RC = Retired Colleague
DH = Dear Husband
Impossible financial situations
I was recently driving to work, listening to the radio, when a segment about a food bank was aired. Featured was a twenty-eight year old single mom with a student loan to repay. She worked for a low wage as a receptionist, and the numbers just weren’t adding up. I found myself thinking, It is so hard for some people – for some women.
When I Google “women and debt” the links tell a story of their own: “The Student Loan Debt Crisis is A Woman’s Issue: Here’s Why . . .” ; “The generation of young women drowning in debt . . .”; “Women drowning in debt? You can’t blame it all on expensive shoes”; “Helping Women in Debt Program” ; “Debt Divas/Women in Debt . . .” Intrigued by “Debt Divas”, I clicked on the link. A quick glance through the forum options brought my attention to “My Diary as a Bankrupt Single Mom . . . So Far” (http://www.debtdivas.co.uk/). Abusive ex-husband; manipulative power games leading to bankruptcy; children to care for and protect; onset of depression and anxiety . . . The obstacles faced by some women are staggering.
When it comes to discussions about debt, I usually find I can put forth a strong argument if one is called for, but I was rendered speechless when I first talked with RC about her debt. RC (“Retired Colleague”) has had a hugely successful teaching career. I always knew her as a hard worker who, on top of her day job teaching high school, worked at Saturday schools, summer schools, night schools, and with a local university. I thought, Wow! The energy some people have! It wasn’t about energy though. It was about need. RC, a single mother, was the sole supporter of her two children. In her mid-fifties, she became exhausted and developed chronic pain, so she retired earlier than she had planned. Still, I was surprised to find out that retirement posed a financial challenge for her, and that she would have to continue working part-time. I was surprised to learn that she was deeply in debt.
Not only has RC been a single mom and sole supporter; she has a child with high needs. When he was in his teens, RC’s eldest son experienced a mental illness which, when wrongly treated, flared into something debilitating. Through the first years of his early adulthood, he was in all ways dependent upon her. He couldn’t go to school; he couldn’t hold a job; he phoned her frequently through the day. Her life centred almost completely around him. There was some progress as he got older. He started working minimum-wage jobs. He started looking into school. But it was a bumpy road, marked by several job changes, a few false starts in post-secondary courses of study, as well as plenty of demoralizing scenes at home. Eventually, tensions built to the point where he had to move out. But how was he to pay for his apartment? How was he to pay for his car? His low, unsteady earning power wasn’t going to do it. RC paid the bills.
“How much do you spend on your son each month?” I asked her several months ago.
She took a deep breath and hesitated, but she knew the answer well because she is very much on top of her finances. Let’s just say it was a whole lot – way more than the mortgage payments that DH and I make each month. “But what can I do? I’ve looked at it over and over again. There’s nothing I can cut.” She lived in fear that if she didn’t cover his expenses, her son’s struggles with mental illness would get the better of him and lead him to self-harm. I couldn’t say anything. I could only see the insurmountable obstacle she faced.
Among the people I know, four are women who live this reality. Each has a mentally ill adult son. All four have gone through divorce. And I believe that all four of the young men involved are alive today because of the sacrifices of their mothers. These are sacrifices that most of us are never called upon to make, and they are sacrifices that often involve debt. I certainly don’t feel inclined to champion the cause of debt-freedom with RC, but she’s a regular reader of my blog, and she is keen to get out of debt. She is open to discussion, so we discuss.
Open attitude, intense focus, encouraging progress
And there’s something marvelous that can happen when people focus on a goal despite their circumstances. When we face the obstacle and acknowledge, This is too big for me to overcome – not whining, but as a pure matter of fact – and keep our hope fixed anyway. The obstacle starts to melt. At least it has for RC. I saw her not too long ago, and things have changed. She has discussed her situation with her son, and he understands. He doesn’t want to drain her. He’s starting to take on more of his own financial needs. Trimming here; adjusting there. I asked her if she’s still devoting that huge monthly sum towards his expenses, and she said, “No.” It’s down by half now. Is it still too much for a retired single woman, trying to become debt-free, to spend on her adult son? Yes. But it’s a whole lot better than it was before.
RC’s goal is to become debt-free in three years. I believe she’s going to succeed. She’s facing daunting challenges, but as she opens up and shares and listens and engages and questions, her situation is morphing into something better. And what about “Bankrupt Single Mom”, or the single mom at the food bank? What about all the women who deal with limited income, failed and sometimes hostile relationships, needs of the children they love, and impossible debt? All I can do is point to RC. Open up. Share. Listen. Engage. Question. Seek out allies and support. Keep fixated on the goal. Most barriers can’t withstand the heat of such patient, focused, persistence. Like the obstacles faced by RC, they melt.