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The last great American taboo

Categories: Fighting the Stereotype

19 comments

I live on the outskirts of a land of big old money and gorgeous old houses and muted sweater sets and kitten heels and zealous committees and no visible midlife crises. I imagine I would be amazed by what goes on behind closed doors in the town next door. It is a glossy postcard of a place.

I live on the wrong side of the tracks, to be sure. Property values here are about a third, sometimes a fourth, of the values of very similar houses on the “right” side of the tracks. But the landscape is rougher here, spottier. We don’t have driveways or garages, so we pull our vehicles haphazardly up on the curb in the winter.

When I am in the right mood, the juxtaposition of the two towns—one home to the most expensive liberal arts college in the country, the other mentioned frequently over the past few decades as one of the Top Ten U.S. towns for teen pregnancy—is fascinating. We need a show like “South Park” to highlight the quirks. There would be a busy, cheerful border patrol, selling cupcakes and offering unusable financial advice to the unfortunates on the “Mexico” side. 401K advice is not helpful when you have 401 dollars to your name.

I read the other day that the greatest indicator of future poverty for a woman is having a child. A divorce increases those chances by some percentage that I blocked out of my mind immediately upon reading the figure.

I have a lot to say about invisible poverty—the hidden poor, the unexpected poor—and I had better find out where to say it, I am thinking. It’s a taboo subject, still: money, and the lack thereof. I feel the chill from many when I mention it on my blog and here. I understand this. Poverty makes Americans uncomfortable, because we grow up believing in the value of education that we cannot afford, and in good old-fashioned American moxie. “If you want to be doing better, do better,” is often the message, whether voiced overtly or not.

But there is no simple solution to poverty. Positive attitude and the drive to earn plenty won’t do it. Add a layoff. Add divorce, add children, add an ongoing variable like mental illness—severe chronic depression that gnaws away at moxie, necessary but brain-scrambling meds, a bipolar diagnosis—and the solution becomes foggier, more complicated than ever. Add custody laws, the inability to just pack up and head for greener pastures. Still more complicated. You can’t shrug off government assistance unless you know how you are going to replace that assistance for the long haul, because getting the assistance in the first place is no picnic.

Resources go necessarily toward caring for the little ones—today. Now. Future planning is nearly impossible. The question must be, “What will we eat this week?” and not “How will I afford college for them?”

I spent over $200 yesterday on necessities for the girls for an upcoming cold winter. Snowpants. Sturdy snow boots. Hats, gloves, scarves. I bought low-end, and on sale. I had to remind myself to keep breathing. It is terrifying, sometimes. My hands shook as I put sale socks in the cart. “Do we need this? Do we really need this? Or that?” No purchase goes unquestioned, no matter how necessary. It is difficult to project confidence to my children that everything will be okay, because the truth is, I’m not sure how it will be okay. Clearly, I must—and will—find a way for it to be “okay,” but that path is one I can only take a step at a time. I cannot offer false cheer, false hope. I am thinking about the generic brand of frozen green beans, and that consumes me, paralyzes me. Is it not good enough? Am I not good enough?

My daughters are delightful, curious, soulful creatures. I marvel at their resilience, their intelligence, their compassion. They have seen more tears and laughter than many children their ages. They have experienced divorce, depression, poverty, the kindness of complete strangers. They know the difference between a therapist and a psychiatrist. They know they can say anything to me, ask me anything. They know I take their concerns seriously, that I will not sugar-coat the answers. They know I will always tell them as much as I believe they should know, and be as honest as I can about our situation. They know they will always have food, even if the Paris vacation we all dream of will be years and years away, if ever.

We know we are blessed, to have the mother-daughter relationships we do. We recognize what is good, in our world. We take time to say thanks.

But that does not mean the fear goes away.

Two psychics—years apart—told me I would never be rich. “You knew that already,” added one. I was sorry to hear it. I didn’t know. I had thought maybe there was some hope for a new comforter more than every ten years. I still cling to a shred of hope that I will find my way out of this mess somehow, that someone with clout will spot my work, make me an offer I can’t refuse. I have a little bit of old soul left. I wouldn’t mind selling it while I regrow my new soul in a petri dish. It’s coming along nicely, and I am going to protect it as much as I can, this time around, this new half of my life. My only investments: my daughters, and my new soul. I will leave the stock market to others, for now.



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19 comments so far...

  • I think you are right about the taboo of even DISCUSSING money. We are much more comfortable talking about our sex toys online than issues of poverty or wealth. In many ways, it is good that Americans have such a can-do attitude where anyone can succeed if they pull themselves up by the bootstraps. We believe that a sanitation worker can created a new type of waste paper basket and become a multi-millionaire overnight. It is this myth that fuels our economy and our confidence as a nation. But sometimes we are so desperate to keep this confidence, that we purposely avoid the reality around us. We don’t WANT to know the other side. This is not just where you live in New England. Think about your visions of New York City (Rockefeller Center, Broadway) or Los Angeles (the beach, Hollywood starlets). But is that reality? Of course not. Just everyone is afraid that they could fall through the slats of wood on the floor, and be poor themselves — so we make believe the other side of the city doesn’t exist, the same way we hide our elderly and sick from view.

    I think you are brave to reveal some of your financial hardships, because you expose yourself to be judged., for the reasons I gave before. People are afraid for themselves, that our fortunes can change at any moment — for good or bad.

    But notice that I say — for GOOD or bad.

    So, even though I make fun of the sanitation worker/millionaire, these myths DO have a purpose. There are many who grow up poor and middle class, and have happier and more fulfilling lives than the rich. But it is essential that everyone has enough to live! And sometimes, having a little extra is nice, too — to pay for that iPhone! I don’t believe in tarot card readers or psychics. They are charlatans who bullshit. You are a talented person, and if you believe you in yourself, you too can created that multi-million dollar garbage can, or whatever. I know you hate hearing that, and this doesn’t diminish the hardship and the need for support. But you can do it. And clearly, your readers believe in you.

    Neil  |  November 7th, 2010 at 10:33 am

  • Perfectly written, Jenn.
    I wish I had an answer even a shred as wise as your words.

    Jenn  |  November 7th, 2010 at 10:38 am

  • i am Canadian. we’re not so different, when it comes to issues of money and class and poverty and all that which is unspeakable, but we’re a little more different than i realized. or social media and the 24 hour news cycle of the last ten years haven’t just changed my window on my neighbours to the south, but changed YOU. i dunno. the healthcare debates over the last few years really brought to the fore the distinction.

    still. i grew up poor, with a single mother. she has never been to Paris. i have, but i’ll probably always buy socks on sale. i am your daughters, at nearly forty. i worry about what happens when my mother has to retire at 65. there has always only ever been that $401, not the 401K. she rents, and when her income disappears, she may have to move in with us. ack. and yet. there is a gift, i promise you, in going through life resilient, understanding that sugar-coating isn’t something to be desired. and their trust in you? can’t be bought.

    i disagree with Neil, respectfully, about the value of the myth of the American dream. not b/c it can’t occasionally come true. but b/c the individualizing of the story makes everyone - more and more - feel both entitled to it and like a failure for not achieving it. and more importantly, it blinds people to the broad, demographic, reality of how it works, in the occasional times it does work. it serves to make us harsher judges, all of us.

    Bon  |  November 7th, 2010 at 10:49 am

  • I hate that money has the power that it has, the societal belief that somehow those with are more important or “better” than those without. Sure, it affords certain opportunities and experiences that not having money does not allow for, but other than that - what does it matter? Why do we place so much value on money? And boy, when you don’t have it, you DON”T have it and the day-to-day necessities are such a struggle. I wish it wasn’t that way and that and we could all have what we need; not necessarily everything we WANT, but certainly everything we need. The daily struggle can be so exhausting and thought-consuming. I hope you are able to have everything you and your girls need.

    Rebekah  |  November 7th, 2010 at 11:45 am

  • Jen, I have been there and now I’m not there. No matter what the psychics told you, your situation can and will improve.

    An old friend and I were talking about the “power of intention” the other evening. He talked about it as if it were something magical–a la “The Secret”–but I don’t believe that.

    At one point, not too long ago, we were down to a pittance and were in serious danger of becoming homeless. I needed money for food, so I put an ad on craigslist and went to work cleaning other people’s houses. I took a waitressing job (and was subsequently fired for “touching the tines” of the forks as I set tables. No joke.)

    At that time, I made it my intention to change our circumstances. And part of that intention was, I never said no to paying work, ever. I still don’t.

    The Buddhists say, chop wood, carry water. Which sounds simplistic, but it’s true. Do what you need to do today to carry you into tomorrow. That’s all you can do. Tomorrow, do the same.

    Thinking of you.

    Leigh  |  November 7th, 2010 at 11:48 am

  • Jenn, this touched me deeply. We have gone through a very similar situation financially. It is so hard. We are still going through it. I wish it were better for you, Jenn. You do such a great job with your girls. And I’m glad you can appreciate and cherish your relationship with them. We found that our family bond grew and we were happy to count the blessings we DO have. You have a good knack for that, too. I hope someone publishes you soon and you can take some of this worry off your plate!

    Meghan  |  November 7th, 2010 at 11:54 am

  • Thank you for writing about the difficult things. I’d bet almost anything this resonates with a lot more people than the three comments ahead of me.

    The Other Laura  |  November 7th, 2010 at 12:13 pm

  • I was relieved the article was about poverty - when I saw the title I thought it was about incest or something like that!

    Dan  |  November 7th, 2010 at 12:15 pm

  • In June I will be done with residency and I will be looking for a physician job. One possibility is the Berkshires Mass. I have day dreamed about living with you and your girls before I get settled. from what I know about you I can’t imagine a home more rich with heart and soul. I miss my ability to express myself in the written word and my ability to truly feel connected with nature. Hoping you can teach me something things if I end up in your neck of the woods.

    Becky

    becky L  |  November 7th, 2010 at 1:36 pm

  • Your girls are richer than most in many important ways–and psychics are often wrong about the future. I choose to believe there IS a fairy godmother out there for deserving families!

    pogonip  |  November 7th, 2010 at 1:54 pm

  • Oh… my… Jenn. Beautifully written, and heartwrenching. Honest. And you’re right - it is taboo. Just remember - not being rich doesn’t mean daily struggling for ever. Here’s a prayer for better days, soon.

    Bethany  |  November 7th, 2010 at 5:39 pm

  • I’m glad you’re talking about it. Much more honest, and much MUCH more necessary than sex toy talk.

    Kristin  |  November 7th, 2010 at 5:52 pm

  • Thank you for talking about this. In the past few months I am so much more aware of how much money I have, or more precisely, how much I don’t have. For the first time, I am really considering everything I buy. This seems unbelievable, how could I have been so irresponsible all those years? Things are far from dire, thankfuly, but when I think back 10 years to when I was newly married, living abroad, trying to make some money under the table but didn’t really need to because my husband made more than enough, I feel foolish. We weren’t rich then, but now, now I am divorced, I have two daughters, I make a small salary, I get a small amount of child support; money is tight. It is difficult.

    Jen  |  November 7th, 2010 at 9:00 pm

  • What, really, would you invest in.

    Providing for others is terrifying. I don’t quite get the idea that someone would willingly go through that struggle just for…well, what exactly?

    If you know the situation about jobs at the minimum wage, they do not raise people out of poverty and they do not go anywhere. There is such an absurd trend of blaming people for struggling so we don’t have to face our own vulnerability–each and every one of us–or think about the way society is structured.

    Anyway, what you have–a good soul, beautiful daughters and a good relationship with them–that is so much better than anything else you could ever have. But I hope things get easier for you, I really do. I’m sorry they are hard right now. Screw those gypsies or whoever they were. Maybe you will never be rich but perhaps you can be secure.

    ozma  |  November 7th, 2010 at 9:22 pm

  • I know that where you are seems so hopeless right now. I look around and see many young mothers working 50 hours a week while someone else raises their children. A woman who sells her soul to be able to drive the Mercedes and live in an house she cannot afford, whether she has a husband or not, is also suffering. I’m not saying poverty doesn’t suck, just that it is hard being a mother, no matter what. I bet your girls are a lot happier than most kids, because they have a mother that is open, honest and knows how to love them.

    Nancy  |  November 7th, 2010 at 9:45 pm

  • I grew up in a town with super wealthy and the not so wealthy. If it’s any consolation, so many the kids who grew up rich are so messed up now (hello Paris Hilton), an those who grew up in families that struggled seemed to turn out great.

    Kip  |  November 8th, 2010 at 9:19 am

  • As far as I can tell, the only way to kill a taboo is to openly defy it. The first few thousand who do will, of course, be sacrificed. But look at what great inroads you’ll make for posterity!

    Do it anyway, Jenn. You are right–there is so much poverty hiding behind brave faces in this country. A woman with a child is the most vulnerable creature on earth–the one most in need of protection and support so she can do what she needs to do, and often the least likely or able to get it. So write about it. Talk about it. Expose the naked, terrifying reality that you share with millions of women who deserve a voice. Amass a decent collection of cheap dinners and nutritious recipes (and print them in your book!), shop at Goodwill and yard sales sometimes, accept all offers of hand-me-downs and pass them along when you’re done–somebody else needs them, too. And for heaven’s sake, when you’re in a real pickle, let someone know–family, friends (real and virtual), local aid-givers–that’s what people are for. To help each other.

    Hang in there. As a good friend of mine repeatedly says, when you do the right things (writing the truth), the right things happen (someone will hear you–from your pen to God’s ears.) Eventually.

    Lori  |  November 8th, 2010 at 10:03 am

  • You say you need to find out where to post your views on poverty and I sure hope you find one, or many for that matter. Personally, I wish I could post this piece on the front pages of every major news source in America. Your voice needs to be heard. You are well-spoken about something that most people don’t have the time, energy or ability to address. And as you said, when you have the stress that comes with poverty, who can find fault in that?

    Janet  |  November 8th, 2010 at 10:21 am

  • I wish so much that I had clout in a company that could could put your talent to good use. And I agree with someone above who said your girls are richer than most. Having a mother like you is worth so much more than the pile of crap my daughter will get for Christmas. I suspect that’s lame comfort when you have to deny them something, but it’s true.

    Kristen  |  November 8th, 2010 at 1:07 pm