I remember having existential problems once; or, as they’re hashtagged on Twitter, “#FirstWorldProblems”—finding my purpose in life, learning to believe in myself, and the other kinds of struggles that can be Photoshopped on top of a nature image and posted on Facebook. Now that I’ve offended every inspirational-quote-nature-photo-meme-poster (sorry!), I’d like to clarify that I think Maslow’s hierarchy is spot-on. We worry about esteem and self-actualization not because we’re selfish and morally corrupt but because the other components of the pyramid are stable beneath our feet.
Most likely, if you’re anything like me, you’ve never been really poor. My mother always said we were poor, but of course, we weren’t. We didn’t spend extravagantly, and my mother was always employed. I’m sure that the ice was thin after she divorced my father, but she never let me know the whole truth. We lived the typical middle-class existence consisting of a house payment, a car payment and stopping on the way home to pick up pretty much anything we wanted. Big requests like a new computer or an expensive musical instrument appeared eventually and without much fanfare.
When my mother was alive, she pushed me to choose a career that would make me financially solvent. The equation was spelled out for me: College degree + proven industry = lifelong security. Of course, my top career choices were to be either musician or a writer, and the 18-year-old me thought she was a Philistine for suggesting a practical career. However, I didn’t have the guts to completely cross her, so I got a degree in music…education. I graduated from college at 21, and I was not emotionally mature enough for public education. I lasted two-and-a-half years before I started having a big “what do I want to do with my life” existential crisis. During those years, I married someone who seemed like the sort of man you could count on; the responsible, agreeable sort.
The “who am I” existential crisis always hummed at a low frequency, even though I played the role of suburban conformity. I started working everyone knows where at a job that I didn’t love but that offered steady pay. I had two sons and purchased a home in a nondescript neighborhood where I lived out Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” until I couldn’t take it anymore. I quit my job, with the encouragement of my always-agreeable husband who was doing a superb job of appearing to be happy, started working as a freelance writer and began my master’s degree. We bought a reasonably priced used car. Then, the agreeable (and apparently unhappy) husband was gone. Poof. Yep. Just like that.
When you start a life of self-employment, you should either start gradually or start when you’re sitting on a big fat pile of savings. I didn’t. Things got paid for with credit cards with the belief that everything would turn around and I’d have no problem paying it back. As soon as my husband left, I called a credit counselor. I called my mortgage company and tried to work with them. I looked for new clients and found some, and I no longer concerned myself with whether they were rude or whether the jobs were what I wanted—as long as they paid the bills. I sent out resumes for more predicable work, even though nothing came of my search. I stopped asking the existential questions and started asking, “How can I keep food on the table and a roof over my kids’ heads?”
My husband decided to find himself outside of our marriage, and he took his health insurance with him. I had to make some hard choices: Pay the mortgage, or pay for pre-K? I chose to pay for pre-K both to give my youngest son the best possible start—the kind of start that every kid deserves, rich or poor—and to ensure that I could keep working so that we could eat. My ex-husband pays his support payments faithfully, but his income and mine aren’t enough to maintain two homesteads. I do shell out the occasional $10 so that my son can have a book from his school’s book fair and not feel terrified that we have nothing. Saving $10 per month isn’t going to pay my mortgage, but it’s enough to beat back the bony hand of scarcity when it reaches for my kids.
The “we’re too poor” nonsense of my childhood has turned into bouts of sheer panic. Most hours of the day, I feel optimistic. My bank balance is growing, and child care payments are about to end. However, I have no resources for the unexpected. Such as visiting the ER this week (complete with ambulance ride and ultrasound) and discovering that because of an Access Health CT glitch, I may have made that visit without health insurance. For now, we live paycheck-to-paycheck in that lower middle class void between public assistance and a savings account.
Sometimes, I feel like I’m extending myself around my sons like a shield, trying to block out reality for as long as I can. And no, Phyllis Schlafly, the Man Brigade isn’t coming, and frankly, I don’t blame them. What man in his right mind would open a joint bank account with me at this point? If one offered, I wouldn’t marry him. I’d question his sanity. If I could talk to my mother–the woman, not the mom–I’d tell her that now I understand why she never wanted me to depend on any man for money, even if that man, by all appearances, should seem both responsible and agreeable.
Not all, but some of the people in our society that judge the poor harshly also brandish the Bible like a blunt instrument while they wail about “personal responsibility.” I suppose that Job could have saved more for a rainy day, or he could have told his sons and daughters that they couldn’t go to that party (you know, the one where the house collapsed on them and they all died because God felt like their dad needed a stress test). Or perhaps the real lesson of Job is, “Shit happens. Who are you to judge?”
Like Job, I made the middle class, everyday choices (okay, Job was rich—this is literary license) that seemed okay at the time. Then, shit happened. I’ll work my way out of it, and I’ll respect myself a lot once I have. The panic will lessen, the gaps in Maslow’s hierarchy will fill up and my brain, with nothing real to worry about, might drift back to those existential problems. For now, they seem really stupid and shallow, like all of the judgments I used to make about poor people.
And when I look back over these years, I think I’ll see that the path to real self-actualization began when I stopped trying to talk myself into having self-esteem and started giving myself a reason to have it.