Sunday, December 22, 2013

Hungry for the Holidays

For many teen parents this is the one time of the year that you may not be hungry. Your friends and family make sure you have a little something or maybe they will feed your kids. I wanted to put this up just in case it might help someone who is hungry this holiday season.

Many organizations, and there are many, refer to what we used to call going hungry as "food insecurity" and it is no surprise that it is related to poverty. According to FEEDING AMERICA:

In 2012, households that had higher rates of food insecurity than the national average[ approximately 20% of all American homes] included households with children (20.0 percent), especially households with children headed by single women (35.4 percent) or single men (23.6 percent).

Poverty is linked to unemployment, according to Feeding America, again, no surprise there. However, unemployment, according to me, and, relative to teen parents, is linked to lack of education, lack of transportation, lack of child care, lack of access to medical, dental and sight treatment. All of this to say that there are many ways in which a person can be or become unemployed. It is not a simple matter of inability or laziness, especially for teen parents.

So, in my last post I wrote about sometimes feeling like that teenage welfare mother, part of that is feeling hunger. I grew up hungry; my son grew up "food insecure." I grew up in a military family and while the government pays poverty level wages to those who enlist without a college degree, on every military installation there is an organization that makes certain that every family is food secure. Also, on military bases you tend to live real close to your neighbors. It is a very small percentage of people living in military housing who would allow their neighbor to go without. There was not a lot of food but there was always just enough food.

When my son was two years old we moved from my mother's house to our own home. It was a tool shed with a bathroom addition. We were food insecure because there was no certainty that I would be able to provide food nor did I have a support system in place to feed us. This was my own doing. I estranged myself from my family and refused food stamps because I was too proud to use them in the grocery store. This was so wrong-headed that in hindsight I cannot believe that I allowed my pride to threaten my child's food security. It forced me to get a job that would support us with help covering the cost of child care the sporadic disbursement of government cheese and milk, and a housing supplement for the rent. Without that support from the state, I would not have been able to afford to get a job. That is pathetic but true. That government cheese went a long way some months.

If you are reading this you have access to a computer, or someone who loves you is reading this on their computer, phone, tablet, whatever, so I am going to make a list of links below to organizations that can help you find food wherever you live in America. You may already be aware of many of them. Maybe the same brochure is still sent with your holiday welfare check that I got with mine listing the shelters, soup kitchens and food banks in my area.

There are MANY organizations and state and local government offices that address hunger issues in America. The problem is that their websites are geared to attract donors and volunteers. They information on how to get to the food that the donors and volunteers provide is often buried deep within the website pages. It is hard to concentrate when you are hungry, so I have provided links to sites that either provide the necessary information on the home page or on a page that can be accessed in 1-3 clicks. If you are reading this and you know of similar resources please post the link.

I am starting this list but what I offer you is this: Do not be too proud to go get food.

One World Everybody Eats lists - right on the home page - cafes where the food can be bought according to your budget or bartered for with volunteering your time.

Panera Cares lists Panera Community Cafes in your area. These are not Panera Restaurants!

United States Department of Agriculture SNAP program. I had to dig for this one. You have to apply for the benefits but the process looks very streamlined and quick.

Feeding America provides Food Bank locations.

Food Pantries has listings of food banks and soup kitchens.

I offer this link with caution. I have not fully vetted it yet and it really is a more long range approach. Even if you don't open an account with Food Insurance, the website will give you great ideas for purchasing and storing foods that will keep longer and allow you to always have a collection of "Staple Foods" in your cupboard, backpack, car or shopping cart.

I am listing Whyhunger because there are a lot of resources on the site but you could starve to death looking for food. Use the link but ignore the search engines they don't work for the hungry; they work for the organizations that would feed you, if you could find them. Go all the way down the page and on the bottom right hand side there is a tiny box just above it, it says " find food", put your zip code in there, click "go" and you will get results.

May your table be full of love and calories all year long.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

As a teenage welfare mother...

The other day I was looking at something I had written in an email. I wrote, "As a teenage welfare mother I know what it means to go hungry." As I have designed a blog called TeenParent, Ph.D., it is no secret that at the age of 15 I gave birth to my son and instead of giving him up for adoption as instructed, I kept him with me. Quite a few years have passed between then and now and yet, I wrote that sentence in the present tense. I am in no material sense of the words a "teenage welfare mother" today, so why would I use present tense?

 I think that what I wrote, the words, were what some would call a "Freudian slip." It is something I revealed about myself inadvertently by using what might otherwise be called an odd word choice or a typographical mistake or a grammatical error. I suspect that I still see myself as that scared, scarred, poor, 15 year old to whom someone handed a baby and then sent her home.

There is a picture of me being wheeled out of St. Anne's holding what looks like a wad of blanket. A nun is pushing me and my grandparents are on one side of me and my youngest sister is on the other side of me carrying what looks like a wad of blanket, with ears. We are heading for my grandparents' car. My papaw (grandfather) is reaching into his pocket for the car keys and he is intently looking at the car. His body is turned away from the rest of us. My grandma is looking at the wad of blanket, and my sister, who had been skipping along beside the wheelchair is frozen in mid-air, looking down at me from her suspended position, both feet off the ground. I remember hearing her say, "look, this is my baby" and when she touched back down on the ground she moved the blanket to show me a large stuffed animal. I think it was a mouse; it might have been a rat. It was definitely a rodent.

In the picture, it looks like a hot day. The air pushes my hair back off of my face rather than a brushing it back. July 21st in Los Angeles (LA), California is going to be a hot day, but that year LA had a heat wave. The day I gave birth the temperature was recorded as the hottest day in Los Angeles history, 97 degrees. It didn't get much cooler in the days that followed. In the picture, I am looking down but not at the blanket. The only thing I remember clearly from that day is my sister comparing her stuffed rodent to the living, breathing human I was holding and thinking that I should probably ask her to trade with me.

Not all the time, but there are moments when I feel just like the girl in that picture looks. She is overwhelmed and helpless being pushed in directions others would have her go, unable to lift her eyes to look into the glare of reality. My denial was a large part of the many problems I made for myself in my son's first few years. I was a firm believer in fake it until you make it. That really doesn't work in parenting. I really had to be the mom. I really had to be the one who put the food on the table and the roof over our heads. Most of all, I had to really love this kid in ways that would make him feel loved for every second of his life. That was really hard to do.

When I went into labor I was given a "Saddle Block." This old school technique of anesthetizing women was no longer used on "real" mothers, but at St. Anne's they used it on those of us who were giving up our children. It was a way to separate us from the experience of delivering the child into the world. It worked but not in the way it was meant to do. There is no way to disguise the tugging and pulling maneuvers the nurse and doctor used to arrange me and my, now, numb lower body. There were no soundproof earplugs to drown out the sucking, squishing sounds that announce a new human to the world. Also, in the interest of further physical distance between birth mother and child, I was given shots to dry the milk in my breasts, so I wouldn't be bothered with the inconvenience of leakage or the pain of unspent milk. Finally, the doctor decided that he would put some extra stitches in while suturing my episiotomy so I would be, he said, winking at me over the top of his surgical mask, "good as new."

The physical pain of delivery, the saddle block itself, the shift in hormones as my body abruptly shifted from pregnant to not pregnant, and my son's colic all contributed to severe post-partum depression and agonizing migraines. Add to that the normal lack of sleep most parents crawl through in those early days and months, and life becomes a surreal torture that must be escaped by whatever means possible. My own mother was a nurse working night shifts so she could get the pay differential. So, the one small blessing was that when my son finally got his days and nights mixed up, she and I both got some rest.

 The first month of my son’s life was one continuous, failing, desperate attempt to make everyone stop crying. We all suffered; my sisters and brother somehow managed to make it through the day at school and get some rest at night, but if we were to look back at the report cards for that semester, I think we would find that each one of us was performing far below our potentials.

My son could not tolerate formula of any kind. I could not breast feed because no one really knew the side effects of what they had shot into me to dry the milk, and the pediatrician felt that trying to force milk was unwise. We were both uncertain of my ability to keep this baby alive and adding potentially poisoned breast milk to the long list of ways in which this child could die at my hands was not something either of us wanted to do. As a result of awkward and impatient bottle-feeding my son suffered terrible ear infections. I had no idea all those sinus thingies were in his head and that they all connected to one another. After a month of watching this child break out in hives, shiver uncontrollably, projectile vomit, and shoot shit into a diaper so hard that I could feel it under my hand, I decided to make up my own concoction of whole milk and water with just a touch of powdered baby cereal. I then cut a slightly larger hole in the nipple and worked diligently at holding him in a position that made the liquid flow down his throat and not up through his ears (please do not take this as advice). It wasn't Rocket Science; it was much harder than that.

This is one of the memories I hold onto when I start to feel like that waif in a wheelchair. I believed in myself and I did what I believed to be in the best interest of my child. I did many wrong things. I followed a lot of bad advice, I ran away when I should have fought to stay, but when all is said and done, I did not kill that child, I loved him as hard and as best I could, and in looking back I can see that in those moments when I accepted my glaring reality, I was a good mother, a smart woman, and a strong person.

The reason I chose to blog on this particular topic was because it is what I know. And, it is what I do not want anyone else to know. It is the shame of the waif in the wheelchair looking down but not at the evidence of her immorality and ignorance, as if the pregnant belly had somehow hidden it up to this point. This sense of shame prods me to write about what I know. I do not like the way shame feels. I have felt it far too often in my life; I try my best to avoid situations in which I might do or say something "shameful." It is ironic (yes, it is) that writing about what makes me feel shame ultimately makes me feel serene. Perhaps it purges the shame; it may be an Aristotelian catharsis, wherein I am the playwright, the play and the audience, all at the same time aware and reaching for the cathartic end, and, at the same time, unaware of the outcome. Crafting my performance, inhabiting the role and then dropping it, I crawl out from underneath the weight of my shame, as a snake does his own shed skin, time and again. It always surprises me when I feel better. 

My hope is that those other, past tense, teen parents out there who understand what I am describing because they know it too, will share their stories. Tell us how you did it. Tell us how you raised a kid or more than one without killing one, losing one, having one in jail or on drugs. Tell us how when everyone else in your world told you that you were not old enough, good enough, or smart enough, you figured out how to raise a human being who is a contributing member of society, and, in the process, made yourself successful, happy, contented, and justifiably proud of your child and yourself.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Happy Holidays

The holidays are upon us and Santa's bag holds more than just toys for good girls and boys. It also brings trigger points for one and all that are locked and loaded. Even before he arrives to unload all those mixed emotions, everyone is hoping that everyone else will be on their best behavior and, invariably, at least one of us will be hurt and disappointed.

For me, Halloween is the beginning of the holiday season because it is where, for me, the guilt begins. After trying to pull off the best costume that can be pieced together from the curtains, clothes, linen closets, and the kitchen pots and pans, it is time to buy groceries that will conjure up warm family Thanksgiving memories, and then it culminates in Christmas (I was raised Protestant and I am not completely familiar with how the season culminates for those who practice different cultural and religious events). Christmas, for me as a teen parent was when the meagre amount of money available to make great memories of the holiday season had already been stretched to its limits. Christmas was always on the credit card.

The years before I had a credit card to pay for the holidays provide some of my happier memories. More money did not make better memories. The more I believed I needed to make more money, the more I worked and the less time I had to be a part of the holiday memory.

Halloweens gone by, my son has been everything from a ghost in a sheet with eye holes cut out of it to a drag version of a 1980s Valley Girl. The only ready made costume he ever had was when he was a Mutant Ninja Turtle. That was the first year I began to think that more money would make better memories. I think back now and can come up with12 ways to make that costume, but at the time I was working two jobs and thought it would make him happy to have the "real" costume to wear when he went out Trick or Treating with somebody else, while I was at work.

In the days of inescapable poverty, instead of taking a second or third part-time job at the local supermarket, so I could get a "free" turkey, we would have a  "must go" Thanksgiving meal that was planned, cooked and eaten together. A "must go" is when you clear your refrigerator and cupboards of everything that must go before it spoils. This makes for a very interesting meal and requires collaboration and creativity. If you have never had a potato, sauerkraut and bean burrito with fish tacos made from canned tuna followed by homemade cookies made with whatever was left in the cupboard, then you have missed out on the fun of creating a meal that provides explosive fits of laughter for the rest of the evening.

When you live in poverty,  Christmas is easiest when kids are young. Handmade or hand me down gifts are just leftovers from the gift of being able to tear the paper wrapping off of them. As kids get older they and we (parents) become more aware of what they do not have. This coincided, for me, with my belief that working on Christmas to make an overtime paycheck was the way to make happy memories. My son could then open the gift he had asked for with someone else, while I was at work.

The best Christmas memory I have is when my son was 15. Using his learners' permit, he drove us to Kmart and we bought a lemon tree in a plastic pot, a box of whoppers and some popcorn. We went home and listened to Depeche Mode and Jane's Addiction while we decorated the lemon tree and tried to make popcorn balls. I did not see it in the moment. I actually felt like quite a failure in the parent department that Christmas, but today it is one of our fondest holiday memories.

The best holiday seasons for me have been those that required the least amount of money and provided me the greatest amount of time to spend with my kid. He is my gift, and my time and attention are the most precious things I can give him.

I understand all the sociological and psychological explanations for why I bought into the consumer holiday model. I thought that moving us out of poverty was important, and it was. But, from October 31st to January 2nd that goal could have been number 2 on my list. If I had been able to make that goal second on my list for that little while, I might have a lot less holiday guilt and a lot more happy memories

I share these stories in the hope that someone in circumstances similar to those I have described will rethink working the overtime and instead stay home and make some really sweet holiday memories. I did not realize what I was doing when I was sacrificing sweet memories for a paycheck that really did not expand significantly with overtime. I figured it out when I got my first job that paid what I had always dreamed of as the ideal paycheck. If I made this kind of money, I told my impoverished self, everything would be great. I will be happy and I will be a better parent. The problem was that while I was working my way up to that great paycheck, I missed too many opportunities to build all those happy childhood memories because I was at work. In addition, I now know that there is no amount of money that generates an equivalent amount of happiness. You can buy love and you can buy happiness, depending on how you define those terms, but you cannot buy memories (yet).

I do not want to dissuade anyone from moving out of poverty; please feel free to work your tail off for most of each year, so that when you do finally move yourself to that magic rung on the economic ladder you don't do it at the cost of those magical moments you can spend with your kids this holiday season. A funky meal, re-gifting, something handmade might not seem to be enough right now, but I can tell you that for me those are the things that make for my happiest holiday memories.

Thanks to all of you who read these postings and give me feedback on them. That is the best gift - ever. It is the gift of your time and attention, and I honestly appreciate your generosity.