Congratulations on your job offer. For three years, you’ve been parenting as a single graduate student, borrowing money from the government to pay for childcare and living expenses. I am sure you will use the next few years to breathe, write, raise your child, and generally be lulled into the false security that is middle class individualism. You may even use money to assuage your guilt that you were never one of the women with whom you walked for three years, but your benevolence won’t change the system that creates their need. Lest you be tempted to invest in the preservation of the American dream, I want to remind you of the realities you witnessed while standing at the margins.
1. Remember your daughter’s favorite food: grapes, which are also an extravagance. Before you even think of preaching the virtues of healthy, organic eating, remember the price of grapes and the internalized calculator that prioritizes quantity over quality. Food, after all, is one of the things that had to stretch between stipend checks.
2. Remember WIC. Remember the wailing babies, their fingers pricked for compulsory tests; the nurses who called numbers rather than names. Remember the lactation consultant who planned your family for you. “Make sure you don’t have any more babies,” she’d said, “With one you can still make it.”
3. Remember Medicaid, forms, and coverage that ends on the first birthday no matter the cardiologist’s schedule. Hours after your daughter’s heart surgery, you were informed that your coverage had expired. You’d mailed your enrollment form for the next level of state-funded insurance two days too late. Don’t ever forget the evangelical Medicaid officer who told you that if you believed in God, you wouldn’t be sobbing over a medical bill. Couldn’t the god who turned water to wine turn dust to dollars—thousands of them? Remember wondering why her god hadn’t granted her the power to make an exception.
4. Remember Head Start. The prospect of a free program seemed promising, especially as your school loans soared toward six digits. Then came observation day. A toddler boy was accused of stealing and his teenage caregiver snatched a pretend dollar from his pocket as if the money were real and hers. Remember the rolled eyes at the front desk and the caregivers who spoke to children as if their parents couldn’t afford to object.
5. Remember Christmas and the small pile of gifts that you were embarrassed to place under the tree. The most expensive toys you bought now lie around the house, neglected in favor of a one-dollar fishing net your daughter uses to collect other dollar-store items like pencils, bracelets and plastic cups. Remember that your guilt was media-manufactured, all part of Christmas with a capitalist “C.”
6. Remember the Salvation Army and the Summer of Overdue Bills. The utilities assistance program only took appointments on Wednesday mornings between the hours of nine and ten. The pantry was open, so you struggled to balance the stroller with the bags of canned and boxed items that were high in sodium and low in nutrition. You realized that the adage “Beggars can’t be choosy” may apply to fur coats, but not food. Remember your certainty that access to healthy food shouldn’t be one of the things that money can buy.
7. Remember community. Remember the friends who called with dinner invitations, the ones who refused payment for babysitting, and the ones who pushed a mop and broom across your kitchen floor as you nursed your sick-again baby. One day, you may have the means to make your family a small, suburban island. Please don’t; there are too many other ways to live. There are co-ops and farmers’ markets, community action groups and a newfangled contraption called a phone. You press numbers and a member of your community says “Hello.” Wash, rinse, repeat.
8. Remember pride. In working toward equity, don’t make the same assumptions of those who pretend to “give voice” to people who have always been speaking. The oppressed need allies, not leaders. Listen more than you speak.
9. Remember small miracles. Carry cash like the man at church who passed you a tithing envelope with $20 and this note, “Your daughter has made my day with her beautiful smile. Please use this to buy her something good to eat.” You bought grapes.
10. Finally, remember the joy that money can’t buy. Remember the story your father frequently told about his family’s first Christmas in their new house. Money was spare, so he woke to the gift of an orange and a coloring book. Spoiled and incredulous, you’d asked him what he did. “I ate it,” he said. “It was sweet.”