A new HBO documentary details the life of Katrina Gilbert, one of 42 million American women living in poverty or on the brink of it
When Katrina Gilbert feels guilty, it’s not because she fed her children non-organic soy milk or had to miss a soccer game because of work. It’s because she can’t afford to give any of her three kids a birthday present this year. She makes only $9.49 an hour.
Gilbert is the subject of Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert, a documentary airing on HBO Monday night as the latest project from the Shriver Report. The hour-long documentary follows the single Tennessee mom through her day-to-day life, as she works full time as a certified nurse’s assistant but has to choose between paying for her medication and finalizing her divorce.
Maria Shriver said her work with the Shriver Report is focused on telling the stories of struggling women like Gilbert. “I wanted to learn more about women who were not part of the larger conversation, who weren’t reaching for the glass ceiling but were instead trying to find a foundation,” she said. “They don’t talk about being feminist. They feel like that’s another world. They talk about being women, and women who are providers, and the how-tos.”
Gilbert’s story is a far cry from the “Lean In” vision of feminism that mostly deals with educated women navigating the corporate world. One in three American women like Gilbert live in poverty or on the brink of it. Gilbert’s not concerned with “having it all,” she’s concerned with “doing it all,” which is closer to the way most Americans live.
Gilbert married her husband at 19, but left him after he became addicted to painkillers. “I didn’t expect to be a single mom of three children, that was my biggest fear,” she says in the documentary. “I have nothing to show for those years besides my children.”
“I think people find themselves in places in their life that they don’t expect to be,” Shriver explained. “Instead of judging them, I’m trying to say ‘I get that.’”
Now single, Gilbert’s life is a study in hard work and best intentions. She never once raises her voice to her kids throughout the whole film. She cautions her kids to wear their coats outside, because if they get sick she’ll have to stay home from work and could lose her job. She gets no paid sick days. She doesn’t waste her money on frivolous purchases, because her $765 biweekly paycheck just barely keeps her family afloat. She’s an example of a woman who’s doing everything right, but just can’t get a break.
Shriver said women like Gilbert feel excluded from the media dialogue about feminism because they don’t see a place for themselves in that rarified narrative. They’re not concerned with body image or photoshopping or the number of female protagonists on television, they’re just trying to find some affordable daycare. “The women I’m talking to who are on the brink, they’re not thinking about Princeton Mom, they’re not reading the Atlantic,” Shriver said in an interview. “They’re not running around saying ‘I’m a feminist, I’m a feminist.’ They’re just saying ‘I’m a modern woman, I’m doing all these things, I need help.’”
She said that one thing she’s heard as she goes out to meet these women (who are “not invited to those so-called ‘women’s-conferences,’” she notes) is that the struggling single moms don’t see their lives reflected anywhere in the media. That’s what the Shriver Report is trying to change. The documentary airs Monday night at 9 p.m. on HBO, but will be available to stream for free all week.
“They think, ‘we’re not in the conversation about ‘having it all,’ and by the way, we’ve been doing it all for the whole time,’” Shriver said.