We Didn’t Have Much Money. My Daughter Still Deserved Joy

6 minute read

Seven years out from needing to use food stamps, and it’s interesting what still triggers that dreaded feeling of humiliation that consumed my life back then. Yet I always feel it when I use a self-checkout station at the grocery store. Back then, as a college student who earned money by cleaning people’s homes, I used an EBT card, the debit card supplied to spend funds granted through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to purchase food I couldn’t afford otherwise. Often my cart held our usual essentials like butter, pancake mix, and eggs, but on the days I added candy, cupcakes, or cookies, I hoped no one witnessed me using the card. I’d seen the posts on social media and heard the complaints about what people bought with their SNAP funds. Somehow it was wrong for me to buy treats for my daughter’s Christmas stocking.

This sentiment–that a child whose family relies on government assistance should be denied something that other children feel entitled to–goes beyond the “poor people can’t have nice things” outcry. When people projected anger toward struggling parents like me for purchasing Christmas or Easter candy with food stamps by complaining about it online, it felt like an attempt to punish or shame me, a poor person, for getting pregnant in the first place.

Read More: The Love Story of My Chosen Family

I started writing about parenting under the poverty line when I lived in low-income housing and still needed food stamps to feed my daughters, who were around 8- and 1-year-old. Just a year out of college, somewhat propelled into the niche after an essay about working as a maid went viral, I began experiencing some success as a freelance writer. It should have been a moment of pride. But every personal essay published brought with it hordes of hate-filled messages. People sent me emails to tell me I was a cockroach, no better than vermin, and needed to be committed.

I’m not sure why I thought the anger would die down after I shared my experiences in a bestselling book or after a limited series inspired by it had some unprecedented success. Perhaps I expected a little more empathy for a mother who is just trying to do her best for her child and create moments of joy amid financial precarity. And yet there it was, one of the first online reviews of my new book, and the woman was upset that I’d given my kid so much ice cream.

More From TIME

The book she read, called Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education, was a free, advanced copy given to her by my publisher in exchange for an honest review. Most people will tell authors not to look at these early reviews, but when it’s been just you, alone with a vulnerable story that you’re somewhere between terrified and mortified for people to read, you needed to prepare for the reaction. Or that’s what I told myself as I typed the title and my name into the search bar on Goodreads.

Read More: 8 Rules for Navigating Your Family Text Chain

My second book is a sequel to my first book, but to me it’s also a continuation of a love story. The books are an intimate, recorded history of the first seven years I spent mothering my oldest daughter alone. For nearly that entire time, I fought for resources, for housing and food security, and to obtain a degree from a four-year university. I went hungry often, lived off peanut butter and jelly, and worked a physically demanding job before fighting to stay awake deep into the night as I wrote reports and essays that were due the next day.

Through it all, I relished the moments I could create that were purely for my daughter. Sometimes things were made possible by unexpected events, like all of my housecleaning clients tipping me ten bucks before Christmas so I could afford to take her to the local production of The Nutcracker, the only thing she’d asked Santa Claus for. During the intermission, I spent a somewhat precious five dollars on a small, wooden ornament that she cradled in her arms like Clara had done on stage. She didn’t beg me for cookies, even though all the other kids seemed to have one or two, and maybe that’s what made the moment so bittersweet.

Over the years, I’ve learned the “things” poor people supposedly don’t deserve have broken through boundaries to categories of what most would consider basic needs. A safe place to sleep, three meals a day that cost more than a dollar, diapers, soap, autonomy, mental-health care, and a trusted environment to leave their children so they can work. There’s no government assistance money for toilet paper, and a spare roll from a public bathroom is easy to fit under a sweater, but other things were a lot harder to obtain. I had to prove I was working to get childcare so I could work. The hours that counted toward that impossible equation had to be proven, often with multiple receipts. It was exhausting, heartbreaking, and necessary to survive. And my kid lived it with me.

By the time we moved to Missoula, Mont., where I would finish school, she had lived in 15 different homes. At ages 5 and 6, she sat through college classes with me, or waited patiently at the kitchen table of a house I was paid $10 an hour to clean, when I couldn’t secure babysitting, or just couldn’t afford it. Kids at school made fun of her for having clothes with holes in the knees. A parent yelled at her in front of a group of kids for taking a piece of candy from a jar. She didn’t ask for any of this, but she endured it, not because she was “resilient,” as people liked to call her, but because we didn’t have other options.

So yes, woman on the internet, whenever I happened to have a few bucks, you better believe I bought her some ice cream.  

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.