Last week, I opened a letter from the Oregon Department of Revenue. I had been looking forward to said letter because I knew it meant my state tax refund--which was to be $3845--was on its way to my bank account or my hot little hands. And who doesn't like tax refunds, I ask, especially when they come close to 4 grand?
The letter, however, let me know exactly where my money was going: directly into the rather deep pockets of the university where I finished grad school last year. I owe them money: two months' rent, three months afterschool care for Things One and Two, charges from the Health Center, and a short term loan added up to just over $5,000. I've been paying on it every month. Some months, that's $150, some months it's $10. It didn't occur to me that my refund would get applied to my account, and in some ways, it's entirely fair. I owe that money; those charges are legitimate. But I desperately needed that money and I'm not sure I can make it through the summer without it, and this is why: summer care for the Things Three runs just over $1500 a month.
For comparison's sake, my car cost $1200 and is still running strong (knock on the drywall that surrounds my desk).
$1500 sounds excessive, doesn't it?, until you do all the math: divide 1500 by three, then divide by the number of hours each child spends at the center, then calculate the pay for each teacher and assistant, the cost of the fieldtrips and snacks and meals, and suddenly it becomes all too clear why it costs so much. This is a fairly good price for high-quality childcare, and if the center hadn't decided to continue charging me the student rate, I'd be paying over $1800 for the same service.
But this is the truth: after rent, childcare, electricity and car insurance, I'll have $112.60 left over. That's including John's child support (which he has started paying on time this month), and including the SSI Thing Two collects because he is autistic. Though because I recently received a fifty-cent an hour raise, the latter may be cut.
And that is $112.60 left over each month, not each week. I don't yet know how I'll cover gas and phone, or anything else we'll need like laundry soap and shampoo. I can't even begin to think how I'll pay for food. I've emailed the account manager at the childcare center (aka "Guido The Collector") and asked if an alternative arrangement can be made where I pay $1100 a month and roll over the rest until the fall so I can at least have money for food and gas.
That was yesterday. She hasn't responded yet, but I'm hoping for something because otherwise I don't know what I can do.
Friday night, I drove the kids to Portland for their weekend with John. He has moved into Sara's house recently, and this was the first time I would see the place. It was lovely, a two-story row house with hardwood floors and plush carpet. In the kitchen there were granite counter tops and dark wood cabinets--something like cherry wood or mahogany--and it felt warm and inviting. The house only has two bedrooms, and the guest room is where the kids stay. When I took their things in, I noticed the furniture was the kind fashioned from pine logs and made to look homey. In the dresser, Sara had put the clothing she had bought the kids--four summer outfits and a swimsuit each. There was a credenza with new books on it, and there were flip flops and slippers. Opening into the bedroom was an immense bathroom with glassware decorating the counters and those little lights framing the mirror.
Sara's mom was visiting from Pennsylvania and though the two of them had already headed to the coast, she had bought new pajamas for the kids before they left. The kids were happy, ran around the new house excited and gleeful. John showed me around and was proud of the place, I could tell, and I worked at not begrudging him it. Outside, in my little car that cost less than one month of summer childcare, the gas tank measured just under half a tank. The drive was two hours back. I had $1.88 in the bank, no cash on me besides pennies, and I didn't know if I'd make it back. There was no way I would have told John this, walking through that house, him showing me the master bedroom covered in red and orange and black. He had just handed me the child support check, though I had asked for cash, because I knew depositing it in an out-of-town branch might result in a hold on the funds and I needed the money, I needed it Friday night and Saturday morning for gas and food.
There's something particularly unnerving about the minutiae you have to devote yourself to knowing, the institutional rules you learn, when you're poor. I hadn't known about my bank's specific rules regarding deposits until one weekend evening when I was in Portland, depositing a check, and needed that money. The protocols around these things are banal, and the banality can drive you, or the person you have to explain it to (aka, "the fanbase") insane. Is it very interesting? No. But this is where most of us who deal with some level of being poor* learn pretty quick: the only way of managing it is to learn the tedious ins and outs. It is sometimes the only leverage you have.
Thing One, the girl who is smart beyond her years, somehow knew about the gas, and I think guessed I wasn't going to say anything, and so she looked at John and said, "Mom doesn't have enough gas to get home." She said it flat, matter-of-factly, and I loved her and hated myself at the same time. If I had known she would have said anything, I would have swallowed my considerable pride and said something myself. Who the hell am I to put an 8-year old in that position?.
John, though, did what he needed to, drove to the bank and took out $20. "This is for my share of Thing One's medication this month," he said. He acted like it was an act of generosity. I did, too. Because I've learned a long time ago to be grateful even for what you should expect.
I cried on the way home (big surprise, I know, me, the girl that says Crying Is Okay). But it was hard to see John living so well, hard to know the kids had all those things I couldn't give them. Sara is great, and the fact she bought them clothes and books, found ways to make their living space there comforting and welcoming--that's not a small thing and I'm sure it wasn't easy, either. And Lord knows that John could have ended up picking a crackhead who didn't like children and chain-smoked and watched reruns of Bonanza (though, frankly, I am highly suspect of his Dating Prowess. How can anyone explain landing Sara AND me in the same lifetime, hmmm?**).
I used to believe that my intelligence, my ability to think and analyze, to teach, to write, to work hard, to raise bright children, my education, somehow these things at long last would earn me a living wage. But none of them do.
*It's hard to talk about poverty and being poor in part because the language itself is so absolute. I don't think I'm poor the way some people are. I don't, for example, qualify for welfare, and I live in a good neighborhood. I have a car. But worrying about food and electricity? That automatically gets you into the poor category, or at least the lower-middle class category. Period. End of argument.
**I know, totally self-promotional and egotistical there. But if you had just admitted to the Internet that you were poor, I would let you slide. I'm just sayin'*.
*"I'm just sayin'" is, seriously, the best reason ever. You can use it all the time! It supports any argument! It's genius!