Growing up, my dad freaked out a lot about money. He chronically worried that there’d never be enough, that my mom spent way too much of it, and that eventually our family would go broke or become homeless. I spent many years terrified that he was right, and it got so bad that I stopped letting my parents buy me things. I constantly believed as a young kid that I was at fault for why we financially struggled, and I chalk that up to years of ongoing trauma and emotional neglect in my childhood home.
I realize that being able to purchase anything is a privilege in and of itself. But my conditioning as a youth was so severe that I didn’t actually feel I deserved to spend money or have it spent on me at all.
A week ago, I walked into a food bank for the very first time. My husband Matt ended a freelance job two months ago, and he hasn’t been able to find work since. My writing income is supplemental at best, and I juggle that with the all-consuming responsibilities of being a stay-at-home mom. Since we became a couple, Matt and I have had continual financial challenges. We’re a paycheck-to-paycheck family and definitely know what it’s like to eat beans and pasta every day for weeks on end. Oftentimes, we’re overdrawn in our bank account, and we occasionally rely on our parents to help us. But nothing has been quite as humbling or eye-opening as getting to the point where we couldn’t afford food for our children.
As I stepped through the doors of Christ the King Food Pantry in New Hampshire, I was met by several other folks who were waiting their turn to go through the aisles. I avoided eye contact with anybody because I knew I’d immediately start crying if someone looked right at me.
The church staff were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They sat patiently with me as all of my information was set up in their computer system. I was greeted with warm smiles that honestly made me feel like a VIP hotel guest who casually stumbled down to grab the continental breakfast included with my stay. These incredible people welcomed me with open arms, made small talk with me, and handed me bag after bag of free food. I fought back tears as they assured me that the eight overflowing bags were all mine, and they quickly offered to help me carry them to my car. I politely declined, thanked them multiple times for their kindness and support, and left the food bank.
As I walked to my car, my arms hurting from the sheer weight of those bags, I broke down on the sidewalk and couldn’t catch my breath. The emotions I experienced in that trek to my parking spot were a strange combination I’d never fully felt before. I was consumed by intense bursts of humility, shame, guilt, and relief. I was humbled to have found an accessible place to get free food, shame around my constant struggles with finances, guilt for having never needed to enter a food bank before while others regularly rely on them, and relief in knowing that I’d have plenty of meals for my kids that week.
Two days later, Matt and I walked into the offices of the New Hampshire State Department to request financial assistance. After an extensive interview, they mailed out cards that would supply us with monthly food stamps and Medicaid insurance. As I looked into my husband’s tear-filled eyes that night, all I could think about was the little girl who used to watch her dad endlessly melt down because he was unbearably anxious about money.
I’m well aware of the potential connection between my current circumstances and the past that still haunts me. It certainly seems as if I am currently living the financial fears of my dad, and it’s been powerful to learn that I can do that and still be standing. Nothing prepares you for the day when you enter a food pantry because you desperately need what’s offered inside. Nobody can say anything that will help you fully get what it feels like to walk down the aisles knowing that you may have to return there the following week. You have to go through it yourself to understand, and I’m surprisingly grateful I had the option to even do it.
According to the national food bank network Feeding America, 1 in 7 Americans relies on a local food bank to eat. While our EBT card has allowed me to temporarily avoid going to a local pantry again, it’s not lost on me that I was a human being who needed to lean on others in this way. I also understand now more than ever the overwhelming privilege I’ve had at being easily granted frequent access to high-quality food for most of my life. Finally, I can now fully empathize with the feelings of anyone who has lost their way to the point of being unable to afford food of any kind.
Matt and I are still in the rock-bottom world of financial struggle. He’s just been offered a new cross-country job that will be taking him away from our two young children and me, and my stress over the decision to have him go is at an all-time max. I am doing what I need to do in order to help my family survive now and thrive in the future, and that has helped me see the bigger picture in all of this. I have entered a new phase of fierce motherhood, and I will do anything necessary to ensure my kids have stability, ease, and support in their little lives.
When I entered our house with all of the pantry bags, my four-year-old daughter greeted me by jumping up and down for joy. I hadn’t told her where I had shopped, so it was assumed that I hit up our local food market. My daughter marveled at the day-old pastries in their containers, the large bottle of concentrated OJ, and the endless assortment of new bread on display in our kitchen. She begged me to let her try one of the blueberry muffins before I tucked her into bed.
As she sat in my lap gleefully munching away, I realized how different her upbringing is and will be as a result of everything I’ve been through. I will never place unnecessary worry on my children due to my own emotional strain over finances. I will never pass on the wounds of unhealed trauma to them. I will continue to show up for my family, work through my painful past, and be there for my kids no matter what life throws our way.
Going to a food pantry surprisingly helped me remember who I am. I’m a mama bear who won’t hesitate to protect my family from the big, tough world. I’m a human being who now knows how to ask for help in the darkest of places. And I am a grown woman finally showering the little girl inside of me with the comfort of knowing that she can get through anything as long as I’m lovingly by her side.