Parenting The Funk of Poverty
My poverty is the most dangerous kind of poverty. It is religious. This is what I know, what my family and community know.
I tried explaining to the welfare office that I was working to survive and after all was spent on rent and diapers there was nothing left for food. The employee’s eyes rolled over my Kate Spade bag and back to her computer screen.
“Hol’ on,” she said as her acrylic nails cut into the keyboard.
The baby was lying against my chest and the tapping sound started to put her to sleep. Her fat toes and chocolate legs dangled out from a yellow dress. She was the only light in the dull office. She often falls asleep to keystrokes all the nights I have stayed awake next to her in bed, fixing one of my essays to send to an editor. An essay I wrote over a year ago before I was a mother and a domestic violence survivor. Before I needed an attorney or food stamps. Back when writing was religion.
“Ma’am, I need an attorney more than I need food or formula because those things will be pointless if we are dead.” I imagine us dead more than I should. The Black woman at the welfare office gave me her stone eyes. I knew those eyes. She had seen women like me, and I knew she could not help me. She is me: a working woman who cannot afford to bend the rules.
Before I started working a remote job to pay for a lawyer—because I’m in a custody battle—I was unemployed and motherhood was my job. My attorney was a white man who told me he had come across “women like me” often. I believed this meant he could save me. My attorney said courts usually don’t take children from their mothers. For a $5,000 retainer, he promised nothing more than what was routine.
The new job wasn’t paying me what I was worth before I had this baby, but I took it anyway. My mother taught me to say yes to money, all kinds of money. However, the welfare office said I made too much money for food assistance. I was so mad I cried while walking back to the waiting area. The haunting sound of nails against the keyboard echoed while I rocked the sleeping baby against my heaving chest. My tears christened her forehead. In that moment, I wished I was still unemployed, so maybe then I wouldn’t have wasted my whole day at the welfare office with a baby in my arms. Instead I was a desperate woman who could only produce less than two ounces of breastmilk, looking for milk and a miracle.
I know someone who makes fake pay stubs. They can take the numbers on my time sheet and turn them upside down, flip around my hours so the welfare office believes I’m barely working. I was tempted to walk out and call them but something had my sandals stuck to the floor. We pull rabbits from hats is what my mom always said. Having learned other ways to get money—the swift flip of an open leg or telling a sweet lie to a thirsting man—we never stayed down long. But now I had a newborn baby. So new she still smelled like hospital linen.
I was a little girl last time I was in the welfare office, holding my mom’s hand, her asking my sisters and me to look sad and hungry. It was fun then, all a game of following the leader. We watched my mom with confidence, knowing we had never seen anyone deny her anything. Looking back on these moments, I realize what makes my mother and me different. She had no shame about doing what she needed to do to feed us. And I have shame, a lot of it. My whole life has consisted of excelling—I have worked in corporate America and earned two college degrees. My pride jilted me from becoming my mother.
In the welfare office lobby, I texted my sisters, the younger one and older one, asking them both, Can I borrow some money, promise I will pay you back, and I need milk for the baby . My texting stirred the baby’s eyes open only for her to close them again. Baby can sleep through anything: My cries and screams as I ran away from her dad, the strategy calls with my attorney and my frustrated remarks after he pandered for more money, the cries at the welfare office.
The woman called me back to her desk to reconfirm that my food stamp application was denied and there was nothing else they could do to help. My mouth was hot with a curse but I swallowed it instead. That night while the baby was sleeping, I finished revising the essay with heavy eyes. My younger sister texted me back, sorry, don’t got no money either, go sign up for WIC .
Sometimes poverty is a gift. A push. The money from the essay would buy Baby Girl more diapers, pay a bill, or, better, buy us some groceries. This essay could land me an agent to keep me from becoming nameless and voiceless in debt, in grief, in bed with a baby. I grieved the dream that died after she was born—that a man and a woman who make a baby can live happily ever after. The dream that I would not turn out to be a single mother like my own.
When I was growing up, my mother told me the government owes Black people money and because they will not give it to us, we have to take it. She took us to food pantries and thrift stores on the nicer sides of Columbus to better our chances of stumbling into name-brand clothing so we would not be picked on at school. She worked general-labor jobs that slowed down in the winter months, so her social worker at the welfare office would keep our food stamp amount high and our electricity bills low. I collected the things I saw her do in order to survive later. Writing was not one of them. When I was growing up, my mother told me the government owes Black people money and because they will not give it to us, we have to take it.
My sister and I became masters at the games she played to get money. By the time I was a teenager, I fell into a relationship with a man who taught me how to bag weed and weigh it on the scale—a poverty bond that I thought was love. We were both products of a single-parent home. Both fatherless.
He would come get me after school, and we would sit for hours and break down the ounces while listening to Lil Wayne mixtapes, bagging his supply at his aunt’s kitchen table. I would sit calmly breaking down the trees into sandwich baggies, doing my best to balance my feet on the legs on the chair so as to not touch the ground. His aunt’s house was infested with roaches, so bad that we shook ourselves before getting back into his car. I formed a skin for perseverance. I learned how to not confuse love with money. I was there because he told me he loved me, and even though I believe he did, I remembered I was there because I never left empty-handed.
But after leaving the welfare office, my bank account was saying I only had enough to pay for electricity. Now I know why Mama used to say keeping the lights on was a gift, but I remember all the ways she reacted when our lights were cut off or when we faced an eviction. “Turn my shit on, motherfuckers, before I get your motherfucking ass fired, y’all ain’t gonna have my babies in the dark!” she would yell. I was scared to ever be that angry. That alone. Unlike my mother, I have found silence—a way to crawl into myself and stay there until I feel safe. And I never feel safe. My child’s father taught me that silence was a killer. He would scream at me in a jealous rage and my silence would intensify his tantrum. I would run into the closet in the bathroom and balance my journal on my pregnant belly. Even my journal entries were written in whispers, all prayers and small musings on my insufferable days in Texas away from my family during the pandemic.
I got up early the next morning and fed my baby the only two scoops of formula left, then said a prayer and called the welfare office. They placed me on hold for two hours. While I was on hold, I got an email from the editor who told me my essay was full of the funk of poverty and not its flowers. They sent me excerpts from Toni Morrison and advised me that the secret to writing trauma is to byplay painful vignettes with lighthearted prose of hope. I reviewed the essay to see if I could smell anything, any funk.
The essay was about my mother, one I wrote before I was a mother. A representative from the welfare office finally took me off hold only to tell me my application would not be approved unless I was unemployed. “So I have to quit my job just to get some food?” The representative responded, “Yes.” “Fuck you, dumb motherfucker!” I screamed, “Cut my food card back on! My baby has no more formula!” I screamed. She waited and the next person who came on the phone was a manager. They told me the same thing. Before I could respond, the baby cried herself awake and I joined in. I realized I had become my mother, or maybe just a mother, who happened to be angry, very angry, and very alone.
I have never met a happy mother. All the mothers I know are crazed, tired, or selfishly dragging themselves away from their children. My biggest fear is becoming those types of mothers. The types of women who forget their dreams or, worse, stop dreaming altogether. My mother never told me her dreams, and once she told me that she did not have any. She would come home from work and cook us dinner, drink herself a beer, and fall asleep. I stayed up late into the night in Google Docs, approving suggestions that didn’t fit my original vision. Only for the editor to tell me that it still was not good enough.
The same day the editor emailed the rejection, my oldest sister stopped by and lent me money for the attorney. This was the first time she had given me—her little sister with two college degrees and a New York City lifestyle—money for anything. That morning she handed me her food stamp card to buy the baby’s formula. One can of formula costs thirty dollars. I shook my head.
“I have sold pussy for less,” I said.
She laughed, “Fuck formula, pussy will get you and the baby a ticket out of here.”
A moment of silence passed between us before she said, “But I know you’re beyond that.”
There are things my mother did that only her drinking and smoking have told me. When she visited, she took slow drags from her joint and sipped from her can of beer out on my patio, things I did not want around my baby. But she was one of the few people helping me, so I watched her make funny faces against the glass as my daughter pressed her chunkiness against the door. “Patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man,” she sang as my baby laughed and blew wet air.
I sat at my desk while the baby played with Mama. I opened the email from the editor and searched for places I could put flowers. I remembered my ex telling me all I write about is depressing stuff. Years later, my professor will tell me I am honest, and honesty is often painful.
I opened the email from the editor and searched for places I could put flowers.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this poor. I reminded Mama about the time we lived in the homeless shelter on Cleveland Avenue.
“You loved the shelter, thought it was the best place in the world,” she told me.
I looked at her quizzically.
“It was safe,” she confirmed.
I looked at the baby, her leg rolls like Tootsie Roll candies. That was all I wanted, for her to be safe. And safety was expensive.
“Why you got to live in these fancy-ass apartments?” my mother spatted.
She started her lecture on my bougieness. How she didn’t raise me this way. “Remember where you come from,” she ended. “Don’t be too proud.” I wanted the gated community, because anything with a gate made me feel closed off from the outside world and no one without the gate code was allowed in. My mother didn’t understand because we never lived in a gated or safe community. We were forged in the open, which was why living in New York was so easy for me. But somewhere between having a baby and becoming a victim in court, I lost my fondness for open city living.
My mother cried the day I told her I was moving to New York nine years ago, when I was only twenty-one. She had watched too much Law & Order: SVU and did not believe that I would be safe. She begged me to stay in Ohio where the leaves fall on time and the crime is familiar and relative. She didn’t know the weight of my success after graduating as a first-generation college graduate. She didn’t know I had met a man, Silk, who was ten years older than me and had taken me all around the East Coast dealing drugs. In her eyes, I was her golden child, the one who got away, the one she never had to worry about.
The day I returned from New York to Ohio with my infant daughter, my mother kissed me. I was back home like she had asked all those years ago. I escaped the abuse in Texas with the clothes on my back—I’d met a one-night stand who was so charming that I packed up my New York life and moved south to try my hand at a family. But after everything she taught me about survival and safety, she advised me to return to him. Not because she thought he was safe, but so I would have somewhere for my baby and I to lay our heads.
When I was twenty-two, enrolled at The City College of New York, and working for H&M, I was the brokest I had ever been. My Brooklyn boyfriend was out of town doing Lord knows what, so the breakup came in a text I sent him: I don’t want to do this anymore. I need more of the emotional shit, and I know you can’t do that . When he returned, I had moved on to someone named Luis, a Honduran boy with locs who worked in construction. Someone who rode the subway with me from Brooklyn to Harlem from my night class. Unlike my ex, he did not scam credit cards or sell drugs; he was legitimate, and we were in love. I fell hard and fast for him all because he worked steady, made me laugh, and drank canned beer like my mom. He felt safe.
As I walked to my apartment, I saw Silk’s BMW parked on the street. He rolled down the window and told me I owed him some pussy. I thought of how Mama told me, “Ain’t nothing free in the world. Everyone has a price.” I gave him some, and he gave me money for rent. We didn’t have to say we would never see each other again after that—the money was his way of saying sorry. The sex was goodbye. That night, I inhaled the oily peppermint on Luis’s dreadlocks and held it in like smoke.
My poverty is the most dangerous kind of poverty. It is religious. This is what I know, what my family and community know. In the middle of my imagination, I am a girl who will always be homeless, but in reality, I am an educated Black woman who rents an apartment in Downtown Columbus. Trying to outrun poverty has cost me a piece of my soul. A piece that needs rent more than it needs to be loved.
My sister took me to the grocery store. The formula was kept up front behind the glass cabinet near the cigarettes.
“I used to steal formula all the time,” she said while we were waiting for the cashier to give us a can.
I saw a boy that looked like my child’s father and froze. My sister asked me when I would stop being afraid of him.
“When I’m full again,” I said.
That evening, I shook in the baby’s formula with purified water and what was left of my breast milk. The doctors told me it would start to dry up in time, and when that happened, I shouldn’t overthink it. My ability to feed my baby what was left of my well felt disgraceful. I imagined myself fuller had I not been abused or afraid, and stronger, after just having a baby. She was between crawling and standing up. I gave her a warm bottle and placed her inside her playpen as the sun set.
I sat down at my computer and began to email the editor. My response to them was simple: I have no flowers. I only have the funk of poverty. There is only one way to write trauma, which is to write it. With my infant sucking thirstingly out of her bottle, the smells of baby powder, and a budding fall season outside, I thought of the flower that could be blooming. But this was not what I wanted to say to the editor. It was not what was important. What mattered to me now was the suction of pumps and a mouth. My baby’s life. I was a single parent without food stamps and my mind was rushing to the weekend, when this can of formula would be gone. Searching for flowers in my work was like that cop who searched me and my ex-boyfriend back in Brooklyn for drugs. They were there, but only I knew where.