I packed the iPad and I knew as I was packing it in the little canvas tote that I would feel like a jerk when I took it out. I packed it anyway. I was also bringing a 4-year-old who’d be sitting around for at least 30 minutes, possibly many more, so it seemed like the best option.
I did feel like a jerk when I pulled the iPad out. There I sat, calmly giving my name and my children’s birthdates, pulling a cable bill out of my bag to show proof of residence, handing over my driver’s license, answering questions. 2 hours later I would be handed a few sheets of paper that looked like checks. They were blue and business-like, but instead of “Pay to the Order of” they said things like “1 pound cheese” and “14 oz. brown rice.”
I wanted to explain that I hadn’t bought the iPad, that it had come from my husband’s work and that I had no real use for it and it was a good way to keep the kids busy at times like this and wasn’t that easier for everyone? But I didn’t say that. Instead I just sat next to my child who created a set of train tracks on a fancy touch screen and made sure all the paperwork was completed so I could receive WIC benefits for my children.
It wasn’t the easiest process since my situation is far from cut and dry. At the moment I am in a strange limbo. I have been left on my own financially for over a month. I have a little cushion that isn’t enough for next month’s bills. I have one maxed out credit card and one which must be paid off every month. I have virtually no money coming in. I cannot get unemployment because I’ve been home with my kids for nearly 2 years. I am in the process of divorcing but there is no child support order yet and waiting for any income is taking its toll.
I own very little. The car I’m driving isn’t in my name. I rent an apartment that I hope to be able to continue to stay in, since I can’t afford it anymore. I have a couple nice trappings: my laptop, my phone, my camera. But besides that I have a small amount of cheap furniture. I have things for the kids: more toys than I remember buying, clothes that will soon be stained and worn and too-small. I have my own wardrobe, which has more than enough pajamas but surprisingly little that is in season, still fits, and isn’t maternity-wear. The most expensive thing I own by far is my wedding ring, which I’m not sure I technically own, and even if I do I’m not sure what to do with it.
Most days I feel much the same as normal. I am just trying to keep my children busy so I don’t lose my mind. After they go to sleep I get an hour or so to myself before I head to bed as well. The long slog of each day, from mornings in pajamas to constant requests for snacks to buckling and unbuckling of carseat straps, is sometimes a blur. It’s a blur you can get lost in. It’s a blur where you are like everyone else and not the person who is being told that you can get your pound of cheese from any brand but soon the rules will change and it will be store-brand only.
My WIC checks make sure my children get plenty of milk and grain. There is no meat. And there is only $6 a month for fruits and vegetables. We normally spend more than $6 a week on produce. I am told there are places I can go where I can pay $2 in cash to get a bag of fruits and vegetables. I take the brochure, I will need it.
A nutritionist measures and weighs the kids. The baby is still short and I don’t know why, but her weight is good. The preschooler seems so skinny to me, but his height and weight are astonishingly average according to the charts. We talk about their eating habits. I tell her how they would live solely on berries if it were up to them. They are good milk drinkers. They don’t care much for meat. We are working on getting more beans. Cereal is a must since they don’t eat bread. I brag about my son’s love of crunchy vegetables. She assures me that string cheese is covered by the cheese allowance, good news for my crew.
The checks will help with a lot of our staples: milk, cereal, peanut butter, produce. It will help with the foods I’m trying to promote: beans, rice, cheese, eggs. It will be useless for many of the foods that get them through the day: pasta, yogurt, crackers. It gives us more juice than we need and I am already trying to think of how I can dilute it and pack it up for outings.
I make an appointment to come back in a month. I don’t know yet if I will need it, but the odds are I will. Even after I start getting child support payments I doubt there will be enough. The nutritionist, who seems young, unmarried, childless and kind, tells me that when people start with WIC they tend to stay for a while. She reminds me of myself in my mid-20’s, doing good work, helping people, trying to do something worthwhile. I didn’t ever expect to be the person on the other side of the desk. Still, it feels less strange than you’d think. I am a mother. I have two children. They need to eat. I need to make sure they eat. This will help. So I do it.
During the appointment we go from one desk to another to another. The children require constant managing, which also keeps everything feeling normal. The baby is walking now and she climbs up the set of 3 stairs in the waiting area then stands at the top and squawks to be picked up, since she hasn’t yet figured out how to go down them. The preschooler gets bored of the iPad, gets bored of his fire truck, goes through all his snacks, gets bored of everything else I have and won’t leave me alone until we get into the nutritionist’s office where there are new toys that he’s never seen that are infinitely more interesting than the ones he already owns. We could be in any office, in any appointment, trying to get through any day. We just happen to be here.
There is a little gold card on my key chain now. Next week I will go through another set of appointments to find out if we’re eligible for additional benefits. I have sent in many resumes, I will send in many more.
And yet life goes on with many of the trappings of ease and stability that it always had before. It is easy to feel like nothing is different. It often feels like that. And then Friday evening, after I leave the kids with their father and sit down and let myself relax I remember all the things I don’t let myself remember during the busy days of playdates and library visits.
I am intelligent, well-educated, competent, skilled and connected.
I do not know how I will pay my bills.
You work hard because you believe education and work and achievement will protect you, but it is not foolproof. You can make all the right choices and still end up barely able to keep your head above water.
But it’s weird how you can be frantically treading water for so long and not even notice because you can still breathe and all you think is Breathe in, Breathe out, Breathe in, Breathe out. And you carry on.