When Do I Tell My Child We’re Poor?

As many know, chronic illness often brings about chronic poverty.  My husband and I have been dealing with this since 2008, when I got laid off from work and found myself too sick to look for another position.

We qualified for WIC right away, when Tyler was two-and-a-half years old.  As he became older he would ask, “Mommy, why are we here?” “For coupons, baby.”

Yes, my darling, you get weighed and blood taken from you for coupons.

Now that we are in Massachusetts, we see a Social Worker every couple of weeks.  “Mommy, who is that lady?”  “She helps us, honey”, I tell him, as Tyler is given a free Angry Birds backpack.

Occasionally I need to take Tyler with me to the Food Bank. “Mommy, what is this place?”  “It’s like a supermarket, honey, we get food here.”  “Why are we waiting in line to get food here?”  “That’s just the way it is”, I say, as we sit with some who suffer from disabilities ranging from near Catatonia to angry people who often randomly yell out things.  I feel badly that Tyler must sit in this environment, knowing that he could get scared.  Usually I bring books for him and read to him, or he looks at them on his own when I am meeting with someone.

There are other children at the Food Bank, most older than Tyler and I look around and wonder, “Do they know why they are here?  They must know by now.  How do they feel about it?  Are they saddened by it or do they accept it as a way of life?”

My mother grew up poor and she was repeatedly told by my grandmother, “You can’t have this because we are poor.”  She said she was traumatized by it and it still hurts to this day.

Tyler has known about the concept of being poor for a while now from the Spider-Man franchise.  Peter Parker and his Aunt May have trouble paying the bills.  In one of the movies, Peter lives in a slum-like apartment because he can’t afford anything better, and Aunt May loses her house.  The other day Tyler said,”Do you know why Peter always wears the same clothes?”  “I don’t know, why do you think he does?”  “Because he is poor.”  Then I explain to him that most people in cartoons wear only one outfit.

He has picked up the word “expensive” from me.  “Is this too expensive to buy, Mommy?”  Today we were at a garage sale and he said, “Mommy I found something beautiful for you, but I think it might be too expensive.”  Turned out to be cheesy party decorations but his heart was in the right place.

Usually I just say things like, “Mommy didn’t know we were going to be here so she didn’t bring enough money” or “We’ll buy this later, more towards Halloween”, and hope he’ll just forget about it, and lately, “I don’t know if Santa can get this for you because he has a budget.”

Maybe you think some of these things build good character.  Yes, Tyler doesn’t have to get everything he wants every time we are out or everything he wants for Christmas.

It’s just that…it hurts not being able to delight my child when I buy him a toy for no reason or just because he’s been a good boy, or just because I want too. It’s just that…I used to live a different lifestyle and knowing that the reason I don’t now is because of my chronic illnesses and is out of my control, is very hard to bear.

If you are in my situation, what did you tell your child or children about being poor and when did you tell them?  Or do they just figure it out on their own?

One of the things I learned from what has happened to me this year is that it doesn’t really matter to Tyler what he has, just as long as we can all be a family again.

One day he said to me, “Mommy, did you know that I love you and Daddy more than I love all of my toys?”

Thanks for reminding me honey, because I had indeed lost sight of that.



Forgetting Everything I Knew

I read Expecting Adam as a member of the From Left to Write book club.  I was given a free copy of this book. This post is inspired by the book.

Welcome to all of my fellow book club members or anyone coming here for the first time!  I am a chronically ill mom married to a chronically ill man and we are raising our five-year-old son, who also has some special needs. My blog focuses on the challenges parents with chronic illness face, but also speaks about being a mom and a woman in general. )

In Expecting Adam by Martha Beck, Martha and her husband must let go of all they have learned from their Harvard education and open their hearts and minds when they learn that Martha is five month’s pregnant with a baby with Down Syndrome.  Martha especially must face judgements from the Harvard academia and even her doctors when they are shocked to learn that she has decided to keep the baby.  Along the way, Martha discovers a way of living and thinking about a life that not only can be just as good, but is even more rewarding than she could ever imagine.

Before being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) in 2003 at the age of 33 I, while no Harvard graduate, had always excelled in everything I did.  In 2000 I had decided to give up my on-air radio personality career and go in a completely new direction, taking a job with no experience necessary, in order to train as a Recruiter.  I enjoyed the business, learning everything I could about recruiting and of the niche I was recruiting in.  In a couple of years my position changed to where I reported directly into the President.

Two months after I got married I felt the first pain of what would wind up being the rest of my life, ironically while I was on the treadmill in the gym.  It took me six months to get a diagnosis of RA, in between which my feet were swelling so badly I would have to take ice packs to work and even on business trips.  I worked in this manner for a few years, sometimes just being at my job numb from so many pain killers.  I tried to never miss a day, even if that meant vomiting in the morning and then getting ready for work.

In 2005, I appeared to be in remission, and feeling that I was in the best health that I would ever be in, my husband and I decided to try to conceive, which we were successful at on the first try.  My pregnancy went very well from a Rheumatological standpoint and I continued to do well until my son was about a year old.  My pain started to increase by the day, my hands swelling.  I would fall asleep driving to and from work, I was lucky I didn’t kill myself or anyone.  I was swallowing narcotics two at a time just so I could feel some relief from the pain. But I was a full-time working mother and I thought it was just my 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. hours of being a mommy and working.

Through the five years I had been working with my diagnosis, and with the help of the internet, I had seen hundreds, even thousands leave their full-time jobs.  That was unthinkable to me.  I was the main breadwinner in the family.  We were going to buy a home, help our son with college.  Not working was just not possible, not in the way I wanted to live my life.

In 2008 I worsened.  At the same time, my satellite office of the new job I had been at for a year was closing and I was laid off in March.  In July I got my diagnosis of “Lupus with RA overlap”.

I never went back to work.

And I lost everything.

My 401K, my son’s college fund, my credit rating.  In fact, this month the woman with a credit rating in the high 800s is filing for bankruptcy.

I always used to think “those people” with chronic illness who stopped working were just not as strong as I was, that my will was mightier than theirs.  That their families did not depend on their salary the way mine did.

Turns out I was wrong.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t any better than those who had just “given up”.

I just hadn’t become sick enough yet to the point where my body said, “This is it.  I am not going to do this any more for you.  I just can’t do it any more and I won’t.”

People wonder what I do all day, especially while my son is in school.  What I do all day is…be in pain…have trouble walking…thinking…sleep and rest.  I go to doctors, I apply for disability which is akin to writing one’s dissertation.  I wait, so far for over two years to see if the United States government decides to declare me disabled.  I file paper work for WIC and Food Stamps, things I never dreamed my family would be on.  I advocate for myself and for those like me.

At 42 years old, this certainly isn’t the life I thought I would be leading.  But with the pain, with the worry of living under the poverty line, there is also joy.

I get to spend more time with my child than most working mothers do.  I am home when he comes home from school and I am always there to watch my child walk in the Halloween parade or to partake in the Mother’s Day tea.

I get to write.  Something I never knew I wanted to do and something that I never knew I could.  Was my brain so full of thinking about work that there was no time to let my creative side be free?  Would I have ever even become a blogger if I had not become disabled?

And finally, I get to make a difference in people’s lives.  For those mothers who are sick like I am and for those who are mothers of special needs children.  For those who are mentally ill and need a voice.

Life certainly did not work out the way I planned it, but it is certainly not all bad.