The Unending Cancer of Poverty

I grew up poor. I never had a new item of clothing. There was a period in elementary and middle school that I didn’t have any underwear to wear at all. We got our food from food pantries. When my mom got a job in high school, we had two years where we could get one dress each every year for the beginning of the school year. Then she got sick. And that was the end.

Growing up poor is devastating. It never leaves you.

I was not fat growing up, I was perfectly normal, a little on the thin side. But my younger sister (naturally thin, we said) was so skinny it was terrifying. We called her, playfully, “bones.” My mom took part of my meals and gave them to her, because I was chubby and didn’t need it as much as she did. I was not chubby. I was less terrifyingly thin than she was.

When I got old enough to babysit and do other small jobs like that, that money went directly to the family.

At some point we got to the point where we did special needs foster care to get a little extra money. Richard, our six year old ward, would pee in the closet and was diagnosed as criminally insane at age three. He kept picking the lock on his mom’s door and she’d wake up with him standing over her with a knife at her throat. That was a frightening year in our house.

My older sister filed for termination of my parent’s rights because of abuse and neglect. She won. The rest of us kids stayed behind. I have a vague memory of going to court. I have a better memory of the one required family therapy session, where I was upset because I had gathered the ingredients for a Boston cream pie, which I’d never made before, and no one would eat it. (I maintain, to this day, that it was tasty.)

We–my siblings and I–all have these gaps in our memories. Mine are more extensive because I went from an abusive childhood to an abusive husband. It used to be that I blamed my ex-husband for all my issues, but eventually I got to the point in therapy where I realized that while yes, he was abusive and terrible, I was already damaged when I met him. It’s why I wanted him and it’s why he wanted me.

The abuse was real. It was terrible. But even that we processed differently. Some of my siblings agree wholeheartedly that there’s something wrong with an environment where you have to be unseen and silent when your dad is home, and any transgression is punished with beatings with a belt that left welts and bruises for days afterwards. Mom did nothing to protect us and she was known to scream at us until we were cowering in a corner any time our grades were less than 95 in every class. I remember the progress report where I got a B in chemistry. It still haunts me. I can see her, coming at me in my room, as I backed into the 2 foot space between my bed and the wall, eventually curling into a ball as she leaned into my face and screamed about throwing everything away because I was so lazy.

It’s worth noting, despite the protestations of some of my siblings, that the court DID find that the house was toxic enough to terminate their rights to one child. They counter that if it was that bad, we’d all have been removed. I don’t know.

But the poverty is what I’m trying to talk about today. It’s why I’m fat–once I got out of school I NEVER turned down a meal or a snack. I still struggle with this today. I remember the gnawing hunger of my childhood and young adulthood. I remember eating a baked potato with a splash of mustard on it for flavor in college and walking two miles each way in the burning heat and the frigid cold to donate plasma so I could afford more potatoes.

I remember blessing my student loan money because I could usually eke out enough from my loan to buy a pair of jeans or a pair of shoes.

Now, I live in a situation where we’re drowning in debt, although we’ve been hacking away at it. One of the big credit card bills goes away in September. My husband makes a good living but we have 500/month after our debt payments for all variable expenses. That’s food for a family of 5, plus gas for the cars, plus anything else we need.

I spend hours on craigslist’s free section, looking for things we can get that we need. We finally got a new dining table and chairs after we were down to one non-broken chair, for free. We had to spend 10 dollars on fabric and another 10 on supplies to recover the chairs because they were greasy from being in a garage or shed for years, and there are sections of glue and whatnot that still need to be sanded off, but still. This is how I’m living my life in my late 30s.

I have a birthday in less than a month. I’ll be 38. I have nothing I can give myself. I just want the “maintenance required” light on my car to go off. The baby has a birthday this summer, sandwiched between my niece being born and the group memorial service for all the family members who have died this year. What kind of party or celebration can he get in this situation?

Every day I fret about money. Even when the budget is working, I fret. I can’t afford the swimming classes so the older one has a chance at joining swim team. I can’t afford the gymnastics lessons the little one wants and her dad can, and is using that to try to win her affection in the ongoing custody battle. The baby doesn’t have much in the way of toys, and all he has for books are the torn up ones from his sisters. His developmental delay–how much of that is a lack of equipment? How much is my pervasive hopelessness? How much is it a result of my inability to carry him to term?

My kids wear clothes from Goodwill or (if we’re feeling rich) Walmart. Same for all of us. When the husband’s promotion meant that he had to see clients, we shopped sales at Macy’s and other department stores until he had ONE good outfit. Pants, shirt, shoes, belt. That’s all he owns that’s not junk either.

If my in-laws weren’t helping with the legal bills, we’d already have lost custody of the children. The older one swears she’ll kill herself if she has to go back to her abusive father, and I believe it is true. Our go fund me went nowhere. Even relying on the kindness of strangers, as humiliating and awful as it was to have to beg for money, wasn’t enough to save her life. We’re just eking along trying to keep her alive each day.

DFS investigated her allegations of abuse and found nothing. I said, surely it is emotional abuse at a minimum if what he said or did drove her to attempt suicide. And the supervising manager of the department told me she would remove all my kids and put them in foster care if I insisted on pushing them about the ruling. I shut my mouth.

I can’t help but think a person who could afford to hire a lawyer to fight with DFS wouldn’t have to allow their children to be abused and be threatened if we objected.

Last night, we were banned from the physical therapist’s office, because the toddler can’t sit still for an hour and I can’t always get my husband to watch them because he’s the only one with an income. Now my family is telling me it’s my fault, that I should be pushing the 20 month old to sit quietly and punish him until he does. I can’t imagine how cruel that would feel to him, forcing him to sit for an hour in quiet. And the fact that this is the default option I’m being offered, to break his heart and spirit by asking him to do something he’s not old enough to do so his sister can get the medical care she needs, is just killing me.

Today I’m crying a lot. I don’t know how to get him up to his proper developmental level and everything I google is in the nature of “buy this curriculum” “buy these toys” which I cannot do. I don’t know what I’m going to do when his sister goes back to the doctor again (3 appointments next week, plus therapy!) and it’s just killing me. My sister, who knows I have no money, suggested I hire a babysitter from for those appointments. Sure. Registration fee, minimum hours, it’s about 75 dollars. It’s almost a week worth of our food/gas/everything budget. Per appointment. I can’t. I just can’t.