I’m buying diapers and wipes and granola bars, but my credit card is maxed out and my debit card gets denied, so I have to pay cash, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have enough. I count the bills in my wallet and tell the cashier I have to put the back the granola bars, but he doesn’t seem to hear me. He sticks out his hand, expecting me lay the bills in his hand and be on my way. “I have to put these back,” I say again. I hand over the box like I’m so greedy wanting chocolate chip granola bars I can’t afford.
I’m taking too long. It’s Saturday afternoon and the store is crowded. There are people lined up behind me. A teenage girl and her mother. More behind, but I try not to look at them. The cashier takes the granola bars and starts looking around like “What am I supposed to do with these now?” like I’ve just spit a piece of gum into his hand. Somehow the box disappears below the register. I hand over the cash and leave with my diapers and wipes.
I know what you’re thinking: How can you afford that bag when you can’t afford to buy granola bars with your diapers?
I buy my baby’s diapers. I didn’t buy the bag.
I get the Coach bag at Christmas. I’m newly married and newly pregnant flying from my in-laws to my parents’ house on that morning. We spend most of our first Christmas in airports between hometowns.
My parents eat waffles and watch all the parades on TV. They’re waiting for us to open gifts. Christmas doesn’t start until we get there.
My father has the video camera set up on a tripod in the kitchen that points into the family room. He sits me on the sofa between my mother and my sister and hands us each identical square boxes. Usually, we open gifts one at a time, but these he wants us to open simultaneously. I see my sister’s box before I see my own, the crisp gold lettering. I hold my box on my lap long after my sister and mother have opened theirs. It looks like something that would hold a fancy cake. But it isn’t a cake inside. I finally slide open the lid to reveal a Coach bag with interlocking C’s printed all over. I feel the way most girls feel when they find out they are unexpectedly pregnant. I’m afraid to touch it, like something bad will happen to me. I didn’t ask for this thing, and now it is mine. I’m not sure that I want it, and I don’t know what to do with it.
My dad says, “Hold them up,” so he can take photos. Triplet purses, one for each of his girls.
It is nice present, and thoughtful. He saw women with C’s bags in church. A few of my mother’s friends had them.
“Now you have one too,” he says. He’s giving us what he thinks every woman wants. When I was four, my father stood in line for hours to get me a Cabbage Patch Kid because Cabbage Patch Kids were the thing to have that year. This bag is my Cabbage Patch Kid.
My mother and sister love their bags, accessories they could afford to buy on their own if they chose.
My sister says, “It’s big enough that you could even use it as a diaper bag.”
“I will not be putting diapers in my Coach bag,” I say.
I haven’t seen my father this happy since his heart stopped last year and he had to be medevac’d from one hospital to another in the middle of the night. The bag feels like part of a set. Returning it for cash would be like keeping a teapot and saucer but giving back the cup. I keep the bag. I use it.
When my sister and mother come to visit, to throw me a baby shower, our bags reunite. For some reason, it feels good to see them together lined up under the table with the cake.
I know that you’re judging me, asking: Why did you have a baby if you couldn’t afford it?
My husband and I are graduate students. We don’t make much, but we have some savings. In the months leading up to our wedding, we plan to buy a house. It will be a good investment. Our mortgage would be the same as our rent, maybe cheaper. We argue over carpet or hardwood and learn what a Hollywood bathroom is. Eventually, we put offers on two houses, but the first house turns up mold, and things get delayed with the second house.
As the wedding date approaches, we are running out of time. We need to live somewhere, so before the wedding, before the honeymoon, before the semester begins, we withdraw our offer. We marry. We honeymoon. I move into my husband’s one-bedroom apartment. A few weeks later, I’m pregnant.
I know what you’re thinking: How irresponsible of you! Shouldn’t you be smarter than this?
We have job security for a year or more, which is saying a lot in our field. We have all that house money we didn’t spend. We’re saving what would have been my whole rent check every month. Surely, we can afford a baby.
As a graduate student, I don’t get the luxury of maternity leave. Our baby is due to arrive in the short window when I’m not scheduled to teach. I’m planning to graduate and apply for jobs next year. I probably won’t have much success in interviewing with a watermelon under my suit coat. All of our friends congratulate us on how perfectly timed everything is working out to be. We pat ourselves on the back for being so smart.
You’re probably wondering: How did things go so wrong so quickly?
It doesn’t take much for someone who is making a working wage to watch our savings steadily plummet and deplete in a matter of weeks in the face of mounting medical bills. For us, it isn’t having the baby, but how she got here.
Once I turn up pregnant, the student health center essentially blacklists me. They refuse to see me even for routine visits unrelated to my pregnancy. Florida has one of the highest c-section rates in the country. I find an OB who tells me at my first appointment that if the baby grows bigger than seven pounds, I’ll probably need a c-section. I am eight weeks pregnant. Afterward, I turn to my husband and ask, “How can he possibly know that?”
My husband and I transfer care to the midwife at the birth center in town. We feel good about the birth center, not just because we want a natural birth, but because it is cheaper than delivering at the hospital.
My pregnancy goes along just fine until I reach 30 weeks. The midwife lays her hands on my belly as if summoning a spirit from an Ouija board. She feels for the position of the baby and exclaims, “Your baby is breech,” as if I’ve just won a prize.
Three to four percent of pregnancies result in breech presentation at birth. The midwife delivers approximately 100 babies every year. On average, only five result in c-sections. I’m due in May and she’s had three c-sections and two breech babies already this year. Her quota is almost met. The odds are in our favor that the baby will turn.
I ask her if I should worry about the baby’s position. She shakes her head. “I wouldn’t worry now. You’ve got plenty of time,” she says.
Two weeks later, the baby is still breech. The midwife says, “You should start to be concerned.” She gives me a sheet of paper with a woman inverted on a plank that explains how to turn a baby. She refers me to websites and specialists who might help encourage the baby to turn.
I go to a chiropractor to crack my pelvis and try moxibustion. For 10 days every night my husband holds cigars beside my pinky toes. I stack pillows under my butt in bed, prop an ironing board against the couch and lie upside down. I swim, doing somersaults and handstands every few laps. I rub peppermint oil on my belly until the skin burns and hold ice packs over the baby’s head to get her to move away. I tuck my cell phone into my waistband and blast Disney melodies and Mozart hoping that the baby will want to jam and get closer to the tunes. I shine a flashlight under my underwear and call in my best "Poltergeist" voice, “Go into the light, Carol Anne,” even though the baby’s name is not Carol Anne.
For two months my husband and I play a game called head or butt. My mood is completely dependent upon what I think I feel bumping against my ribs. Sometimes, I am convinced it is a butt, and I become a Pinterest queen. I sew a diaper stacker from an old bed sheet and upcycle shower decorations into a mobile. Then, I feel the coconut wandering like a stray moon under my ribcage, and I cry into my pillow like a lovelorn teenager screaming, “Why won’t you turn?”
I ask my husband to feel my belly. Every night he places his hands against my belly in a kind of abdominal phrenology and his expression falls into breakup face before he tells me. We both know what bad news is between us, but he has to deliver it anyway.
“Don’t tell me.” I say. “Tell me it’s butt.”
“Head,” he says.
At the end of the day, it is always head.
The baby doesn’t turn.
At 35 weeks the midwife says, “Now, you should worry.” She says, “Start to prepare yourself emotionally for a c-section.” At 37 weeks, the midwife transfers my care to an obstetrician who schedules the c-section. Two weeks later, I walk into the OR where he delivers my daughter in what he calls “the easiest breech ever.” In the end, she turns out to be seven pounds even and frank breech, her little body folded in half like a Murphy bed. It becomes clear to all of us that no amount of cheerleading could have coaxed her around. The baby was never going to turn.
I know what you’re thinking: What happened to that "perfect timing" of yours? And don’t you know how unpredictable births can be, how you can’t plan for anything when it comes to babies?
Our perfect timing becomes the worst timing. Our daughter was born during the six weeks when my husband and I aren’t working, which means six weeks without income. Four weeks after her birth, I am back teaching. Everyone thinks I’m crazy, but I limp into my classroom four days a week because we need the money. Everything I will make this summer still won’t be enough to cover our out-of-pocket costs for the c-section.
We are starting a new semester, which means at our university, my husband and I have to pay over a thousand dollars in fees and insurance before we even get a paycheck. The medical bills start coming in. We have to pay our physicians. Then, the hospital bill arrives. Our rent is due. The baby has hip dysplasia from the breech presentation. She needs an ultrasound. She needs to see a specialist, but there aren’t any in town. The nearest children’s hospital is three hours away. That down payment for the house we never bought goes fast. We start our life as a family with no savings. No safety net. We are both working.
My mind keeps circling around the trip to the children’s hospital. I ask myself. I ask my husband, I ask the doctor, “Does she really need it?” In the back of my head I’m really asking myself, “Can we afford it?” The baby is only a month old and already I feel like the worst mother ever, weighing finances against the welfare of my child.
We make an appointment at the WIC office. We call our parents to help with the medical bills because we are at least fortunate enough to have parents who can and do help. The bills get paid.
We drive the three hours to the children’s hospital. Our appointment is early in the morning, so the hospital suggests we arrive the night before. We cannot afford a hotel. They offer us a room at the Ronald McDonald House. We see the specialist who has some concerns about our daughter’s spine. He orders another ultrasound. Our daughter’s hips, amazingly, look fine. So does her spine. We’ll need to come back every six months to check her progress, but the Ronald McDonald Charities will be there to house us, and Medicaid should cover the visits. We are putting back the pieces of our life. We are building a family together.
If your parents can bail you out, you aren’t really needy. Why don’t you just keep taking money from them?
My parents are not a bank. While they can help us in a bind, they’re middle-class retirees who view our financial distress as a kind of novelty they don’t quite understand. They love our daughter, but lingering behind all of our conversations, I can hear their warning, “I told you not to have a baby until you graduated and got a job.”
My sister makes jokes. She goes jet skiing with her boyfriend on the weekends and gets manicures with her girlfriends. She sees our situation as temporary. It is temporary. But what if I can’t get a job? What if something else goes wrong? This has done enough to shake up our security. My husband and I don’t laugh. I try not to talk about WIC with them.
My family comes to visit. My sister offers to get groceries for us. “Why don’t you send the WIC with her?” my dad asks.
I think back to my grandmother’s wheelchair and the overbed hospital table we used to crank up and down and ride around the basement as if it were some kind of go cart. WIC is not a toy. I want to explain that no, my sister, who makes more than double our combined income, cannot go redeem my WIC benefits. I want to reinforce how helpless we feel and that our life is not a novelty act, something to coo at like a new baby. Instead, I just say, “I don’t think it works that way.”
My sister does come with me the first time I use the EBT card. I travel slowly through the store, not just because I want to make sure to get the right items, but because my incision is still sore. I let the cart bear most of my weight. My sister helps me navigate the right milk, cheese, and eggs. We aren’t sure how the produce works, but we get what we need and figure the register will sort out the rest.
On the way out of the store, we run into my husband’s ex-girlfriend, the one who lamented a whole book’s worth of poems about losing him, her one true love, how he ruined her life when he left, how I became the enemy of the woman scorned. She has just published that book about my husband and is in town to give a reading. I have no book yet. There is no book tour or travel in my future, except to and from the children’s hospital across the state. Instead, I have a child I cannot afford. This is not the glamorous life she envies in all those lines of jilted verse.
I know what you’re thinking: So what? You want me to feel sorry for you? You’re taking my hard-earned American tax dollars. Free food. Easy money.
WIC is hard. There is a lot of paperwork, and since we don’t have standard jobs with regular income, we don’t quite fit into their system. It seems they are always needing further documentation, asking us to prove that we are poor enough to qualify, but eventually we do.
It takes me two months to figure out what kind of bread I can get, and another two weeks to find the right juice because I am too embarrassed to ask. When my fussy baby keeps spitting up, our doctor suggests I stop drinking dairy. I have to make an appointment to go into the office just to switch our milk package. Then, Medicaid comes through, but it assigns us a new pediatrician. I have to call and try to switch back to the doctor we’ve been seeing.
People like us can’t afford to be picky. I know you’re thinking “beggars can’t be choosers,” but new mothers have enough pressure trying to feel good enough, to get a newborn to latch, to make sure their child is reaching developmental milestones, and to move out of maternity jeans and finally fit back into pants that button and zip. All of these minor inconveniences are just a constant reminder of how inadequate I feel. They reinforce the notion that sometimes free care isn’t the best care, and I want to be able to provide the best for my child. Don’t all mothers want that?
The WIC program is a supplemental nutritional program. It is meant to provide some basic items, so unless your diet consists of milk and cereal and peanut butter and cheese sandwiches, it won’t cover your entire grocery list. It’s not much, but it’s enough.
WIC is a good program and a necessary one. The appointments can be long, but that’s because the WIC program does much more than offer a “hand out.” At my first appointment, I meet with a nutritionist and a nurse who weigh and measure both me and the baby, test my iron, and advise me on what I should be eating as a nursing mother. WIC encourages breastfeeding, not only by hosting support groups, offering the services of a lactation consultant so friendly she cheerleads “keep up the good work” at every appointment, hanging posters around the office touting the benefits of breastmilk, but also by offering mothers who exclusively breastfeed more food each month, bigger packages than even those for pregnant women. And the packages aren’t easy to navigate, even though most products in the store have little red WIC stickers next to the price tag indicating WIC approved items. Those items aren’t necessarily part of your package.
I try to divide my shopping trips into WIC days and non-WIC days. I try not to take the baby on WIC days. The cashier wants to know how old she is and the bagger asks, “Are you breastfeeding? How’s that going for you?” as if we’re intimately acquainted. Everyone wants to know how I am sleeping and tells me how sweet and cute and adorable my baby is. Then, the cashier, who boldly asked “How old is your baby?” and “What’s her name?” drops her voice to a whisper, “Do you know how the system works?” I nod and say I do. She hands me my receipt and says, “This is what you have left.”
I’m sure that there are others out there just like us, facing unexpected or insurmountable health costs. It seems like the thing to do now is to set up a GoFundMe page asking strangers to donate to our cause and pay for our medical bills. Instead of the internet, hitting up Twitter followers and Facebook friends, we asked our families privately. We went to the government. We learned to appreciate charities like the Ronald McDonald House, organizations that function as the safety net we needed, something we hardly notice is there until the slightest misstep shakes us from the highwire and sends us into financial distress.
I don’t expect sympathy or pity or any of those things, nor do I want them. What I do want is understanding. Compassion. You assume I’m buying luxury accessories on someone else’s dime because I don’t fit your stereotype of what needy looks like. You don’t know how hard it is to swipe that EBT card in the grocery line, how relieved I am to punch my pin and see the bill go down. You don’t know what brought me here or when you might find yourself in need of someone, all of us, to catch you. No matter how much you think you’re doing it right, it doesn’t take much to go wrong.
Our baby was breech, and my Coach bag has absolutely nothing to do with that.