I’ve got a bachelor’s degree. I’m smart and innovative. I’m frugal and budget for everything. And yet, there I was, waiting in line at the food bank to get food for myself and my three children. There was a lump in my throat that just wouldn’t go away from the time I finally gave in and realized I needed to go to the weekly food bank at a local church. Food banks were for poor people. I wasn’t a poor person…at least I didn’t want to admit it. I mean my children and I weren’t living in a shelter, we weren’t on the streets, and at least (the only thing to our name) we had a minivan, so we weren’t poor, right?
My 34-year-old husband died, leaving me with a newborn and toddler twins. He could never qualify for life insurance because of his cancer diagnosis in his early 20s, and he was sole proprietor of his very small window-cleaning business, which yielded very little in social security benefits for my children after his death. We moved in with my parents who are both still working full-time and could really only give us a place to stay. They weren’t financially able to afford supporting all of our basic day-to-day needs beyond a roof over our heads. Everything I had was given to us from the generosity of others—churches, strangers, fundraisers. All that was given with love was accepted with humility and brought us through the first two years after my husband’s death. But the heaviness of life events just kept happening: unplanned plane tickets for my twins and their Godparents who had to care for them while my baby was in PICU for almost two months; multiple illnesses and hospital stays for myself; and the extreme cost of childcare to just survive day to day ate up quickly what was given so generously. To be honest, I underestimated the impact of grief. I assumed all I had to do was “get through the first year” and after that, everything would be better. I would just get a job—I was smart and talented, I could do that. I’d get a house and I’d be super-mom. The one-year anniversary of my husband’s death came and went and I realized I was still reeling from the trauma of his slow and painful death, from losing him, from struggling with undiagnosed PTSD while raising three kids alone. Nothing got “better” after that first year. I could barely do laundry, let alone get a job. Even if I wanted to get a job, I couldn’t because the cost of childcare for three children under 5 is astronomical. My parents rode the storm with me and were just as tired. They were not able to be the “built-in-babysitters-whenever-I-want-them” as many people have assumed and so even a part-time job wasn’t an option for me. I tried, briefly, to work at a local coffee shop for one day a week, which proved unsuccessful in both my ability to handle anything else and my mom energy needed to take care of very very active children. Everywhere I looked for an out, a big door shut in my face and my stubbornness brought me to not share with others, my situation. We were scraping by, but kids keep getting hungry and eating all the food…imagine that! Sitting down and looking at the budget I knew I needed help. I didn’t feel poor, in fact, I felt rich beyond belief. I was incredibly grateful for the home my parents had provided for my children and me, and the money that still trickled in from generous givers, but the stark reality was that the government wasn’t going to help me in this situation. Social security was (and still is) withholding a quarter of my benefits because of a mistake in their paper trail, and we were not on the good end of that mistake. I finally waved my white flag and put down my pride.
In line at the food bank I remembered all the times I’d cleaned out my pantry when I had a “normal” life. I dusted off expired cans of vegetables and fruits and threw unwanted boxes of pasta and crackers in bags to donate to food banks. My husband worked hard for what we had and I could go to the store every week to stock up on everything we needed (and then some, judging by all the food that was given to the food bank and not eaten by us). But as I entered the room with shelves lining the walls with bread, yogurts and some produce, juice and boxes and cans, I was on the receiving end. I still felt like I didn’t belong there and I felt shame as I took as little as I could to fill my bags, thinking, “this isn’t me. I’m smart, I should be able to be making money to provide for my family. I shouldn’t be here…” I didn’t want to look at everyone else who was there, filling their bags, while I only grabbed a few things. I quietly left and on the drive home I cried, feeling like a failure. I thought I’d seen so many moms do it all; work, school, and still be the supermom that volunteers and helps with school crafts. Why couldn’t I be that mom? Here I was, accepting pity food…
Emptying my one bag of food when I got home, I was hit with a new perspective and an incredible sense of gratitude; I was providing for my children because I put my pride aside and did what needed to be done. By accepting what others had given I was blessing the givers just as much as they were blessing me. They didn’t know my family when they were emptying out their pantry, just like I didn’t know who was benefiting from the food I’d given so many times in the past. But being on the other end of giving made me realize that’s what life’s all about. In the good times, we share our blessings with others. In the not-so-good times, we are given the blessings of others—as long as we are open to accepting it.
The other few times I went to the food bank, I filled our bags with gratitude, not greed, because I knew someone gave willingly to help families like mine. Accepting help gave me the confidence and eased one less stress to develop a game plan to start digging myself out of the mess I was left with.
I don’t have to go to the food bank anymore, but I know it’s there if we need it, and the mess is slowly being revealed as an opportunity to constantly change my perspective, even though I can’t always change our circumstance. I will never forget being on the receiving end at the food bank and I can’t wait to start giving again to the local food banks—but this time not dusty cans from the back of the pantry, but to set aside some new food every grocery trip to give to others.
In the Holiday season where giving is the star of the show, know that if you’re on the other end of giving, there’s no shame as receiving can be just as impacting.
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