I stumbled across this on Huffington Post, ‘This is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense‘ this morning and it got me thinking. The writer, a struggling mother who holds down two jobs while raising two children on very little income, attempts to explain why rational choices are not always available to the poor.
I relate to so much of what the author Linda Tirado talks about it in this post. No, I am not poor by any means anymore but for many of the 19 years I raised my son by myself I was. And it isn’t easy to make good decisions–or what society considers ‘good’ decisions–when you are poor. The Atlantic recently published ‘Your Brain on Poverty: Why Poor People Make Bad Decisions‘ where the author quotes Linda’s post and at the end concludes that “All the data shows it isn’t about poor people, it’s about people who happen to be in poverty. All the data suggests it is not the person, it’s the context they’re inhabiting.”
It’s the context they’re inhabiting.” I couldn’t agree more with this. It’s why poverty feels so shameful. Because you don’t want it to be you. You don’t want this life you are inhabiting but you can’t find a way out of it.
It’s hard to make rational choices as a struggling parent. Because anger clouds your judgement. You never feel like you are giving your child enough. Looking back, I dearly wished I could have given him more. I wished I could have had a loving father for him, or grandparents, parents, brothers or sisters to help me financially. I didn’t.
I did my best. And it wasn’t enough.
When you are a parent without enough money for your child, your adrenaline is never at rest. Your mind is always whirling with survival plans. Every step, every moment, every sentence, word, and thought you have is towards your survival. And you feel gut-wrenching guilt if you do something that is not working towards that survival. Sometimes it feels like you are carrying a small car on your back up a landslide that has just crashed down the side of a mountain. So sometimes you buckle and fall to your knees. You stop. And accept comfort from the person standing there. Maybe their intentions aren’t about actually helping you but you accept it anyway because you are desperate. And alone. And cannot carry on without it.What do you do in that moment?
You make a bad decision.
In her post, Linda talks says that ‘rest is a luxury for the rich‘. I would add that relaxation is a luxury for the rich. I’ve had few nights since my son was born when I wasn’t worrying about him. When he was an infant, I was working in theatre making very little money. I was an artist with few real-world skills that I could rely on. I bought everything at the thrift store and was blessed that my son had several Aunts who sent me clothes, money on my son’s birthday and helped me to send him to camp as he got older. I am not sure how I would have done it without their support to be honest. My mother had slipped away into dementia a week after my son was born and I was very disconnected with my family of origin. It bothers my son now that I took help and feels I sold out on some level but as I tried to explain to him, I sometimes had to make tough decisions to survive. Full stop. I had to sometimes stay with people or accept food when the chips were down. I only ever thought of our survival and keeping my child close to me. I didn’t have the luxury of saying no to any help that came my way.
When he was little, my son was often sick with severe asthma and countless times I felt the intense stare of hospital staff who probed me with questions about why I had no one with me, as though my love and care at 3 am were not enough. Had I a man standing beside me then perhaps it would have made sense to the hospital staff and balance out the unnatural picture I presented to them along with my son’s medical card and heaving, raspy lungs. When my son had double pneumonia one year a male nurse snapped at me ‘Why aren’t you married?‘, visibly unsettled by my small family.
You can never escape the scrutiny, not even lying in a hospital bed beside your child.
I couldn’t hold down a 9-5 job with my son as sick as he was with constant asthma and repeated bouts of pneumonia. Luckily, I discovered I was highly entrepreneurial and was able to work from home for many years and look after him, the vapour of Ventolin a recurring halo around his small head as I hustled to create an income with my small business. I am so thankful I was able to care for him but it wasn’t easy. I remember buying fruit for him one day and him asking me, ‘Why don’t you ever eat the apples Mom?’ to which I replied that I’d had too many as child and couldn’t stand them anymore. I lied. I just couldn’t afford fruit for both of us.
Mostly it’s the shame of being a poor parent that wears you down. You park further away from the school in your shitty car as you walk your child to their classroom. You are extra strict about clean hair and looking nice for school concerts. You stress out about how you appear because you know, deep down, you aren’t really fooling anyone. They see you struggling a mile away.
Never having enough for your child changes you. It makes you cunning. Since you never stop trying to plan for survival, you cut corners on morals, manners, and even the law. The only thing that matters is keeping your child’s world in tact. When the grocery clerk asks me if there is one or two buns in the paper bag at the till I say one. I know I’m lying. I don’t like it but it saves me $1.75.
As a single parent, your radar is always on. You never want to appear as though you aren’t capable, happy, and perfectly fine, thank you. When you add low-income to the equation, it intensifies that self-awareness and takes a herculean effort to appear ‘normal’ so that your child never feels the sting of societal judgement.
I sleep easier now that I don’t have to worry about our survival all the time. It took a heroic effort to get here. I’m not boasting; it takes any single parent on a limited income heroic levels of effort get to a place where they can start buying non-sale items on a regular basis. At least now my son and I can hold our heads high about the street we live on, in one of the most beautiful communities in BC, if not Canada. We don’t forget where we came from. It makes our lives all the more sweeter.
We now have the luxury of looking back on poverty. Not everyone does.
Note: This Christmas, please be sure to donate to your local Single Parents Centre or organization, they really could use a helping hand at this time of year.