I'll never forget standing in line for food stamps. I was soothing a crabby 8-month-old, combating a serious bout of morning sickness and deflecting the assuming stares that had replaced my pride the day I finally asked for help on behalf of my family.
Just months prior to my Department of Human Services visit, my husband and I had good jobs and decent incomes. We had gotten married, had a baby and bought a house. Life was sweet. But in a matter of weeks, our American dream turned into a nightmare.
My commute was putting almost 150 miles per day on my already very used car. Every day I would fight heavy traffic, often after clocking out of work long after I was scheduled to depart. By the time I got home from work, it was time for our baby to go to bed, and my husband and I were so exhausted that dinner often came from a box or the pizza guy.
We were so stressed and overwhelmed that we were hardly able to enjoy what little time we had with our son. We began to wonder what the point was. Why were we working so much that we barely had any time left with our son? Why were we stressing so much that what little time we did have with him was spent preoccupied with our professional frustrations? Sure, work and stress are just an inherent part of life, but the paychecks we were receiving paled in comparison to the precious time we were losing. Something had to change.
I was able to find a part-time job about 30 minutes away from our house. I would still make decent money, and I'd also save upwards of $600 per month by eliminating the bulk of my gas and childcare expenses.
My husband made pretty good money, so we decided that he would stay at his job while we searched for something else comparable to his position. We had a little bit of savings left over from the purchase of our house, and my car had just been paid off. The numbers of my work transition all made perfect sense. We were still more than capable of paying our bills and adding to our savings. We were going to be just fine.
And we were just fine for two blissful weeks, until the bottom dropped out of our perfect plan.
I was excited when my husband arrived home early from work one day, until he got close enough for me to see the look on his face. Something was wrong. He explained to me that he and his boss had gotten into a heated argument, and that this was the last time it would ever happen.
This was unfortunate, yes, but we had some savings and I was optimistic that my husband would find other work quickly. For a while we got by, but weeks turned into months, and the way my husband's former employer carefully worded his departure disqualified him from unemployment compensation.
With a tight budget, we got by on my income and our savings for three months before we started to worry. The work wasn't out there for my husband, and my part-time status limited me to working a certain amount of hours. Perhaps I could have found other work, but I was pregnant. It has been my experience that no one wants to hire a woman who's going to need an extended vacation shortly after her hire date.
We got creative with our income and our bills. We refinished old furniture, got credit cards and surprisingly never paid a single bill late. But the bubble was about to burst, and what we were doing wasn't enough; we needed help.
I regretfully and shamefully applied for food stamps more than three months after my husband lost his job. The grocery money was a godsend, but swiping that card came with a pricey amount of stigma.
I received looks of disgust, huffs and puffs, eye rolls and underhanded comments from disgruntled shoppers standing in line behind me as I purchased groceries for my family. "It must be nice to have other people pay for your groceries," I heard one of them say. To them I was a leach, a fraud, a lazy mother unwilling to work and living off of their tax dollars.
I know what they thought even when they didn't say it because until I became one of the people standing in line next to them asking for help, I had my own unfair preconceived notions about people using government assistance: that they took advantage of the system or that they were lazy and robbing taxpayers by not working themselves.
Little did the people in that grocery line know that my husband and I have both had jobs since we were teenagers. We had paid our fair share of taxes; we had helped others when they needed it and never once asked for help ourselves... until we had to.
I can assure you that we didn't want anyone's tax dollars. Had we been able to afford to pay for our kid's chicken nuggets and Cheerios and a roof over his head, we would have gladly forgone the stigma of using food stamps.
Pride is a hard pill to swallow, but we did so for the sake of our family.
A couple of months later, my husband found a suitable job. We got off of food stamps immediately, and our second son was born just a few months later. We've come a long way since then and are in a good place now, a better place actually. We get plenty of time together as a family, and we don't lose any sleep at night over our bills or jobs.
Having to ask for help was a humbling experience for us, but it taught us a valuable lesson: It's impossible to know someone's story from the outside looking in.
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