“Mommy?” A quiet voice called from the hallway, the soft light from her daughter’s nightlight shining into the gloom.
“Yes, honey, Mommy’s here. What’s up? Why are you out of bed?”
“I thought I heard crying.”
Oh, crap. Annie hadn’t realized she’d been crying. At least not so others could hear. These days she was always crying on the inside.
“Go back to bed, sweetie. Everything’s okay. It’s late and you need to get to sleep.”
A sleepy yawn was the only response. Then a muffled sigh. The bedroom door closed quietly as Sarah went back to her room. Annie could hear the bed creak slightly as her daughter crawled back under the covers.
Crap, crap, crap. Gotta keep it under control better. So what now? Try to sleep? Give it up and make coffee? Or at least take a shower and look more alive than she felt at 5:09 in the morning on this lovely day several weeks after Bob walked out without leaving a forwarding address. I didn’t realize adult men could run away from home like a teenager.
* * *
The water ran down Annie’s back as she leaned against the shower wall, mixing with the warm salt water flowing from her eyes. She finally allowed herself to give into the full onslaught of tears she’d been fighting unsuccessfully all night long. Damn him! Didn’t two kids and ten years of her life count for anything? She sobbed again. He didn’t take their life together into account when he made the snap decision to leave. He’d always been unhappy, he said. He’d met someone else, he said. She’d gotten fat since the babies came, he said. But when it came down to it, it was all about him. His needs. His wants. His dreams. His happiness. Shit. She normally never swore but her everyday vocabulary just wasn’t strong enough anymore to express the new thoughts and emotions she found herself experiencing as an abandoned single, unemployed mother of two preschoolers. Damn. Now she felt like a sad, sorry stereotype.
Annie had been standing in the shower crying for so long, she’d drained the water heater. Again. This crying in the shower business was going to start showing up in her water and electric bills. The thought of unpaid bills sent her briefly into crying fits again, but this time the now cold water from the shower brought her back to her senses. She dried off, dressed, and walked into the kitchen to start the coffee. She’d have a good hour before the kids had to be up and fed and out the door for the day.
Everyday it was the same now. Fix breakfast, feed the kids, run Sarah to preschool, drop Neil off at daycare, start another day of job searching. This displaced homemaker crap is for the birds. Their small joint savings account wasn’t going to last long at this rate—lots of withdrawals already, no new deposits. Groceries, gas, bills, rent. Ugh. Annie needed to find a job. And fast. But with the combination of the current job market, her rusty job skills, and a big empty space in her employment history, things weren’t looking too promising.
* * *
“Bye, Mommy! See you after school!”
Sarah let herself out of the backseat and skipped up the preschool steps, stopping to wave before she disappeared from view. Annie was in a bit of a daze and barely remembered driving to the preschool. In a moment of panic, she glanced in the rearview mirror to make sure Neil was in his car seat. Yep, he was back there, playing quietly with his rainbow-colored plastic keys. Must get a grip. Spacing out is not an acceptable way to parent two kids.
As she drove the ten minutes to Neil’s daycare, Annie thought, Bob had essentially spaced out in the middle of parenting. Not only had he spaced out, he’d completely blacked out. He was comatose. She smiled slightly thinking of Bob in a coma, unable to feed himself. Or screw his new girlfriend. Damn. A night of no sleep makes me a mean bitch. Annie fought the urge to laugh out loud, deciding Neil didn’t need to hear hysteria from the front seat this morning.
So, where was Bob, anyway? Did he even know or care that his wife and kids were on the brink of welfare and food stamps? He was the wise ass who always said people made their own luck and anyone could make it good in America if they just made smart decisions; there was no excuse for welfare or government hand-outs. Shit. She just realized that when he’d walked out on his job to be with his bitch, she and the kids were now without health insurance, too. Another chore to add to her growing to-do list: Look into low-income insurance options. Problem was that she wasn’t a low-income single mom, she was a no-income single mom. Hopefully something would be available.
As she drove, Bob’s voice played in her head. “Honey, I’d love it if you would stay home when we have kids. It’d be an honor and privilege for me to support the people I love while you give our children all the love and care they need. Besides, no child of mine is ever going to be raised in daycare by strangers.”
Really, Bob? Never? Well, that’s where both our kids are now, thank you very much. Daycare. Welfare. You forced us into exactly what you said you never wanted for them. You’re such an ass.
Pulling into the daycare parking lot, Annie checked to make sure her make-up hadn’t smeared from crying. No smears. Good. She carried Neil and his baby gear into the bright orange building with the lime green trim. Who chooses these hideous colors, anyway? She had a twinge of sadness as she thought about their family’s cute little rental house, and how her youngest child would probably spend every day of his early childhood in this hideous orange building instead of the home she’d so lovingly decorated during better days.
Annie reluctantly handed Neil and his baby stuff to the woman behind the check-in counter so she could sign him in for the day. The woman barely made eye contact as she smacked her gum loudly and mumbled, “See ya later, Ms. Lee.” She turned to carry Neil to his classroom, not even giving Annie a chance to wave bye-bye to her son.
Fighting more tears, she climbed into her car, then sat for several minutes staring out the windshield at the daycare. Why bright orange? The ugly building was a landmark in their area, easily referenced when providing directions. “We’re about two blocks behind the orange daycare on Market Street.” Everyone in town knew where it was. But nobody in town wanted to use the orange daycare’s services unless they had to. Their reputation for being overcrowded and less than attentive was legendary. It was probably just a matter of time before they lost their license. The only people who used it were those who had no other choice—mainly poor single moms. Or residents with questionable documentation who knew the daycare wouldn’t ask too many questions because the daycare didn’t want officials investigating them, either. A mutual don’t ask, don’t tell situation.
* * *
Today’s agenda consisted of an appointment at the Department of Social and Health Services on East Main to apply for Food Stamps, and then over to the unemployment office across the street. Crap. Annie thought about how humiliated she’d be if anyone she knew saw her going into the DSHS office. She thought of the times she’d seen people sigh with disgust at the moms in line at the grocery store buying cupcakes with Food Stamps. She realized Sarah’s birthday was coming up next week and she may need to do the same thing. Bah humbug. Just because Bob walked out and left his wife and kids to fend for themselves, does that mean Sarah shouldn’t have treats to share with her friends? Besides, Sarah wouldn’t have any gifts from her mom this year. Seems like buying a dozen clearance rack cupcakes with decorative princess rings wasn’t such a horrible thing, maybe even a good thing since it would bring a ray of cheer into an otherwise bleak time in their lives.
Annie hunched over slightly in her seat as she realized how judgmental people often were—herself included—of random people whose stories they didn’t know. Who would be judging her now?
As she walked into the waiting area and checked in with the man at the front desk, she looked out of the corner of her eye at the small crowd waiting quietly and patiently in the DSHS lobby. Everyone looked sad, even the children. The room almost had the feel of people waiting to have their teeth pulled without anesthesia. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected. But this really wasn’t it. A cross-section of humanity. Men and women. Children and the elderly. Ragged and well-dressed. Single folks. Couples. Families. And the most shocking part to Annie? They all looked so normal. Where were the supposed Welfare Queens with their broods of squalling brats? Not at all what she’d expected. For that matter, seeing herself sitting there wasn’t what she’d expected to see, either.
Her position of moderate privilege had made her unable to see people who lived in the economic underbelly. She hadn’t even known anyone who was actually living on Welfare or receiving Food Stamps. “Those people” didn’t bring their kids to the parks in town to socialize with other moms in the middle of the day because they were working full-time at minimum wage crappy jobs or stuck in a never-ending cycle of unemployment and fruitless job hunts. Thinking about unemployment, she realized if she didn’t find a job soon, she’d have no money to buy clothes for herself or the kids. Not even money to shop at a thrift store. How long until the clothes she and the kids were wearing were out of style and looked ugly and unfashionable? How long until she and the kids became “those people” themselves?
She shuddered when she realized many of the children here in the DSHS lobby looked disheveled, mainly because they didn’t have nice haircuts. The girls’ ponytails were held together with bits of yarn or rubber bands. Cute hair accessories were expensive. Annie didn’t know how to cut hair, but had already decided that the next time the kids needed haircuts, she’d attempt to do it herself. How long would it be until Sarah’s hair was being ripped and broken by cheap rubber bands in her beautiful blonde hair?
* * *
Hearing her name called gently for a second time by a heavyset woman in a bright Hawaiian print dress, Annie roused herself from her daydream.
“Oh. Sorry, that’s me.”
She shook the hand of the smiling woman who said, “Hi, I’m Monica. I’m one of the Social Workers. My desk is just over here.”
Annie gathered her purse over her shoulder and followed the DSHS employee into a small cubicle in the back of the building. Monica’s desk was covered in family photos, framed inspirational quotations, and a large collection of owl figurines. Annie tried not to stare at Monica’s flame-red hair or neon pink lipstick that clashed with everything she was wearing.
Pulling up a fresh screen on her computer, Monica said, “We received your online application yesterday. It appears you’ll qualify for Food Stamps, medical coverage for the kids, and some financial assistance. Here’s a print-out of how much you can expect to receive in food and cash benefits.”
Annie looked at the tiny numbers, blinked to focus her eyes better, and then cleared her throat. It wouldn’t even be enough to cover their rent or keep the lights on. The room started spinning as the full ramifications of the situation were starting to hit.
Monica patted Annie’s forearm gently. “Ms. Lee? Are you all right? Can I get you something? Coffee? A drink of water?”
Annie blinked again and said softly, “No, thanks.” Blink, blink. “Wow. I’d really hoped I’d at least be able to keep my house and buy groceries until I find work. Now I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”
Burying her face in her hands, Annie stifled a sob. Crap. Now Monica was going to see her cry. The gentle patting on her arm continued. Annie took a deep breath and looked up again.
Monica’s eyes were soft as she said, “Annie, I’m so sorry you’re in this situation.” Pat, pat, pat. “Have you ever thought about going back to college? I saw in your application you had some college right out of high school. We have several programs that could help you take classes at the community college instead of taking our required Life Skills classes. I think job prep and higher education would be more helpful in your situation, anyway.”
Annie sniffed slightly. “Oh. I hadn’t really thought about something like that. I always wanted to go back to school. But Bob wouldn’t let me.” She felt her eyes welling with tears again.
Monica handed her a box of tissues. “Why did you quit before?”
“My husband made me leave school. He thought a Liberal Arts degree was a complete waste of time and money, and threatened to leave me if I didn’t quit school. I know that I wouldn’t give in to those demands now, but back then I was really young. And scared. Then we started having kids and that was the end of my college dreams.”
Monica leaned forward in her chair, worry lines creasing her forehead. “Annie, this may sound like a random question, but did he ever abuse you physically?”
“Um, uh, why do you ask?” This seemed pointless. The answer was yes, but Annie really didn’t want to talk about this. She just wanted to get her Food Stamps and leave.
“Honey, when someone forces you to give up your educational goals like that, it’s considered a form of abuse. Educational abuse. Many times it goes hand-in-hand with a whole host of other abusive and controlling relationship patterns.”
Annie was quiet for a moment. Nobody’d ever called it abuse when Bob forced her to quit school. She’d never thought of it like that before. “I was really young with no job experience. I felt so helpless and scared, I couldn’t even think straight.”
Monica sighed. “That’s pretty common. That feeling of helplessness. I’m so sorry to hear you went through that. So, tell me why are you and Bob separated now?”
“He left me for a woman he met on a business trip. Just abandoned me and the kids. Quit his job. Left us with nothing.” Annie felt the angry feelings coming to the surface again.
Monica dug around in a pile of business cards on her desk. “Here,” she said. “This is a card to a support network for women who’ve been abused. Call them. They’ll be able to help. Most of them have been where you are and will know of community resources you can tap into.”
Annie took the card and murmured her thanks while Monica entered more information into the computer.
Peering over her glasses, Monica said, “I know this is tough for you right now but I honestly believe you’ll be able to get a clearer picture of what your marriage was actually like now that he’s moved out. Sometimes when we’re in the midst of those types of situations, it becomes our ‘normal’ and we don’t even realize how dysfunctional it actually is.”
Annie sat in a daze, realizing she’d become the embodiment of several negative stereotypes she carried in her head. An abused woman who refused to leave her abuser, believing his protests that he’d change. A single mom on Welfare buying cupcakes with Food Stamps.
She didn’t even really know what she felt as she sat there, thinking how perhaps Monica wasn’t actually tacky in her bright colors and loud clothing. Just eccentric. Now she felt like she wanted to reach across and hug the large floral dress.
“Thanks for talking to me. It helps to know I’m not alone. I just feel like such a failure and can’t believe I’m even sitting in this office.”
Monica smiled kindly and said, “Everyone has a story, honey. Yours just isn’t finished yet.”