empathy.

Law school is not what is used to be since the economic downturn. Most law school graduates spend three years working their asses off, racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and then find themselves unemployed or underemployed after graduating and successfully passing the Bar Exam. It is actually kind of terrifying to be staring down so many years of paying off loans without the income you expected as a result of this "valued degree". 

When we found ourselves unemployed with a toddler and another baby on the way, we opted to move into a house that my mom owned and could rent to us for very cheap on the Oregon Coast. We didn't have any friends in Oregon and had never really spent any amount of time there. The scenery was beautiful and the idea of moving out west was romantic but the truth is, we didn't really have a choice. Before moving, I looked into my options for maternity care. Thankfully, Oregon has an amazing state health plan that covered my pregnancy and paid for every dime of my midwife fees and prenatal care. Once I was "in the system" for health coverage, I was bombarded with information regarding programs like WIC, Food Stamps and Emergency Cash Assistance. 

At our first WIC appointment I was taken aback by many of the questions. Has anyone hurt your child? Do you feel safe in your home? Do you feel like your partner is supportive? What type of living conditions do you have? Does your child have a safe place to sleep? I immediately answered all of the questions in a way that I think made it clear that we were a stable and loving family that was just experiencing temporary financial hardship. But I kept thinking about the women that were facing horrible circumstances. Should I even be here?

The WIC appointments were the least uncomfortable part of the whole process, and didn’t even begin to compare to actually using the vouchers at the grocery store. We live in a small town and I was always concerned that someone would see me using WIC and judge me or view me differently. I also struggled with the guilt associated with strangers thinking I was some kind of welfare queen abusing the system simply because I drove a decent car and looked relatively put together.  

For those of you who aren’t familiar with WIC, each voucher is a paper slip that denotes exactly what you can buy: 16 oz of 100% whole wheat bread, 1 pound of cheese, 64 oz non-organic milk, etc. If you make a mistake and get sharp cheddar instead of medium cheddar, the cashier struggles for several minutes before calling another employee over to exchange your cheese, who looks at you like you’re the biggest pain in the ass they’ve dealt with all day. All the while, a line builds up behind you, customers get annoyed that they’re behind “one of those WIC people” and you’re worried that someone you know is going to witness the whole ordeal. When you finally end up with all of the approved items, you have to sign each voucher and then the cashier compares your signature with the signature on your WIC ID card. You know, to make sure you aren’t a fraud trying to steal someone else’s government cheese.   

One day at Wal-Mart the cashier decided that my signature didn't quiiiiite match up with my WIC card and refused to let me continue with my purchase. I insisted that I just have a messy signature and pointed out that I had signed quickly while balancing my baby on my hip. She completely abandoned her register and the six people in line behind me to consult with another cashier. After what felt like an eternity, she came back and said, "Sorry your signature just doesn't match up.”

I was in disbelief. Angry and embarrassed, I fought back tears before asking to speak to a manager. A manager finally came to the register as I explained that I had signed while holding my baby.

“No one has ever really cared about the intricacies of my signature before,” I told him.

The cashier jumped in, “See? The first name looks okay, but the last name is different."

The manager looked at me with sympathy.

"It's fine, he said, “No one even sees these signatures."

I just looked down, humiliated, and tried not to cry while shifting my now screaming baby from one hip to the other.

I fumed all the way to the car, vowed never to use WIC at Wal-Mart again, and called my husband to tell him what had happened. I couldn’t stop thinking about how horrible that situation could have been for a woman who may have been too intimidated to ask for the manager. How would that situation have affected a woman who needed those eggs and milk so her kids could have breakfast in the morning?

When my husband finally found a job and we no longer needed WIC vouchers, I felt such a huge sense of relief. I could go back to being myself and not have my whole identity called into question every time I went to the grocery store. I didn't have to feel guilty when we occasionally went out to eat or when I bought clothes for the kids at Old Navy.

I learned a newfound sense of empathy for people utilizing government assistance during our time on WIC. I now understand that many of those individuals are likely humiliated and would give anything to not be in need of help. They aren't receiving a handout; they are just trying to survive. For any of us, circumstances can change in a heartbeat and we might find ourselves in a less-than-ideal situation that we never imagined. No matter where we come from, as mothers, we all just want to provide happy and healthy homes for our children. And for that one year of my life, WIC was what I needed in order to do that. 


Guest post written by Bryn Huntpalmer. Bryn is a Texan at heart, though she and her husband are now raising their two kids on the beautiful Oregon Coast. As a new mom, she is simultaneously struggling with feelings of total confidence and paralyzing anxiety on a daily basis. You can find her writing about the trials and triumphs of life and motherhood at her Oregon Lifestyle Blog, Her Own Wings

Photo by Sarah Thornhill