Invite Your Mother…
The Poverty of Motherhood in America
After a back and forth with Stephanie Land in a private FB group for memoirists, I read her book MAID which was adapted into Netflix series, and I’m thinking back to when the boys and I were on WIC (the government-subsidized food program for pregnant Women, Infants & Children.)
None of the food was organic and I was nursing and the babies were babies so my husband Casey ate all the cheese and cheerios and drank all the milk.
Boy did we get a lot of milk and cheese!
We were new to VT so Casey had to learn to eat cheddar on everything–from pizza to sandwiches. The large blocks of white state-issued cheddar were what we contributed to every potluck and to every stay with an out-of-state relative.
Casey and I both had college degrees (I’d graduated Magna Cum Laude at the top of my education class) so why were we on WIC, and why did we need heating assistance and clothing assistance and Dr. Dynasaur (health care) and later food stamps when Casey was in between jobs?
We thought it was because we sucked.
Because we hadn’t figured out how to make it like our other friends with kids.
Because we’d chosen the wrong careers.
Looking back I know that we needed support because this country and its priorities are seriously fucked up.
For starters, like so many Americans, Casey was paid poverty wages. His medical insurance didn’t include his family in our first year in VT. We bought costly catastrophic coverage for me out of pocket. This meant there was no money left over for anything but the bare necessities and even there we sometimes fell short.
Just after the baby was born, my aunt and uncle visited from out of state and before they left town, they dropped off a roasted chicken and a baguette from the VT Country Store in Brattleboro. I still remember that single meal. I devoured the meat. I’d dropped 18 lbs since the baby was born. I couldn’t digest milk or cheese.
Beyond my husband’s poverty wages as a high school teacher, we needed assistance because there was no flexible child care in the area. In the weeks after my son was born, I administrated a non-profit and while I could do much of the work from home while he napped. But for meetings and in-session work, I had to hire a babysitter and that ate up most of my own poverty-level earnings.
Before our second son was born, I was filing charts with my college degree in my midwife’s office to pay for his birth. I was cleaning the kitchen at my older son’s preschool to pay to help cover his tuition. I was babysitting at the mountain on weekends to afford diapers. During those years, I also worked in a video store, a pizza parlor, and in various other A to Z part-time roles. At night, I took a weekly shift at our Co-op which helped offset our grocery bill and provided freebies. I wrote articles for local publications and sometimes got a check for doing so, sometimes $25, sometimes $75, a few times, $200.
Through those early years as a young family, my son and I never went to a cafe or ate out together. We never went on a field trip that wasn’t provided for by community funds. I never bought him any toys except for what we found at the second-hand store. Every few months, we’d splurge at half-price night at the Italian restaurant in town, a huge piece of lasagna for $5 that came with bread, with water on the side, but that was it. We never even ordered a pizza.
Though it all, I became a pro at finding anything to do that was free or funded, especially if there was food involved. I applied for every level of support available. It was sometimes humiliating, always humbling, but I was tenacious in support of my family. It was all I had to offer. Every librarian knew us by name.
Despite my protests about the costs and the time and the unfairness, my husband went back to school for his masters after our second son was born. I had always planned on my masters, but by then my husband’s earning potential outstripped what I could earn if I went back into the classroom, and my license had lapsed while I was home with the babies. Relicensure was costly and time-consuming, and two full-time careers no longer seemed manageable in the face of all the attention and energy it took to tend family. Instead, we invested in my husband’s future and in our kids, while I remained on the margins.
By the time my husband earned his master’s degree, we’d begun taking baby steps toward buying our first home. It too was a humiliating experience at first and then a humbling one and finally when the boys were 4 and 9, a successful one. We were no longer eligible for support and every dollar went to pay the mortgage and bills. We couldn’t even afford to give the kids allowance anymore.
“He has such a good work ethic,” relatives noted about my son after my sister offered the kids 25 cents for each piece of trash they found around her pond.
The other kids weren’t much interested, but my son worked until dark, until my sister cut him off because her out-of-pocket cost was absurdly higher than she’d imagined possible.
I shook my head. It wasn’t work ethic. It was our reality.
Eventually, the gap between my husband’s and my earning capacity was Grand Canyon-like. Occasionally, I took on a more professional role outside the home, but we all suffered for it, and I’d come slinking back after a year or two to simpler work, putting our family first again.
And so it was that I continued in one part-time role after another, discovering that there was never a full week of school given holidays, professional days and sick days. I ran the afterschool program in town which meant my sons could participate for free. During the summer, I babysat other children and applied for scholarships so that my boys could go to camps.
I always had my pick of part-time roles, but as I aged into my forties, with my boys both in school, I tired of the kind of work available to me. I thought about school again but the cost was daunting. I thought about heading in new directions, but my energy for re-invention was dwindling. Meanwhile, my husbands opportunities were exponentially expanding as he reached the peak of his career.
By the time I entered my fifties and my nest began to empty, I stopped getting interviews, let alone job offers. I worked as a field researcher for a few months, a waitress, an Elf, and most recently a census taker. During Covid, I collected unemployment for the first time in my life.
And so, here I am, at 57, at what we hope is the edge of a pandemic, with few if any career prospects and very little mojo to market myself.
There are millions of versions of my story in America. The hardships are magnified in every direction. Stephanie Land’s story is much more brutal than mine, and she and I are both white, CIS, hetero women.
BUT MUCH LIKE the author of MAID, I was once upon a time filled with so much promise and possibility.
Before motherhood, people offered to fund me in any business I wanted. Doctors. Customers. Strangers.
At 19, I was running a restaurant with 30+ employees.
By my mid-twenties, I was nominated as teacher of the year in the school where I taught sixth-grade. At the same time, I supported my husband through school until he too had a teaching degree.
When Casey and I relocated to Vermont after our first miscarriage, I was hired out of state from a pool of 200 candidates.
By my thirties, as a new mother, I was applying for food stamps.
Yesterday, we took our grown kids out to eat before they returned home to their own lives elsewhere. I’d pressed my husband about it, thinking the cost worthy so that we could all relax together without anyone needing to plan, shop, cook and clean up, responsibilities we share as a family.
Afterward, each of our sons thanked their father for the meal.
The Spiral Staircase
The fall out of a fractured divorce:
I was surprised to find myself referenced in the lines of the obituary. Somebody was mindful, maybe the parent of the other 3 step-grandchildren though I’m not sure who they are.
When the deceased and I first met, I was already a young adult so I don’t know that I ever considered her a step-grandmother, though perhaps some if not all of my younger sisters did. I find myself touched to be included all these years later, to be considered family, even while the ground beneath that sentiment shifts, inviting closer inspection…
My “step-grandmother” was an elegant woman or maybe graceful better captures her, but a grace born of self-composure, more than wealth or finery. Despite her graciousness, however, she stung me once, irrevocably, and all these years later, it comes back to me, when I am the age she would have been then…
My father, the surgeon, began sleeping…
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