I emptied my groceries from my cart and laid them onto the conveyor belt to check out. I had dutifully separated them as the guidelines required. In the past, when I had my WIC approved groceries mixed in with the items I actually wanted, the cashier and I spent an additional five minutes separating and paying for them by the government issued coupon. Beans, rice and peanut butter on one; cheese, eggs and milk were on the other. There was a completely separate certificate for the much needed formula. I was so stressed out after being left to fend for my infant daughter that I was incapable of producing enough milk to feed her. Working a full time job and figuring out life as a single mother afforded me little time or experience to pump the 48 ounces a day that she needed to survive.
I come from culture wherein if one wants to eat, one must work very hard for it. Even the beggar on the street must spend endless hours in the unforgiving sun and dusty heat to earn his day’s wages. In America, success comes by pulling one’s self up by their bootstraps; in Ghana very few are given boots to begin with. After meticulously crafting your footwear (and its straps) from any available raw materials, you can THEN begin the process of self-ascension. That’s why the cashier’s words came at such a blow to me and to my self-esteem.
“You can’t buy THAT peanut butter,” she snapped, her face contorted in disgust.
“Why not?” I whispered. “It’s on the coupon…”
She cut me off.
“This peanut butter has honey in it. The peanut butter you’re allowed to get does not. It has to be plain!”
I didn’t dare argue with her. Her chubby Asian face was twisted in such a rage that any protestation would only provoke her. Not that I would have protested. I was already so ashamed that I was on public assistance that I felt her contempt for me was somehow warranted. I meekly asked her to take the peanut butter off and just scan the rest of my items. I just wanted to flee as fast as I could.
The shame that I felt that day – and for the entire year I was on WIC – was one of the many reasons I found it hard to forgive my first born’s biological father. My feelings were a mix of contempt and longing; Contempt for him for landing me where I was and for myself for wanting him to play a more supportive role. This was something I was supposed to be able to do on my own. Eventually I got married and my college sweetheart saved me and my child from certain poverty. The cost of daycare alone was 60% of my paycheck! That’s why I feel so deeply for single mothers.
The recent ‘War Against Moms’ brought these old feelings to a surface in the last few days. With each side volleying attacks against the other, claiming that each is out of touch with the struggles. I don’t know if either side really gets it though. The conservative right proudly touts motherhood as a job (which it surely is) and thereby crowns women in these upper echelons as saints. The liberal left presents its poster child for motherhood: the impoverished woman who depends heavily on government welfare (through no fault of her own, or course) and is therefore worthy of collective pity.
And then there’s me, and thousands of women like me. No one is championing on our narrative. Women like me are just middle of the road masses, who by some unfortunate circumstance may find themselves in need of WIC or TANF. But because we are neither very rich nor very poor and there is no true political party that represents middle America, it is presumptive that we belong to the latter group. With my WIC checks and Black skin, it would only be reasonable to assume that I would be a welfare queen.
My sense of shame with this perception was so deep that I literally ran out of the grocery store a few days ago. My neighbor has two boys and has a third child on the way. She has been haranguing her fiancé to get married for months and he has so far eluded this trap. According to conservative doctrine, she was right to keep her children. Life is precious and should not be destroyed in the womb. Being a single mother with children so young, she of course qualifies for WIC. I did not know this when she knocked on my door and asked for a ride to the grocery store. Her car had a flat tire in the driveway.
I followed her around as she chatted away about making salmon for the boys and picked up some essentials: bread, milk, etc. We laughed and browsed the aisles leisurely. I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be and I genuinely enjoy her company. All was well until she got to the check-out line.
“I’d like to pay for these separately,” she told the cashier. “These go on my food card, and the others I’ll pay for in cash.”
I felt anxiety rising in me like a volcano. My heart threatened to leap out of my chest. Here we were, two Black women in line with a food card, and dressed so casually too. If we both had jobs, we would have no business being in the grocery store at one o’clock in the afternoon, would we? If we both had jobs, there would be no need for a food card, would there? The old sense of shame overtook me. I fled, telling her I’d be in the car when she was done.
Never mind that every cashier at Publix knows me and my husband.
Never mind that they all know that I am a stay-at-home-mom who has the good fortune to be able to afford her own food.
Never mind that the people at Publix have never treated me the way that that cashier at Wal-Mart did over seven years ago.
Never mind any of that.
There was a good mother trying to feed her children healthy food and I couldn’t even bear to watch her do it because of the stigma attached, and I didn’t want to be associated with that stigma. Now what is wrong with that picture? What is wrong is that politicians (on both sides of the aisle) have legislated how and when we have our children and when and what they should eat with such breathtaking short sightedness that they did not pause to consider the long term effects on their test subjects. I somehow doubt the emotional aspects of pride and shame in how and when one feeds ones children were deliberated in the halls of congress. And somehow, I think they should have.
Have you ever been on public assistance? What are your views of people on public assistance? Confess all in the comments box, but think carefully before you hit ‘submit’. 😉