Last week, I was sitting on our bed changing a diaper and suddenly–gasp!–dropped a few inches: our bed broke. Fortunately, Eric happened to be picking his sister up from the airport at the time; we spent the first few hours of her weekend visit taking the bed apart, getting the frame into the basement, hauling our mattress around the apartment, and getting it settled onto the floor while she held Simon and played with Noah. At least the mattress is fine; you don’t really need a bed. We can’t afford to get ours fixed or buy a new one, and we don’t have the space and time to figure out how to fix it ourselves. It’s sort of nice down on the floor.
A couple days later, an unopened bottle of wine came crashing out of the refrigerator and shattered all over the floor and my foot. Fortunately, I was just cut in a way that hurts, not in a way that requires stitches: I don’t have health insurance, and we can’t afford to pay for medical care out of pocket, so I try not even to think about what happens if I get seriously sick or hurt. As it is, I’m just annoyed that the wine is wasted and my big toe stings.
Eric came in the next day to report that our car’s ‘check engine’ light is on. Lalalalalalala. At least it’s not flashing. Flashing is bad.
We don’t have an income right now. At all, of any kind. And we don’t have a lot of savings, either, after all these years of school and scraping by with short-term academic employment of various kinds. We are lucky that we have any savings, to keep us paying rent and buying food for a few more months, and lucky that we don’t have any credit card debt built up (just those nasty student loans, and not nearly as much as many multiple-advanced-degree couples carry). We’re okay–the worst-case scenario for our family is not even in the same neighborhood of scary as the worst-case scenario for many many families, and my heart breaks for the people who sit in this situation knowing that the next step is sleeping in a shelter or on the street–but we are not over the moon about this constant groping toward financial security. Graduate school in the humanities was not as bad a gamble when we started (pre-2008) than when we finished; it used to be realistic to think ‘at the very least, I’ll be able to patch together enough adjunct work at various institutions to survive, or get a job at a private high school, or move into another professional field.’ Now, not so much. Now, we don’t know.
I am surprisingly far from panic and depression. I’m not up nights worrying. I’m not sad or preoccupied. I’m enjoying my babies and my partner and our life.
But it is not fun to spend dozens of hours trying to figure out and apply for public assistance. The whole system appears to be designed to confuse and irritate and inconvenience and perhaps shame applicants out of applying for what we need and deserve, which is … awesome? Frustrating, certainly, and ethically distressing. Everything is poorly-designed and poorly-written; it’s hard to tell whether you’re answering questions correctly. Nothing is convenient; you can’t schedule anything ahead; you’re expected to have magical childcare available in order to complete various steps (or I guess not to be such a stupid irresponsible poor person as to have children in the first place?). The process takes forever. People and forms seem to contradict each other. You’re never told the next step or taken through the big picture; you’re meant to do what you’re told when you’re told, without any sense of how and when all this effort and yuckiness might pay off. This is a world in which “schedule a phone appointment” turns out to mean “select the day on which we’ll call you sometime between 7AM and noon, and you’d better be available to answer the phone.” Most of the staff I’ve talked to have been nice, but one reminded me so strongly of one of Marge Simpson’s sisters it’s not even funny. (It was not funny at the time, anyway.) I find all of this confusing and tiring, and I have a PhD and super-progressive politics. It must be just crushing to people who have less cultural capital or who don’t really believe social supports should exist at all, who don’t really believe that poor people are worthy, who are thinking I am not the kind of person who ends up on food stamps.
I hope the car holds out and that the cut on my toe is the biggest bad thing that happens to my body for a while. I hope our plan works out, that throwing our limited resources at Eric’s job search results in an income, that I can start an internship and move toward a new field of professional work once we have that income and once Simon’s just a little older, that I don’t have to start a fairly-hopeless search for shit work that will separate me from my nursling without giving me either satisfaction or a living wage. I’m pretty sure we’ll figure something out; we always have so far. And I’ll keep you posted …