By Dana Gornall
Last year I was employed and below the poverty line at the same time.
I had never really thought of myself as “poor” because I had a cell phone and a computer, my kids went to a good school and I always had food on the table. But the truth is, that wouldn’t have been the case without help—both from the government and from family.
Looking back, the timeline of events that led up to rock bottom are clear and delineated. Sometimes these things happened randomly and out of the blue, the way life can be, and other times they were choices I had made for specific reasons—albeit not always great choices. Regardless, I began a slow, spiraling descent that brought me to Christmas of last year.
There I was, crouched down at my bookcase finding books to part with and sell at a re-sale bookstore so that I could scrape up some money to purchase presents. I could have asked to borrow money. I could have told my kids I couldn’t afford Christmas that year, but the shame of where I was had grown—hidden for quite some time—and I didn’t want to admit to anyone just how bad it had gotten.
I grew up in a middle class family.
My parents were not wealthy but comfortable and hard working. My father owned his own business and my mother worked nights at a greeting card store. I went to college—a couple of times—and graduated, soon finding a job in my field which didn’t earn a lot being a social services profession, but presented me with the ability to pay my own bills and buy a nice used car.
I married and we bought a small, older house in a better part of a small, financially struggling town. Even these small things felt like we were living the dream (kind of) whatever “the dream” is. We had a child, and then another. And then life began to shift.
I was working all day and spending almost my entire paycheck (sometimes it was my entire paycheck) to pay for someone else to take care of my kids. The realization of how backward this was settled in like a deep, heavy thud in my heart. I was a mother giving away my job of caretaking to someone who could never do it as well as I could, and paying good money to do it.
With one child it was manageable, but now with two small children under the age of three the cost of daycare was rising. Worse, I noticed my son (the oldest) was requiring more interaction than the smaller and cheaper in-home daycare where they were placed could provide. Looking for something better, I found a quality daycare at our local community college in the early childhood education department, but even that meant doubling the cost for both kids.
It made no sense to earn money for something I could do. I bought a book called Your Money or Your Life and thought about ways to earn money from home, but my husband and I couldn’t agree on this factor and so I continued working.
It was at this time when life would shift again and we gained a third child—our niece. Young and having lost her mother, we were now in a position of raising three children. There was some government help, but it never seemed enough and the stress of work and children, daily life and the broadening gap of what was my way and what was his way meant a crumbling marriage.
It was somewhere in this mess when I made the choice to go back to school.
I wanted a profession that gave me more flexibility—something that would allow me to still earn money and be home more. It backfired.
Working full time and going to school meant being home less and falling further into debt. It meant shutting the door in my bedroom and isolating myself from my family so that I could study. It meant taking Saturdays to meet other students for study groups. It meant spending money on school and books. When I finally graduated with another diploma and another career, I was even more behind on everything.
I kept telling myself: soon. Soon things would get better. Soon I would be able to earn more money and be home more. Soon the debt would be paid off.
Starting a new, non-traditional career meant taking a huge risk. I chose to work both jobs; maintaining my full-time career by day and working to build my part-time, more “flexible” job by night resulted in more daycare and more of me being in and out—not home. This cycle spun again and again and I was more stressed than ever.
I developed depression and anxiety.
I went to counseling.
I quit my day career.
My marriage ended.
Luckily I had family support. If I didn’t have that (as many do not) I would have been applying for government housing and possibly would have ended up homeless. Luckily I had a job and skills which allowed me to work side jobs and kept me afloat—always just at the surface, even when I felt like I was sinking.
It was when I found myself crouched at my bookcase trying to discern what to sell, that I knew I would have to find another way. I couldn’t let my family suffer like this, even if it did mean sacrificing the time and a few dreams—or at least putting them hold. With luck and effort, I found employment again in a traditional full-time setting.
Today I find myself a little more above the poverty line.
It’s not easy. Maintaining day-to-day with kids and a new full-time job keeps me away more than home. It means sending texts 15 minutes or so after school lets out to see how the day went and if everything is okay because I won’t be home for awhile. It means rushing home way past sundown and throwing dinner together very quickly and eating after 7:00—sometimes 8:00. It means occasionally missing football games.
It means picking myself up time after time when things begin to fail, and hitting the reset button because that’s just what a working mama does.
Life is not about that foggy, unclear place we see somewhere in the distance called: soon. That realization hit me one day when I was driving to my not-quite-so-new-anymore full-time job.
There is no soon, because there will always be another hurdle to clear. It’s the act of leaping over them that gives us the strength for the next one or two, or 12.
“I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I still had a daughter who I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” ~ JK Rowling
Editor: Alicia Wozniak