After WIC, How Now Should I Live?
Photo by Flickr user orphanjones
I sat in the cold metal seat with a number in my hand. I had been there for hours. All around me babies cried, cell phones buzzed, and people shuffled or doodled or just looked numb. The line still wound out the door, and the policeman kept yelling at people who tried to cut the line, thinking they wouldn’t ever get through this thick crowd to one of the little windows where somebody actually listens to you. It reminded me a little of the DMV, but it was the Department of Human Services in Davidson County, and I was there trying to get state health insurance for myself and my baby. I was pregnant and uninsured at the time.
It wasn’t the first afternoon I would spend in that room, feeling lost in a sea of numbers and need. I had to come back again and again to be approved for Medicaid and then after my son Jack was born, I went back again to submit more forms to keep the Medicaid. As I left the first time, I saw a huge rat dart down the street under the overpass hugging the low gray brick building. I shivered when I saw its scuttling hindquarters disappear beneath a dumpster.
During Jack’s first year of life, I also spent a lot of snowy mornings sitting in the drab WIC office (for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), picking up my vouchers for formula, baby food, eggs, peanut butter, tuna, and milk. Every time I was there, I remember feeling like a misfit. What was I -- a nice middle-class girl who went to college -- doing here? Surely some kind of cosmic oversight had placed me in this room by mistake.
But gradually it settled over me: I was no different than the other poor people who sat in the chairs beside me, waiting for the harried person behind the glass to call their name. It was meaningless how they were dressed or what color their skin was or how they smelled or whether they spoke English. Jack played with their kids. We sometimes smiled at each other. Bottom line, we were all poor enough to need free groceries. Because I sat in those chairs in those rooms, I saw that nothing separates us, not in any way that matters.
Now that I have health insurance through my husband’s job and we live in an affluent part of Texas, I am pregnant again. But I don’t sit in hard metal chairs in overcrowded rooms or doctor’s offices for hours. Instead, I wait in a doctor’s office decorated like a nineteenth-century parlor, with plush, overstuffed couches and glass pendant lamps. I am seen right away. I don’t have to submit form after form to convince a caseworker that I am eligible for benefits. I just get them.
I like my new living arrangements, but I am troubled. I am troubled at how recently I was dependent on government assistance, yet I don’t pause on my way to the doctor to remember the desperation of not being able to get medical care. Just a year ago, I handed my WIC vouchers to the supermarket cashier to receive free groceries, but I now casually swipe my debit card, no longer exercising the humility that comes with dependence. I’ve experienced a bit of hardship, but I’m still so naïve. And I kind of hate that.
I want to look at my new suburban life and all its comforts and know that I don’t deserve it or need it—and it’s not reality for many people. For one reason or another, I may not be as needy as I once was—it’s a complex choreography, how our choices lead us to our circumstances and vice versa. But I do know that when perceptions of reality are not challenged, no matter where we live, we start living with our heads in the sand. Our perspective dims like the light through a ship’s porthole and we stop seeing anything except what’s right in front of us.
Maybe I can make a way of life here in the suburbs that reconciles what I experienced before with what I experience now. Even though I don’t sit next to people in squalid rooms, how can I still care about my neighbor? How can I remember the humanity that underpins the darker, needier, messier side of life? How can I seek out a way of life that is paved with awareness and sensitivity, and that is not unintentionally myopic?
To start, I can write and think about how to take action, ways I can reach through the suburban veneer to the needs that I know lie not far beneath. I can let myself be bothered by the social and economic issues I was a part of not so very long ago. Maybe out of sight is not out of mind if I am careful. Possibly it’s less about guilt and more about remembering.
As much as is within my power, I can appreciate the soft couches, but remember those hard metal seats.
Andrea Bailey Willits is a freelance writer and editor in Plano, TX. She blogs at everydayextraordinary.me.
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