Last year, 2019, was the BEST Christmas I’d ever had.
Or so I thought.
It was the first year I’d been able to buy my kids their own Christmas presents, and not only that, I was able to get them everything they’d asked for. As a single mom working 3 jobs and tiptoeing around social services to make sure we didn’t lose food stamps or energy assistance ( a few cents over and we’d be toast- or more like freezer burned), it was a miracle and a huge accomplishment for me to be able to give my kids everything on their Christmas wish lists without any help!
I was able to get my fiance a real present, not some lame handmade coupon book for sex acts we probably would have done anyway ( sorry for the overshare, just sayin’).
In the past, we had never had enough money to go Christmas shopping together – something I always wanted to do but just couldn’t. Before I met my future hubster, we’d always had to rely on others 100% for any kind of Christmas. Cookies were always the packet mixes dropped off along with canned food, boxed mashed potatoes and stuffing from food donation services.
Gifts were always from the same types of organizations for the needy. My kids were the ones on the Angel tree or that received toys and clothes from the Salvation Army.
My cheap plastic tree was a gift years ago from an ex boyfriend who felt sorry for us one year, because I couldn’t afford one.
I felt ashamed always because I couldn’t provide for my kids, and I certainly couldn’t give them the magical Christmas I believed they deserved.
Until last year.
Last year, I could finally say I wasn’t living in poverty. I was officially lower middle class!
We got a big ol’ real Christmas tree. It was beautiful! I gave my kids each a $200 gift card to buy presents for their family members. I baked dozens of homemade Christmas cookies, all my Nani’s amazing recipes that have 8 million ingredients I could never afford to buy before! On Christmas morning, there were beautifully papered gifts piled all around the tree – not one from anyone but me and J (the fiancé). I made real, homemade hot chocolate (not the packets) and rented whatever Christmas movies I felt like watching. Sure, I spent the next 6 months paying off credit card debt, but I was elated that someone even approved me for a credit card, that I had debt to pay off! And it was totally worth it to me, to have reached a level of financial stability that I’d never had before. And I felt like it could only get better from there!
And then came 2020.
2020 has been a shit show for everyone, let’s just be honest. And the shittiness of it all hit my family square in the face. I had been sick all year. In late 2019, I managed to end up with with both Type A and Type B flue, at the same time, with a side order of mono. I was still struggling to recover from that when the ‘Rona hit. The lies and misinformation spread by the people in charge here in the US meant no one really took it too seriously. I got sick in March with all the symptoms of the virus – dry cough, shortness of breath, intermittent fevers, and a tiredness I’d never experienced before, not even with mono. Of course, no one could get tested at first, so I had no choice but to keep plugging along. I got a couple weeks off from going to work – at a school mind you- when my doctor diagnosed me with a severe viral infection of the lung. She stressed that I should treat the infection as if it were Covid, and isolate for 14 days, much to the dismay of my Principal.
Now this may seem like a long drawn out story, but I really don’t think many people realize how difficult it was to be sick with what looked like Covid and not be able to get confirmation, and not be able to make the best choice for the health and safety of my family and community. And there were serious choices that needed to be made. Bosses don’t like people missing work because you have a cough. Noble ideas of preventing thousands of kids, their parents and grandparents from getting sick mean nothing. You have a job, you have to do it. I went to work a lot of days where I shouldn’t have, because I was afraid of losing the best job I’d ever had in a field that actually mattered to me.
I was terrified of going backward. Back to the life I’d had before. Back to multiple retail jobs. Back to slimy bosses trying to take advantage of the single mom. Back to eating potatoes and canned vegetables every day. Back to being poor. Back to being a disappointment.
So out of that fear, I stayed.
And my health didn’t really get better. I would start to feel ok for a few ways, get a little rush of energy and think it was finally over, only to be back in bed with unbearable body aches and unable to breath a week later. This went on for months. Thankfully schools shut down and we were working from home all summer. Because there were more days than I could count where I couldn’t even drag myself out of bed.
By the time testing was available for everyone and they came out with the antibody tests, it was too late. The time had passed for either of those to be positive. Because I kept getting sick and couldn’t breath, walk or function for weeks at anytime, I got tested for Covid several times. All negative. My doctor finally diagnosed me with adult onset asthma, likely from the severe lung infection and unfortunate amount of sickness I’d endured this year.
Even now, I still can’t take a deep breath. I use 2 inhalers, one daily and one for emergencies. No one in my family has ever had asthma. This is ridiculous. I can’t do many things I used to do. My exercise is limited to yoga and slow and easy strength training. I cant eat certain things, because they trigger an asthma attack. I can’t take long walks on the beach. I can’t have rambunctious sex. I feel like I’m 70 years old. I’m always tired, and when a wave hits me, I can barely move. I’m literally stuck in bed. It feels like I’m paralyzed.
I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Which is why I left my job when they announced we would be going back to in school learning, no more working from home. Since I couldn’t get a positive test early on, I don’t qualify for pandemic relief unemployment. I do get regular unemployment. In my state, one of the worst, its $250 a week.
Before the pandemic, I worked a ton of overtime every week. It’s how I was able to afford that awesome Christmas last year. It was helping us save up to buy a house. I was paying off debt. Raising my credit score after a divorce that left me in financial ruin for years.
Once we started working from home, I was limited to only working 40 hours per week. It killed me. Without it, I don’t actually make enough to pay all the bills. I could keep the lights on, but I couldn’t pay a single bill in full. I still made too much to qualify for assistance of any kind, and in this state, I wouldn’t qualify for energy assistance even if I was homeless.
We plowed through our savings, took out more debt. Then I had to make a choice: Expose myself and my family further to more sickness, and expose others, or create a new path for myself and my family.
Me and my kids are kind of on an island. We arent terribly close to family and I haven’t had the luxury of developing too many close friendships over the years. If I die, my children will be alone. My fiance would take them, of course, but he’d then be a single dad to two teens that arent his, and forced to do it on his lower middle class, borderline poverty wages. I feel guilty even thinking of that as an option. My kids have had enough loss and horrifying experiences for 10 lifetimes. I refuse to put myself in a position where there is a high likelihood of hospitalization or death. Not for $15 an hour.
Long story long, here we are Christmas 2020. I’ve been living off $250 a week and trying to market my skills as an editor and writer, and not gaining much traction. Next week I will exhaust my unemployment benefits and will have no incoming money. My utilities have been shut off several times already. The kids and I went without phone service for 3 months. I’ve tried getting TANF, and I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong, but I never get the interview call they say I will recieve, and despite calling every 20 minutes for weeks on my fiances phone, haven’t been able to get through to the interview number it says to call if you miss it. I’ve had benefits denied 3 times now. This last time they asked me to fax proof of unemployment benefits. I faxed that info several times and have confirmations of those faxes being sent. They say they didn’t get it and denied benefits again. I think that this is common practice in my state, to make things so frustrating people give up. Its tempting.
In any case, I am officially broke AF! I’ve known for a while that there would be no magical Christmas this year.
This year, there would be no Christmas tree – they cost more than we have. My kids would get two presents, each costing less than $15. J and I would not be exchanging gifts. Christmas cookies would be packets from Aldi’s. If we were able to have a Christmas dinner, it would have to be donated food items.
It sounds depressing AF. It sounds like I took 3 steps backwards. But ya know what?
I know I made the right choice. And ultimately, my position was furloughed anyway. So I would have ended up here no matter what, except after months of being exposed to more sickness.
I don’t feel like I took 3 steps backward, because I was alive and (reasonably) well for Christmas this year.
I don’t feel the guilt I felt in the past. I feel blessed to be spending the holidays with my children.
I don’t feel like I’m spinning my wheels in an endless cycle. I have hope and excitement for my future, doing something I love instead of something meaningless that almost, kind of pays the bills.
I don’t feel like my kids are missing out on something they deserve to have. I feel lucky to be making cookies with cheap powder mixes and to watch my kids open their cheap gifts gratefully, without a single complaint.
Maybe it’s because my kids are older and they don’t seem too upset by our lack of Christmas spending. Maybe it’s because I’m not alone, I have a sweet, supportive and kindhearted fiancé to lean on when I’m feeling weak. Maybe it’s because all this sickness has left me feeling sort of numb to the things that used to seem so important. Maybe it’s because I know there are millions of people who’ve been affected by this pandemic in far worse ways than I have. Or maybe, this year’s circumstances have opened my eyes to some realities I’ve been too busy feeling sorry for myself to see before.
Like the reality that my kids are the Christmas magic, not the money spent on them.
I’ve had a lot of time with my kids, who I also pulled from school to educate at home. Time I’ve prayed for years to have with them, but couldn’t have because I felt too guilty, like I had no choice but to work myself to death to put food on the table.
Covid forced me to reevaluate that choice. I could have stayed at work. I could have picked up a second job. Risked my health. Risked the health of others. I could have kept my kids in public school so that they weren’t home all day alone and getting into trouble or so that I could avoid figuring out how to educate them.
Just like before. But I don’t want to go back to the way things were before. Before was like living in quicksand. Surrounded by chaos, with every movement pulling me closer to drowning in it.
Covid forced me to see that the quicksand is only an illusion. That I’ve always had a choice. That the fear of financial deprivation has kept me from truly experiencing the joy of Christmas.
It kept me from experiencing the joy of raising my children. The joy of life in general.
This Christmas, I think one of the most eye opening realizations for me is that all these years, I’ve had the best gifts a girl could have right in front of me. It took a global pandemic for me to realize that I’m not stuck running in circles on a wheel of hopelessness. That things are only things, money is only a tool. That work can also be my passion. That there is no shame in being in a place of figuring things out. Cuz that’s what were all doing, just at different points in the spectrum.
This Christmas had it’s own magic, without the lights, without the feast, without the gifts. It’s special because it’s been filled with the hope that makes Christmas magic to begin with.
There is no map to where we are headed. We may very well be headed straight for a period of time spent living in my car. It’s highly likely that our utilities will get shut off again. It’s a given that we will be eating ramen and canned veggies for the next few months at least.
But I’m not afraid. This Christmas was the best Christmas, far better than last year, because I learned to stop hiding from reality. I learned to stop running from my fears. Instead, I learned to forgive myself for past mistakes and to make the right choice for my family’s well-being, not the choice that seemed to make the most financial sense.
I learned to face my fears and to see my circumstances as an opportunity to make things different.
To create a better reality. This Christmas came with the gift of promise, of hope, of excitement and a fresh start.
And that is why Christmas 2020 has been the best, worst Christmas ever!
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