By Ann Freeman
When Adam started his #My100Days project, I thought it was awesome and made a pledge I haven’t kept. Which is pretty in line with my activism in general. I’d like to be one of those people who is a regular at rallies, who calls and writes elected officials, who is neck deep in our current local election cycle, but other than donating to a few causes, I’m an activist only in my imagination.
But there is a reason.
In 2004, when my daughter was 18 and had just graduated from high school, she became unexpectedly pregnant and an unprepared parent at 19. Frankly, I was worried if she was up for all the responsibility of caring for that new, squiggly, wondrous human. But she said, bravely, “I forgot to tie my shoelaces and tripped, but now I need tie them and step up.” And she did.
But she needed help.
And so began our unexpected journey with me as co-pilot on her parenting journey, an activist grandma. My daughter worked and only took a month of parenting leave – unpaid – she needed the money. Her retail job didn’t pay nearly enough to cover the most basic expenses and she needed to launch her life as a young adult. I’m a pretty good navigator of systems, so I began looking into the perplexing, confusing journey into the world of benefits for her. Being raised middle class, I did not have the advantage of knowing the good, bad, and ugly of trying to get and keep food and housing support, and daycare. It is a system of paperwork and verifications and deadlines that keeps many people from getting benefits they qualify for because the maize is a set-up to fail.
And, I learned, she couldn’t get benefits if she was living with me. How’s that for family friendly.
So, with baby in tow, she left the nest to live in the first of many low-rent, run down places she couldn’t really afford. But now she qualified for some food support, and most importantly, a child-care grant that offset most of her daycare costs (which without help, were more than her monthly income). I did the paperwork and she managed her money, squeaking by on an impossibly small budget with minimal extra help from me.
For those who think poor people eat steak with their food stamps, think again. More often than not, Ramen noodles figure strongly into the menu by the end of the month.
And then, three years later, like a miracle, her name came up on one of the many affordable housing wait lists I had put her on, she was offered a subsidized, nice two-bedroom townhome. The rent is adjusted to be no more than 30% of her income. (Most housing waiting lists have thousands of people on them for the very few affordable homes that come open each year. If you want to be an activist and don’t have a cause, affordable housing is a good one.)
Life got a little easier.
But understand this, in addition to impossible paperwork to keep your benefits they are designed to keep you poor – or at least level set. Every dime is calculated against income. So in my hard-working daughter’s case, a raise would mean a few more dollars in her pocket, but her food support would go down and her child care costs and rent would go up – sometimes more than the raise, so she would actually move backwards.
It’s some system, but it is something.
So my part-time job is being her “authorized representative,” making sure her forms are filled out, all verifications collected and sent on time so she can work her ass off to support (her now family of two kids) and just get by.
Along the way, I have being given the gift of a lifetime – my grandkids – at least those two (I have more, but that’s a story for another day) have entered my heart and life in a way that fills me, over and over. Many years ago a psychic told me I would never be an empty nester – that she saw “two more brown skin children who were destined to call me mother.” The only thing she got wrong was the mother part.
I have taken the grandkids at least one night a week for the last 12 years to provide care on the day my daughter works the night shift. “Grandma Wednesday.” My house is their second house. We have adventures together. I’ve taken my granddaughter to Chicago, New York City, and on annual camping trips. She is honestly my best running buddy. She loves the things that I do, too – like the May Day festival. None of my kids did, and my spouse doesn’t. It’s the purest gift life could have offered.
My toddler grandson runs to greet me with a big smile and leaps into my arms when I pick him up at daycare and has all his favorite things he loves to do at Grandma’s, from torturing the dog to stealing popsicles from the freezer. The little things are sometimes the best things.
Their little family of three is a beautiful family and my daughter has risen to the occasion and circumstance of her single parenthood and limited income again and again, day after day, year after year. They would make it without all I do.
But what I do makes a difference – makes the sharp edges of their lives a little softer, adds another adult who they know loves them unconditionally, gives my daughter a little breathing room and a bit of a safety net when life gets precarious.
We don’t live together but it’s the extended family I always dreamed of having, so it’s #My100Days, just on a continual loop.