I’m going to go ahead and confess: we use food stamps.
It’s not fun living right above the poverty line. I’m ashamed that we can’t afford our basic needs. I’m tired of not having a phone and cutting my own hair and making all our meals at home. I’m tired of carefully asking the grandparents at Christmas if, instead of buying new toys, they’d help us pay for Phoebe’s ballet lessons.
Before we were parents, Matt and I lived humbly, squirreling away savings, until we bought our house in 2010. It was a short sale. The week we found out we were closing was the same week we found out we were pregnant. Then, when I was 7 months pregnant, I was laid off. I figured: why not give this stay-at-home-mom thing a try?
At the time, Matt’s job covered our basic needs. We paid our midwife in cash. Our mortgage was manageable; we’d intentionally chosen a home we could afford on one salary. Matt worked as much overtime as he could get. Things were tight, but we got by.
If there was something we needed around the house, I would go thrifting to find it. I loved thrifting, and people loved the things I found, so I started selling vintage clothes online to supplement our income. As my shop’s popularity grew, it became unsustainable, so I stopped. If I was going to spend this much time time pursuing something, I knew I had to be more intentional.
That’s when I started waking up before dawn to paint. Over the next couple years, as my artwork became more popular, I thought that I might be able to make real money doing it.
Then Matt’s job told him he had to stop working overtime, and we could no longer afford our bills. That’s when we started accepting food stamps. Things were so tight. I wasn’t selling many paintings. After a few emergencies, we tapped out our savings. We needed money fast, if we were going to pay the mortgage, so Matt took an extra job, working for minimum wage, 5 nights a week, at a sorting center. It sucked.
We needed a different way.
Penelope offered Matt career counseling. When we got on the phone with her, it was a reality shock. She told us we were impractical idealists and that we needed to make sacrifices, unless we wanted our daughter to end up suffering for our bad decisions.
Penelope said, “You guys are dreamers. Erin, your head is in the clouds. And, Matt, you’re the kind of guy that is loyal and dependable. That means Erin comes up with the ideal of how your lives should be, and, Matt, you help her make it a reality. But none of this is practical. You need to make more money. Matt, you probably need to be working two jobs…two good jobs…in order to support your family’s needs.”
We thought about her words, and I spoke up, “Well, can’t I help out, by working part-time as an artist?”
Penelope told me to ask other artists how they made it work.
I emailed several friends, asking them how they made a living from their craft. They all told me different versions of the same story: it’s really hard; the image of their lives that they present online is put-together, because nobody wants to hear about hardships, but, behind the scenes, they are barely making rent money while pouring a ridiculous amount of time into their crafts. Plus, their marriages take a huge toll.
No. Making money from art was not going to fix our biggest problems.
Then a series of unfortunate events hit us: my car died, the lights blew out in half our house, I needed a root canal, and Phoebe had a medical emergency. We did not have it together. I broke down and spilled my heart out on Instagram. Our community and family swelled around us in support.
Matt quit his night job so he could spend more time looking for a better full-time job. He went on a couple interviews. We felt like it was just a matter of time before he would find the right fit. I sold a series of commissions that gave us a boost through the New Year. We were making ends meet.
Maybe I was in denial, but, when Matt was laid off a few weeks ago, I got excited. I thought this was our big opportunity. We could start a business from home. Matt could be his own boss, and we could take the reins of our destiny! I felt like it was a foolproof idea: either the business would be a success, or it would be a great addition to his resume, that could help him get a better job working for someone else.
Before we lost health insurance, I slipped into my nurse practioner’s office for one last check up. After the pap smear, my nurse told me I was very fertile. Right at that moment. We’ve been trying to get pregnant for years, so once I got home, we had sex. The next day, we had sex, again.
I thought, “How poetic would that be, to turn this negative event into an amazing new adventure?! We could tell our baby: ‘If Papa was never laid off, Mama would have never gone to see the nurse that day, and we wouldn’t have known it was the right time to get pregnant.’”
I was a day late for my period. The excitement was mounting. I took a pregnancy test, and it was negative. I took one the next day: negative, again.
Then, last night, I got my period. I spent the evening numbing my feelings with lots of chocolate and TV.
This morning, in the kitchen, I asked Matt what he thought about working from home. He said the more he thought about it, the less it seemed like a good idea. He’s an ISTJ, after all. He’d be happier working for someone else. I wasn’t disappointed. He’d been mulling it over, and it was a relief to finally have an answer. Besides, I believe that accepting Matt the way he is might be the best way to show that I trust him to take care of our needs. He needs that support.
Today, Phoebe was out with Grammy. Matt was running errands. Once I had the house to myself, I started working on my portrait commissions.
I like to make art because it helps people notice beauty in their everyday lives, and I think that makes their lives better. And, on some level, I probably focus on other people, because I get overwhelmed when I think about my own life, my desires and needs, my fears.
After I put my paintings on the mantle to dry, I had an extra hour on my hands. So I sat at the table. Not pregnant. No business venture to help my husband with.
I considered updating my website, so I wrote in my journal: “What do I want people to do when they go to my website?” That made me ask myself: “What do I want?” And I realized: I don’t know. I don’t know what I want. I was paralyzed. All of a sudden, I started crying. I was so sad.
I don’t know if I was crying over the lost chance to get pregnant or the insecurity of Matt being out of work or the knowledge that there’s nothing I can do to help him support our family. Or maybe I was crying because, in that quiet moment, I was forced to face myself, who I am and what I need, and all I could feel was the weight of all my inadequacies.
When Matt came home, I asked him to read what I’d written while I finished dinner. When he got to the end, he came into the kitchen and looked at me with sad, kind eyes. “What did you think?’ I asked him.
“It was very…raw.”
“Yeah,” I said.
He didn’t have anything left to say, so he gave me a hug. It was a good hug; and, for tonight, that was enough.