A couple of weeks ago, my 13-year-old son called to share with me something he'd heard on conservative talk radio in his grandmother's car.
"Last year, the government granted food stamps to a record forty-six million people. The National Park Service also has up signs telling you not to feed the animals, or they'll become dependent on human food. It's ironic, and it kind of makes sense, you know?"
Days later, when Max and his 9-year-old brother returned from Grandma's house, I sat my elder son down on the couch and explained that we are a food stamp family. He was surprised and embarrassed and apologetic. Trying not to express my own discomfort and shame, I gently explained that it had become necessity during the separation and divorce, that I hadn't wanted to burden him or his brother with the details but that I also didn't want him to buy into right-wing media portrayals of welfare families as lifelong slackers and drains on the system.
From the outside, we don't fit the preconceived notion of a welfare family. We live in a very modest, middle-class house in a nice suburb of Atlanta. We have a decent car and wear decent clothes. Max and I each have older model iPhones.
The truth is, divorce rocked our world. For a variety of reasons, my ex-husband was out of work last year and was unable to pay child support for five of those six months. I'd been a stay-at-home mom for almost thirteen years at that point—because that was absolutely what was best for our children—and suddenly I was faced with trying to find a job in a terrible-if-recovering employment market. While trying to be a single mom to young sons who still needed afterschool care.
And, oh yeah... I was facing a thyroidectomy that would likely take my voice permanently, plus the recovery and the adjustment to new medication, on top of other chronic health issues I'd fought all year. My ex was unable to help with the boys beyond his regular, alternating-weekend visitation schedule.
A year into separation, we were desperate.
I sold everything that wasn't tied down. I eventually found three part-time jobs that would allow me to be with my sons when they got home from school, trying to keep their lives as structured and normal as possible—plus saving me the $100+ a week in childcare, which is substantial when you make $12 an hour.. I borrowed money from my family just to keep the power and the water on. I cut out every non-essential I could.
It still wasn't enough.
My dad reminded me that I had paid into "the system" for my entire working life. Even when I was running the household so my ex could work his high-profile, well-paying job and maintain our upper-middle-class lifestyle, I was jointly-and-severally paying a high rate of tax to fund social programs.
I choked down the lump in my throat when I filled out the online application for assistance, mortified that someone, somewhere would have some idea that I wasn't able to take care of my children by myself. I cried when the representative from the State called to go over some final questions with me, telling me what paperwork I needed to submit in person. In the local Department of Human Services office, I mostly stared at my feet to avoid making eye contact with anyone who might see that I was a failure.
Benefits are no longer in the form of actual food stamps—those slips of paper that were so recognizable that anyone behind a recipient in line at the grocery store would moan under their breath and look away. Now it's a debit card, though the bright green with the neon orange peaches is readily identifiable.
The first time I used the card, I went to a grocery store ten miles out of my way, just to make sure no one I knew might see me. I loaded my bags of groceries into my car and cried in the parking lot. I still try to use the self-checkout when I can, to avoid having to face anyone. I am conscious, always, of how I'm dressed when I use the card—especially if I've just come from work or class.
The process as a whole is demoralizing, no matter how anonymous and quiet the State tries to make it. Somewhere there's record that I was incapable of taking care of myself and my children, that I became yet another statistic when I should have beaten those odds.
But divorce does that. It is emotionally and financially devastating. It didn't matter what my ex had promised our sons when we told them we were separating; things were not going to be the same, just without Daddy in our house anymore. We didn't still have everything we wanted when we wanted it. Sometimes we didn't even have what we needed.
Almost nine months later, I'm making a little more money, so our family benefit has been reduced. I'm still working three part-time jobs, and I'm also in school full-time to become a paralegal. It'll take at least another year, and then I get to start the process of trying to find a stable, good-paying job that will pay enough to feed and clothe and house my family. Modestly and in a good school. Dad has moved out of state, and we have no family here.
It is me doing this, getting help when and where I can to make the best life possible for my children, given these life-altering circumstances.
I don't want this to be my entire life. I'm busting my ass every single day to make sure my sons eat and do their homework and love each other no matter what. I'm trying my hardest to model for my sons how to make their lives what they want them to be, how to achieve their own goals, how not to give up when it's so hard that you have no choice but to ask for help.
How sometimes there are things far more important than your own pride.
Yes, there are abuses in every system. I'm not one of them. Everyone struggling, for whatever reason, to make the best of their lives is worth a little help sometimes. No one has the right to make me or my children feel less than because we were sideswiped by situation and circumstance. Doing what's right for my children and trying to placate a pious, judgmental view of American society cannot peacefully coexist.
I'm not some fat, stray animal looking for an easy meal. I'm not a feral creature who takes what it wants and shits all over the world. I'm a fucking human being, and I am a mother trying her best to care for her babies.