This morning I found an essay by John Scalzi (an author I follow quite a bit) called Being Poor. It brought me to tears because it described the first 23 years of my life, from living with my parents to raising children of my own now.
Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.
If you live that life for long enough, it never goes away. Going through the grocery store, I can still tell you the prices of most of the staples I used to survive with. Beans, noodles, canned soups, off-brand cereal, chicken when I was lucky… I can tell you when things go to a “manager’s special” rack and how long it’s safe to eat them after. I can tell you that the bread factory back home will sell you squished or overcooked loaves at half-price if you get there early enough to buy them before the other families that are scraping by.
Being poor is coming back to the car with your children in the back seat, clutching that box of Raisin Bran you just bought and trying to think of a way to make the kids understand that the box has to last.
My parents made everything we ate from scratch. I didn’t know hot cocoa came in packets or that oatmeal came in different flavors. It was all something plain that came from the stove. For my little family, this started early. I couldn’t breastfeed my children because of scar tissue, so I used a pump until I was sure I’d start bleeding because I couldn’t afford formula for them and have the small boxes of cereal and baby food they needed too. Later on it was trying to explain to an innocent toddler why he got bacon for breakfast when he visited Grandma and Mommy only had toast for him the next day.
Being poor is knowing you can’t leave $5 on the coffee table when your friends are around.
Then you push all of those friends away because there are some you see slipping into a world that you refuse to be a part of, regardless of how poor you are. The others you push away because you’re too embarrassed to let anyone know the way you live. In the last 5 years, only 3 friends have even known my address.
Being poor is not enough space for everyone who lives with you.
When MW and I moved in together, we were both starting over with nothing and deciding to build a new life together. Divorce had drained us both of every asset we ever had. Two adults, two children, and 3 dogs don’t fit into a 700 square foot apartment. Toilet training two little ones at once with only one toilet means that Mom learns to hold it when they need to sit there for a while.
Being poor is thinking $8 an hour is a really good deal… Being poor is needing that 35-cent raise.
When I first landed the job with the second retail store I worked for, I was offered $7.50 an hour at 30 hours a week. I thought I had hit the jackpot compared to the $6.50 and 15 hours I had before. I didn’t realize that my supervisors made almost twice what I did. That one dollar though, and those extra hours to work, they saved me.
Being poor is knowing you work as hard as anyone, anywhere.
See what I said about that retail store up there? I was scheduled and paid for 30 hour a week, but I put in 90 just to help keep it going when we were understaffed so badly that we didn’t even have enough people to have one for each shift (which was every week).
Being poor is deciding that it’s all right to base a relationship on shelter.
At 18, I was losing my first home and too proud to ask my already struggling parents to take me back in. My manager needed someone to take care of his apartment and I was willing to cook and clean for a roof over my head. We started dating. A bad decision there left me pregnant, we married, he decided he didn’t want to work anymore and played video games all day, and then we divorced so that I could protect the kids from his neglect. I lose my children every weekend to him because I needed a home badly enough to share one with him. How do you tell a child, “We left Daddy behind because he wouldn’t feed or change you. You were starved, dirty, and sick and I had to work all day so that I could feed you when I got home.”
Being poor is feeling helpless when your child makes the same mistakes you did, and won’t listen to you beg them against doing so.
I was a happy accident for my parents too. My mother was pregnant with me at 17 and considered it a great moment that I was able to surpass her by at least graduating high school. Both parents told me I didn’t have to marry, trying to save me from the pain they saw coming, but I was trapped and scared, and didn’t see any other options.
Being poor is knowing how hard it is to stop being poor.
I had to lose it all and watch my world crumble into the dust before I even knew where to start picking it back up. I was finally brave enough to leave the husband that locked two boys with soiled diapers in a room all day so that they didn’t interrupt his game. I struggled to get my confidence back and didn’t really recover until I met MW and found out that he was crazy about me despite all of my insecurities. I quit my job because I had nobody to watch the children, then I had to swallow my pride and let MW support us all until I started working from home.
I can’t break the mentality even though our financial crisis is over. I still tell myself that Ramen is an appropriate dinner once in a while and that leftovers make the best lunch for MW. I love the fashion world, but I’m stilling wearing decade-old sweaters and dresses because the holes are still small enough that nobody else notices them and I can’t justify spending money on new ones. I still feel like I owe the kids an apology for the rough start I’ve given them in their lives, even if they’re too young to understand it now. In many ways, I still feel like I’m not out of the woods yet and I’m still running in place trying to make things just a little bit better for us each day.
You can read Scalzi’s full essay here. Please take the time to check it out.