A Life Lesson Learned at the Welfare Office…

My 2-year-old son and I both lived in a tiny, one-bedroom loft in what some would call a “shitty neighborhood.” I was only 22 years old and was struggling to make ends meet on my own. My abusive ex-husband refused to give us a dime so I was waitressing and looking desperately to find a second job.

Our little loft apartment was small but functional. The burgundy front door opened to a narrow kitchen lined with 1970’s Spanish tile and filled with aged wooden cabinets, a small stove, and a puke-yellow fridge. Beside the kitchen was a living room with a wood-burning fireplace in the corner. Next to the fireplace was a flight of stairs covered in matted beige carpet that led up to the loft above the kitchen, which contained a bedroom, bathroom, and one small closet. It was dark and musty with wood paneled walls. The lone “window” in the entire place was a sliding glass door in the living room that opened up to a small, cracked slab of concrete on the back. Directly behind the concrete slab was a wide wooden fence that failed to block the the noise from the busy street behind it.

The only furniture I had at that time was an old dresser, a small TV, and a squeaky black futon. Since neither of us had our own bed yet, my son and I slept together on the futon in front of the fireplace every night. I named our dingy little apartment “The Chalet” and filled the place with tiny little candle votives I got from the dollar store. I would turn off the harsh overhead lights, light all the candles, and pretend we were in some high-end ski chalet in Aspen…surrounded by fresh, unmarked snow and a forest full of elk, reindeer, and friendly wolves who watched over us. 

Looking back I realize how dismal the apartment seems when I describe it, but at that time I was ecstatic to have it. I was so grateful for that little Chalet. It was quaint and cozy, but most importantly, it was ours. There was no more abuse, no more screaming, and no more yelling. There was no arguing and no crying. But most importantly, there was no more fear. It was just the two of us, finally living in peace. Despite the obvious challenges, it was the happiest I’d been in years.

One evening I was at the laundry mat, washing our clothes and reading a book to my son. He was always such a little busy body, so I had to occupy him nonstop to keep him from crawling around the dirty, lint-lined floors. He finally fell asleep in my arms and I sat there watching the clothes spiral in the machines in front of me. That’s when it dawned on me: I was a single mom on a limited income, I should be able to qualify for some government assistance. My pride didn’t want to go there, but I only needed temporary help, until I could get back on my feet. I decided it couldn’t hurt to accept a little help if it was available, especially for healthcare and food. Besides, isn’t that what the system was designed for? To help people who are struggling get back on their feet?

The next day I went downtown to the Social Services Department to fill out the paperwork. I sat in the waiting room and took a look around. The room was packed with people of all ages and races, and kids were running all around the room. It smelled like moth balls and Lysol. I was trying to hold my toddler still but he was fussy and wiggling in my lap.

My name was finally called so I walked up to the clerk and handed her my paperwork. She was a large African American woman with flawless skin and bright, smiling eyes. 

“Hello, I’m Tamara. Please have a seat,” she said pleasantly as she nodded towards the chair in front of her.

She perused my paperwork for several minutes, making notes while I sat there uncomfortably. I felt embarrassed to be there, and wanted to leave. My pride would’ve probably gotten the best of me if it wasn’t for my son. If I was alone, I could afford more time to get back on my feet, but I had to get myself in a better place as soon as possible for him.

“You marked the box that you are married, and gave some information about the identity of your husband, is all that correct?” she asked.

“I’m still legally married, yes, but we are separated. I…I haven’t been able to afford a divorce yet.”

“I see.” 

She started typing something on her computer. 

“And I see here you’re currently employed at a restaurant?” she asked, without looking up.

“Yes, I am waiting tables but really trying to get another job during the day,” I responded.

She finally looked up and took a long breath. 

“Miss Julie, I’m sorry but I cannot approve you for any kind of government help at this time. You are still married and it appears your husband makes a decent amount of money….”

“But my husband won’t give me a dime!” I interrupted, then caught myself and simmered down.

“Then you’ll need to take that up with him in court. Would you like me to connect you with someone?” 

Shame and humiliation immediately ran over me. 

“So you mean to tell me that if I had a baby out of wedlock, and didn’t have a job, then you would be able to help me?” I felt tears of humiliation well up in my eyes.

Tamara put her pencil down and looked up from the paperwork to make eye contact with me.

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but I’m afraid you’re right. You can come back and try again when your situation changes. I am so sorry…” 

My son started to fuss and I squirmed in my seat. I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment. I was better than this. I was WAY better than this. The last thing my husband had told me when I left him was that I would never be able to survive on my own. He told me I was a loser and would always need someone to help me through life. If I accepted a handout now, then he would be right. 

I cleared my throat and swallowed hard in an effort to hold back the tears.

“Thank you for your time, Tamara, I appreciate you meeting with me,” I said.

I scooped up my son and walked swiftly out the door. I couldn’t wait to get out of that place.

As I walked down the corridor in that cold, government building, I made a promise to myself. I was going to immediately file for a divorce, then I was going to work my ass off and be so damn successful that my piece of shit ex-husband was going to ask me for money one day. I really envisioned it in my mind with such crystal-clear clarity that I could even hear his voice in my head, begging me for money. He was going to desperately need my help one day, and I was going to tell him NO.

It took ten whole years before that “dream” actually came true, every single detail of it. The irony is that I was so laser-beam focused on my own personal success that I totally forgot about getting revenge on my deadbeat ex-husband, so when he finally did call me to beg for money, it took a moment for me to even remember I had ever wished it to happen in the first place! And even though I told him no, it didn’t feel nearly as exonerating as I’d imagined it would. But that’s the interesting thing about goals. You work so hard to achieve them, and when you finally do, you realize the end result is never as satisfying as the journey was getting there.

That’s why I’ve learned to embrace the journey, it’s where all the real fulfillment lies. Our dreams and goals are meaningless without the work it takes to get there.

Exterior photo of the actual loft apartment I shared with my 2-year old in Greensboro, NC.