If I’m going to be honest, there’s part of me that hopes nobody reads this post. Or that if you do, you don’t talk to me about it. When I sit here with my laptop, writing, it’s hard to not be honest. I can feel the discord when I’m lying to you or myself, trying to show a better picture than whatever the current reality is. I love you, reader. I also fear you. It’s easy to walk through the world showing people only what we want them to see. (Easy but also exhausting.) The answer to every “How’s it going?” from a casual acquaintance or even some friends is always a verbal “good” from me but a nonverbal lengthy essay on every thought and feeling I’ve had since the last time someone asked. (You’ve been warned.)
It’s those latter thoughts and feelings that often find their way to the more public spaces–this blog, my Facebook status, the occasional Instagram reflection. It is easier for me to tell you all these things when I can’t see your face, although I do see your faces sometimes when I write. It’s easier because the words make more sense when I write them than when I speak them. If we’ve ever had a conversation, you’ll know that I sometimes can’t find the words to describe what exactly I want to say. (Even if you don’t remember this happening, I remember what seems like every time it’s ever happened. It makes me wonder if people doubt my supposed way with words when I stumble over my speech or only speak five words in a conversation.)
Enough about my social communication issues. Let’s get on with why I’m really here today, shall we?
As of Friday, I’ve been employed for 15 days. I only work weekdays and with the wacky winter weather we’ve been having here in Pennsylvania, I worked 9 of those days and almost every one of them was a different schedule. I’ve not yet settled into any kind of routine, but I have noticed some things even in this short amount of time. I’ll get my first paycheck this week, and while that is the primary reason for this job, the benefits go beyond money.
Let me try to explain. I doubt it will be brief.
This year marks 10 years that we’ve been living in Pennsylvania, having moved here from Illinois for my husband to attend grad school.
Back then, we thought we had a life plan, a trajectory that would only move us forward and up, whatever that meant. We left Illinois with little debt thanks to my husband’s military service in the Army Reserve and a one-year deployment to Iraq. This was crucial considering that we were about to take on more debt for grad school, but because we were following a dream, a calling, a whatever you want to call it, we thought it was worth it. Incurring debt for education and an advanced degree seemed like an investment that would later reap at least a way to repay the debt.
Until that point in our lives, I had worked full time as a journalist in various roles at two different media companies in Illinois. But we had a five-month-old when we moved and no family where we were headed and me getting a job to pay for health insurance and day care didn’t seem like the path we wanted to take. So, Phil got a part-time job, in addition to his school work and I stayed home to take care of the baby, all the while we looked for ways to make ends meet. (This is the part that is always hard to talk about.)
It wasn’t long before I learned about the world of welfare. We needed health insurance so we could take our daughter to well visits but we couldn’t break through the convoluted system to talk to anyone, so on a whim, I applied for food stamps, also and suddenly we had an appointment at the welfare office and we were talking to a case worker who asked us a gazillion questions and told us in a lighthearted manner that our case was “easy.” We walked out that day with a card loaded with money for food. (I was loaded with anxiety about all of this.)
Less than a year later, I learned about WIC when we discovered we were pregnant with our second child. I had no health insurance at the time. (This was before the Affordable Care Act–not that long ago.) So, I went to the free clinic for low-income people, which is what we were, and they referred me to the WIC office just down the hallway. This was a whole new world of check-ins and vouchers good for food products. (Cue the anxiety while using these, as well.)
All these years later, I remember how nervous I was every time I bought groceries and slipped the food stamp card out of its folder. Sometimes I had to tell the cashier out loud that I was paying with them. Almost every time I felt guilty for something that was in my cart. I didn’t write much about it in the early days because I was embarrassed, and I got some strong judgmental reactions from people I thought were friends, so I just did what I had to do to get by. It was only going to be temporary, I told myself.
At the same time I was adjusting to these new provisions for food for our family, I was receiving what I now consider substandard health care at the free clinic. The interns or medical students, I’m not sure which, couldn’t find our baby’s heartbeat every time we went in. This always caused a moment of panic until the overseeing doctor came in and found it. Once, a doctor told me that women with “more cushion” made getting a heartbeat reading more difficult, and I left feeling ashamed of my weight and so many other things.
Fortunately (?), my second pregnancy was considered high risk because our daughter was born five weeks early. The clinic felt my care was beyond their expertise so they referred me to a group of OB/GYN doctors that served most of the county. I had never felt more relief. I was a low-income pregnant woman so I qualified for free health care. I was also married with one child already, a college graduate with a husband pursuing a master’s degree. These things did not connect in my head. I fought the shaming voice in my head that told me we shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be this needy.
I never saw a bill for that second pregnancy, which included an emergency C-section. My healthy, active 8-year-old son is a gift in more ways than one.
This is where the shame rises again. I know women who pay thousands of dollars for their pregnancy care and births. I had insurance when my daughter was born, so I know the hospital bills that follow. This is nothing I would ever brag about, and I am continually grateful that I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to pay for a safe, healthy birth of my second child. A child who was born into a family on purpose and with intention. Not an accident or a mistake or as a way to milk the welfare system. (These are things people actually say, mostly online to other people, although not to me directly.)
Over the next year, we would look for other sources of income and make bad decisions about how we would gain that income. One decision later resulted in a choice my husband made to break our marriage vows, and we have never been the same (for better and sometimes worse) since then.
That was eight years ago. We lost income. We gained more debt as we sought counseling to heal and made intentional decisions to be with each other. My health deteriorated, though I would not experience the full effects until later. Our debt accumulated as we had to pay for things like heating oil with credit cards. ($700 every time we filled the tank, which was 2-3 times a year.) We paid for travel to visit family in Illinois. These are some of the things that saved us. And we are literally still paying for them.
I feel like I need to pause in the story for a moment because we are heading downhill fast, and my intention is not to make you feel pity or sympathy, disgust or anger. I have no idea what reading this will make you feel. I used to care a lot more about that but I’ve learned that all I can do is tell the story true. How you react is how you react and that says more about you than me. Everyone has their own stories of struggle and survival and ours is not particularly dramatic nor, I suspect, is it particularly unique. But I have to tell you where we were to tell you where we are and where we’re going. These things I’ve just told you, they weren’t the end for us, and though I would not have chosen them to be part of our story, they have helped us become who we are. (And I like who we are.)
In the aftermath of infidelity, I found my faith shifting. What I had believed about God and Jesus and Christian living no longer fit with my reality. Before, I thought if I did all the right things, then right things would follow. Instead, I saw that all of my right living couldn’t stop my world from falling apart. Instead of spiraling into no faith at all, though, I found a faith that was steady when the world was not, a God who was faithful when I had no faith at all. I saw Jesus in a whole new way. He was close to the broken-hearted, and that is what I was.
I cannot speak for my husband. His faith journey is his own. But as our marriage healed from this hurt, we discovered the roots were deeper and more prevalent than either of us wanted to admit. While we had entered grad school with the intention of entering full-time ministry–pastoring a church–that option no longer seemed like the healthy or right one. My husband graduated with his Master of Divinity, and we took the next year to figure out the next step.
You can read some of that story here. (Start with part one. There are six total, and each one is shorter than this post!)
Phil got a job in food service. We moved to a different town. We found an affordable rental. And we still struggled to make ends meet. Our income was subsidized with food stamps, WIC and Medicaid far longer than I had hoped. I constantly felt like a failure as a human being. How had two college-educated kids from the Midwest with a middle-class upbringing ended up in this financial pit?
For a couple of years, we just let ourselves recover from some of the previous hurt. We were in no hurry to move on or figure out what we were meant to do in the world. We were content to just float for a while, without fear of storm surges overtaking us. We both sought counseling, individually, and started to see progress in our emotional and mental states. But the drifting only worked for so long. I began suffering from back spasms that left me unable to walk without pain for a few weeks, so we added chiropractic visits to our health care expenses. Two years ago, Phil lost his food service job. He found another job in food service a few weeks after that, but it was another bad decision on our part, made mostly out of desperation because we needed money. By this time, our kids were both in school, and I did some looking for work, but I was still trying (and mostly failing) to make a go of freelance writing and editing.
Eight months later, he was out of a job again and we started last year with the expectation that things had to get better because getting worse was unimaginable. After a major car repair, receiving unemployment, and Phil finding a new job, we settled back in. We started to hope again. What if we could buy a house? Maybe we should start looking for a new car? (We bought our van 8 years ago and it is pushing 200,000 miles on the odometer.) The timing on both of those things just wasn’t right. Our debt continued to plague us.
I am slow to consider and adopt change, so it wasn’t until the year was almost over that I faced the reality of getting a job outside of writing, outside of the house. (A word about getting a job after 10 years of not having one: it is not as easy as snapping your fingers. I hear this tossed around frequently, directed at people on welfare or unemployment. “Just get a job!” For me to get a job that suited our family’s schedule and one-car situation, I had to pay for background checks, buy some suitable work clothes, make a doctor’s appointment to get a TB test, all before I officially accepted the job or saw a paycheck.)
If you’re still reading, here’s what is happening now: working outside the house has restored some of my emotional health. I have a reason to get up and get out of the house and shower on a regular basis. I cannot stay in my lounge clothes all day and binge-watch Netflix and drink coffee (there is nothing wrong with any of this; some days, I miss that life). I generally don’t care what I wear but because I had to buy new clothes, I let my husband and daughter and mother talk me into some things that I normally would not consider for myself. And I feel fabulous in some of these clothes. Turns out if you buy clothes that actually fit you don’t spend as much time shaming yourself for not being in better physical health.
Also, I hadn’t realized how much of a hoarder I’d become. When you live paycheck to paycheck and sometimes that doesn’t cover it, you start to hang on to stuff that really should have been thrown out long ago. At least I did. Because if I threw it out, then I would need to replace it and we didn’t have money for things that weren’t bills or food. (Or so I thought. I should also admit to you that we are not terribly disciplined about budgeting. A budget would not have solved all of our problems–I do not subscribe to this theory–but we do splurge every now and then.)
Last week, I realized how burdening this has been. I have saved half-used coloring books and scores of broken crayons my kids haven’t touched in years because what if one day they want to color and we don’t have anything and no money to buy them? I have thrown more things away, or put them in the giveaway pile, in the past two weeks than I probably have in the past two years.
This does not mean we are going to blow every paycheck I receive. We are not. (This is our debt reduction money.) But we will have the flexibility to buy the things we need, and some of the things we want, without stress. For the first time in years, we can see a path toward buying a new-to-us car that will not be a burden. When the van emits a troubling noise now, instead of freaking out about the cost of repair, I think to myself: Just a couple more months, old girl.
It’s just a job. It’s just a paycheck. But it honestly feels like so much more.
A final note: I’ve taken too many words to tell you these things today, but I guess I want to help you understand the kinds of unseen burdens people live with when they are under-employed. And we are the lucky ones. We have family support. And good credit. I don’t know where we would have been without both of those things. There are other people in the world who live paycheck to paycheck, who are underemployed and receiving welfare, who do not have family members who can help them when things get tight, who can’t get a credit card, even if they want one. These are the people the payday loan places target. These are the people who try to survive however they can. Please consider the bigger picture when you hear about food stamp fraud or people dumping their garbage illegally or whatever other “crime” might be associated with poverty. (I’m not excusing those practices, but in a lot of cases, there are larger systems and factors at work.)
If you’re still with me and you want to read about one of those systems, find a copy of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. You will never think about housing in the same way again.