I treat my freezer like a savings account. As a single parent with an unstable income, I know that when there’s an emergency I’ll use rent money, camp money, or even food money to solve the problem. But no matter what the emergency is, I can’t pay for it with frozen broccoli, so with food in the freezer, we’ll always be able to eat.
So of course my kids hate frozen food, and they rejoiced when I bought frozen cauliflower that didn’t fit in the freezer.
My younger son says, “Just throw it out. We already told you we don’t like cauliflower.”
In this moment I think, do I throw it out because I want the kids to have autonomy over their food? Do I keep it because I need the kids to understand financial responsibility? Do I insist that he consider my feelings when he talks about the bag of cauliflower or is that not appropriate?
Nino is already rearranging contents of cabinets. He says he could make more room in the freezer.
“Dad, we don’t want you to make more room.”
Nino puts down the groceries and turns around. His ears turn red. “You can’t just throw stuff out. It’s not garbage just because it’s not perfect, or not the exact thing you want. You can still deal. Just cope with it. You don’t have to just throw everything out.”
“Dad? Wait. What? Are you kidding me? You divorced your family. You literally threw your family out because it wasn’t good enough and you’re telling me I shouldn’t throw out food? I don’t think you’re in a good position to be giving me lessons on just sucking it up and coping with the imperfections of life.”
I want to tell you this was shocking, but this is actually a common scene in our family: Nino is tone deaf. The kids pounce, and they always add a little anger as well.
Child services comes a few days later. It’s a regular thing for us. It must be that blog readers call child services to say I’m a bad parent. Or maybe my family does. I don’t know. But we have lived in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, and child services have visited us in each state.
Child services are a reflection of the politics of the state they are in. Wisconsin farmers want to be left alone to do whatever they want, and child welfare checks were perfunctory at best and intended to protect the rights of the parents who invariably grew up with the caseworkers.
In Pennsylvania, child services were mostly concerned with getting my kids into school. Their tactic was to tell my son he could play cello in the school orchestra. That was a fail. But I have a soft spot for child services because they removed me from my parents’ home when I didn’t know I needed rescuing, so I kept talking to them when they came to check on us.
In Boston, social services are outstanding due to the incredible numbers of graduate students studying here and the insanely large tax base that supports their projects. I love listening to the stories that Amanda, our caseworker tells about her life on the job.
She says, “What can I help you guys with today? How is your dad?”
The boys tell her not to talk with us about Nino. “Mom is going to tell him he has to leave.”
“Oh. I am? Well. I guess. Yeah.”
“Is that what you all want?”
“The boys want that.”
My older son says, “Mom has Stockholm syndrome with, like, everyone in her life, so she probably wouldn’t kick him out on her own. But she’s doing it because we want her to.”
Amanda says to my kids, “I like coming to your house because you and your mom get along so well.”
I ask, “What do the other moms do?”
She says most of her interactions with parents entail getting their permission to take the kids away. And the moms say, “Great. I couldn’t be happier.”
I am shocked. That’s what my mom said when child services took me. That’s exactly what she said. I thought she was the only mom in the world that would say that.
One night my younger son walks in the door and says, “Amanda gave us a present.”
He hands it to me. “It’s a $200 gift card for Star Market because I told her we don’t have enough food.”
Wait. Wait. What? I can’t talk. My chest tightens. I might be having a heart attack. I am frozen. I want to react appropriately. He is clearly happy with the gift card. I try to say something appropriate. All I can think of: “We don’t have enough food?”
“Yeah. Mom don’t cry. You’re still a good mom. I told her last week was a hard food week. She said it’s okay to talk about having food security issues. Lots of people think they can only talk about food problems when they’re starving. But food insecurity is a real issue.”
I can’t speak. I stand there. I nod to give him positive feedback because I can see he is proud of himself for getting help.
My older son overhears. “Wait. What? You told people we have no food?”
“Yeah. We have food insecurity. We are just so used to it we don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”
I say, “He’s right. We have normalized it.” And I say, “You did a good job asking for help. Asking for help is an important skill.”
Then I tell the boys to go to the supermarket to use the gift certificate. I try to make it sound fun. What I need is for them to leave so I can lay on the bathroom floor and scream and cry and see if I need to die. I don’t know if I can live through this moment.
They leave and I tell Nino, “Child services gave the kids a $200 gift certificate for food because they suffer from feelings of food insecurity.”
He says, “I want to remind you that I can’t talk with you when I’m at work. You called me yesterday when I was at work.”
I say okay and hang up. I cry on the floor. I pet the dog. The dog licks my tears.
The boys come home. They are happy to unpack the bags and cook dinner. There is no frozen food. But they save $25 on the gift card in case we have an emergency.