Monday, August 09, 2004

Hungry Childhood

I'm tired, but I can't sleep. I should be able to. I've given up all caffeine except for one morning diet pepsi, and I know that's not enough to effect me tonight. No, it's my thoughts keeping me up. We were putting up some glow-in-the-dark planets on Janie's ceiling tonight, and it got me to thinking about my own childhood.

My parents divorced before I hit 2nd grade. My father had cheated (secretary who of course got pregnant), and my mother divorced him while she herself was pregnant with baby #5. She then went to law school as a single mother with 5 kids. She cleaned offices at night for extra money, and I would sometimes go with her just to spend time with her. If I pretended to be sick, she would take me to her school and I would listen to the lectures. After the divorce, she had decided to keep the house and keep us in private school, so we were extremely poor. Funny to be poor while living in the suburbs and wearing uniforms, but it's also worse in many ways. We were always confronted with what others had that we didn't.

We were so poor, our refrigerator was always empty. If you put food in it, we'd only eat it. My mother would complain because any fruit or bread she bought at the store would be eaten on the same day. I learned to make juice from margarita mix and eat the sour fruit from our backyard. You have to eat it immature, else another kid will get it. I still like my fruit more tart than juicy.

My brother says he's a doctor now because he was raised on mayonaise sandwiches. My mother would buy grapefruit juice and tomato juice because she knew we wouldn't drink them. If we had sweet pickle relish in the refridgerator, we would have eaten it by the spoonful. It was not unusual to go to bed hungry. I remember fainting in 2nd grade. The nuns couldn't understand it, but I knew it was from sharing a box of mac & cheese for dinner with my mother and siblings, having no breakfast, and no lunch. Matter of fact, I can't think of a single time my mother ever made me a lunch for school. I'd make it myself if there were something to make it with, but usually I'd go without. There were no free lunches at our school. I'd tell the other girls I'd lunch with that I wasn't hungry, although I was thin as a rail. One summer my brother got kicked out of his Mormon kindergarten because he had packed his own lunch, with a beer for beverage. My mother loves that story, but I think it is very telling of what was going on at home. We weren't drinking beer, but were desperate to have what everyone else had, and a beer in a can looks like a canned soda to a little kid with few options.

For Christmas, the St. Vincent de Paul society would stop by with a bag of presents that people had donated at church. My mother would cross out "Girl 6-9" or "Boy 2-5" and put in our names. They would also come by at Thanksgiving with a turkey, and at the beginning of the school year to get us fitted for shoes to last the year. We had food stamps for groceries, and were constantly being threatened with losing our utilities or the house in foreclosure. I remember taking baths at the neighbors when our water was turned off.

As kids, we would create all sorts of games to entertain ourselves. We would put on a carnival in the backyard, for 10 cents admission price. We would climb trees, read books, and play school. We were a little wild because we were mostly unsupervised. My mother would either be at school, studying, working, on a date, or sleeping. We had the run of the place, with my sister and I in charge starting at age 8. We still joke that there were originally 8 of us, but it was survival of the fittest and some just didn't make it.

What I hated most would be when my mother would send me next door to "borrow" a loaf of bread or milk from the neighbors. If I cried because I didn't want to, she'd tell me that I was starving the baby by not getting her milk for her bottle. I couldn't handle that, so off I would go. I knew it was begging and I hated it. I didn't mind being poor as long as I could do it in private.

At 10, I started cleaning neighbor's houses for money. At 11 & 12, I started babysitting. On my 13th birthday I got my first 'real' job at a video store. I was still too young to work legally, so he'd pay me daily in cash. I worked every weekend and all summer starting in junior high school through high school. I learned I had to rely on myself. As a kid, I used the money to buy my lunches, my school clothes, and any entertainment. I bought every car I've ever owned, and paid every dollar of my own expenses including college since moving out at 17. Working also got me out of the house, which I needed to escape.

Through this and lots of other history, I learned that the best person I had to rely upon was myself. I don't like asking for help or feeling needy. I have never taken more than 2 weeks off, and that is an extremely rare occurrence. I love working because it gives me a sense of security and ability to contribute. I never want to end up as poor as we were again.

So that brings me to the question at hand. What will I do if/when I have the baby? I had planned on taking a year off, which would end at the same time I graduate. I think we could survive off just Matt's salary for a year, but it would be tight. But I haven't had a year off in over 20 years.

I'm just afraid of becoming dependent. Of relying on someone other than myself to make a living and pay the bills. Money isn't important except for what it does. When the bills get paid, there is peace and security. We don't have to worry about what will happen. I have so much food stored at my house that we could survive for months. I hoard all sorts of canned, dry and frozen foods, because I never want to run out.

I know this is not a decision that has to be made tonight. Actually, I still have to see a heartbeat before I start believing that I'm really pregnant. But, these thoughts are keeping me up tonight. Getting them out has given me a little peace. Enough peace that I think I can sleep now.


Blogger Sam said...

I, too, grew up very poor, and it is something you never forget, it affects you for life..I must spend 1/3 of my income on groceries, and I still open the fridge and just stare at the food, proud of myself that it's stuffed full, I have a reserve of food to rival a bombshelter. My mother sent me to parochial school b/c it was the best she could provide, and I didn't know until years later that she bartered work for tuition. Thank God they had school lunches, or I would've starved to death.
My consolation prize? The popular, beautiful, rich girl who made my life hell back then? She bags my stuff at Wal-mart now. I never say a word, just go through as if I don't even know her. It really is enough for me to have the pantry stocked, refridgerator full, that is my security blanket.
Hoping things go your way, babe.

4:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh. I still can't get over my fridge and pantry that are always full.
Our situation was not as bad as yours, but it was close enough. This: "I didn't mind being poor as long as I could do it in private." I remember that.And the job thing? Ditto.

I don't think it ever leaves you. And, yes, it takes a very, very long time to count on anyone but yourself. It's taken years for even my husband to get to the point when I will ask him for help.

You seem like a very strong, rational person. You will make the right decision when the time comes.


11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please don't devalue the work people do caring for children. If you take a year "off," that means you'll be home taking care of two children (an infant!) full-time for a year. That's actual, real work, whether society gives you a paycheck or not. If you're home for that year, you'll also save the family money (on daycare, food costs, etc.).

Make the decision to stay home or not to based on what you *want* to do, not how much money you can make doing it, because the value of staying home is a better lifestyle for the whole family, even if there's less money floating around.


4:32 PM  
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