I am standing in a minefield of spilled blueberries. My foster son gnaws at a banana in the grocery cart, smashed fruit littering his face and the gaps between the fallen berries on the floor. In my wallet sits a state issued Bridge Card waiting to be used, but the moment the flimsy carton busts open and all eyes are on me, I think, “Maybe not.”
Why this trip? Why today? I am already uncomfortable with my request for “two separate orders, please” and my messy toddler, my unwashed hair, mismatched outfit. My other kids (my very white other kids) are all in school, so the multiracial baby accompanying me, still dropping sticky piles of banana, could be perceived as my own…which under any other circumstances I would welcome, adore, but not here, not now, not with a Bridge Card in my hand and blueberries all over the floor and draining self-confidence.
On any other day, in any other moment, I would love for someone to mistake this beautiful baby for my very own, this beautiful baby who looks nothing like me and everything like his mother. Any other moment, I would be over the moon to be thought of as his “real” mom, something to justify the way I feel about this joyous little boy I had no hand in creating – but while I stand here in the check-out line with everyone looking and the WIC approved milk, bread, and produce waiting to be scanned, I am ashamed at how I feel.
Is my pride really bigger than my love? Would I really prefer that people know in this uncomfortable moment that he is our foster son so they understand this WIC purchase is not because I need assistance? That it just comes with the territory of being a foster family? Would I remove the stigma of need from myself in order to place it upon the head of this smiling, banana-scented baby boy?
Honestly, shamefully, the answer has sometimes been “yes.” It haunts me, and I hate it. So, I walk through the check-out line each month, and I use the card to pay for this small subset of government approved groceries never totaling more than $40. I smile at the cashier, scan the Bridge Card, then place it back in my wallet, face down, every time. I do this each month to save our family the $38, but more importantly, to make myself uncomfortable, to stretch myself into another’s shoes if only for the length of a check out queue because my pride should never eclipse my love. Because 36 years ago, my own parents did this for me. And because I’ve felt this red-faced humiliation and subsequent nagging guilt before, long before we ever decided to become foster parents, before I even knew what a Bridge Card looked like.
Following the birth of my third child in four years, with a grocery cart full of diapers and formula and baby cereal, a young cashier looked at my mountain of baby goods, looked at me and my three young children, rolled her eyes and said, “So, is this all gonna be on WIC then?” I stood open-mouthed for a moment before answering, “No. No, it’s not,” never uttering another word, overtaken with anger and embarrassment.
With one eye roll and a simple question, the cashier made me feel small, burdensome, and I have never forgotten that. Was there something about me that made her think I could not afford to care for the three small children clinging to my body? Did I appear to be in need? Did my kids? And why was I so bothered by it?
Standing there as a 33-year-old woman with a loving husband at home, financially secure, fully supported, with all those things in my favor, I crumbled. I was slowly adjusting to life with a newborn and two toddlers, just trying to survive a trip to the grocery store on my own with them. I was fragile that afternoon, and her judgement cracked me open.
And what if my answer had been “yes?” What if I hadn’t been in a position to cover the cost of my children’s formula? What then? Would I have felt compelled to explain that, try as a I might, my body just wouldn’t produce enough milk for my baby? Would I have felt even guiltier than I already did? How much smaller could she have made me feel?
I wish I’d had the clarity of thought to have addressed the situation, making her aware of how damaging the tone of her words and her intention behind them had been. I might have found a manager to pull her aside and prevent this same question from being asked in this same way to another tired mother with one or two or ten children, a mother whose answer to this young woman’s accusation wrapped up in a question was “yes.” Had I not been so focused on my own wounded pride, I could have saved another parent from the disdain of a 20-something with a nose ring and a shit attitude. But I was too embarrassed, wanting nothing more than to get to my car with my noisy, grubby babies, cart full of diapers and expensive formula, put my head down and cry.
And the shame I felt when asked this question in this way is the fuel that feeds the stigma. I was humiliated that someone took me for a person in need of help, so what does that mean about how I view others in need of that same help? The answer that comes back every time I get really honest with myself is: it’s completely okay, nothing to be ashamed of, there for a reason…unless it’s me.
So, for the past year, I have reconciled our family’s use of the WIC program by framing it within the world of foster care. The $17 a day we are paid by the state to foster this baby does not cover the costs of caring for an infant – diapers, wipes, clothing, bottles, babysitters, toys, trips to and from doctor’s offices and court appointments, the extensive therapy we are all going to need a year from now. $17 a day isn’t going to cut it.
And to be frank, the 2 loaves of bread, 3.5 gallons of milk, 16 oz. of cheese, couple boxes of cereal, mini jar of peanut butter, 2 cartons of juice, dozen eggs and $9 worth of produce allotted each month comes nowhere near the amount of food it takes to nourish a growing child. If I actually needed to rely on these resources to sustain him, to keep him healthy and strong, it would never be enough.
To make the process even harder, the specifications placed on which items are approved and which are not is nearly impossible to follow. I stand in the middle of the bakery aisle scratching my head, trying to decipher which 16 ounce loaf of bread is on the list (because to make it even more difficult nearly every loaf of bread is either smaller or larger than the required 16 ounces). Some stores don’t carry them at all.
I take a stab in the dark and almost always get it wrong, but when I check-out, the money required to cover the wrong brand of bread or incorrect bottle of juice is not a problem. I don’t have to quietly ask the cashier to backtrack and remove it from the receipt because I can’t afford it, the people waiting behind me shifting their weight, grumbling under their breath, looking for another line to join. Thankfully, I don’t have to dig the item out of the bag I’ve already packed into my grocery cart with my squirming babies, but what if I did? And what if the cashier standing before me, head cocked, gnashing her chewing gum, was the same cashier that just shamed me for being in this position in the first place?
When we were in the final stages of getting licensed for foster care and the what ifs and worry started setting in, out of all the things that might have kept me up at night, the question in my head most often was, “Am I really going to use WIC?” Was my discomfort worth the cost of formula and rice cereal?
It was. It still is. Because growth has come from that discomfort. A couple months following the arrival of our foster son, I walked in for my first appointment at the local WIC office, unsure of what to expect. The woman walked me through the program and assigned me a card in my name. “Oh!” I remember saying. “It’s in my name, not his?” She nodded, confirming the very obvious.
“It’s now or never,” I thought and headed to the store to see if I would fold. I collected the assigned WIC items, grabbed some additional groceries, and carefully examined each cashier to see who appeared the friendliest. I took a chance on a middle-aged woman with rosy cheeks and happy eyes, then very purposefully mentioned the baby was our foster son when she commented on how adorable he was. Not wholly realizing what I was doing, I willfully removed the stigma from myself and placed it onto him. Well now, that was easy!
Regrettably, I did this same thing the first few months, making sure to fit into friendly conversation that this child whom I already loved so much was, in fact, a foster child. I am not proud of these interactions, and I like to think that if he had been older, able to understand these words I said for no one’s benefit but my own, I would have done better, but who’s to know?
What I do know, though, is that had I dropped a carton of blueberries in the middle of the check-out lane back then, I would have thrown the card in the garbage and never looked back. My ego couldn’t have handled the scrutiny and additional eyes peeking at me from all angles. But today, fully embarrassed at my own carelessness, I apologized to the nice man called to clean up my mess, kindly requested that my order be separated into two purchases, and swiped my Bridge Card without an attempt to explain away my use of it. I did so with folks looking on and a mashed banana sticking out of my purse and a lessening care for others’ perceptions of me. I swiped the plastic card, grateful for the assistance it provides our family during this time but also grateful we have the resources to not have to rely solely on the meager additions it brings. I returned it to my wallet and slid it into its spot at the top – face up – another tiny step toward the mother I want to be.