Impoverished Parenting

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I did not grow up poor. We were not rich either. At one point in this country, there was a rather substantial middle class. I lived in a large house with a huge yard. I had nice clothes, my own room, toys, dance lessons, piano and violin lessons, ski passes, horse-back riding lessons, summer vacations to Maine, trips to Disney World, and a week or so of residential camp.

By the time I was in high school, a divorce which embattled my own bitter parents and the choices made thereafter had pretty much changed our financial situation. We still weren't poor, but there I was, suddenly being told I would be putting myself through college. Whether or not I would go was not an option. But, "here are some financial aid forms, and good luck honey!,' was a big change from the privileges with which I had been raised.

And thank goodness for that! Because I learned how to be poor in college, and it certainly is paying off now!

About a year ago, I found myself in drastically changed circumstances. Literally, in one day.

Financial issues had been challenging for us as a family. There were issues about money and working between us. We were scraping far more than we had back when we could still take trips to Hawaii, but we were eating well and the bills were paid and everyone had new shoes or raincoats when they needed them.

In a heated argument -- about money -- my (now) ex committed and was subsequently charged with a domestic violence crime against me. He stole money which was intended for rent and bills. He didn't offer any child support for seven months, and then when he was ordered to, he apparently decided to consider the judge's order "optional" or "open to interpretation."

I sold a very small business to pay immediate bills, and frugally and carefully supported my family while working part-time and parenting full-time.

I continue to be the primary financial support -- in addition to and by default of the other party not following child support orders -- and am now living far below the poverty level. My situation and my priorities have changed, but in spite of some extremely challenging days, my integrity of parenting has not.

SKOKIE, IL - JUNE 24: Illinois Department of Human Services office clerk Elizabeth Nichols demonstrates the activation an Illinois Link card, an electronic debit-like card used in place of the traditional food stamp, using a POS machine similar to the card reader a recipient would use at a given redemption location, June 24, 2004 at an Illinois Department of Human Services office in Skokie, Illinois. Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman has announced all 50 states and the U.S. territories now provide Food Stamp Program benefits with EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards instead of the traditional paper coupon stamps. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

The first "hard thing" I did was apply for food stamps. This was new territory for me, and I was surprised how quickly I got over the humiliation. I'll admit it: I am still sometimes uncomfortable when I pull out that specially colored card to swipe for my food purchases, but I am more than grateful enough for the assistance to suck it up on pride. But yes, I admit when a grocery clerk says "EBT?" in anything over a hushed tone, I still get flushed. One time when things were very bare, I even went to the food bank and I cried on my way home, while trying to explain to the children what kind of "store" that was in the parking lot of the church.

My children don't get to drink organic milk anymore. We just go for the 'non rBST' versions of whole milk. We almost never buy small packaged items, which supports my recycling education and creates a new tangible association with conservation for my children (ages 9 and 4), so that's a Win. Snack foods (booty, cheese puffs, chips) are now categorized as a treat; they have managed to graduate their accompanying empty calories into the sugar category. Everyone eats slightly lower quality food but less junk. I call that a wash.

We moved to a smaller house where I am able to work off a portion of the rent by providing childcare for my friends who live next door and own the house. Everyone seems happy enough here, and the change of address was welcomed by me.

I have applied for (and received) assistance in the form of lowered energy bills. In California, there is a CARE program which reduces my energy bills by about 18-20%.

I hate to admit this, because I have always prioritized my children in this process, but I have allowed my children to miss birthday parties for lack of funds for a gift. We know what every free day is at every local museum, and we know when the Library is sponsoring magic shows or craft projects.

My daughter just turned nine, and everyone asked what she wanted for her birthday. I thought about it and answered quickly. "She has been told 'no' more times in the past fifteen months than in her whole life before it. She hears, "No, we can't afford it," or "No, not today, maybe another time," all the time. What she really wants is to shop for herself." Gift cards were purchased. A very thoughtful friend presented her with a substantial pink wallet in which to store her coveted cards. She has made great choices about using some for new school clothes and others for buying gifts for people as well as new toys or music for herself. I see a whole new value in gift cards that somehow escaped me with the 'too impersonal' assumption before this year.

I have difficult choices to make about preschool for my son. He has Apraxia and desperately needs another year of preschool, but his birthday occurs one month before the California state cut-off -- December 2nd -- and he won't receive any financial assistance for preschool this year, which was a grateful situation we were offered last year. But I am creative, I am good at bartering -- how convenient that I teach preschool aged specialty classes! -- and I will provide.

I have moments where I am terrified, where I am so afraid of the next turn and the next bill and the next bare tire and the next choice to make and how I will do it. But through the diligent devotion to succeeding, through the kindness of strangers, and through the mere existence of my life as a Mama, I have found that I am, at times, strong.

We have survived.

And always, on a wing and a prayer, that extra little paid gig, and another box of pasta, I will provide.

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