Welcome to Poverty: COVID era skills

Some of us who are not accustomed to being this alone are now alone. 

Some of us who are used to only seeing their family for a couple hours a day are now navigating how to be present with each other by choice or not. 

Some of us who have never had to fix things for ourselves, whether it’s food or a bike, are now having to learn those skills or learn to go without. 

And some of us go bat shit crazy like we’re reenacting “Apocalypse Now” and take out our aggression on strangers.

Like the woman who pedaled her bike straight at my kids because according to her they were “going the wrong way” down a two-way street. She parted from the scene screaming, “Go home!” As she continued biking down the street. Yeah, nothing to say to that one.

Or the crazy dude who kept trying to get my kids to pet his dog while simultaneously spitting on the street and telling us that “this is nothing” compared to when he was a kid because our neighborhood was “rough” when he was growing up. Maybe he mistook “COVID” as a new street gang name? No idea. We watched as his dog crapped in our neighbor’s yard.

Not to be out down by my favorite incident, the group of ten assorted individuals (who I find it highly unlikely they all live together in quarantine) who were walking together with their children down the middle of the street, almost a group of twenty, and were upset that I was driving down the same street. How dare I! One of them came by the next day and panicked when we happened to walk out of our side door and leapt into the street to give us space. I appreciated the reaction but it puzzled me as to what happened overnight to change his perspective so quickly from the day before. Maybe all of us are stumbling our way through remembering and adapting to this new reality.

We’re all hitting our breaking point with being stir crazy. Cabin fever has been replaced by “rat in a cage” frustration. I can relate. I’ve never felt so alone while having zero privacy. It’s like I’m in solitary confinement and my jailers are extras from a macabre Nickelodeon sitcom. Everything is decorated from yard sales and Ikea, the soundtrack is tinny cartoon accordions from my nightmares, and I’m randomly woken by bright lights and demands to test my endurance of spirit and patience. I haven’t felt this addlebrained since I woke up on the wrong train in the wrong country (long story).

How many of you out there can relate? I felt isolated before the pandemic but have reached a new level of loneliness forcing me to face that realization. Advocating, teaching, and juggling the needs of two amazing autistic kids has changed me and my outlook on the world for the better. Yet I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it has worsened my PTSD and that my fears for them can overwhelm me at moments. Poverty, trauma, and extreme stress have altered me over the years yet I know that much of my strength and endurance have developed because of, and despite, those experiences.

Homeschooling is a new challenge to many of us and I understand all too well how difficult it can be to juggle teaching and parenting your children. For some of us, this is the first time you’re out of work and facing poverty. Many of us are mourning in isolation. All of us will be affected by this pandemic in a rare bonding moment of trauma we’re experiencing globally. It will shape the current generations and be a historical marker in our children’s lives.

Yet the silver lining is, we can learn and grow from this. There are life skills we can build and share with our children. I grew up poor and it made me a stronger person. At least, that’s what I believe and try to impart to my kids.

That’s right, I already have a set of skills that I never wanted but they come quite in handy during a global pandemic. I’m having flashbacks to my childhood and finding the experience refreshingly helpful if not unsettling. That fear of what the next day would bring and building resilience to meet each day knowing that I would find a way to make it through. Now, for many of our children, they are experiencing this hardship as possibly the first one in their life. For my own, this is another hardship and I’m proud of their determination to cope yet they struggle. My hope for them, and all of us, is that it brings about positive change and this illness takes as few of us as possible.

When you’re a poor kid, you’ve already experienced making do whether you want to or not.

Snow? You’re wearing bread bags over your socks to keep your feet dry.

Hole in your backpack? You’re using duct tape or trying to figure out how not to puncture your finger while stitching it back up.

No food in the house? You’re throwing together whatever produce you can find and condiments that are left in the fridge to make soup. Just ask my friend Tara about my “potato tomato” soup. It had to last me a week and it wasn’t the worst concoction I came up with.

Burn on your arm? You’re gritting your teeth while running it under cold water and then sprinkling baking soda on it to keep it from blistering. That one really left them gobsmacked. They keep wanting to check the scar on my wrist and they’re obsessed with anatomy books now and BBC’s “Operation Ouch” on YouTube.

My kids were in amazement that I could grow potatoes from the ones that we had left in the house. They were in shock that we weren’t going to be using paper products, other than toilet paper, any longer to make our money and supplies stretch. You should have seen their expressions the first time I told them we wouldn’t be buying ice cream anymore but making our own. One looked as if they would swoon and the other pulled a look like I just blew up their toys. That was until I let them help me.

They’ve jumped in with a level of zeal I hadn’t anticipated and now they want to be regaled with “when mom was poor” stories and remind my husband to listen even though “the stories are sad but they’re real funny”. My kids definitely got my sense of humor.

“Mama, tell us about the time you had to get the tick off the dog?”

“Hey, mama? Can we pretend we’re real poor like you were and sleep on the FLOOR?” 

(I love it when my son’s voice cracks and his inflection goes up at the end of his sentences. He sounds like the “Little Rascals”.)

“Papa, did you know that mama grew up so poor she had holes in her SHOES?”

The low moments happen as well. The regression of behavior. A sentence most parents of kids on the spectrum dread. There are habits and acts of defiance I haven’t witnessed in at least a few years and I will be very glad when they recede from our lives once again. For their own privacy, I won’t share all the details but let me just say mastering the skill of cleaning out heater vents is something I never wanted or anticipated would be part of my daily life. Much like knowing the tell-tale sounds of vomit from a distant room.

I manage my anxiety by preparing for eventualities and try not to overdo the mental calisthenics of doing so. This is something I fail at depending on the day because trying to help manage my family members’ autistic meltdowns is enough to give anyone anxiety. The good days are the ones where I get a chance to talk to a friend, a moment of silence away from everyone, or a rare night of getting to sleep more than five hours without being woken.

As difficult as this is for my kids, and all of us, I know that they’re benefiting from some of these unexpected lessons of tolerance for each other and patience with deprivation. Even if their version of deprivation is missing out on playgrounds and museums. Still, it builds character to have to go without because it teaches them to appreciate what they had and to learn gratitude for what might come.

We’re all on our own learning curve as we try to beat the curve. Here’s my hope and wishes to you all that you’re able to find the humor and the wisdom in those small moments when you can.

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