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Heather Ryan

Heather Ryan
Location
Eugene, Oregon, US
Birthday
December 20
Bio
"Imagine," says writer TK Dalton, "a knocked up Bookslut, Salam Pax with a dead beat ex instead of Raed. That's Terrible Mother." She's also a quick-thinking, smart-mouthed single mother to three kids. By day, she teaches writing to college freshmen and sophomores. By night, she cooks, cleans, parents and writes. She is, despite vehemently claiming to be one, not a hipster, but does have an MFA in Fiction from the University of Oregon, which she earned by duct-taping her children to chairs and feeding them bottles of Benadryl (not necessarily in that order). Terrible Mother still lives in Oregon, where she deals her snarky brand of parenting humor to her friends. "Another single mother blog?" says novelist Roby Connor. "Someone get this lady some Jesus."

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AUGUST 22, 2008 6:08PM

Just Passing

Rate: 58 Flag

Years ago, as I was standing in the checkout line, a woman turned to me and said, “It must be nice to afford such expensive clothes.”  We were in a Food-4-Less, the kind of place where pallets of food are stacked to the rafters and you pack your own groceries.  I was wearing jeans and an old t-shirt, my hair pulled back into a pony tail, and so I looked around, wondering if she had meant me. 

“What?” I said.  I wasn’t rude; I was confused. 

“I said, ‘it must be nice to afford expensive clothes.”  The second time, I heard the undertones in her voice, the sarcasm cut with condescension.  Her arms were crossed tight across her chest.  She had a small, pinched face and her hair was pulled back into a taut knot.  She nodded her head at my daughter, Chloe, who was sitting in the cart.  It was then that I noticed what Chloe was wearing:  a Ralph Lauren Polo dress, in pristine condition.  In my hands, I held the WIC vouchers I was about to use for the milk and orange juice and tuna and carrots.  I was visibly pregnant, belly round and defined. 

What was there to say?  That I’d found the dress for a few dollars at a Goodwill?  That I was employed with a good job and married?  Should I have explained that I was pregnant so soon after the first baby not because I was irresponsible or didn’t know how to use a condom, but as a matter of choice?  Should I have told this woman, this perfect stranger, that I had the best health insurance and maternity benefits I could probably hope to have for years?  Should I have maybe outlined the WIC program, given her statistics on the benefits it provides young families, the fact that lots of middle income workers qualify for it?   

I turned around, didn’t say anything, because what was there to say?  Who knew which was the “right” answer for this woman.  Maybe I could have told her that the dress had cost a dollar and change, but more than likely, that answer would have led to another accusation masquerading as a question, then another, and another.  There wasn’t anything I could have said that would have proven I deserved the charity I was receiving, let alone the benefit of the doubt. 

And I didn’t answer, in part, because I believed then that answering to unreasonable accusations required someone to become defensive—and being defensive was the harbinger of “whining.”  It’s a powerful word to describe someone; even now, it’s become descriptor non-grata on talk radio programs, a means of dismissing any argument criticizing a current situation (like dismissing the recession by claiming that America is “a nation of whiners”). 

I don’t think, though, anyone will mistake this entry for “whining.”  Because my response as I read the letters in response to my Salon piece was far from whining*.  It was more on par with anger—the kind that might make a normally rational mother of three chew her nails down to the quick.  There were the comments that stood as evidence of poor reading skills, like the person who said I should stop buying shoes (referring to loving Mary Janes was tantamount to buying them, I suppose).  There were comments that were asinine, like the reader who insisted that I could have fed my entire family on a pure vegan diet for $5/day.  There were others that were wildly inaccurate—like anything remotely attempting to put figures to my potential salary as a secretary, the SSI I get for Ivan, or the cost of my rent.  Lots of people weighed in on my degree, the relative stupidity of getting an art degree, at the Master’s level no less, with three kids.  Others took that three kids business and ran with it—I was “shitting out” children I couldn’t care for, and hadn’t I had more sense?  Maybe I shouldn’t have been so eager to divorce my husband, or maybe I should sue him for more child support, and anyway, didn’t you raise your kids better than to spit out day-old pastries?  When I was a kid, we never had pastries, some reader said, and would have loved even day old ones.  Clearly Ivan is spoiled.  Privileged.  Non-deserving.

It’s the last thing that was the common thread, the thing that stuck out.  We do this with lots of things:  charity, government aid, scholarships.  We make people pass a litmus test where anything, any aspect of their lives, is fair game. Do they waste money on cable television?  Do they have a newer car? Or, perhaps the most devastating one:  Are they “trying”?  What does “trying” even look like?  What does it entail? These kinds of tests are always about something the tester is lacking or doesn't have (a car, for example).  But the terrible thing is that no one person can ever answer all the litmus tests of the world.  There will always be someone ready to tell you that you should have thought more carefully about child care expenses, or that your affection for French cheese doesn’t jive with their image of someone who is poor. 

This is part of the problem, too:  the words “poor” and “poverty” are so broad that they have been rendered almost meaningless.  Claim you’re poor, and lots of people think that means you’d better be living out of your car and taking meals at the Mission.  Say you’re living in poverty, and you’d better be working a minimum wage gig and buying single cigarettes for spare change.  These words, though, don’t reflect the complexity of the economic reality of Americans.  The fact that there are numerous people who live far below the poverty line doesn’t make those who live right at, or even above, the poverty line less important.  Making that argument attempts to create a false dilemma, where one can eternally ignore the problems of the crumbling middle class, often in favor of paying lip service to helping the “truly poor.”  That same impulse attempts to render the experiences of those who “aren’t truly poor” as less affecting, less difficult, and that means we don’t have to talk about them. 

Does that sound boring to you?  Let me break it down, then:  if one more person tells me I’m not fucking poor because I’m educated or have a full-time job, or a car, then I’m going to take my overdue electric bill and shove it up his sanctimonious ass.  Living in any kind of poverty is hard, and anyone who has had to be hungry in America has lived in poverty. 

  In the Shadow

More importantly, the vilification of the poor or the working class, or anyone who talks about what it’s like—that it’s hard, brutal, exhausting to contemplate the stretched-thin life daily—undermines the American Dream.  If we say that we believe in a system where hard work and determination and “pluckiness” can be rewarded, if we talk with admiration of our grandparents and great-grandparents who pulled together lives from little, if we embroider into our cultural myths people like Bill Gates and J.K. Rowling and their experiences, then we have to allow that people struggle now, that poverty exists, and that it’s difficult.  We have to understand that some people try and fail.  We cannot have it both ways.  We cannot, at least in good conscience, worship the ends while refusing to acknowledge the means.  In this case, the means looks like a soup kitchen, or WIC vouchers, or furniture pulled from a dumpster, or a stack of Safeway gift cards sent by friends. 

The belief in the American Dream also requires a belief in risk-taking that would not only allow someone—say a mother of three--to throw her money on the table, and get an MFA in Creative Writing, but would encourage it.  And how risky was my degree?  I had a myriad of reasons to go to school, not the least of which was a scholarship, a stipend, health insurance, and subsidized child care and housing.  From where I stand, it doesn't look risky to make use of those benefits.

This isn’t the entire reason I went to grad school, though, just as saying “I like to write” doesn’t convey why I keep this blog or turn out essays.  It’s more than that, deeper than I wanted to admit before, harder to admit to than taking my kids to a soup kitchen.  My family started solidly middle-class, and then slid steadily down the economic ladder.  There were reasons for this, namely my father’s alcoholism.  There were failures of all kinds, periods where we’d lack electricity or food.  In seventh grade, my wardrobe consisted of one pair of jeans, three shirts, and a worn pair of sneakers.  I had no underwear. 

At the same time, I was in all the gifted classes, the token poor kid in a sea of middle- and upper-middle class kids.  I wasn’t poor in the inner-city way, but to my classmates, I might as well have been.  I had never had piano lessons or tutors.  I hadn’t taken French or Spanish.  But I learned the language of the entitled middle class all the same.  I learned its values. And I learned how to pass like I belonged there. 

But I never have, not really, and it’s one of my deepest insecurities.  I claim my intelligence more than I need to, all the goddamn time, because it’s the trump card in that world—intelligence for its own sake.  The most difficult thing in going to the soup kitchen wasn’t the actual act of driving there, unloading the kids, and walking in, but what it meant to me.  It meant I had ceased just passing—that I was acknowledging that I had been an imposter all this time.  It meant, too, that maybe there wasn’t any way to escape where you came from.  All those years, all those moves from tiny duplex to tiny duplex, cars falling apart in the driveway, I remember believing that if I was just smart enough…if I just worked hard enough....  It was the one thing I had. 

We pretend that talking about class is an easy thing.  We lay out reasons and ideas as though their perfect symmetry of logic and belief would apply in practice as it does in theory.  We lay blame on the poor for their own plight.  And maybe I am whining.  It would be easier to think I was because then so much less would be at stake.  I’d give anything to be wrong about this, because then it means that, sure, I failed, but Chloe or Ivan or Giselle maybe won’t.  There are lots of times when I’d like that to be true.  But it isn’t. 

This morning, in the kitchen, I made pancakes. It’s August, and money is tight, like it is every summer, though there’s been no soup kitchen or food bank this go around, at least yet.  I managed to sell enough writing to scrimp through these three months without work, meaning I could forgo the spendy childcare.  It has not been easy, but I’m making it, carving out a life as best I can.  I wonder what the kids will make of these years, what they’ll remember.  I flipped the pancakes, poured coffee this morning and Giselle, the baby, turned on some music. Bob Dylan’s scratchy voice filled the kitchen.  Giselle danced, swung her hips back and forth with precision, and Chloe and Ivan laughed.  I watched them, looked to see if they were happy, and they were.  Chloe is still reading The Diary of Anne Frank.  Ivan is planning on being an environmental lawyer, even as he’s trying to pay attention in class, even as he knows what it means to be autistic.  If anything, I hope they always believe the world is not as bleak and merciless as I sometimes worry it is.  That belief is a luxury a lot of people can no longer afford.

-Heather Ryan**

*A good many of them were thoughtful, and by thoughtful I don't necessarily mean supportive.  I appreciated the hell out of those.

**Post-Salon essay, I had a few days when I wanted nothing more than to only write under a pseudonym, forever and ever amen.  And then I thought, fuck that.  The only reasonable solution was to ditch the nom de plume entirely.

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Heather, I like this name MUCH better. I never believed that you were a terrible mother and this essay and your piece on Salon have confirmed that. You are an amazing mother.
Great piece (both here and on Salon). Regarding the ugly comments? What can I say...some people are assholes who make themselves feel better by judging others. Fuck 'em.

After my parents divorce, we were on welfare for a time while my mother went to college, and believe me when I tell you that I only remember her doing her best and loving us. In our case, it was a relief to be poor and happy as opposed to financially secure but in an abusive household where daily life was fraught with violence and emotional insecurity.
It meant I had ceased just passing—that I was acknowledging that I had been an imposter all those years.
No, you weren't. THEY have been the imposters all along, Heather. I grew up in a typical lower-middle-class family (translation - we would have been considered "poor" by today's standards), but both my mom and dad worked so we always had food to eat. My parents were the superintendents of the apartment building where we lived - not because it was a good job, but because that meant we lived rent-free. Hand-me-downs were de rigueur fashion.
I spent a year on unemployment, utilizing WIC because we needed to. I never felt shame about that - when you need help, YOU NEED HELP. The hell with what others think. Kudos to you for being able to struggle through it - I have no doubt that it is one of the hardest things on the planet to be a single parent and I think you're doing a bang-up job.
I see by Julie's comment you are the artist formerly known as terriblemother - I'm glad you decided to drop that, since you are obviously anything but. :-D
When I read vitriolic replies to thoughtful, personal essays, I always think that to myself that one can't win by responding. And yet you have.
Bravo, Heather Ryan. Bravo.
People are awfully clever at solving other people's problems, aren't they?

You and Michael Copperman discussed, in the comments of his post memorializing his former wrestling coach, the value of not flinching. You didn't flinch from doing what you had to do to feed your children, and you didn't flinch from this essay. Much respect.
Hello, Heather.

Excellent essay. There's no shame in being poor, as long as the kids have enough food and a place to sleep.

BTW, there is an answer to people who harass you, though you may have to whisper it in their ear sometimes. Just say, f*** you.

Cheers,

David
One of the very worst things about the online environment--for me, at least--is how quickly bad can drive out good, and how easily one can allow anonymous or semi-anonymous nastiness to get to one (I *still* haven't gotten over invective that people hurled at me on USENET back in the *80s*).

Remember Sturgeon's Law, Heather, and hang in there.
Great essay!
Why is it that some people are always out to prove that their suffering trumps yours? Do they think that their problems earn them some sort of halo? Or that you're going to be ashamed you aren't as destitute as they are?
I don't get it, and I've been a target of that kind of accusation myself.
You are fantastic. Great article.
Hi Heather:
Thank you for sharing -- there was something familiar about that piece on Salon, now I know why -- I had already met the author here at OS. As I have written to Joan many times, I cannot believe the things that people write in the comments sections on Salon. Where do these people come from? Because I don't see so much of that in my everyday life -- people being that mean and thoughtless with such consistency!

I have a natural naive habit that helps me when people are making fun at my expense. Because I generally believe that people are good, I hear the words before I grasp the nuance. So, if that woman had said that to me about the dress, I have no doubt what would have come out of my mouth would have been: "Yes, I know isn't it great? I was so pleased to find it at St. Vincent DePaul's! Have you ever been there, you cannot believe the great things a few dollars will buy." Will all the sincerity and gusto in the world, because regardless of my income bracket, I have always loved to find a great bargain that becomes a much needed tool or treasure.

I would have felt blessed to have found a cute dress for $1.50 and if you can have a cute dress for $1.50, why would you buy the ugly one? After I realized what she meant, which might not dawn on me for days, I will go on a slow burn. But, I was blessed not to hear every slam as it was intended. I wish I could loan you this quirk.

The problem is that people do not understand this thing that the media flips out called "the working poor". Barack Obama defined middle class as up to $150,000 a year. The poverty line is somewhere around $40,000. It is NOT possible to live easily anymore with a family of four on $40,000. Single moms have it the worst because you have to work AND pay for child care (or single dad in the same situation).

Don't think one more time about those horrible comments. If you post again on BSalon, let Michael read the comments and give you the Reader's Digest condensed version of the good ones.

I think the people that post on OS are wonderful, and I know some of us still post on Salon. But the difference is that most people here really do care, or are at least interested in our little community. I am boiling with anger on your behalf just now. I just hate to hear that with all you laid on the table, that people were willing to abuse you as well. It is unconscionable. People JUST don't get this current economy and how hard it is to get by...I wish you all the best.
So curious. When the editors chose something about Angry for the headline and I read this article I thought you were going to suggest how actually angry these posters were at their own situation.
Not really yours. They were just taking it out on you.
Which of course is unfair, mean, but we all do it to some degree when we are uncomfortable in our own skin.

This was courageous of you to byline with no nom de plume, not to mention to respond at all.

Great writing.
Go gurl
The official poverty level is actually much meaner: $21,200 for a family of 4. The median household income in 2006 (the latest year available) was $48,201. So half of households have income below that.

As for the responses to your writing, Heather, that just sucks. And I know from personal experience how you feel--I've been in severe financial straits, and I've gotten some remarkable nasty letters in response to articles I've written, including an article about having cancer. Nice, huh?

For the life of me, I will never understand why people think it is OK to be so nasty. If they wanted to just disagree in some reasonable manner that would be one thing, but why the personal attacks? Attacking someone for needing some help taking care of herself and her kids? That's just unconscionable.
Terrific writing and you are a terrific and admirable person. I admired you and your writing on Salon proper and I admire it over here.

Those people are afraid, of course. If it can happen to you, it can happen to them. So, they do everything they can to blame you. Otherwise, they would have to acknowledge that control is just an illusion, that bad and difficult stuff can happen to any of us, at any time.
Those people are afraid, of course. If it can happen to you, it can happen to them. So, they do everything they can to blame you. Otherwise, they would have to acknowledge that control is just an illusion, that bad and difficult stuff can happen to any of us, at any time. Yes, absolutely!
Heather, kudos to you. I read your piece on Other Salon and only had enough of an attention span for about two pages of the letters, all of which seemed supportive as I read through them. So, at least there was that.

By the standards you describe here, I have been poor going on three or four years now, but I've taken comfort in hoping my now eight year-old son will one day benefit from (if not consciously recall with fondness) all the time our family's poverty has given me to spend with him.

As I think back on my own childhood, growing up in the house of a successful businessman whose financial successes clothed me in the latest fashions and allowed me to sleep in pima cotton sheets - but deprived me of his company and attention and a visceral sense of his love - I can't say for certain who has had the more destitute upbringing.

Thanks for writing, peace ...
Wonderful post, and I feel privileged (in the true sense of the word) to add my words of support to all of the others here.
You know Heather, I'm just glad you're here. It's a serendipitous thing to have run across you, I know, and what a happy accident it has been for me. We run across some writers in our lives at times that help illuminate ourselves, not only via the sheer pleasure of reading someone with that gift, but leading us to a point of reflection, that if we choose we are just that little bit better or more human for having those gifts you bestow. I know you know what I"m saying, it's one thing that true writers live for. I don't know how to say it any better, but thanks.
There are so many smug people in the US that don't see what's going on around them. The ones who think they are deserving. God forbid they ever get in a crunch. I realize how close we all are to falling into financial trouble, all it takes is the loss of a job and a bad medical problem. I like your courage and commitment to education. Who really needs many material things? Thanks for your post, it's inspirational.
You're Terrible Mother?! I had no idea! I read your Salon article the other day, sitting in a lunchroom surrounded by people who were watching me as tears streamed down my face. I was moved by your story.

And horrified by the few comments that I could stomach.

In the ER, whenever a patient comes in after being in a car wreck, the first thing the staff asks as the clothes are being cut off of the victim is, "was she wearing her seatbelt?" If the paramedics answer "no" then there is non-stop sanctimonious blathering. If the patient was strapped in though, the room becomes quiet.

OdetteR is right - these people are so afraid to admit that this could happen to them.

Thanks for having the courage to write.
We got welfare when I was a kid. We got food stamps. We got surplus food with USDA stickers on it, and food bank food when that ran out. I can remember eating corn meal mush for two months my sophomore year of high school in San Diego. I may have been an honors student, but was hard to pay attention to the "The Pearl" or "Moby Dick." Algebra went to hell. I was too hungry to pay attention to it. We moved 27 times before I dropped out of high school.

My mother lied like a rug to people all the time about payments that were in the mail. My mother was a real mother tiger and she was generous with everyone in spite of the fact that we had little or nothing and were often on the brink of eviction. So I know about the amazing lack of insight that many people have, and which they are ever so generous to share, at the expense of anyone breathing the same air. Most of those people would have been lucky to kiss my mother's ass or yours. I hope your kids feel the ancient power of your mothering and aren't thrown off by the shallow pool out of which so many make their heartless and stupid comments. Poverty is not a moral failing, nor is it any indication of intelligence or worth. Heartlessness certainly is a strong indicator of a failure to develop ones inner resources. You know, those powers available to everyone, that have no tether to anything that materialists value most.
Hi Heather,

The much longer comment I had in my head boiled down to:

You had poverty forced upon you, but they chose to be assholeier-than-thou. Guess which of you I'd rather hang out with. Check the mirror for the answer.
John, I love your distillations of truth. 150 proof.
Amazing post, and thank you for your candor in outing yourself. It's courageous.
I had seen the "Terrible Mother" name and hadn't read it---with the 3,000 writers on OS--you gotta make choices.
But the Heather Ryan piece on Other Salon I read, remembered, quoted, printed out, sent to people and used in discussions when I wanted to say "See?---this is the way it IS"

Some folks you engage with. Leave comments for whatever reason. Some folks are real writers. So you say nothing. You just applaud.

That's you.
Powerful.

Thank you, Heather.
Hey Heather-

I'll post the same comment I would have on Salon - and risk the ire -

You are an educated, intelligent woman. What do you figure gave you the right to bring children you could not support into this world?
Finally! I've been having browser problems al night, ever since I read your post and then went to Salon to read that version. I've been trying to get back in so I could make a comment. There's a reason I quit reading Salon letters, and you've seen it. Still, I wish I'd known that you'd written something there so that I could have commented there... and maybe bitten back.

Your story about being poor and in classes with upper and middle-class students really touched a nerve with me. My story was not exactly like yours, but there were enough similarities.

Of course you have to write. Obviously you are a writer, and an eloquent one at that. But we live in a world that demands conformity even when thing aren't going too badly, and cannot bear any deviations when they are.

[I'm probably not the only one who'd like to know... do you have any websites/blogs with a PayPal option? Or do you have a PayPal account?]
Hey Kelly,

One answer is in your observation. Intelligence improves the gene pool.

Nice post, Heather. Thanks. And best of luck.
:: schnap! ::

thanks jhohendorf. I was having a hard time restraining myself from being rude.
Gee Barry, you're far more polite, even by proxy, than I was going to be. I'll just settle for a favorite lyric from John Lennon. Kellylark this goes out to you, I think it's appropriate given you avatar:

You can hide your face behind a smile
One thing you can't hide
Is when you're crippled inside
.

As if there's not enough misery in the world, you figure that you need to make someone's load of it just a little heavier. You're a pip.
From one struggling writer, M.F.A., and writing teacher to another: do not let the haters get you down. Your Salon piece was brilliant and your children are lucky as all hell to have you.
Difficulties do not cease when one chooses a life in the arts. Even the few who truly "make it" can experience the financial roller coaster; it is a struggle, for certain. But without our artists, what would our world be like?
Just want to add my voice to the supportive list here.

And I know its not PC and violence doesn't solve anything but I'll kick their asses for you if you want. I know I can take 'em.
Kellylark, perhaps the poor and the working poor should eat their babies, thereby resolving the problem of how to feed said offspring and reducing their burden on the taxpayer.

Of course, there is the risk that unplanned events might render parents poorer than they had anticipated, and that the heretofore unconsumed infants have aged to a point where they are both attached to the parents, and better able to resist being fricasseed. But, complaints or not, these are the kinds of sacrifices that people should be prepared to make.
Brava, Heather, and thank you for sharing this, and your column on Salon. Like so many others, you described a childhood much like my own--what now would be considered a disadvantaged family.

My stepfather was alcoholic and mentally ill and abusive. He wouldn't all my mother to "work," but we would have starved without her sewing "hobby." We got through lean times through the "generosity" of the farmers in the extended family--giving us produce and beef and pork and chicken from their farms (which one side of the family never, ever let us forget).

This was not the life my mother planned. My father was a Captain in the USAF, and provided a comfortable living for my mom, right up until he died when I was 9 months old (in a USAF plane crash in Turkey). Suddenly, the woman who'd wanted 4 kids could barely feed the one she had.

Shit happens. It can happen to anyone at any time. That's the randomness of the universe, and we need not to make judgments of people who are trying their hardest to get by.

You've given voice to the experiences of a lot of people. Again, Brava.
"I turned around, didn’t say anything, because what was there to say?"
To be able to say absolutely nothing in some situations, to refuse to engage with the sucking swamp, is actually the most empowering act. I read and appreciated your Salon piece when it was published but found no words to comment, as it was difficult to express the sadness-cum-optimism that it evoked--you described a reality I wasn't aware of and that hurt to hear about and made me shudder with "there but for the grace of god go I" sort of feelings. The nasty, self-righteous comments you mentioned go a long way in explaining where the ignorant masses came from to elect Bush twice (I don't live there and still don't get it), but I naively expected that Salon readers were more rational and intelligent than average. (And if that's true, god help us.) It just sickens me, and I'm so glad you ripped them a new one with this powerful essay.
I think you're already a huge winner, and hope you'll continue to be strong for all of us who want to relish your work regularly.
A very thoughtful response to the vile letters you received. I have nothing more to say.
Too early on a Saturday morning to fully express how much this touched me. I am so grateful for your essay- you put it out there so beautifully and personally.

"But I never have, not really, and it’s one of my deepest insecurities. I claim my intelligence more than I need to, all the goddamn time, because it’s the trump card in that world—intelligence for its own sake. The most difficult thing in going to the soup kitchen wasn’t the actual act of driving there, unloading the kids, and walking in, but what it meant to me. It meant I had ceased just passing—that I was acknowledging that I had been an imposter all this time. It meant, too, that maybe there wasn’t any way to escape where you came from. "

Even were I brave enough to have written that, I don't know that I could have done it. That's an admission that is deeply personal, and frightening, too.

I don't know that you'll reach any of those who would criticize your "choices", but thank you for writing this.
I'm gong to read your other comments later. I stopped reading the letters shortly after the idiot vegan put their spin on poverty into the mix. Being vegan is a fucking luxury, not a rational choice for poor people.

My mother raised 5 kids out of wedlock (never married, so no child support-like being married makes it happen(!), from 1957 to1967 for the birthing years and then the next 20 on top of that.

Sometimes I thought she was a terrible mother, but it was never because of the poverty. Kids who are poor don't really understand what poor is. Your kids are gonna be fine. You haven't let the situation make you crazy and abuse drugs. You are winning the game, one battle at a time. All they *know* and really care about is whether you love them or not.

The oldest one, that pouted at the soup kitchen needs to work there a few days when she gets to be a teenager, because by then, your pull to get yourself out of poverty will be done, and you can have her learn what it means to persevere and just get it done. The younger ones probably won't even remember it. But she will see it from the other side and maybe learn.

I am living a middle class lifestyle as a potter and artist, partially supported by my husbands middle class job and partly by sales of my artwork. He does the benefits and I do the luxuries. And every day I stayed home with my kid instead of farming him out to daycare, I thanked my "terrible mother" for teaching me how to survive in poverty, as that is how it became at the end of some months. And it didn't scare me or make me lose my shit, I just tightened our budget to meet the money. Your kids are learning that, too. Which will be an advantage they have on other middle class kids grown up that never had any deprivation. Those kids break down and suffer in the face of poverty, kind of like you do sometimes, it seems.

The most reasonable thing you can expect for your kids or yourself is to do one degree better than your parents. You are not an alcoholic, so you win. And your kids will be middle class and educated, not poor with no options, so they will win. And their kids will do even better. My son will go to college and get a job working for a living and knowing how to live a moral, normal life. He is very smart, so he might even do better than that. But I only want the former, and for him to be "happy", whatever that means to him.

And that is the real American dream, to do just a little bit better than your parents and to keep that move forward generationally.

You are doing a fine job raising your kids. And your degree shows. You are a very good communicator and you are funny as a bonus!
Purplhaz wrote: "The nasty, self-righteous comments you mentioned go a long way in explaining where the ignorant masses came from to elect Bush twice (I don't live there and still don't get it), but I naively expected that Salon readers were more rational and intelligent than average. No, especially like those from the Christian South.

@Kellylark: As a scientist, you must have to consider all the evidence before coming to a comclusion. If all the facts that you took away from Heather's story prompted your conclusion to be the judgmental, irrational thought that you posted here among Heather's friends, you certainly are not very observant. I posture not a very good scientist either...

Self-frustration and judgment of others leads to mean-spiritedness. I'll say a little prayer for the healing of your spirit, and an opening of your eyes and heart to develop a better ability to observe for both your career advancement and the spiritual evolution of your soul.
I wasn't surprised to read the comments you received, because in my experience, it simply exposes the predation of predators - who look like normal, everyday people out and about.

I learned early on never to ask for or seek out help because it unfailingly resulted in retaliation, viciousness and suffering.

I'm homeless and have been for a year. No employer will hire me because I whislte-blew and was effectively blacklisted. Writing hasn't paid a dime - but I don't have your talent, either, so I can't complain on the merits.

But I've lived off a grand total of $80 in 2008 - that averages $10 a month, and cost of it was found change on sidewalks and in gutters.

I have enough health problems and have lost enough weight that I look "funny". No phone means that I have no way for prospective employers to contact me (except of email retrieved from public libraries, which are beneficial beyond description). It means that I don't have the means to store or prepared most foods, such as (cheap, but nutirtious) dried beans and peas, pasta and rice. Forget fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy or meat, poultry and fish.

My clothes are clean, but wrinkled, and they are too big/out of style - definitely not workplace lovely.

I walk everywhere, and my toenails routinely fall off from blisters. My feet and ankles blister and bleed, and I worry about my shoes falling apart as I don't have the means to replace them.

Society has stripped the means for me to independently sustain myself. For whistle-blowing - trying to right illegal and unethical practices which had and were continuing to harm people.

A betrayal of humanity and of fundamental trust, is what that is, no matter how one is impoverished.

I don't want friends; I don't want cheerleading; I don't want handouts; I don't want "charity"; I want a job; I want to be able to afford and to keep safe shelter, nutritious food, basic weather and work-appropriate clothes; and then I want to be left alone.

That's what I think you want, as well. And it's what the people who wrote the accused and convicted comments - the great mass of predators - doesn't want to face.
Kellylark is a troll. Do not feed.
"Or do you have a PayPal account?" Yes, all we need is your email address and then you can open a PayPal account. That would be great.
I admit Heather that I was in those gifted classes and was not poor and/or living in poverty but, because my father had spent part of his upbringing in poverty, he taught me the lessons of being respectful to all and treating people of all walks of life with kindness and equality. I saw it in him everyday, walking up to the garbageman and shaking his hand, asking about his family whose kids' names he had memorized. He greeted the black men who walked past our house from the bad side of town, separated from our neighborhood by a farm, again shaking hands and asking how they were. I saw no difference in how he treated them than how he treated his fellow Rotarians or his co-workers and bosses. He'd been there and probably felt that scorn but used his personality and intelligence to overcome any scorn. I've written this before but he received a perfect score on his SAT, the only one in the nation that year, and received a full tuition academic scholarship to Duke. I guess he proved his naysayers wrong.

That's what I see in you, Heather, proving that lady and any other naysayers including one on here wrong and rising above it all. I applaud your efforts as a writer, artist, and, above all, parent.
Heather, I know how you feel. Recently I wrote an essay for The New York Press on being mugged in Harlem. I write about sex and have sometimes written about race--the two topics that turn the temperature up in America to the boiling point. The anger, the rage, the hate, the ugliness of some of the responses to that piece were stunning in their ignorance. (Never underestimate the ignorance of hate-filled people; and they come in very skin tone.) First, a good number of people couldn't read well enough to grasp that the "romance" I wrote about was my own romance with an idealized version of Harlem, not with the thug who knocked me down and stole my bag. Second, another segment of readers jumped on my sex writing career, specifically an interracial sex article, and basically said: You deserve to be mugged because you have had sex with black men. Sadly, the internet has enabled many people who should never be heard in public to speak out loudly. You wrote a fine essay. In a civilized society, we should be able to write about poverty, race, sex--and, in doing so, add to an open dialogue about the subjects that matter. How do we restore civil discourse to this country? Why can't so many people express a different opinion or raise an objection to a writer's point without vicious personal attacks? More to the point, will Open Salon become yet another internet toxic waste dump? I'm happy to have discovered your writing, Heather; and I will look for your byline.
I loved this piece along with the first one on Salon. I think part of the problem (the reason why you get all sorts of ridiculous letters when you write a personal tale about poverty) is that people either want to

A) believe whatever they went through was harder, grittier, and they're better off now for it, so you should just suck it up,

B) believe whatever they're currently going through is worse than anything you could have gone through you should just suck it up,

C) believe whatever someone they know or someone they read about went through worse shit and you should just suck it up, because that's what Americans do - they suck it up.

Everyone loves to give advice, especially if it's the kind that jabs at what they believe is "irresponsibility." It's snide and shitty - but for one reason or another, empathy is in short supply in this country.

Either way, fabulous piece - keep it up. You're good at what you do and somehow, you'll make it through this - just like the rest of us.
Great article. The ugliness people sent to you is a alarming but your response intelligent and beautiful.
Heather - thanks for sharing it, al of it - the story of your life, your thoughtful reactions to the unthoughtful reactions, your real name. It's important,what you've shared. You make too many good points to go through them all, but perhaps the most important is our skewed underling assumptions about class and entitlement. Outtanding essay, few can weave in personal experience and reflection so expertly, illuminated global points.
There are some things that are all children deserve - food, shelter, healthcare and education. ( and of course love and kindness)
If we as a nation cannot provide our future a solid start , we will have no future , just variations on the cruel past.

All families need the basics, after that it's up to the rich to take the ball and run with it to ensure their food is steak, their education is Harvard, their healthcare includes rhinoplasty and their house has a tennis court.
The truth is some people need to blame others because they only feel ok if they can feel superior. They'll evolve.But until they experience the powerlessness of 97% of the planets people,they're handicapped .

But your childen are already being exposed to real life, not living in a cocoon. There's no substitute .
Personal essays, by their very nature, seem to invite personal criticism. Unfortunately, some of those criticisms are vicious, unfounded, illogical, etc. Because of the way you weave your personal story with the issues of poverty, class, etc, it's difficult to separate your life from the broader themes when criticizing the piece. So people who disagree can attack you instead of attacking your arguments (or can attack both simultaneously). It's unfortunate, but it's the risk one takes when writing personal essays.
Nice response, Ms. Heather Ryan.
You are right that many letter writers were vicious. I wasn't the least bit surprised. I was one person who did respond (respectfully I believe) and I still disagree with some of your conclusions. I personally am frustrated that people use these highly emotional stories to justify specific government policies (i.e. increased government intervention and spending). There are many examples from many countries and many cultures that top-down government solutions do not work as well as individual freedom and market incentives. Worse yet, government solutions often make the problem more systemic and create a centralized bureaucracy from which more government power is pursued at the expense of individual opportunity. Rather than play on people's emotions, please try to provide some evidence that having government solutions are worth this trade-off. Similar to you, I want all people to be healthy and happy. If someone can provide evidence that centralized planning does this better that individual freedom, I would like to see it. But, just using personal anecdotes doesn't cut it.
So glad you wrote this---found you through breed'emandweep....might never had, had the other comments been more thoughtful.

I'm a little more self-censoring, but applaud what you have shared, how you have shared it. Well said. So much is said about issues of race, but so often it's the classism that really makes you wonder.
So true, no one wants to believe it could happen to them.

Growing up, my dad was very bad at handling money. My mother would have made a great career woman; however, she never finished college to marry my dad (back in the day, that's just what you did) so she settled for a job to make a paycheck, to compensate for his poor choices.

What I appreciate from my mother was that you don't have to look poor even if you are. I thought of her when you wrote about your daughter in the namebrand dress from goodwill. She taught us good taste -- that doesn't have to come with a good price. I use that so much now with my children, who wear good clothes from goodwill, clothes that make them look well-cared for and give people the impression that my husband makes good money in the military. Which he does, compared to my parent's income (and financial choices) growing up, but that doesn't mean we could afford those same clothes at retail value.

You may underestimate the influence your pseudo middle class upbringing had. It can teach discernment of good taste, which can lend toward personal respect and high regard of self, which can get a person through many a difficult situation. No matter how we may be faking it in the meantime.
In many ways it was like looking in the mirror reading this story. Thank you for writing. At a guess, I figure the haters write out of stark raving terror: "If you're like me you can't be poor" and the flip "the poor are not people just like me." It's just fear. Probably if we pulled our heads out of the sand and took at look around at just how many of us are living paycheck to paycheck, barely making it - however belied by all the expensive trappings we've amassed on credit - we'd all be screaming obscenities.
Heather, I really enjoyed both of your pieces on this timely and distressing issue -- well-educated, intelligent, creative people struggling to make ends meet in these difficult economic times. Some of the letters in the Salon comments were uncalled for, but I do not think it is wise and I do not think it does justice to this issue to dismiss critical comments as invective. The truth is that nearly every working stiff would rather be doing something else -- be it writing the great American novel, starring in a successful sitcom, playing shortstop for the Yankees, etc. However, along the way many people made the choice to cash in their chips and give up on their dream. I applaud you for continuing to follow your dream, but those who say you could have made different (maybe better) choices that would have allowed you to better support you and your children are not necessarily hate-filled trolls. They've probably had to make a bitter choice somewhere along the way to secure a stable financial future. For me it was choosing law school over film school. I think the lack of pity in some of the comments has to do with brutality of the posters having to kill the part of themselves they valued the most for money. The comfort and opportunites that money provides them and their children is what they use to salve the wound. "My parents did it for me. I did it for my kids. Why can't she do it for hers?" That is the not unreasonable train of thought. I also think that America is no longer a nation where being frugal is valued. Some posters may have unfairly burdened you with the stereotype of the wasteful American who is not willing to cut corners and forgo instant gratification. In addition, the credit crunch and looming bailouts have created a lot of ill-will. People who were restrained and did not buy more house than they could afford are livid at the idea that their tax dollars will be used to bailout those who did not show the same prudence, particularly because homeowner's taxes, condo and co-op fees are being raised to maintain neighborhoods and buildings blighted by foreclosures. Choice, sacrifice and personal responsibility are what some critical comments are getting at. Your description of your youth makes it sound like you have a lot of anxiety surrounding money and that may be affecting your choices. I don't think poverty is a choice, but your choices can make you poor. Some of the unsolicited advice from posters to re-examine your choices may not have been what you wanted to hear, but in the end it may be more helpful than the "I can relate", "buck up", "I wept" comments.
This is one of the most honest pieces I've seen in ages. It is rightfully angry at our society; it speaks truth.

There are, right this second, lots of angry Americans who truly believe that they can look at someone, or imagine someone on WIC, or imagine anyone benefiting from THEIR taxes (unable to grasp the concept of public monies) and that person clearly doesn't deserve to live.

Literally. They can point at someone worse off than they and loudly cheer that "those people" aren't working hard enough, are too lazy, deserve nothing. Dying will learn us, the say.

We all deserve to live. We're all humans. To many people, scared, denying their own vulnerability, looking for a scapegoat, that you're not dead means you haven't hit bottom.

Poor means fear. We all believe the myth that we can work hard enough to escape it, but that's exactly the problem. It is a fairy dream. This is why we have "public assistance": It's a public problem. While we try to live the dream, boosted by teevee and the internets and Reagonian propoganda (those people CHOOSE to live on the street), there has to be a boogie. That'd be you and me and anyone else who notices, who wakes up, who is terrified of slipping off the dock into the water, while others watch, their faces dissolving into dark.

Thank you, Ms. Ryan, for telling it like it is.
As a 60 year old woman now in the poverty of a disability income who raised two daughters by myself, I salute you. There were times when I was raising my daughters (I lacked your education) that I lived on foodstamps. Usually we lived just above the fodstamp limit but below the official poverty level nonetheless. Because I could pass as a member of the middle class and I was intelligent I figured out how to job-hop to a middle class income after a while. It took working in sales, which I hated, but I did it. I would love to read your article about living in poverty. Can you direct me to it?
What I find most difficult and demoralizing about being poor are the fees and charges that are a hidden part of our economy. One $25 parking ticket can at times be devastating. Or the $60 fee to get your electricity turned back on because you needed to pay for as to get to work. Or the $45 level co-pay for premium medications that your doctor prescribed for a sick child...it goes on and on.
I have gone from upper middle class to poverty level over the last 30 years or so. Part of that was life choice, choosing a lower paying job that required a masters degree. More of it has to do with my wife's health needs and subsequent costs plus her no longer being able to stand by herself safely meaning I must remain home most of the time and can't leave for any lengthy period, for instance a full time job.
I am old enough to have started my retirement; but our gross income is less than $1,000 per month and we must rent because we sold our home to afford that graduate degree. We never had enough income to purchase that home after that degree.
Fortunately there are still a few social programs left after the neoconservative takeover of America. One of them is called Medicaid. We have discovered that in some ways we are better off with my small retirement check than we were during that short time I was earning more than $50,000 per year and had "good" insurance. (We had the best plan my employer offered. In spite of that, though, we not only paid nearly $600/month for a family policy, but tens of thousands of dollars in copays, drug copays, deductibles, and all the other ways the HMO could figure out how to "steal" from the sick.
We never imagined we would ever be in this position. Because of family members and some 401K money we held it together when there was no salary at all. We never had to go to the soup kitchen nor ended up homeless; but I remember my first use of a "food stamp" card and how it made me feel. Even though I always tried to remember I didn't know the actual life situation of the person in front of me using food stamps, there still was probably some questioning going on about what their real circumstances were.

We continue to struggle from month to month. It will be very hard for us to move into a cheaper apartment just because of age and my wife's health challenges. On the other hand, that is our short-term goal, though it will likely not help that much. When your income goes up or your rent goes down then your "food stamps" get reduced and you end up in the same difficult place as you were before.

I have become more comfortable with handing my "food stamp" debit card to the cashier; but I still am not completely so. I only hope and pray that our new administration and congress will pay more attention to making the middle class and poor secure than they have in putting money into the pockets of those already rich. I want a return to the America where there were social protections for everyone, not just those on Wall Street.
Do you know the public radio series "This I Believe," in which people (famous and not-famous) talk about a concrete thing they believe in?
Your second post would become a great "This I Believe" statement: you believe in the power of anger.
It's a brave thing to believe in anger, especially today, when so many insist that anger is counterproductive, creates stress, turns off friends and makes new enemies.
But sometimes anger is the only appropriate response.
Stay angry.
You'd have to scroll down awfully far to read this, Heather, but put me in the "supportive" column.

I've fed my kids from the dollar store more times that I care to remember, and as a freelancer, that awful possibility still looms. It's near a soul-crushing thing to have children dependent on you and not be able to provide for them, and I know first hand the awesome strength it takes to get through those times without putting your head in the oven.

(Oh the dread, the sheer dread, that arrives in the form of an overdue electric bill. The humiliation of calling to beg and plead with them not to shut it off. I took a job as a waitress and cleaned other people's houses at one point, because I was so desperate.)

Never, ever listen to those who slam you for writing honestly, poignantly and well about your life.

And whatever you do, don't let the bastards get you down.
Great article, so much I could relate to. I got my degrees just when the Reagan administration came in and tons of social programs bit the dust. I am deaf, and was not prepared to know how to secure a living in a non-academic, sheltered environment. I got married around this time and a year later had my son. The strain of my not being able to pull in an income grew into resentment from my husband, and our marriage bit the dust by the time my son was 7 years old. I did double our net worth by fixing up our old house, so half its value plus a small support check enabled me to buy a house with rental apartments. That, and family support helped me get through raising my son until he went to college. But it took every dime I had. I remarried, but shortly after that my husband's health tanked. We sold the house and moved to a small bungalow in a cheaper area. But the buyers backed out (thanks for nothing, Countrywide!) and the housing values fell, so by the time we closed with another buyer, we lost so much money that we are worse off than we were. We are both trying to do our best to build our little businesses, but there is no telling what will evolve over time. The lack of security is hard to take. Now I am in my 50's and my own health is not what it once was. But my son is okay, and he and is wife have good prospects for the future. I just hope I don't become a burden to him.
Holy Christ, people! Mike told me "your blog is insane right now," but I didn't know that meant some 60-odd responses. I've been without a computer for a few days, and will be without one for a few more, but I wanted to say thank you for the overwhelming (and unexpected) response. I want to respond to some of these individually, but lack the time at the moment. So I'll just say thank you, and more later.
Of course, I go visit my parents and miss one of the best pieces EVAH on OS. Big fat bravery medal for you, honey, for your honesty, your restraint, your guts, your tenacity.

Welcome to the OS, Heather Ryan. Nice to meet you. Proud to know you.
Thank you for writing this.

I'm the product of a working poor family and a mother with your tenacity. Now that I'm an adult myself I can see how important it was to have a role model like her.

Your courage is inspiring.
"Poor means fear. We all believe the myth that we can work hard enough to escape it, but that's exactly the problem. It is a fairy dream. This is why we have "public assistance": It's a public problem. While we try to live the dream, boosted by teevee and the internets and Reagonian propoganda (those people CHOOSE to live on the street), there has to be a boogie. That'd be you and me and anyone else who notices, who wakes up, who is terrified of slipping off the dock into the water, while others watch, their faces dissolving into dark."

that's very well said.

I've been haunted by the image of the woman making the remark about the clothes. I'm not sure why it has affected me so much. I feel such anger at her, and no desire to direct any compassion or understanding her way --- though in many ways she is just as much a victim of 'what really equals poor' propaganda as anyone else....
"I've been haunted by the image of the woman making the remark about the clothes. I'm not sure why it has affected me so much."

Me, too. I keep thinking about it for some reason. Some people are so petty. Even if something like that crossed my mind, (which I doubt it ever would) I could NEVER feel so bold or mean to think to say something hateful. That dress could have been given to her by a generous person walking down the street -- what business was it to anyone??. I am galled by people who are that rude and nasty.
This and your Salon essay struck such a cord with me. You're clearly an amazing mother and clearly working hard to make it. I'm one of those people with an MA in the arts, with engineer friends who think it's my own fault that I'm poor--I should have gotten a degree in the sciences. But we have to follow our own paths. The fact that those of us with degrees in the arts who opt to teach can hardly make it in this country is the larger issue. It infuriates me on a weekly basis that the work we do isn't valued in our society enough to provide us with sufficient income to raise our families.

Your discussion of your childhood also resonated with me. We had rice for dinner many nights, and I was the poor kid in my gifted classes. I have since worn my intelligence and my education like some people were Prada. But underneath, there always is that sense that someone will find you out for who you really are. The great thing is, no matter how poor you are, that doesn't take away from who you are and who you are raising your children to be.

Hang in there, and keep writing for god's sake! You're brilliant!
Mrs. Ryan,
I'm a high school student, with a mother of my own. A mother who doesn't blog, doesn't text, and doesn't really know how to use the computer. Yet, even though she lives outside of the realm of what you could call "modern society", she's a passionate woman who needs to be heard. I almost want her to go back to school, to get her masters in something other than "accounting and finance". She runs a garden center and l0ves interior design, she has the eye of an artist. Basic mathematics seem a little below her. I'm sure that she's pent up, ready to implode. (Especially when you add on top of that a teenage son who just started driving.) I really wish she could just express herself in this raw way that you achieve so easily. Maybe even throw in a couple "fuck thats" if need be. Thanks for your article, it lets me know that there's a couple moms out there who still have the vivacity to show the world their perspective, to see over the children and bills for a couple of seconds and tell the truth.
This country is filled with women who waited to have their children. I have four, the first came when I was 21. (Married and in college!) Everyone gives you "The Look". As if you have to earn the right to have your children the same way you earn a Lexus or a vacation.

There is an "epidemic" of infertility in this country. I argue that it isn't that we are getting less fertile, it's that we're waiting for the perfect moment, when school is done, when money's made, when pigs fly. And now people are having trouble conceiving?

I love it when people ask me, "Don't you know how that keeps happening?" when they see all my kids together. I say, "Yeah, you should try it."

People who have so damned much to say about other people's family choices should go out and be foster parents or adopt a special needs child. When they've put their money where their mouth is, they can tell me how many kids I'm allowed to have.
"I turned around, didn’t say anything, because what was there to say?"

I have a friend who does not "look" handicapped but who is debilitated by a weird, rare, & insidious lung disease that makes even drying her hair a workout. When faced with judgmental, ignorant people who say "I wish I had a handicap sticker" as she climbs out of her car , she simply replies, "things are not always as they seem". So true, so succint and so (hopefully) thought-provoking for those who can't conceive of anything other than the obvious.

Thank you, Heather Ryan, for your bravery and honesty. Rock on!
Great post. I found your piece in Salon very moving (and you are a heckuva writer). I'm glad I didn't read the comments--they would have made me crazy. This is what the nasty commentators didn't see (written in this post, but implied in the article): "I flipped the pancakes, poured coffee this morning and Giselle, the baby, turned on some music. Bob Dylan’s scratchy voice filled the kitchen. Giselle danced, swung her hips back and forth with precision, and Chloe and Ivan laughed. I watched them, looked to see if they were happy, and they were. " You looked to see if they were happy. You're a good mother.
This is the best and truest blog I've read. Thank you for writing it. Some people are so harsh when it comes to others. I can't wait to read your other blogs and I wish you the best.
Children are more resilient than we give them credit for being. I bet they remember these as good times. Keep writing.