"On the plains of Oklahoma, with a windshield sunset in your eyes like a watercolor painted sky, you'd think heavens doors have opened."
Fly Over States

Friday, October 10, 2008

Surviving in Hard Times

I think Evelyn looks like a penguin in this picture!

I had a home visit, recently, with a parent whose husband had been ordered out of the home pursuant to a protective order after a violent incident. I suspect the incident, itself, was not all that violent or substantially any different than what had been going on for years. However, it was the straw the broke the camel’s back. It was a long term marriage with several children, and the half grown and nearly grown children had been urging their mother to “do” something, for years. Now that she had taken the first legal step, they were rallying around her in support. I am their guardian ad litem.

When I drove up to the house, a large, well kept home in a nice neighborhood, I was ten minutes early. I used the time to check my voice mail and the mother had left a teary message that her husband had turned off the water, power and telephone, so she was borrowing a neighbor’s cell to call and let me know how to get hold of her. I sat in my car for a couple of minutes pondering what tone to take. I’d not yet met the children, didn’t know their personalities and at that point, was relying on my assessment of the situation strictly on the filed legal documents and one telephone conversation with the mother the previous day.

After I made up my mind, I called the mother on her borrowed cell from the car and she answered with a trembling voice. “SO,” sez I, laughing, “it’s comes to this, has it? You have been reduced to sitting around in a hot house plotting to steal water from the neighbor’s water hose?”

I think I picked the right tone because she laughed, crying at the same time.

I spent most of the visit talking to the kids while Mom fluttered about in the next room on the borrowed cell begging to get the utilities turned back on (I wish she had done this outside the kids’ hearing). Although the house was beautifully decorated with many exquisite touches and expensive furniture, she needed $33.00 that she didn’t have to turn on the water. I recall thinking to myself that it sucks to be in that situation. And as I looked at the children, all high school and near college age, and all college material, I felt my own budding sense of panic on her behalf. Kids that age cost a lot of money. In addition to the marriage falling apart, their business had failed and the mother was unemployed although trying to find a job.

By all accounts, the husband was a “take charge” kind of man who ruled the roost. He also controlled the purse strings, paid the bills and had most of the property in his name. The mother was now being thrust into a situation she was not experienced in handling. The children were good hearted but a bit spoiled (and what teenager is not, these days?). They had no idea what is reasonable (and what isn’t) when it comes to teenage expenditures. The father, although I had not yet spoken to him, probably felt like his whole reason for getting up in the morning (to take care of his family) had disappeared. I have learned that some of the worst sons of bitches on an interpersonal level often really do take that responsibility to heart.

A lot (although certainly not all) primary wage earners will yank the financial rug completely out from under their family if things aren’t done on their terms. Definitely an all or nothing attitude. The fact is, a lot of them frequently end up with twice the expenses and their own share of panic about how they are possibly going to pay all those bills. Deserved or not, they may have been put out of the house with no place to go. If they have been the primary wage earner, many of them take that very seriously and are painfully aware that there are only so may hours in the day they can possibly work. Their attitude frequently is that you can’t possibly get blood from a turnip and if their spouse put them out of THEIR house and called the police on them, that spouse can gosh darned get out there and find out what it is like to have to work for a living in the real world. He thinks, “She never appreciated how hard I worked in the first place – take, take, take – that is all she ever did!” (you can switch the genders depending on the situation).

And the spouse with the kids? I have found that there tends to be a definite lag in understanding that the world has shifted on its financial axis. Sometimes she (less commonly “he”) has a deer in the headlight look of shock that the money has dried up. Alternatively, she may be infuriated that the b*stard is not providing her with the same lifestyle as before the breakup (ignoring that their regular expenses have more than doubled, perhaps, and he is also paying for an expensive attorney). It is not that they don’t understand on a theoretical level that the money situation has changed, but emotionally, practically and routinely, they aren’t there yet. That starbucks coffee they always picked up on the way home from the gym was such a tiny part of their previous budget that to face that they simply can’t afford it, anymore, is simply shocking.

The truth is that after a divorce in a long-term marriage, the parties MAY lose their home. If the kids are in private school, they may have to go to public school. The activities the kids are used to being part of may become too expensive. College may be delayed, especially in these tough financial times. A forced sell of their home in this market often devastates their largest asset. For a time, a solidly middle class family may find itself to be… poor. It is a horrible shock and nearly impossible, in the short run, for the affected parties to grasp.

Many try to continue their previous level of spending and are very bitter as reality settles in. There is a feeling that they are being deprived, that something has gone “wrong,” that this should not be happening the way it has. Surely, they could make the changes that need to be made within the family without all this horror. Their children have no realistic concept of what things cost and, unfortunately, the custodial parent often paints a picture that their father (or mother) is to “blame” for their financial woes. Sometimes it is true, often their newly entered poverty status is just the reality of the situation.

Poverty is something that many of us perceive as something that happens to a certain economic class of people and that it is relatively static. We think of poor people as the ones who live in the projects or on the streets, or perhaps encompasses new immigrants stacked on top of each other in flop houses. Statistics, however, show that poverty, for most people, is transient. It is the natural order for many individuals to go through periods of poverty from time to time. When poverty statistics are compiled, they also include the student, the newly married, the newly divorced, single parents, the young working their first job, parents with many children still in the home, and those individuals recuperating from illnesses and injuries. Some of these individuals remain at the poverty level, but most don’t, even if they never become wealthy. After a period of regrouping, gaining an education or training, longer time on the job, marriage, inheritance, a better job, a move to a location with a lower cost of living, the children moving out the house, their economic prospects change, frequently for the better although, obviously, sometimes for the worst.

Surviving tough economic circumstances is not particularly pleasant but being realistic is an essential part if you want to thrive. I lived in poverty for years after having been raised in a well off family. When I was sixteen years old, I became pregnant. My family did not approve of my beau and were devastated that I had gotten myself in this predicament. They eventually agreed to allow us to marry but refused to pay for a wedding or a wedding gown. Because of that, I looked in the community newspaper and found a little old widow lady who supported herself by sewing. I took her a light blue dress I’d worn at a friend’s wedding and she said she thought she could add some lace to make it into a wedding gown. It wasn’t white but maybe I didn’t deserve a white gown (it was a different time when a young lady in that situation was fully aware that she’d messed up, big-time!).

I ended up talking to the old lady for awhile and told her my story. She listened, graciously, and then she looked me in the eye and she said, “I lived through the Depression. Those were hard times. Many of us married young, as young as you are. If you will work, you will be fine. That is the key. You have to be willing to work.” I don’t recall if I confided that I was expecting but I suspect she had that part figured out.

Literally on the eve of the wedding, my grandmother relented and took me shopping for a white wedding gown. The shop had to make the adjustments overnight. We picked up the gown the next morning and I married that afternoon. I was supposed to pick up the blue wedding gown from the little old lady, that day, but forgot all about it. Two weeks later I showed up at her door with the fifteen dollars I owed her. She said she wondered where I’d been and I explained. I remember looking into her old, lined face and honest eyes and felt ashamed of myself for being so thoughtless. She wished me well and told me not to expect it to be easy. But I would be fine, she re-emphasized, as long as I was willing to work. I recall the kindness in her eyes, the strength, but no gentleness. This was a woman who knew how to survive.

There is a new normal that follows a divorce and the sooner the parties wrap their brains around it, the sooner they can make intelligent decisions regarding how to cope, thrive and improve the situation. Pretending that the world has not changed is a recipe for disaster. That being said, it takes most people a little time for this to sink in. The kindest truthful thing I feel I can tell my parents is that poverty at that point in time is completely normal – afterall, their finances are tied up or nonexistent, they are struggling to restructure their budget, their nondiscretionary expenditures have skyrocketed. The circumstances that led them to that point may or may not be “fair,” but the reality is what it is. The population I deal with, i.e., those with children still in the home, tend to have become “poor” not as a result of illness or natural catastrophe but as a result of a reshuffling of the interpersonal deck that leaves bare the individuals’ weaknesses such as a lack of a job or training. They tend to be young enough to remarry, rebuild, reinvest. I try to remember to pass on what that old lady told me which is, so long as they are willing to work, they will survive. It will take time but life does go on and it will not always be like this.

So I’ve been working on my surf and sand sashing, which sucks.

Enough alliteration.

I hope to find time later on to rip, restitch and rehabilitate.

Here are howling babies.

Jezebel’s nose continues to look splendid!


Pam said...

The reminder that poverty is a transient state is timely, considering what the market is up to today.
Interesting, the perspective age and experience give us, isn't it?
During college and after, I remember rolling pennies to buy hot dogs and having to steal toilet paper from well stocked washrooms because I couldn't afford even that necessity.
I too have worked hard (and continue to) and I am so gratefull for what I have been able to achieve. You were so blessed to have had that woman appear to you with those words of wisdom, at that time in your life.
The girls look beautiful!

everythingquilts said...

Oh, I can certainly relate to this. I married at 18. Had my first daughter at 21, second one 2 yrs later. We struggled, So we moved to Ga. for the job opportunities. After living here just a couple years we both had good paying jobs and bought our first home. But,when my girls were 9&11 yrs of age their father had a massive heart attach and killed him at the young age of 34. There I was 2 young girls, which now needed day care. One income, a mortgage payment and a brand new car to boot, that had to have full coverage ins. and the added cost of a funeral. I felt so all alone, no parents, all my family living up north with their own problems so I had to immediately downsize, my car got reposed, I was having to work long hours. But the hardest part for me was having to send my children, who were already devastated to care takers I hardly knew. There was no more Saturday shopping trips, taking my care to get it cleaned , I had to cut the lawn, change the oil, all the things he was so wonderful at doing I now had to do them all. Didn't take me long to see something had to change so I started taking classes at the local college. But by this time my girls were just hitting the teenage years. And I so terrible worried about them spending so much time without a parent. But I knew they had to have a home, food on the table, and needed their mother at the same time. Those were some tough years. I managed to get back on my feet buy a nice car and even managed to but us a home. Nothing fancy mind you, just a nice new trailer we could call our own and feel secure again. We now look back and laugh when we talk about how they would be mad at me for working all the time, when they had rather me been home to take them here and there. And how they use to skip school knowing I would never know and all the silly stuff that seemed to cause major problems then we laugh about now. I still wonder how my girls turned out as wonderful as they did. I know how they got to be independent, it's the well rounded, educated, and happy spirit they have that blows me away. I dedicate my time now to watching my grandchildren, while they finish with their degrees. I need to know that that can make it, if this happens to them.

everythingquilts said...

Oh, I almost forgot the girls are looking good Penny. I enjoy reading your blog even if I don't comment often.

Penny said...

Oh, Everythingquilts, what a nice post. And I am so sorry that you lost your dear husband when you were both so young. Congratualtions to you for keeping your focus. I don't think I would have been so strong.

Stephanie D. said...

I remember a time, only 2 years into our marriage, when we were ready to call it quits--but neither one of us could afford a divorce, or living apart. For a while it was the only thing that held us together until we could work things out, but it was enough.

Since then we've been through a catastrophic illness, foreclosure and resultant move across the country to live with his step-dad, a failed adoption, a bankruptcy, and lots of financial struggles from his fixed income, but we've managed to stay married 37 years.

We're comfortable now, but not well off, and it would only take my inability to work for a couple of months to topple us financially.
So I am researching some online schools to learn medical transcription work to supplement our income, and eventually enable me to cut down to two 12-hr shifts/week until I retire--and then ease us into retirement.

As Roseanna Roseannadanna would say "It's always something." lol

And the girls always look as if they enjoy the singing!