It was circa 1998, it wasn’t an upcoming Prince song and we certainly weren’t partying like it was going to be at all. We were poor – my first husband and I. I got fat on mainly hot chips and bread diet we ate to feel warm and full. Lots of bread. We had very little money once we’d covered the rent and bills, and we were struggling.
We’d moved Christchurch from Sydney – me coming back to my beloved NZ – him being pulled here as a born and bred Sydneysider
Neither of us had ever really experienced struggle – bar the fact we’d both grown up in the poorer of families in our suburbs, we were both raised in homes our parents owned, with educated parents, who were in professional jobs, and in “nice” suburbs
And then our plans for me to get a job while he studied didn’t work out. I couldn’t get into teaching. We’d chosen the wrong city and the wrong year and we were POOR.
Christmas the year before had been a budget of five dollar gifts each, and we only got Christmas food because my Aunt sent us a care package as my parents and siblings were travelling in Europe
Near the end of the year I finally got a full time role, and we were delighted.
We celebrated with an extra piece of fish from the chippie (only $1.20 for a piece of fish!!) and went down to the banks of the river Avon and wrote a very long list of “things we will never forget about being poor”
I’ve still got that list somewhere in a box of relics, though I’ve not read it for a long time.
If only that had been my first glimpse and experience of poverty. It wasn’t. It got worse during some periods where I was raising three children on my own and it was a toss up between paying for food or paying for power
And the shear energy you need to expend just to survive. To keep going, To wake up, get up and just get through the day and still be there for the work you must do, and for the children you are raising.
The thing is we were raised in privilege, and yet we found it very very difficult to get back to it once we found ourselves in a place of lack. We had the benefit of knowing what the “right” and the “good” and the “healthy” things were because we had lived in it, but even knowing that isn’t enough when you are stuck.
It is so easy to slide into a place of lack, and get stuck there. I do not even know how people who have been raised in poverty rise – because we, as people who had been raised in middle class families were adrift.
Truth is we still had privilege. We are white Europeans, with education, qualifications and more.
By the end of my marriage I pretty much only had my whiteness and education left – leaving an abusive relationship in the safety of a police car and fleeing with nothing but debt is a sure fire way to strip you of everything you had taken for granted.
As much as it is hard to climb back up, even with advantage, it’s also amazing how hard it is to remember that once things are easier.
Five years ago I sat my daughters down and said that while I would always be able to support them, and provide for them, we had to let go of the idea that we would be able to live in our own home. It was out of reach for us. It was just too big for me to imagine.
And then, just a few months later I men the man who would become my husband and happened to come with a house (a tiny one but a house nonetheless) and since then we have bought and sold two and I am now very much a home owner.
And, I have the liberty to run a growing business, and invest time into it without worrying about how I will fed my family.
We can buy half a home kill cow, that cost us less than 10 dollars a kilo, but would have been unimaginable to me as a single parent (because upfront it’s a 1k investment)
We tell our children we need to be careful, but can still buy a takeaway every week, go out for date night on a Friday, have overseas trips and we have a scary amount of i-devices (granted no iPhone Seven but quite a few iPhone 5s in this house plus my iPhone 6 the rest of the family calls a television due to it’s size)
And I am able to take time to exercise, and make healthy food (that we can afford to buy!) because there is not this heavy burden of panic.
I remember (during the poverty years) going to a friends house and saying I needed to get a new car (without paying more than a couple of grand at the max), and them giving me advice about buying a range rover because they had a few late model ones at their beach house, that they used for just then, and thinking “this is so out of my league of concept I can not even begin to work out how this could even apply to me!”
I am terrified I will one day be this person – it is very easy to slide into assumption that because you are a home owner so is the person next to you, that your late model car is fully owned, so another person’s is too, and that is is quite possible to have cauliflower for dinner instead of potatoes because it’s only an extra $30 odd dollars a week.
And yes – I am still a person of less privilege – I was a single parent and I still carry that a round a little ( the highlight of my single parenting was having a random person approaching me to ask “are they all from the same dad?” – well yes they were, but even if they weren’t why ask that of a stranger???), and the big one now is, I’m most definitely round – and I know that in some circles that can sometimes limit my success in terms of public speaking and being at events (as a marketer I know full well that I’m less easier to use as a poster girl for anything :D)
I am hopeful that I will always remember the battlegrounds of poverty and have the grace to understand from a really personal perspective what can cause a couple to fall into abuse, to have to make choices about lunches for their children or paying the debtor at their door, and just why stress and tension can indeed make people fatter, less active, and chronically ill (to be clear I consider all those things can stand alone – as a fat person I’m in no way saying that being fat = ill health)
I’ve just finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale and one thing stood out to me on there – how fast we can as humans both allow ourselves to become accustomed to either the complete loss of privilege, and become worn down by it, or alternatively, how fast we see our privilege as a right, and something that somehow makes us so much more deserving than the next person.
The key is, I believe, is to remember every human is precious and valuable. Regardless of the position of privilege they have found themselves in. How to apply that belief however, that’s the tricky part.