Winning Bread, Losing Guilt

“What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work?”
“Need of money, dear.”
Dorothy Parker, in interview

I dreamed about zombies last night. It’s one of the few recurring themes in my dreams. I won’t bore you with the details. The zombies were mere environmental hazard; it was the people who were the danger. The atmosphere, though, was somewhere between “resigned” and “despair,” and it didn’t lift when the alarm went off at 5:30 this morning. That’s the bit I want to seize on, because that’s how postac felt last night. It’ll probably be different by tomorrow, mind.

The catalyst for this latest round of crankiness was notice from Texas Health and Human Services that my household has too much income to qualify for insurance assistance for the kids. The federal government had been certain that the state would cover the kids, and shifted them off our Affordable Care Act application because the state would (theoretically) take care of them. According to the Feds, we’re poor enough to need help. According to the state, we’re not. (Of course, according to the state we weren’t poor enough to need help back in September with income near zero because our 12- and 14-year old cars were worth too much money, so, uh, yeah. Bureaucracy.) Resolving this requires a lot of time on hold. I spent an hour and two minutes on hold with the Feds yesterday without talking to a real person and hung up on their terrible music because it was time to eat dinner.

Anyway. The health insurance stuff is annoying. It’s the kind of problem educated people are not “supposed” to have. I do have it better than many; we’re not reliant on food banks. We can pay our rent. We’re not sure where we’ll scrape together several hundred dollars more for health insurance for the kids every month, but that problem, too, will eventually get solved. Eventually.

While getting to eventually, the mini-crisis kicked up the dust of old anxieties. When we have money trouble, it feels like a personal failure. Societal gender norms say the man is “supposed” to be the bread winner. Never mind the real numbers on who earns more money in a household, especially since the bottom fell out of the economy. Growing up, my dad put in 60-80 hour weeks running a restaurant, but my mom’s consultancy and later full-time employment brought in more money. Intellectually, I understand the reality that the intersection of structural inequities in women’s pay, increases in women’s general level of education relative to men, and broad shifts in the labor market tangle things into an enormous mess that eradicates inherited norms. I understand the ways the numbers tell me that my situation isn’t atypical. That doesn’t change the way I feel about it. I feel like I should be bringing in enough money that the state and federal governments shouldn’t be arguing about whether I count as poor.

As a postac, feelings of financial inadequacy resonate with a chorus of guilt-strings. There’s a monetary level to it—my partner paid the lion’s share of our bills when I was in school. That’s how we avoided loans for living expenses. The money’s only one piece of it, though. She wanted to spend time with the kids when they were young. Because she had to work for our bills to get paid, that wasn’t feasible. I took care of the kids. I had my doctorate drag on and on through shifting tides of funding, research, and an interminable span of writing. For the first 10 years of our marriage, we lived where I was in school. Grad school dominated our lives for a decade. Then, after all the time stewing in that dream, I chucked it.

So yeah. That’s all my fault. My “terrible life choices” (as Marge Simpson would put it) ate up not just a decade of my life, but a decade of my partner’s and the majority of what my kids have known so far. When my personal demons are riled up, life seems as bleak as it did in that zombie dream: what terrible thing will I have to do next to survive? How have I doomed us all?

The problem with this guilt is the one central to so much postac misery: the comparisons that gnaw at me are to a hypothetical and improbable ideal. It’s true that I didn’t achieve the goals I had when I started grad school. I didn’t achieve the goals I had when I quit high school, either, but I don’t feel particularly guilty about that. (Granted, those didn’t involve other people.) Life changes. Grad school did not lead me to happiness. There’s no guarantee that not going on to do a doctorate would have led me to happiness either. I really disliked living in northwest Ohio. Maybe I’d be blogging now about how much I hate flat former swamps and not chasing my ambitious mid-20s dreams.

“Forgiving yourself” starts to sound way too hokey self-helpish for cynical ol’ me, but I think it’s a necessary step in the process. This isn’t just a question of narrative wreckage. This is about blaming ourselves, and stopping blaming ourselves. It’s wasted energy. When we get sucked into guilt, we’re letting our past decisions dominate our present and intrude on our future. The tricky bit is in learning from our mistakes without letting them poison our emotional landscape. (The other tricky bit might be coffee, which is often good for lifting one out of morning bleakness.) My own personal demons don’t stay riled up about grad school like they used to. I’m working on keeping my eyes forward.

They’ll never see a right way forward, only better and worse ways. Regardless, I’m pretty sure that “supposed to” is one of the worst benchmarks with which to gauge those paths.

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