, and after she gave birth, even harder to find child care.
“There’s a day care here, but they never have any room. It’s always full,” she said. “And if you have a minimum-wage job, you cannot afford day care.”
It was a stressful, chaotic time as Williams juggled a newborn and an 18-month-old. She struggled to find affordable housing, instead bouncing between her aunts’ houses. She spent some time in state jail after an altercation with Indya’s father ended with her being charged with aggravated assault and child endangerment.
When she got out, she was determined to build a more stable life for her and her children. But then she got pregnant. She had to quit her job at the chicken plant, rather than risk her health with such back-breaking work, and return to relying on friends and family. Her sister helped pay her rent. Her grandfather, who’d helped raise her as a child, stepped in to support the next generation.
“Your love deepens for a person when you see how much they love your kids,” Williams said. “I never had to ask him twice about coming to get them or if he would watch them.”
In a house full of women, he made a special effort to take Izrael under his wing.
“They were always out doing stuff, they were never home,” she said. “I’d go to pick Izzy up, and they’d be gone. ‘We can’t sit around all day. We had to go. The fish was swimming away.’”
He eagerly volunteered to watch Izrael when Williams went to Lufkin to give birth. She finally got a ride to the hospital around 7 a.m., in plenty of time to deliver a happy, healthy baby.
When Williams held Ire’Lynn, all 6 pounds, 8 ounces of her, hope flooded her system like an epidural. This baby could be a fresh start.
Williams stayed a few extra days to recover from a near-deadly postpartum hemorrhage. When she returned home, before she even had a chance to pick up Izrael, she got the call. Her grandfather had died from a stroke.
“His last day here on this earth, he spent taking care of my family,” she said.
The central beam of her support system had severed. It felt like her whole life was in free fall once again. Through her own tears, she tried to explain the inexplicable, but Izrael just kept asking to visit his great-grandfather.
“No fair,” he said, again and again. “It’s no fair.”
Williams sat in the lobby of the doctor’s office, cradling her crabby, exhausted children, waiting for a ride that would never come. These days, every hourlong pediatrician’s appointment seemed to spiral into a daylong affair.
Without her grandfather, Williams was back to relying on the state’s free medical transport program, an onerous option in isolated, rural communities. Earlier that morning, the driver had actually arrived on time, helping her load car seats and kids into the van.
At the pediatrician’s office, half an hour away, the driver told her she could leave Izrael’s booster seat in the van until he returned. But now, the appointment was over and the driver was nowhere to be found.
When she finally got the company on the phone, they said he was delayed with another appointment. They sent a different driver — without the booster seat. A few days later, Williams convinced a friend to drive her back to track it down.
Williams felt stuck in an impossible cycle: To have any kind of life here, she needed a car. But to get a car, she needed a job. And to get a job, she needed a car. Even if she got a job and a car, she’d need someone to watch her kids.
This frustrating math dictated every choice Williams made. Take grocery shopping: The grocery assistance she received from the state stretched further at Walmart or Brookshire Brothers in Jasper, compared with the dollar store in Pineland. But that required negotiating a ride, maybe paying for gas and working on someone else’s schedule. Even when she perfectly balanced convenience and price, she still often came up short.
“If it’s the end of the month and I don’t have very many groceries, I know I’m going to have to make it stretch, and I’m gonna have to make it work, period,” she said.
In almost any other state, Williams would get significantly more cash support from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. But Texas ranks 50th among the states and Washington, D.C., for direct TANF assistance, so she gets just $327 a month for her and two of her children.
“My rent is $500,” she said. “TANF pays maybe my light bill and my gas bill, but that’s it. It’s not a lot.”
Treading water takes up so much energy, it’s impossible to imagine Williams finding a way to swim against the current. She keeps the house clean and the kids fed, but some days, it’s hard to even take them outside to play.
During the week, 5-year-old Indya stays with her father. But Williams has custody on the weekends, which start Thursday since the Jasper school district went to a four-day week to deal with teacher shortages.
Indya is smart and perceptive, with chubby cheeks and her mother’s toothy smile. She’s struggled with the arrival of her new sibling, often telling Williams she wishes she was a baby again so she could be doted on like Ire’Lynn.
Izrael has felt it too, coupled with the death of his beloved great-grandfather. He’s constantly bubbling over with affection, clambering his long limbs into his mother’s lap as soon as she sits on the couch, shouting, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” until he gets her full attention.
“It’s just overstimulating and I just don’t ever get a break,” Williams said. “It’s hard to not just throw a phone in front of his face.”
She tried to enroll Izrael in Head Start, the federally funded early education program, but there’s no in-person facility near Pineland. An employee brought the family a folder of worksheets and some toys. Williams said she hasn’t heard from the program since.
After several dark months, the new year has brought a potential fresh start for Williams and her family. She got an offer to move into a new apartment with income-based rent. Instead of scrabbling together almost $500 every month, she’d barely have to pay anything until she gets a job.
But there was a catch: The new apartment is in Orange, almost 90 minutes south of Pineland, near Beaumont.
Orange wouldn’t qualify as a city to some, but with 20,000 residents, it’s more than 20 times as large as Pineland. It’s got more jobs, a higher median income and lower unemployment. There’s a community college, more day care centers, even places to shop besides the dollar store.
When Williams thinks about the options and opportunities there, she feels her spark returning.
“I want to go to school, and be able to buy what I need anytime I need to, and go to the mall,” she said.
She thinks a bigger city might have more opportunities for someone with a criminal history. Texas hasn’t passed “ban the box” legislation, which would remove questions about arrests or convictions from job applications, so she’s faced an added stigma in getting hired in her small, tight-knit community.
Still, Williams can’t decide whether to make the move. Moving is expensive, and uprooting her kids again would be disruptive. And she’d be leaving behind the safety net she’s been able to knit together with the support of her community.
“I wouldn’t have somebody to come sit in my house and watch the kids while I run to the store real quick because I don’t feel like taking all three kids out with me right then,” she said.
Pineland has been home her whole life. Even when she’s left, she’s always found her way back. Leaving now, without her grandfather waiting for her, seems so final.
“I’m scared, and I know a lot of people say you shouldn’t be scared of change,” she said. “But when you have small children, it is kind of scary … because you have to think about their best interests at all times.”
Williams paces around the Pineland duplex, tinny Muzak playing through her cellphone speaker. Every few minutes, an automated message thanks her for her call. She’s on hold with the gas company, trying to figure out how to get utilities turned on at the new apartment in Orange.
After talking to friends and family, Williams decided it was better to take a leap of faith than stay stuck in Pineland. She’s giving up a lot — family, friends, familiarity. But the promise of reduced rent, and all that might unlock for her, is too tempting to pass up.
She plans to get her kids enrolled in a subsidized day care, which will allow her to get a job or even go back to school. She’s thinking about studying cosmetology or business, or getting a technical certificate.
She’s convinced her sister to join her, too. They’re going to pool their tax refunds to pay for the move and, hopefully, a car for Williams.
“If I was to move out there by myself, I probably wouldn’t do it,” Williams said. “I feel like if I have my sister I’ll be OK.”
This move is an act of almost incomprehensible faith in a system that has done little but let her down over the years. But when Williams looks at her children, she has to believe that this time, it could work.
First, though, she has to navigate the expensive, annoying inconveniences of relocating a family — starting with the interminable hold for the gas company.
The recorded message predicted a 50-minute wait time. Williams changes Ire’Lynn’s diaper with one ear attuned to the music and carefully lays the phone on the bed as they play.
After half an hour, Izrael comes bounding in. Bored with the music and his mother’s diverted attention, he slaps the phone, accidentally hanging it up. Williams lets out a frustrated shriek.
She calls the gas company back. This time, the automated message says it’s a 90-minute wait.
Williams continues to pace around the apartment, cellphone in hand, watching the minutes tick by. As her children play quietly, she settles in the living room, her tiny body swallowed up by the big recliner. The hold music tinkles faintly. Her eyes grow heavy.
A voice calls her name through the phone, and she startles awake. Hours after she started this effort, someone from the gas company finally picked up.
But it’s all for nothing. The operator tells her she’s called the wrong number. They can’t help.
Freelance photographer Ilana Panich-Linsman contributed to this story.