child support battles, fear, lessons, mothering, poverty

on being resilient without wanting to be

It’s been so long since I reached the end of my rope, I don’t even remember what its frayed ends felt like as I tried desperately to hang on. I don’t even remember why I tried to hang on for so long. Frankly, I don’t even remember what I feels like to have a rope to hang on to. These days, I have only scraps of pretty ribbons friends are generous enough to throw in my direction, and as immensely grateful as I am for those scraps (and as beautiful and precious they may be), their brief presence in my life serves as a stark and harsh reminder of all I have lost, all that has been stolen from me, and the choices I have made that have led me to the place I am today.

***

Somehow I’ve gotten a subscription to Real Simple. I don’t know how; it just started appearing in my P.O. Box. As with all magazines I receive, I tear out the articles I want to save and recycle the rest of it. This month, a piece appeared on how to be more resilient. I had to laugh to myself when I came upon it, since “resilient” is often what my therapist calls me when I’m practically on her floor sobbing and feel as though I’m about to have a nervous breakdown. She says I’m always able to bounce back from the “challenges” I face and have an uncanny knack for figuring out how to get out of scrapes and tight spots. I don’t disagree. I don’t allow myself to wallow for too long (although sometimes I’m encountering so many roadblocks it feels as though I’m wallowing rather often), and somehow I always do seem to figure things out. I’m scrappy and resourceful and nothing seems to scare me (for too long, anyhow). And even though I cry a lot, it’s a natural reaction for an human being when faced with the sorts of burdens that have been placed on my shoulders.

That being said: I sure as hell sometimes (okay, often) don’t want to be resilient.

There are many times I wish I were the kind of person who crumbled under pressure, who fell apart when things became unbearable, who had a nervous breakdown when life got difficult. Maybe then my father or brother would call more often. Maybe then people would worry more about me. Maybe then my son’s father would be a little more sympathetic. Maybe then things would be, well, easier? different? I don’t know. I imagine they wouldn’t be what they are now, with everyone assuming I’m okay and I will be okay because I’ve always been okay. But what if I’m not okay? What if I won’t be okay? How will they know? How will I know? How will anyone know?

***

I’m in a bad place financially, and not for lack of trying. I worked about 160 hours over three weeks between two jobs. I thought I’d be bringing in about $2,000. Think again. It was about half that. Anyone want to guess why? If you guessed “child support snafu,” you’d be right.

The second job (which I work every year) had an old, old child support order (from 2009). And the first job mistakenly withheld twice the amount. So in half a month, I paid almost three times the amount I’m court-ordered to pay in an entire month. The money I did bring in went entirely toward keeping my things in storage out of auction status. If I didn’t have ex-boyfriends, friends, and dog-sitting gigs providing free lodging throughout the month of May, I’d literally be on the street. The money I’m due to earn over the next two weeks will go primarily toward my phone bill, leaving me about $27 for food in the entire month of May.

I have no problem paying child support. But it’s not supposed to be to the extent where it makes me homeless and hungry. It’s been doing that for years now. But, hey, I’m resilient. One day this will be the lesson I pass down to my sons. It’s the only lesson I can garner out of it myself.

***

From last night until Sunday (when I leave for a stint in New Haven), I’m staying at an ex’s place. He’s been generous over the past few months, letting me stay at his place a few days here and there. This time around it’s in the capacity of dog-sitter as he goes out of town. I’m happy to do it; he has a nice place in Brooklyn that’s away from the bustle of Manhattan. But it’s also easy to isolate here, to hole up and binge-watch The Americans and retreat into myself. Which is what I’ve especially been doing since 3am, when I checked for my pay stub online and found out about the latest child support snafu and realized the extent of my financial woes.

Here’s what happens when I realize I won’t have money for food, when I realize I’ll be back on the austerity diet that has people marveling at how wonderful I look now that I’ve lost so much weight and I want to punch them in the face: I immediately stop eating and start crying. Then I get a headache and start drinking water, thinking that if I hydrate really well, I can trick my body into thinking I’m not hungry. When that doesn’t work, I try eating cereal (usually oatmeal, but whatever is in the house will work). Then, around 8pm, I’ll begrudgingly go to the store and allow myself to spend $5. I’ll walk around for an hour sometimes, calculating the best way to get the most for my $5; tonight my calculations alternated with thoughts of wanting to find the person who wrote that Real Simple article and asking her if she had ever been in a grocery store figuring out how to eat for the next four days on $5 and whether she thought this was an act of resilience or despair. I decided I was just very hungry.

My biggest score was a pack of eight “damaged” apples for 99¢. (They also had decent-sized frozen pizzas for 79¢ and cake mix for 50¢, so I “splurged” on some junk food.) But I was able to get veggies and rice and beans and tortillas and cheese, plus bread and PB&J, and there are already eggs here, so I’ll be okay. Yep. All that for $6 (so I went a little over).

But then I got back and took one out one of the apples and started slicing off the rotten parts, and the knife was so sharp and it was so easy.

And I started looking around my ex’s apartment. The knife was just part of it all.

He’s fairly successful; he owns his own business, a graduate of MIT. We get along well enough. We didn’t break up because we were incompatible. It was because he didn’t want to be monogamous anymore. I guess I wasn’t enough.

***

When I was married to my first husband, I got pregnant unexpectedly. How I ended up not pregnant is a different story. Suffice it to say he wasn’t happy about it. It was more than 25 years ago, but I still remember the snarl and sneer in his voice when he told me he didn’t want the baby, when he said that if I became a mother that “one day, [he’d] be successful and stable, and [I’d] be struggling in the gutter.”

Thanks to social media, I know what his life today looks like. He married the woman he swore he wasn’t cheating on me with. They have a young daughter and look happy. He appears to have the sort of suburban-dad life I think he would have made great fun of many years ago. The entire gang of people we hung out with back then has that kind of life. They’re all still friends, in the suburbs, with their kids (ages 4-12), going to Cubs games and drinking beer while BBQing on the weekends.

By all external measures, he’s successful and stable. In comparison, I’m struggling. I’m in the gutter.

Is he really the one who “won,” though? I wouldn’t trade his life for mine, but I do sometimes wonder if I’m missing a gene, a piece of my mind that would make me happy with settling. I’d bet that he would say he’s gotten the better deal, too, though. If there’s one thing I can say for sure, it’s that certain men in my past never tire of making me feel like I belong in the gutter, whether I’m there or not.

***

Paring the apple, cutting away the rotten parts, the knife that sliced so easily, I really felt for the apple. How many times were there men who convinced me to cut away parts of myself? Others, who did the cutting themselves? Still others whose knives were so clean and sharp that I didn’t even feel it until it was too late?

And now: some days (sometimes it seems like most days) I feel as though I’m nothing but rotten parts. As though the past few months have ruined me, have worn me down to the point past which no resilience is possible. At some point the bough doesn’t bounce back; it simply breaks.

***

Some people have asked me if my son’s father might return some of the overpaid child support. This is a fantastic question. As in “a fantasy.” When, in mediation, I was given the opportunity to share my feelings about his indifferent behavior toward me, the mediator asked him what he thought about what I had said, he replied, with a sneer not unlike the one my first husband had used some 15 years before, “she’s said it all before, only now she has an audience.”

I’m sure he sees whatever public complaint I have regarding child support to be the same. He’s heard it all before; you are all merely now my audience.

***

My plans were to be in New Haven until May 26, and then to return to the city for dog-sitting. From there I have a silent retreat, and then I was hoping to take a train to LA to visit an old friend before heading back to Chicago for my son’s 8th-grade graduation. But this financial business throws all of that into question. I don’t know what I’ll do. If I don’t know how I’ll be eating for the next two weeks, how can I confidently say where I’ll be traveling? There are some work exchanges I can set up, but they’re all during time frames for after my son is already in summer camp. How I’ll hold on that long is anyone’s guess. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with being resilient, even though I sure as hell would give anything not to have to be for a change.

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