Poverty

For a very long time, basically my entire adult life until last year, I lived in poverty. The extent of the poverty varied, from well below the poverty line to just hovering around it. Either way, I was poor for a long time. For my girls entire childhoods. Pretty much since I had them and until Steve and I moved in together.

I never talked about it for the same reason that no one I know who lives in poverty talks about it. Because they are ashamed. And because pretty much anyone who lives above the poverty line will basically tell you that it’s your own fault and you aren’t working hard enough. ** There are exceptions to this, but it’s rare. Very rare. **

The real problem with poverty is exactly that. The assumption that it’s the poor persons fault. So you have this person who doesn’t have enough of anything and we beat them down for it. And anyone who has raised a kid or made a friend knows that you don’t get very far with someone by belittling them. Especially when they are already feeling bad.

I worked. A variety of jobs, always trying to find a better one. Or a job with better hours so I could work a second job or just one job so I could actually be around my kids and go to their activities. But here’s the thing… Jobs that pay 7 dollars an hour don’t care. They really don’t. Not about your kids or your sick mom or your school schedule or anything. So scheduling around taking care of kids or another job is impossible. Plus, they don’t want to insure you so they keep you under 30 hours a week. Which, if you do the math, means you take home $217.50 before taxes. Try raising a family on that. Try just paying rent on that. Forget eating. Eating is cereal and Mac and Cheese because YOU HAVE NO MONEY!

Then there is that wonderful little meme floating around Facebook that says that if you don’t like minimum wage or poverty, you should go back to school. Or, be a good employee and you will get paid better. But I was a very good employee. I’ve never had anything but positive feedback and reviews in all the jobs I’ve had. They just don’t want to pay well because it hurts their bottom line. And someone always needs a job so you are replaceable. It’s really that simple.

And college, well… 30k in debt for someone who is already so poor that they can’t afford food is kind of bad math. It’s supposedly a better option than most but it’s not a good one. Going into debt when you can’t make ends meet is just bad math.

And really, we need people to work in the service industry. We all buy pizza and groceries and gas for our cars, and the people who work those jobs deserve to be able to pay their bills. First off, they deserve it because they are human beings just like us, but also because we depend on them to live our lives so conveniently. They deserve a living wage, even if they aren’t highly educated. Why does that have to be for everyone anyway?

I’m not someone who pretends to know the answer. Do I think paying people a living wage would help? Yes. Do I think higher education should stop being a for-profit business at the expense of people trying to make their lives better? Yes. Do I know how to make that happen? No. But I do know that if we don’t talk about poverty, and it’s so taboo that people are shamed into silence about it like victims, then we aren’t ever going to get anywhere.

For me, poverty was traumatic and something I’m honestly still trying to recover from. It’s scary to not know how to pay the rent or the water or heat bill. It’s scary to know that 20 dollars is all the groceries you can buy for a week. It’s crushing and heartbreaking to finally ask for help from someone and be belittled and talked to like you are a failure. But do that for many years and it becomes traumatic. Something you need to recover from, not something you can just leave behind.

It’s strange now, to buy good healthy food and not think twice. To not have to constantly total the groceries in my cart so that I am sure that I have enough money to pay for them. To have the rent paid, to be buying a house, to drive a vehicle that has no problems at all and is safe to take on trips. I feel lighter. But I also feel lucky.

I think of poverty like a walled city. And the “help” and government assistance out there is like someone handing you a little toddler steeping stool and telling you that if you try hard enough you can use it to climb the 20 foot wall around the city. But you have to be special, like, Michael Jordan special, to make it over that wall. Or, you have to have someone willing to reach in there and pull your ass out. And these days, no one wants to do that. It’s every man for himself these days. Families scatter and resent being asked for help. From my experience, asking for help paying a 400 dollar heat bill so you don’t get shut off will result in hours of belittling for a week straight. And it may get paid, and of course you’re grateful, but you pretty much feel like the most worthless person on the planet. Only you are doing all you can and trying your best but the government stepping stool that everyone raves about just isn’t fucking high enough. And no one can raise a family on minimum wage. It just isn’t possible.

So how did I get out? How did I get so incredibly lucky that I thank my stars every single day?

I married a man with a good job. Someone who came in and saw how hard I was working and how difficult my life was and he didn’t run. And he didn’t belittle me or judge me or assume that it was all my fault. He looked around at my life and who I am and what I was doing and he believed in me. And no matter how many times I told him I was fine and that I didn’t need him, he kept trying to help. He kept coming back because he knew that I wasn’t really so hard and tough, but that I was so afraid of being honest and admitting that I’d been drowning for years and really did need someone to help me. And so he did. Just like that. Which I guess you could call luck but really I think of it as a miracle.

I don’t know how to solve the problem of poverty in America. But I will tell you it’s everywhere and you know lots of people living there that just can’t admit it to you, because they are afraid of what you’ll say and how you’ll treat them. So I’m saying all this here now, and if I get bashed for it from anyone, whatever. I’m going to try really hard not to care. Because I do know that the only way to change poverty is to change the way many Americans view it, and we can’t do that it we refuse to say it out loud. So I’m starting the conversation.

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When Kids Grow Up

“Looks like we’ve made it
Look how far we’ve come my baby
We might of took the long way
But we knew we’d get there someday

They said, ‘I bet they’ll never make it,’
But just look at us holding on
We’re still together still going strong”

Just over 18 years ago my daughter Georgia was born.

5lbs and 13 ounces. Red peach fuzz and blue eyes and she came into this world screaming. She has been very insistent about her wants and needs ever since. At least for me, the babies that I brought home from the hospital are the same personalities that I have living here in my house. And Georgia has been a spitfire from the start, animated and ready to take on the world.

Georgia is my first. My best foot forward in parenting and the kid I had to figure it all out with. The first illness that scares the crap out of you. The first injury. The first tantrums and kisses and first words. The first everything, I shared with her. And it was just the two of us, so all those early times and moments felt so intimate. Those times were ours.

I was 21 when I got pregnant with Georgia, living in the mountains of Colorado. Georgia’s father thought me having a baby was a bad idea and told me over and over that I was making a mistake that would lead to a life of misery. Then he just stopped talking altogether. He met her, saw her a handful of times, but he’s been completely absent for many, many years now. But those words back then, how adamant he was: “The two of you won’t amount to anything. It’s basically a death sentence for both of you,” is what he said to me during one particularly horrific fight. I will never forget those words. And how he really believed them. And how, sobbing and terrified and young, I could’ve believe him. I could’ve chosen differently. Only really, I knew that the only choice that I could make was to have the baby. She was there already, tiny and growing. And that was that. Making a choice meant doing something. Doing nothing meant allowing things to be as they were. (And I want to clarify here, I am prochoice in terms of what other women do with their bodies and their choices. I don’t feel that my opinion or anyone else’s should change that.) But for me, it wasn’t a choice. Even if everyone thought I was wrong, I was going to have that baby.

The choice I did make was to believe that everything was going to be fine.

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And now, in just over a month, she’s going to New York City for college. After a long 18 years. Or in the blink of an eye. I don’t even know which one.

I was pretty okay with her leaving until the other day when we bought her plane ticket, and it suddenly became very, very real. And because she is going to NYC and her orientation is mid-week, and I have a 3-month-old baby and a 4 year old in 4K and a husband who commutes 3 hours a day, (and a photo business and a book I’m promoting), there is no way that I can take her to college. I’m going to have to put her on a plane with some bags and send her off to one of the biggest cities in the world. She’s going to go off on her own, without me. I won’t be there to see her dorm room or subway stop or college. I won’t be there to make her dinner or check in with her or kiss her goodnight. I just won’t be there. And she won’t be here. After all these years, just like that, she’ll be gone.

I know that this is an everyday thing. People send their kids off to college all the time.  I even know that it’s a really good thing. She was accepted into one of the most prestigious musical theater schools in the country. And she’s worked so hard for this. And since she spent most her life being raised in poverty by a single mother, she had no vocal training or coaches to help her. She used the things she was taught in her public school choirs and theater shows, and then she worked her little butt off. When she went to her college auditions, it was with music she had bought and taught herself. So really, she made something out of herself. I am so very proud.

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I look back at all the years, from the place I’m standing in now, and I realize that Georgia and I grew up together. Obviously I was the adult and she was the kid, but I believe that we are all works in progress. I had a lot of growing to do. And I think that so much of that happened not just in spite of being a young single mother, but because of it. And also because of Georgia being who she is, a little tornado on a mission, determined to take the world on with one bite.

I don’t really believe in taking credit for our children. She isn’t who she is because of me, but at the same time, we influence those around us, in good and bad ways. I do believe that Georgia is determined and successful because she had to work for whatever she got, because I couldn’t just hand her everything. And the absence of a dad in her life probably gave her a sort of nudge to prove that she was in fact worthy. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have some of that, too. Wanting to prove him wrong for what he said so many years back. Wanting to prove to myself that we could become more than some sad statistic together.

“Ain’t nothin’ better
We beat the odds together
I’m glad we didn’t listen
Look at what we would be missin’

They said, “I bet they’ll never make it”
But just look at us holding on
We’re still together still going strong

You’re still the one I run to
The one that I belong to
You’re still the one I want for life

You’re still the one that I love
The only one I dream of
You’re still the one I kiss good night
You’re still the one”

 

And the thing is, I know that Georgia is going to be fine. More than fine, in fact. I know that she is going to thrive in the competitiveness at AMDA, she’s going to love living in the city and being among so many like-minded souls. And I love that city so much that I feel a little pang of jealously for her getting to LIVE there. And now we have a great reason to visit. But still, she won’t be here to mess up my living room with all her tap shoes and music, or to play with baby Lincoln, who she loves so much. She won’t be here where I can listen to her sing or have her make me laugh.

I know she’ll come home for few visits. For next summer, hopefully. But our children travel in concentric circles in our lives. At first those circles intertwine, but slowly over time, so slowly that we don’t even notice, the circles inch outward. First, your baby never leaves your arms. Then we set them down for just minutes, or hours. They learn to crawl and then walk. We eventually leave them for the whole day, or overnight. The circles inch farther and farther apart, meeting up less and less until your child suddenly has a life of their own, and then those concentric circles only touch along the edges on occasion. That day is coming so soon.

But she will always be my first. The lessons we learned, both of us, they shaped who we are. She’s taking that with her. The lessons I learned being a mom to her first will be applied to her siblings each day. And I know that she is always going to be with me. That’s how it works with our children. She’ll still be the one I kiss goodnight, only now I’ll do it in my heart.

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*lyrics by Faith Hill