She was harshly criticized for not taking full time work, but she knew what was best for her little boy.
When my ex-husband and I divorced my economic situation took an abrupt downturn. My son and I moved from a luxurious home in an affluent suburb to a small apartment in a blue collar neighborhood. Our new home had none of the frills and extra amenities like the home we left behind. It was elbow-cracking small, the unreliable air conditioning made it heavy with heat in the Texas summers, and the neighbors were sometimes sketchy. But it was the best my budget could afford.
My son and I went from being part of the upper class to living below the poverty level. We didn’t go out to eat or take vacations anymore. I paid cash for a car that I had to drive with my fingers crossed that it would make it to our destination. Things that used to be a regular part of our budget, like a gym membership and weekend movie outings, became luxuries. Now we could only afford most of the basics, most of the time.
I hadn’t worked full time since my marriage. After the divorce, I could have. Many people let it be clearly known that they thought I should have. My son, they said, didn’t deserve to have his standard of living change like it did. They believed I should have put him in daycare and returned to the workforce full time. But I knew that doing that would exact a price much higher than the disappointment of not going to the movie theater or the neighborhood pizza place.
When my son was an infant, just learning to pull himself up and creep along low level furniture, he was mauled by a dog. The animal, a golden retriever three times his size, sunk its teeth into both sides of my boy’s head and threw him, effortlessly, into the air. That moment, forever etched into my brain, changed my son from a confident, happy little boy into an anxious, uncertain one. It was as if his life was cracked in half: before the mauling, when he was carefree in a world that was his playground, and after the mauling, when he felt unsafe anywhere but in my arms.
My son did not quickly recover his belief that he’s safe in the world separate from me. He is better now, but in those years after the divorce he was still recovering his confidence in himself and his ability to navigate through life. His one safe place was in our little apartment with me by his side. Even with other family members he felt exposed. He had no tolerance for strangers or unfamiliar environments.
Putting my son in daycare would have cost him more than sadness about not going out to eat anymore. He didn’t need a restaurant-made pizza. He did need to spend as much time as possible in an environment where he felt safe. Putting him into daycare for 40 to 50 hours a week would have undermined the hard work we’d both put into restoring his self-confidence.
Instead of taking a job that would have required my son being under someone else’s care for the bulk of the work week, I took a job I could do from home, on my own schedule. While the income did allow me to buy a reliable car and increase our weekly food budget, it still left us living on an income below the federal poverty level.
But I was home with my son when he struggled through panic attacks or was barely functional during the day because he hadn’t slept the night before due to nightmares and anxiety. He wasn’t with other caregivers trying to wrestle with those challenges on his own because he couldn’t trust them to keep him safe.
Financial poverty was my choice. I made it because I knew that being in daycare would take emotional health from my son that no amount of money could replace. I never asked anyone else to be responsible for my choice though. We never received public assistance. There were a few times when I went to a local food bank because my court-ordered support payments lagged behind. But other than those few times, I didn’t ask anyone to bear the cost of my choosing poverty.
I was still judged, sometimes harshly, for that decision. Our society can set very limiting norms for determining what is and is not acceptable parenting behavior. We are told that the choice of being poor is one made by lazy parents who would rather not have to work than provide a good life for their children. Somehow we have equated living above the poverty line with the preferred place to raise children. The two are not mutually exclusive
Children need more than money and the things that money can buy. They do have a right to having their basic needs met; housing, clothing, food, education and medical care. But they also require love, guidance and protection. When mothers and fathers cannot provide those, no amount of money can fill the aching loss a child feels. Why do we find it more acceptable for a parent to be emotionally unavailable to their son or daughter than we do for a parent to choose to live below the poverty line?
My choice was never the popular one. But it was the right one. It gave my son the safe space he needed to regain his footing. His counselor educated me in ways to help him navigate his anxiety. When he was wringing wet with fear I was there to talk him through his overwhelming feelings. Those were the benefits of our living in financial poverty.
As my son’s health improved I increased my number of hours worked. Slowly, we crept into the lower middle class then into the true middle class. I’m now able to provide him with the newly released video games or a trip to the movie theater. If I had chosen to return to work full time and place him in daycare I doubt those luxuries would have meant much to him. Now, as a teenage boy who became healthy in a financially impoverished but emotionally rich home, he can fully enjoy them along with his restored sense of confidence in himself and the goodness of the world.
Photo: Flickr/Kelly Sikkema