By Tess Bercan
When I was growing up, my mom made a choice to accept social assistance (better known as Welfare) rather than working. There are so many reasons why it’s difficult to admit this to the world, but I think the most encompassing reason is that I sense society’s general disapproval of accepting social assistance. I have seen countless posts that express outrage toward social programs such as Welfare. The bottom line of each of these posts is that those who need and accept help from the government are somehow “lazy” or “no good”.
From personal experience, I know that statements such as this are not only not always true, but that they can be emotionally damaging. I can’t speak to every welfare situation, but I can speak from my own.
My mom left her tumultuous home at the age of sixteen in search of a safer and more peaceful environment. Shortly after she struck out on her own, she met my dad. From what she has told me, they fell in love almost instantly. He wasn’t much older than she was, but they got married and had two girls (myself and my sister). As many youthful romances go, theirs did not last. It didn’t take long before my mom found herself single again, but this time with two girls – plus a little boy on the way to take care of.
My mom didn’t have anyone she could call for a lifeline at the time. Her parents weren’t in a place to offer any kind of emotional or financial support, and nor was the rest of her family. For all intent and purposes, she was alone in the world with three kids to feed, and only a high school diploma to fall back on. She was in a high pressure, stressful situation – and she made the choice to go on welfare.
She had barely finished high school herself, and she knew first-hand how difficult the world was for those without further education. She had attempted quite a few jobs herself. She worked as a waitress for some time and for a landscaping company, but she just couldn’t quite get by on these minimum wage incomes. On top of this, she looked into daycare costs, commuting, work clothes, and most of all the time it took for her to be away from us kids, and the costs outweighed the benefits. The minimum wage job she had as a waitress paid for our groceries and rent, and that was about it … logically, it just wasn’t adding up for her.
She also told me that she gazed at my sister, brother, and I while we were sleeping one night, and deeply knew right then and there, that she couldn’t bare to miss a single moment of us growing up. She knew that she had to pay the bills, but she also knew her heart was telling her something she couldn’t ignore – she yearned to be physically and emotionally present in our upbringing. She said that she didn’t have the strength to ignore this calling within her, so she chose to accept a means to be with us through welfare, rather than heading off to work everyday.
My mom made a choice that wasn’t popular at all. However, she made the choice that was right for her, and in turn it was right for us kids. In retrospect, I am filled with pride and gratitude with my mom’s courage to accept help regardless of the social implications.
Because of her choice, she was able to be physically present in raising us. When I left for school and when I got home, my mom was home. Often, she would have us sit at the table right after school, and we would do our homework, while she washed the floors or baked loaf after loaf of bread. She knew all of my assignments, their due dates, and what was required of them. She wasn’t a disciplinarian by any means, but she did make us stick to our after school homework dates, and I can say from a child’s perspective, this presence meant a lot. There was no way I would have sat at a table and done my homework with the kind of dedication I did with my mom there. She wanted to be present for that, and she wanted to instill the values of time and dedication to academics in us, and it was important that it was her who did it.
She opted to accept welfare as a means to get by, and she relied upon her incredible bargaining and money saving skills. She was raised without a lot of money, so she knew how to get by on a little. She decided to forgo a lot of extras that made a huge difference in our financial outflow. We didn’t have cable, or a lot of expensive packaged groceries, new furniture, or simple things like “typical” cleaning supplies.
She would thrift shop for furniture, buy large amounts of flour and other basics – and she’d make most of our meals from inexpensive basics (like veggies and bulk items), and she’d use inexpensive alternatives for cleaning like baking soda and white vinegar. When she needed the car fixed, she would babysit for our neighbour, and in return, he’d fix the breaks. When Christmas came around, she reached out to the local church, and they donated our turkey and some basic winter clothes. When it was Halloween, she made our costumes from scratch, and I have to admit, I could feel the love put into them when I wore them.
One year, I was determined to be Cleopatra, and my mom brainstormed. She used some white fabric we had lying around the house and sewed me the dress. She traded our unused TV for the gold snake embellishments. It might seem like a silly thing to trade a TV for such a frivolous item like a Halloween costume, but in a way, it’s no different than going out to buy the item with cash — she just let go of something we didn’t need for what the present situation called for. Details like the gold snake necklace made me feel special to my mom. I never found out how she got that costume together until I grew up.
I grew up learning to think outside of the box, and I attribute much of my freedom with creativity due to my mom’s stubborn inventiveness. When it came time for her to put food on the table, have Christmas presents, or buy school supplies – she always found a way. I truly respect and admire my mom, and feel complete gratitude for her ability to swallow her pride, and opt for the less “popular” choice.
Tess Bercan has a degree in education, and has taught many years. In her time as a teacher, Tess has seen many different students in all sorts of financial and family situations. It has helped to widen her view of the world. Now Tess is a freelance writer and lives in Vancouver Canada with her little Maltese Pup, Holly.