Thursday, October 14, 2010

Welfare Wedding: Part 1

The real reason the baby daddy and I waited so long to get married was money, or the lack thereof. We nearly headed to town hall and called it a day a while back, just to get the legal deal done, but 1) our Town Hall doesn't officiate marriages, and 2) we have kids who are old enough to both participate in and remember the occasion, which seemed particularly important for my stepson. Let me rephrase that. The only opinion he ever expressed about the wedding was the shrugging of one shoulder, over which he said, "That's cool, whatever," as he headed into his Man, Jr. cave. But the concept of him standing up for his dad and witnessing our community witnessing our commitment to each other and our family...that just felt correct, and solid, and worth a few grand. Because sometimes our family of four still feels ad hoc.

The stepkid came to live with us suddenly and via circumstances that were out of his control, and out of control, in general. He hadn't lived with his dad since he was a baby, but his dad stayed within visiting distance (often walking distance), seeing him on weekends and more if possible. "Possible" depended on the cooperation of, and answering of the telephone by, all parties involved. There's a slew of info that isn't mine to share so I'll stop there. Suffice it to say that when the opportunity -- the imperative -- arose for his son to live with him, it was an answered prayer (despite his avowed atheism).

For our first two years together, we lived around the corner from the stepkid and his mother and baby half-sister. Our relationship -- the stepkid's and mine -- was friendly if distant. I knew from my own childhood experience with steppeople neither to come on too strong nor to infringe on his time with his father. If they invited me to all do something together, great, but I never made that assumption. I certainly never minded when my boyfriend opted for time with his kid over with me. In fact, it would've been a turn-off otherwise; his commitment to his child was one of the first things I loved about him. Let's be honest: I was in the market for a future coparent, and it was assuring to know from the get-go that he was capable of both making a kid and caring about it. I'd also learned from the success of my mother's relationship with my stepmom the importance of cultivating the stepkid's mom's trust and being clear about my role -- particularly that it wasn't hers. This grew complicated when he suddenly lived with me and she was unavailable for a while, and her son was in need of some parenting the likes of which weren't my boyfriend's forte. Like establishing a bedtime and introducing the concept of a "family meal." Don't get me wrong -- this stuff didn't come naturally to me, either. He and I ate dinner, often take-out, at 9pm. We spent our nights at jazz shows and movies, not helping with homework.

The day we found out he was coming to stay, I opened the fridge, surveyed the contents (soy milk and batteries) and wondered what people with kids kept in their pantries. I probably Googled it, then went shopping and hoped for the best. (Beyond the domestic learning curve was the fact that I was vegan at the time and had literally never cooked meat in my life, while he and his dad both liked a side of meat with their meat.)

We had moved to our suburban homestead just three months earlier, a two-flat we cohabitate with my aunt. The idea of an extended-family domicile appealed to us, and afforded us more space and the chance to have a dog after our tiny rental apartment. We were also fairly freaked out by being 30 miles farther from NYC, and homeowners. But the stepkid had his own room, which proved precient when he went from spending four nights a month to moving in. Honestly, we'd picked the location largely with him in mind, whether on a part- or someday full-time basis. The neighborhood is multicultural and mixed-income; the school system is excellent; the town's a few shades more laid back than Greenwich, where he lived at the time, the only kid in his peer group to live in an apartment, a residence the square footage of his best friend's foyer. He was just becoming aware of class difference when I met him. I remember the shock on his face when he learned that most of the world does not, in fact, live in homes with indoor swimming pools. But knowing this is different than experiencing it, and I can't help but think it's more comfortable to now have a group of friends with a true array of cultural and class experiences. Or maybe it just makes me more comfortable...

So, money and marriage. We'd been hobbling along on Michael's carpentry salary plus unemployment  benefits plus some freelance income since our daughter was born (my company had closed shortly beforehand). We could barely cover the bills, never mind fund a wedding, when my mother and grandmother offered us $3,000 toward the cost. Now, I know some brides spend more than that on a gown alone. But my groom and I both agreed that the most -- really, only -- important thing about a wedding gathering was quality eats. And my one Bridezilla demand was a caterer. I'd do everything else myself on the cheap or for free, but if we tried to cook the food or have a potluck I'd either feel stressed out or like a miser. Then we set a date three months out so it would be summer and we could do it outside, before the stepkid's football season and all the back-to-school brouhaha started. Then I booked an ice cream truck. Unsure what to do next, I Googled "how to plan a wedding."

None of the legion of downloadable prenuptial to-do list offered online, however, include "Apply for Food Stamps." But my fiance would soon be out of work for the next three months (and counting) with a back injury-turned-back surgery, following two years of barely scraping by in professions (and hours and paychecks) deeply impacted by the recession.

(They don't actually look like this anymore. Recipients are assigned a discreet debit-type card, much to the ire of conservatives who think people ought to bear a big, scarlet $ sign in the grocery check-out line.)

Let's pause a moment here. Are you as uncomfortable as I am at the mention of welfare? Or of personal finances, in general? Did that $3,000 a couple paragraphs back make you squirm, or is it just me? I get as embarrassed hearing a person's financial specifics as I would the details of their sex life. Wait, that doesn't embarrass me, even a little bit! In fact, nothing feels as private a matter as the state of one's bank statements. Which is why I'm writing this, really. I feel shy discussing money, but I feel shame for being poor, especially poor and a parent. Yet, politically and intellectually, I balk at that reaction. There is nothing shameful with using "the system" as it's intended: a safety net for the welfare, the well-fare, of citizens when they need it. Funds for food have got to be some of our government's most sensibly spent dollars, when one considers illegal wars and bank bailouts and $74k teacups and what have you.

But rest assured, all you critics of the social welfare system: You would totally commend the efforts put forth by the CT Department of Social Services to discourage its use! First, no one answers the phone, ever. There are no hours or directions listed on the website. The area in which it's located would be dangerous if anyone cared enough to commit a crime, but they're too poor and tired to make the effort. Or maybe they're just lazy! Which is how my caseworker likely would have regarded me had I been someone else. But what with my ability to collect and present all relevant forms of ID and paperwork in a neat, labeled file and my Aryan good looks, combined with children to feed and negligible assets with which to do so, procuring food stamps was, all said and done, a snap. And despite opinions to the contrary, I'm thankful, for the stepkid's sake especially, that we can use a card versus Monopoly money at the check-out. He's well aware that times are tight. We've been candid, but with an emphasis on reassurance and sharing with him -- not in detail, but as evidence to that reassurance -- our plan to get outta the hole.  It's so critical to keep the fear and shame shit to our adult selves.

(to be continued...including the Vows-n-Vittles radically transparent budget.)


Karuna said...

I. Love. You. Still need those vows. They were ancient wisdom dressed in red. xooxx

Karuna said...

Found the vows! On this blog! Yesssss.

Maggie said...

Reading that Glenn Beck post hurt my head.

Lola/Laura Maravilla said...

Fantastic! And, FYI, when I was using food stamps, they were the fake looking money in the picture. And we made it through just fine.

SpecK said...

girl, i love how you stand up in this world.

Anonymous said...

Love googling what to put in the fridge - lol!!! xo Jen

Gloria said...

so glad I found your blog Jess, its quite refreshing for me being new (or returning...) to fairfield county :)

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