love can win

Many with privilege can recognize, in the abstract at least, that poverty and the suffering it creates are a scourge and that we should work to end them. But without ever having lived in poverty, they may not appreciate its wiles, how it penetrates every aspect of a life. Many more do live in poverty, but because the nature of poverty is to disempower and distract, the burdens of their daily lives limit their capacity to act. Few have both an intimate understanding of the day-to-day reality of poverty—the suffering it causes—and the privilege to address it. The profound responsibility of those in this last category abides.

— Abdul Al-Sayed, Healing Politics

After I gave birth to my younger son in early 2014,
I suffered profound postpartum depression.

I remember:
With grim determination, tears streaming down my face,
telling my husband that I only kept going because
my children needed my income to survive …
and I remembered, oh how I remembered,
how the kids across the street suffered
when they lost their dad to suicide.

“Your kids need more than your income from you, Deb,”
my husband told me.

At that point,
no part of me believed it.

I’d grown up the poor oldest daughter
of four poor children of a
poor single mom;

I knew, because I’d witnessed it,
the job of a mom who knows poverty is to
shield her children
(no matter how miserable she felt,
day after day after day after day)
from the worst of it.

In 2014, I did not have context.
I did not see how my childhood poverty
wasn’t a drop in a bucket,
but a drop in an ocean.

I didn’t see how systems (or the
extravagantly wealthy people who shape them)
shape poverty.

I saw only that, should I find myself unable
to sustain a well paying job, my husband
(who has many amazing traits and skills, let’s be very clear!)
would not be able to, by himself, feed our family,
let alone clothe and shelter it, while
trying to work his way up from the bottom
as a Black man (yes, even a Yale-
educated one) in the SoCal
entertainment industry.

I had only the bone-deep anxiety of one
who’s known what it’s like not to eat, and to live
forever this close to losing the roof over her head,
and who thinks that if her kids fail to eat,
or to have a warm, dry place to sleep,
or access to the health care they needed to stay alive,
it wouldn’t be because of “systemic failure”
(an idea to which I then had no exposure)
but because I’d failed, unilaterally,
to keep them afloat.

knowing the horror of barely hanging on,
as one person who didn’t understand how excruciatingly many people
were deprived access to resources enabling them to hang on,
I confused forever barely hanging on
with living.

I kept jobs that didn’t fit me
and accepted workplace behaviors that hurt me
because I knew, from my childhood, both the (seemingly) worse still
physical hurts that flow from poverty and its non-physical ones:
the you-deserve-it’s and you-should-have-tried-harder
from people who’d never been close enough
to sustained poverty to know it was
luck, not their inherit skill, talent,
or goodness that sheltered them
from the systemic failures that
lead to poverty, or from
poverty itself.

As I wrote “to karen (1),”
I remembered that postpartum depression moment,
and I chose not-cruelty to myself for having made the choices I made—
for having endured, sometimes, crushing behaviors
(not necessarily from supervisors, but from anyone who saw
their opportunity in the vulnerability
in my need-to-please-to-keep-my-Black-family-
and not challenging them in the moment,
because the alternative to not enduring these behaviors
could lead to such worse places—
from within the wretched heart
of systems that provide precious few options for success
compared to abundant options mandates for failure
(as indicated by pain-filled lives ended
by too-early deaths).

All the times I karened all over my family,
trying to get them to adjust their behaviors so
I could do. good. work,
I was living out
bodily memory:

memory that says a mother
is only as good as she can,
outwardly smiling and upbeat and in good humor,
endure any hardship thrown her way—

as long as she
keeps being able
to feed
and shelter
her kids.

Seeing my moments of karening at home,
I also saw their context:

my childhood horror;
my sense that I had to, alone,
keep this family afloat, no matter what,
not in the absence of context, but in a context
where there’s precious little infrastructure left
to keep a person family nation’s peoples
from drowning.

In the United States today,
with inequality rampant (billionaires’ wealth
and unemployment skyrocket, together,
not accidentally)
and COVID especially prevalent among
poor folk and BIPOC (categories that
frequently, in these systems that
have changed precious little
since Martin Luther King, Jr.
called out their lethality a half-
century ago)
and police brutality (at the threat
of property damage) on daily display
after too many consequence-free murders
of brown-skinned people
at the hands
(and tasers
and guns)
of state actors,
I am no longer confused that
“good” behavior is likely to yield
a healthy family, and …

that is horrible, collectively,
but freeing, personally:

I am no longer confused that
I am only as valuable as my income
to my kids, and my husband,
and those dearest to us.

I am no longer willing
to weigh income over the deeper well
being of these beautiful souls with whom
I’m lucky to share my home and my life—

nor to see my struggles as mine alone,
for they are not mine alone,
nor my mom’s alone,
nor anyone’s alone;

they were

I’m still prone to see
individualistically, as (non-destitute, especially)
USians are taught to do from a young age,
but I’m learning, slowly,
to see it differently;
to see that systems that are
built to oppress many for the comfort of
the few make inevitable
poverty and misery
and early deaths to illness
untreatable with pennies.

Poverty was never about
individual or “personal responsibility” failure,
as it was killing me,
so long, to believe, and act out
my belief of;

As I come to understand this,
I come also to a passion
for liberation:

an urgency to direct my own acts,
in moments I can spare outside my home,
to decreasing the likelihood that many will suffer, by design,
the abundant ill effects of the USian delusion that hard work conquers all,
no matter the systems
that confine individual
actions, and actors.

I know poverty,

Knowing poverty as I do,
and knowing how little nothing
it generally has to do with “personal responsibility,”
as defined by affluent legislators who have no concept
what it’s likely to barely survive before fully dying,
it is my own “profound responsibility”
(thanks for the words, Al-Sayed)
not only to call bullshit on this confluence of life-destructive U.S. systems,
but to work to liberate my own self,
day after day after day,
from any remaining tendrils of terror
that I am only as valuable
as I am “productive”
by a lethal
standards …

and from all the harm
to my sons, and my husband,
and to everyone around us,
when I we act as if it is true,
and thus make it so

when it doesn’t
have to

“Your kids need more than your income from you, Deb.”

Damn right they do: They need my love,
and my poverty-derived wisdom,
and my fight, as I need their
light to keep on
reminding me
that love
can win.

One thought on “love can win

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