As I sat in the parking lot at Target, I was fully aware that I had only about 30 minutes left before my insomniac newborn was going to wake up screaming with hunger as if he has never eaten before. My legs were literally shaking with nerves because of pride, embarrassment and fear of judgement. I repeated to myself “I am going to do this! I am going to use these WIC coupons to buy my baby formula.” I mean, why wouldn’t I, right? It was saving me a lot of money and I pay taxes and it’s really nobody else’s business anyway. Yet I couldn’t quite bring myself to open the car door. Every judgmental comment I had ever heard or read was replaying in my mind.
“To use or not to use”
When I received the WIC instructions and approval from the green-eyed woman at the shelter I really had no intention of using them because I was uncomfortable with several aspects of the idea of government assistance.
I can’t recall accurately if we were actually on food stamps as a child but if we weren’t, it was only my parent’s pride that stopped us. As so many Americans do now, we lived paycheck-to-paycheck even though both of my parents always held full-time jobs. We lived about 30 minutes from town, so it was always exciting to make our big grocery store trip. We would fill our cart up with all of the essentials needed to get us through to the next paycheck.
For as long as I can remember I have heard adults complain about people that they assume are on food stamps. You know, the ones who can afford tattoos, iPhones, steak and beer instead of food or health insurance. It’s as if some people believe that if you don’t make a certain amount of money you should only be allowed to spend your earnings how they deem appropriate. When I hear those comments, I always think of my dad and the happiness on his face when he opened his Friday night beer. Again, unsure how accurate the memory is, I can vividly picture his dark blue work pants and matching button-up shirt with dirt and rips in them. His face would be full of filth, except where his safety goggles were. That is how I recall him as he smiled at us while he popped the top off of his Pabst Blue Ribbon. He worked in a factory for many years and then went on to become a plaster laborer and he physically worked harder than most people I know. He worked through sickness and even when his body started telling him that it was time to move on, he still forged forward. That is why his 71-year-old body is more like a 100-year-old one now. Very little extra money, food stamps or not, if anyone deserved a steak and beer at the end of his work week, it was him.
It’s fruitless to try to convince someone to change their mind on their views of government assistance and I agree that there WAY too many people who abuse it. It makes me sad for those who legitimately need it. I worked with a girl who posted something on Facebook comparing people who use food stamps to the animals at the zoo and the quote ended with “don’t feed the animals because they will learn to rely on it.” When I replied to her that there are many people who work very hard and need the assistance to feed their families she came back and said “I drive by the food pantry every day and there are Lexus, Mercedes and BMW’s parked in the lot and I can guarantee you that if I couldn’t feed my family I would not be driving one of those cars.” I knew she couldn’t guarantee me that because I knew that her father owned a rather large and lucrative construction company… it’s not something she would likely ever have to consider. She unfriended me when she told me that her mom had to clip coupons when they were little and I asked her if she could tell me where I could get the coupons that she used to send her and her sister through “finishing school.” Yes, I am fully aware of how childish that comment was. But it is, in the end, people like her that made me very uneasy at the thought of using the WIC coupons.
We live in a community that is pretty conservative and I have often heard comments from friends and neighbors regarding people who were not born as fortunate as they were. Whether that means being blessed with the gift of drive and perseverance, or above-average intelligence to pick yourself up and pull yourself out of a seemingly impossible situation, or merely being fortunate enough to have a built-in family that could help you achieve your goals. My husband and I are far from wealthy but we have afforded ourselves a few luxuries along the way and I am just not a fan of people judging me for something that they assume is true about my life when in reality, they have no idea.
In the end it was something that my 8-year-old said when she was eavesdropping on my conversation that made me decide to use the WIC coupons. She matter-of-factly stated “mom, you always tell us to not care what other people think and to travel outside our comfort zone, so why don’t you?” So I set up the WIC appointment and decided to conquer the fear.
I took a deep breath as I prepared to turn into the parking lot at the government office in Cook County in my Land Rover and had to chuckle when I saw the only parking spot open was between a Yukon Hybrid and a Cadillac Escalade.
The appointment itself can be described as silly, but I do understand how it could be helpful in certain circumstances. First I sat with a woman who entered all of Malachi’s information into the computer and then I was ushered into a small office where the lady with hair like Peppermint Patty, small wire-rimmed glasses, and grey shirt that was buttoned all the way up to her chin counseled me on how to give a baby a bottle. She was very serious as she read me the illustrated paper on her desk that informed me how to hold a bottle, wash the bottle, hold the baby while he eats the bottle, how to wash my hands, and lastly how I should never let the bottle sit for long periods of time in the heat and then feed it to the baby. I caught myself smirking and may have even let out a giggle with a look that read “are you being serious right now?” When she kept going I realized I was being juvenile and had to reign it back in. So I had to finish my tutorial on how to give a bottle with a bubble of discomfort in my ribs from holding back one of those overtired, ridiculously poorly-timed and unstoppable laughing fits.
The woman with the wire-rimmed glasses had one more lecture to give me as she handed me a packet and this one was about being responsible with my coupons. I was given nine vouchers inside a yellow booklet, three for each month of the quarter. Two of the them were for four cans of formula and one was for three cans and if I lost them they would not be replaced, and this was stressed to me like my life depended on it. I was told that on my next appointment I would be given a quiz and I quickly wondered if I missed any important information while I was focusing on not laughing. I wondered what would happen if I failed the quiz but chose not to ask that question.
Now it was time to face the music, travel outside my comfort zone and use the dreaded WIC coupons. I decided I would go to Target because it was on my way and not so close to home that I might not run into anyone I know. I picked up the formula and a few other items that I needed and headed for the checkout. I could feel tiny beads of sweat slowly creeping their way down my side, my heart was beating ultra-fast and my mouth was so dry I felt as if I could choke. I scanned the registers for someone who looked like they knew what they were doing so there would be no calling a manager for assistance. I also wanted it to be someone a little younger, thinking that they might not have such a negative opinion of the world yet. No one looked quite right so I ducked back into the clothing department to give myself a pep talk. I looked down at the beautiful sleeping baby boy nestled snuggly in his seat and my heart immediately slowed down. I reminded myself of the strong and confident woman I was, took a deep breath and headed for the first register I came to. I grabbed a water bottle from the end kiosk and opened it immediately so that I could at least speak without my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. I peered up and smiled at the middle-aged Hispanic woman and she smiled back. I placed the cans of formula first and then rapidly piled the diapers behind them to try to shield the obvious paper that I thought was screaming “she’s using WIC.” It felt like the woman was moving in slow motion as she scanned the formula and then ran my coupon through her register, asked me to sign it, and handed me a receipt. The moment she finished my transaction I scurried to my car without looking up.
In the end, it was not the horrible experience I expected it to be and it was over quickly. I was so happy that it went well, but I was still dreading the next time I had to do it.
I wish I could say that I never felt judged using the coupons, but I did. It is like I preach to my kids, “the more you travel outside your comfort zone the more you grow.” Each time I used them it got easier and the people who wouldn’t make eye contact with me or shifted their hips with irritation because I took too long in line just made me want to move slower. Ultimately, the coupons saved me $200 per month (I still had to buy plenty of cans on my own) so I would continue to travel outside my comfort zone until Malachi was no longer drinking formula.
I know you’re probably asking yourself what this has to do with Malachi and the foster care system, and answering honestly I can say “not much,” but it is an important part of my journey and just another way I grew as a person during this whole process. You will see as my story evolves how jaded and negative people who work in the foster-care world can become. The two situations can be compared in the way that because of the irresponsible behavior of some, many others are treated unfairly and prejudged.
In my next letter I will introduce you to bio-mom.