My eyes snapped open. It was dark, but I didn’t need to see. A familiar, heavy weight pushed against my chest. My heart pounded against it. I gasped, frantically gulping air. Terror, a nightly visitor, was back to remind me I was one step away from losing all I had worked for.
I jumped out of bed to check on my children. They slept soundly in the second bedroom of the small apartment. I closed their door, fighting against the consuming tears that threatened to shut me down, and tiptoed to the kitchen.
It was dark and private, especially if I huddled in the corner against the cupboards under the sink. With cupboard handles digging into my back, crushing despair overwhelmed me, and I dissolved into quiet, painful, body-consuming sobs. I couldn’t handle this – single motherhood, sole support of two young children, working as an apartment manager, a job my body was not equipped to handle. There was nothing else…no job that paid enough to keep me and my two babies housed. I had made my bed. Now it was up to me to lay in it.
I was a survivor. I felt a sense of pride that while I was a single mother that received no child support, I could keep us off the streets. That sense of pride pushed me to achieve more stability, stability I had not had before.
As an artist, I was always one dollar away from destitution, but that one dollar kept me off the streets and under a roof. So, when my marriage dissolved, it took a long time for me to find the courage to initiate a divorce. Once I found courage, I took full custody of our two small children without support from their father. In fairness, he had more than he could handle fighting mental illness. It was unfair to ask for support, so I didn’t.
My parents, while available for occasional help, were not emotionally equipped to live full time with two small children. They had earned their freedom after raising four kids of their own. I felt the idea of a grown child coming home with two of her own children was too great a burden; so, I wheedled my way into an apartment manager’s job, a job set up for a married couple. It would now be handled by one, unqualified, single mother. Even though the job was more than I could handle, I never let people know what I was going through. In fact, except for shameful nighttime sob-sessions, I didn’t admit it to myself. After all, I was a strong American woman. The world could hear me roar. I had put a roof over my children’s heads. I wasn’t the daughter leaching off her parents.
The apartment job took its toll physically, mentally, and emotionally. My five foot, two and a half inch body was not equipped to handle the manual labor part of the job. My poor little vessel had not yet fully recovered from gestation complications nor had it fully recovered from breast feeding. But payment was a free apartment in exchange for that work. All I needed money for was life in general.
In Northern California there is a lot of resentment towards people who use the welfare systems. People using it are caught in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. In the State of California, at that time, to be eligible for public assistance, one could not work more than forty (40) hours per month. Let me write that again. To qualify for help, I could not legally work more than forty hours per month. I was required to be on call 24/7 as the apartment manager. I was not eligible for Welfare assistance because it was considered a full time job, but I still needed money to pay for utilities, groceries, and childrens’ needs.
I took odd jobs on top of the management position. At the end of the first year, I discovered that the Federal and State governments counted free rent as income for which I owed taxes, but had never received a monetary exchange. My family wasn’t keen on helping me pay that. I complained but didn’t ask for help because I had been raised to believe that if you made your bed, you laid in it. I had made that bed getting divorced. The management company that hired me found out I was working off the premises and frowned upon the odd jobs I had taken because I was to be available to their clients 24/7. I could quit the jobs and be a full-time manager and not be able to buy food or keep the jobs and lose housing.
I cried on the floor of my kitchen in the middle of the night.
Because I was a single mother with two small children and had a bill for Federal taxes, I was eligible for Food Stamps. However, using this type of assistance embarrassed my family, which in turn shamed me.
I cried on the floor of my kitchen.
But what does one do? One takes care of the kids and moves on. That’s what. No matter what it takes. So I felt a sense of pride in this, or at least pretended that I did. I went without health care for myself so I could set up payment plans to pay for my children’s health care and dental needs.
Too many times, I heard family and friends talking about “What a shame it was” that I had put myself in this situation.
I cried in the dark on the kitchen floor.
Pride kept me going. I took out student loans to go back to school for a teaching credential, something I could do because I had a Bachelor of Arts degree in Fine Art with a minor in music, but hadn’t made a lot of money as a street or gallery artist. I had not yet made any money as a musician. “What a shame,” I heard. “So much talent going to waste.”
Teaching brought in a steady income, something I had not experienced before. Yet, I still feared homelessness. To remind myself how close I still felt to it, I practiced the art of facing my fear by dressing every Halloween as a bag lady. My kids and family were not impressed with my choice of costume, but it helped me face the fear that was still haunting me. Dressing up in such a way confirmed that I had something to be proud of: at least I wasn’t a bag lady living on the street.
Pride of accomplishment can be a powerful smoke screen. It can hide something as huge as the terror of living through untenable uncertainty and color one’s memory of that uncertainty with self-aggrandizement. Pride-cloaked terror popped up in a mysterious, inconvenient, and unfortunate way. Next week, read Part Two of “Fumble,” when I share the memory of a missed opportunity to help someone else facing homelessness.