What, We're Poor?
"Are you poor?"
One of my daughter's schoolmates recently asked her this question. Still thwacking about in my brain, the question is doing collateral damage, as I scurry around the supermarket.
Post-divorce, I find grocery shopping excruciating. I preferred the old days of shopping for four. I liked being a nuclear family. I admit it. One menu plan. Now I create two menus in my head: an inexpensive-but-healthy-enough menu for the weeks the girls are with me; a cheaper, bachelorette-style menu for the weeks I am alone.
The sinister juice box aisle awaits me. I tend to weep in the juice-box aisle. I don't know why. But the girls like juice boxes. Everybody at school has juice boxes. Juice boxes make them feel normal, average. We all like to feel normal, average, once in a while.
The juice box aisle is also the sale aisle -- another reason I must traverse this treacherous row. Fifty-cent boxes of pasta. Dollar bottles of shampoo. Generic mac-and-cheese, six boxes for $2. A steal, really.
Someone is crooning, "I'll have a bluuuuuuuue Christmas without yoooooooouuuuu" over the supermarket speakers. Loudly. I wince. Christmas gifts. Crap.
"It's the beginning of the Just Kill Me Now season," I joke to a woman standing next to me in front of the discounted salad dressings.
She squints at me over her cart, unsmiling, then walks away.
Are you poor?
We fall below the poverty line by any study's definition of "poverty line" in the U.S. We are an unexpected statistic, living precariously on the fringes of a fairly affluent, if rural, area. Few people know the details of our situation -- just the basics, which are, admittedly, doozies. Bankruptcy. Divorce. Serious medical issues. Layoffs. Unemployment. Government assistance. Shared custody. There's no quick fix, no matter how I try to MacGyver it. There's no fast track to a bank account with four (or, dare I dream, five?) digits. I can't just pack up my girls and head to a big city, stat. Change is going to take some time here.
Ironically, my ex and I are going to have to learn to communicate better than we ever did, if positive change is going to happen in our separate lives. Funny how kids of broken families have a way of making their disconnected parents into better people.
I believe poverty is the last great American taboo. It sure isn't the sort of thing one tweets about to friends, or "Likes" on Facebook. We use euphemisms consistently: A little strapped. Need to tighten our belts. Here in the U.S., our culture is still churning out lyrics from the classic American dream: You can be a success if you just want it badly enough! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Go back to school! Take any job! Get on TV! Write a children's book!
I'm not saying those things aren't helpful for some folks. Jamie Lee Curtis and Madonna did very well with their children's books.
From the outside, my situation seems black and white -- dee-vor-SAY, the single mother of two daughters, underemployed. The anonymous comments at my blog are harsh variations of "Poor? Work more!"
These anonymous comments are not usually followed up by job offers, promises of free childcare, student loan repayment, free home repairs, low-interest lines of credit or the gifting of a new Social Security number and squeaky-clean credit report.
I'm moving as fast as I can. But rags-to-riches only happens on TV. I am no express train.
"Can you believe she asked me that?" my daughter says. "Out of nowhere. Are you poor?"
"What did you say?" I ask.
"I said I didn't know."
"That was a good answer."
"Are we?" She scrutinizes my face. "Are we poor?"
I try to normalize our experience. After all, it is normal. For us.
"We're definitely poorer than most of the families we know in our area, but we're certainly not as bad off as many families across the country or around the world. You and your sister will never have to worry about having a roof over your heads."
"Are you worried?" she asks me.
I don't want to say no. I want her to know her perception is keen, that her intuition is spot-on, that she can trust her gut. In the long run, that's worth more than money. But I don't want to frighten her.
"Do I seem worried?" I ask.
"Yeah. Sometimes," she admits.
"Yeah. I guess I am sometimes. I'm really sorry about that," I tell her. "But trust me when I tell you I'm working hard to figure things out and get us into a better situation. We're going to be okay. We are ... okay enough."
She nods and sinks down in her covers, snuggling up to me.
"I'd like a closet someday," she says. "And a bed that's not a table on wheels. That's all."
"Maybe ... a room big enough for sleepovers. Maybe."
I can hear the hesitation in her voice. Already, she's afraid to dream too big.
We're okay enough, but not okay, not yet.
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