“What came before didn’t have to dictate the future.”
Marina Aris has spent much of her life running: running from an abusive childhood, running from a nightmarish stint in the foster care system, running from a life of poverty.
And then she began running toward her future—working multiple jobs to pay for an apartment in her native New York City, becoming a mom to three children, and making a name for herself in the publishing world.
“The distinction is really drawing the clear boundary between what we go through as humans when we’re being brought up and also those trials that we sometimes go through,” Aris says, “and how much power we have to change it and make it better.”
Now a Solo Mom living in Brooklyn with her two young daughters (her adult son lives in Florida), Aris is finishing up her literary debut, Running Into the Night, a memoir about her abusive childhood and the life she built after striking out on her own at age 16. She’s also the founder of the Brooklyn Writers Project and the Brooklyn Writers Press, and she’s a board member of Pen Parentis, which supports parent writers. She’s also recently been named director of bookstore relations for DartFrog Books.
A sought-after speaker, Aris has told her story to a young-mothers group in Brooklyn, teens about to age out of the foster care system, and graduate social work students at Columbia University and Hunter College.
When she’s not working on her beloved literary pursuits, Aris, 44, is fully immersed in being a mom. Newly divorced, she is intent on creating a happily ever after for her daughters by making sure they feel special and loved, two things she craved as a child.
Aris spoke to ESME about thriving as a Solo Mom, her passion for writing, and how she turned her dark history into a life she loves.
Q: How did you get into writing?
A: Most writers would probably agree with me—it’s something you are compelled to do, sometimes at a younger age. I started in my early teens . . . by scribbling poetry on napkins, at least what I thought was poetry (laughs).
At 19, I attempted to start writing my memoir. I’d write regularly. But looking back, all that I was writing at that time was more therapeutic. It wasn’t the type of writing I could actually publish. It was more journal-like.
And, so, I kept at it for all those years. I started to focus on getting better training, going to workshops. And I continued to do other things, obviously, because when I was growing up, you didn’t really want to be a writer, not if you wanted to eat—that’s the message I kept getting. So I worked in finance and in [other areas] just to get through, and I kept writing on the side.
I kept saying, “One day I’m going to make this the main focus.” That didn’t happen until I got divorced. Before, when I had my kids, I started to make a stronger push, and I did get out some very good first drafts that were then edited. And I’ve learned a lot.
Q: How did you turn writing into a career that pays the bills?
A: I left all my marital assets, and I took out my retirement money and did something very risky, obviously. What I am doing is a number of things. I am writing my own books; I started a press; and other authors have come to me, and I will be publishing their work.
[One way in which] I earn a living is by doing some publishing consulting, meaning I’m walking authors through the process. And I’ve also linked up to DartFrog Books, a start-up. For the past year I have been working very closely with the founder. That start-up is, hopefully, about to reach the tipping point, and it’s going to do very well. When that happens, I will earn a very good living helping the founder continue to get the best self-published books into bookstores.
Then I will get back into the speaking circuit next year, I’d imagine. When I speak to foster kids, I don’t intend to make money on that. I just really want to help that community. But I think now that I’ve learned so much in the past few years on the publishing side of things, I’d like to speak more in that way.
Q: What was your experience in the foster care system?
A: This is what I always say about foster care: there are people in the foster care system who I believe have a very good heart and good intentions and are doing right by children. I believe wholeheartedly that they are out there. But I never met them. I didn’t get lucky. I had three placements, and none of them was safe.
And so, at the age of 16, I decided to leave my last foster home, where I had been adopted. They were only interested in money the whole time. And they were like, “Sure, we’ll adopt this kid because we want to continue to get the money.” And they did. They did get the money.
They changed my name. I’ve had several names in my life.
And you know what? I’m in a really good place now. I’ve made peace with all these things. And I’ve come to understand that the reason why these things happen are varied. Sometimes it’s [because of greed, a lack of education, or a lack of values]. All those things are what damage a system like foster care. And seeing it now as an adult versus seeing it when I was 19 and I was starting to write my story as a victim, I’ve learned and I’ve grown away from “Yes, I was a victim.”
There’s no denying that, but I was able to turn that around and alchemize it into something really positive.
I’m actually writing a follow-up to my memoir titled The Wrath of Strangers: A Foster Care Manifesto. If I can help the foster care system, it’s through that other book and through continuing to talk to social workers.
Q: What was your motivation to write Running Into the Night?
A: My mother illegally immigrated to the United States in 1972, and she settled in New York City from Colombia. I was born on the Lower East Side of New York. She brought her experiences with her, like we all do. But her experiences were experiences of being brought up in poverty, violence, incest, that sort of thing. So she was not someone who was capable of becoming a good mother or providing in that way. And I wound up living with many different people over the course of my childhood and that included foster care.
And so what I want to talk about is a couple of things that are themes in the memoir. One is how we have the nature versus nurture argument all the time. My experience is that it’s really difficult to answer that question because each of those had such an impact on my trajectory. The most important thing that’s come out of my story is that I had many opportunities in which to fail. I went through depression. I never took drugs, but for a while I did drink—when I was very, very young—and by the time I was 21, I got over it. I was like, “This doesn’t work for me.” So, thankfully, I didn’t continue with that.
Little by little, I started to build my life and understand that what came before didn’t have to dictate the future.
Q: You became a Solo Mom for the first time at 19. How did you manage at such a young age?
A: When I was younger, I definitely was not ready to be a mom. I was a good mom and, when I say “a good mom,” what I mean is that when I held my son in my arms and I spent time with him, I loved him and I cared for him and I breastfed him and I did all the things that I thought a mother should do even though I never experienced [any of] that. And I was happy about that. It was almost like I thought, Am I going to be really bad because I never saw a good mother?
Being a mom the first time, that was the one thing I took away from it that was really great. But on all other levels, I was not ready. My son’s dad was older than I was by a number of years. I fell into it because I thought, at that point in time, I had no one.
I felt so incredibly alone in this world. I felt like if I don’t have a child of my own or have a family of my own, I will be alone forever. I’m not saying I purposely [got] pregnant and [had] a child—I was actually on birth control when it happened—but I wasn’t ready. It was not the right time.
Thankfully, my son is fine, and his dad and I, even though we never got married, figured out how to work really well together. When we separated, [we realized] it made sense to let him take over: I was making minimum wage and going to college; he was much more established. And my son wound up living in Florida.
Q: How are things different now as a Solo Mom at 44?
A: It’s certainly easier, right? I don’t have the same concerns. For the most part, I’m able to fully focus on being a mother.
My ex-husband is a wonderful human being, and he’s a great dad; he just wasn’t the best partner for me. I was able to say, you know, that what I really want is to be not just happy, but I want to be ecstatically happy for the rest of my life. If something’s not working, I can finally drive this thing.
I think the difference—believe it or not—is at 19, my energy was amazing. I didn’t sleep, and it was awesome. I was totally fine, and I lost all the pregnancy weight, like, the next week. It was ridiculous. At 36, I thought, Whoa, what’s going on here?
I also think a big difference is the mindset and the psychology. When I was young and lost, [having a baby] wasn’t the answer I thought it was going to be. I’m not saying my son was a mistake. He wasn’t and I love him and he’s a wonderful part of my life, but he wasn’t the solution I was looking for.
At this point in my life, I am really, really wanting this. . . . This is it. I want this family unit, and I want it to work and I’m wholeheartedly ready for it. It’s a priority. Different mindset, I guess.
Q: What are your struggles and your successes as a Solo Mom?
A: I think my ex-spouse [the father of her two daughters] would agree that any time you are with children for an extended period of time on your own, it’s certainly more draining. The ideal situation of having two parents, I get it. Anybody who has since been married and/or divorced understands: when you have two parents in the room, it is just somehow much easier to manage.
When they’re growing up, children, for better or worse, are wonderful in so many ways, but they’re neanderthals, right? They have all these needs; they’re irrational.
When you have one child, the struggle is you become the primary playmate. When you have two children, they kind of play with each other but then they kind of gang up on you (laughs). I would say the challenge [with two] is that physical output.
The great thing about it is when I’m with them now, I’m fully present for them. One, I’m going to take care of every need these children have—check off the box because that’s important to me. Then, especially because of the divorce and also because of my past experience, I do something as often as possible to make them—both of them—feel special.
My six-year-old, she’s about 47 pounds now. I weigh about 130 pounds, so she’s getting to be a lot for me. We dropped off her sister at the early-development center, and then I walked with my six-year-old to her dad’s. When we were two blocks from her dad’s house, I picked her up and I carried her for two blocks. And she loved it—she loved it. She wants that still. And I specifically said to her, “Mommy’s doing this because I know I can’t do it soon, and this moment right now is Mommy-and-me time. This is our time, so this is what’s going to make it special for us today.” And she loved it, and I kissed her the whole way. It was fun and [became] one of the highlights of my day.
Life for me right now is incredibly rewarding, so even if there are tough days or challenges, I would change nothing. I would just continue to do what I’m doing. I’m really having the most wonderful time of my life.
Q: What’s your message to other single moms?
A: I like . . . the analogy about being on an airplane. You know, when you have to put the oxygen mask on first before you help your kid? That always comes to mind for me, that one example.
I think all of us, whether we are parents or not, when we’re not satisfied with something, when we’re struggling with something, I think too often we get caught up in the emotional response to that thing, and we don’t take enough time to consider, Well, how can it be better?
That’s the first step toward finding a solution because being a single parent is always going to be challenging. As a parent, I think the best way to enjoy it more is to take a step back and look at yourself and make sure that you’re getting all the things you need to care for yourself, whatever that is. No one comes with an operating manual, but we should all create our own and then share it with others whom we’re close to—especially those whom we’re close to.
Marina’s story is one of moving forward and not letting the past hurt her future. What have you had to let go to move forward?
Sarah Netter, ESME’s Adoption Resource Guide, is a single mother by choice to a fabulous little boy, one neurotic Italian Greyhound, and two Spanish Galgo puppies. She is a full-time journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC News.