“How many dependents does your husband have? Four?” a woman with a friendly Midwestern accent chirps.
“There are five in the family now.” I answer brightly, trying to juggle a nursing newborn and a cordless phone on the same shoulder.
“And you’re STILL a stay-at-home mother?” The friendly voice becomes less friendly. The woman leans hard on the word “still.”
“Yes” I answer simply.
“And you’ve had ANOTHER baby!” There is a sharp accent on “another.”
“Yes,” I answer. A much smaller, meeker, but still simple “yes.”
I’m the girl who is still sitting on her graduate degree,
still a mother of yet another newborn,
an ex-student still hitting the “post-pone payment” on my Sallie Mae student loan debt,
the borrower still only 18 months into a 5 year credit-card repayment schedule
AND I’m still trailing almost $1250 in debt from our family’s lapse onto Food Stamps two years ago. (Our $1250 debt is a batch of unpaid medical co-pays with an unpaid electricity bill and an unpaid Ohio parking ticket thrown in for variety. Today’s family-size judgment came from the unpaid electricity bill people.)
I must be in some sleep-deprived alternative reality because when Ms. Midwest identified which “important business matter” message had been left on my answering machine three weeks ago my heart leapt up. “Oh, Madison Electric!” I think. “I know that bill.” “Hurrah, your company’s finally made it to the top of the repayment list.” “I even sent you a check from the money we received when the baby was born.”
Ms. Midwestern Debt collector was not so joyous when she opened my account. “Yes we received your $100 payment. On June 4th. That was three months ago.” (The baby is that old already?) “No payment has been made since that date. You’re husband is still at the same job making the same amount? You’re still a stay at home mother? And you’ve had another baby!”
I answer “yes.” Then I do something that I’ve never done before. I hold my breath. I pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. My husband has specifically asked me to stop placing impossible deadlines on our old bills. Without this promise, my natural tendency is to promise to sell my left kidney in order to pay off the creditors faster.
For example this is the verbatim conversation that occurred between the family accountant (me) and the wise, loving husband (him) on March 17, 2006.
“Honey, if we don’t pay rent for three months and ask my grandfather to cover all of our groceries, then I think I can pay off our biggest credit card by July.”
My dear husband says “No.”
“But I’ve negotiated such a great deal, we can save $4,000 if we do this.”
“No” he says with infinite patience.
“But I don’t think that we’ll get evicted as long as we stay just two months behind in rent. Even if we do get served with eviction, it’s a six week long process and I can handle all the pre-trial motions for free.”
“No,” remains his firm and wise counsel.
Eventually, even with my impaired vision, I can see that this great deal is not so great. So I call back Bank of America and tell the nice claims adjuster that the deal we spent 45 minutes hashing over is now off the table. (Eventually, we settle on $318 per month over 5 years at 9.9 % interest).
So this time, rather than have the embarrassment of over-promising and not paying, I choose to just stay silent. Not mad. Not defensive. Just quiet. And this time the debt collector actually got quiet and got off the phone. Without my promising to pay anything at any date! Because honestly, I have no idea when or how to pay off that debt.
And yet, I’m still having babies. Lots of babies. “Why?” our creditors mournfully ask.
Because. . . it’s hard to explain. I’m afraid that if I waited until I had the money thing all figured out, I’d risk never having any babies at all.
Besides Maria (our newborn) is the cheapest one yet. She came, as the Italian proverb said, with a loaf of bread tucked under her arm. Her fine baby clothes came from a surprise shower held by her Daddy’s co-workers. The income tax deduction from her birth perfectly covers Daddy’s private student loan bill—the one that begins in October and runs for the next ten years. Nursing Maria means no grocery bill yet. Her great-grandpa generously picks up her diapers during his Cosco runs. Maria even came with a tiny $844 co-pay hospital bill. Since we gave birth at Holy Cross, a Catholic hospital, we receive an additional 50% off. (The financial aid income limit for three or more children is almost double, which I excitedly interpreted as “Hey, thanks for having a large family! Please let us grant you practically free medical care!)
Claiming that Maria is such a “great deal” at only $422 doesn’t satisfy our creditors, however. I still feel bad every time they call. I don’t have any answers for them or even strength to make pretend answers. I’m still swimming in the same pool of debt. Now I’m just pulling even more babies behind me.
Practicing humility sometimes requires enduring humiliation. My husband has one pair of scruffy dress shoes from Kohl’s with soles that are so wore-out that they pick up stones during his daily walk to work. (I’m down to one pair of rhinestone encrusted snappy evening shoes and one pair of seven-year-old Teevas.) This current shoe-shortage might feel sort of liberating if it was done by us on purpose to pay for Hannah’s Catholic school tuition. (I imagine a sort of pride in taking Jesus’ call to “take only one pair of sandals with you” so literally.) Instead, we have neither money to send Hannah to pre-school now nor a clear prospect of how to pay for her kindergarten next year. There is no money to pay two-year old electricity bills and the sinking knowledge that someday soon there’s upcoming expenditure, of at least $75, for men’s dress shoes
So we are limping. We don’t have our financial house in order. Yet we are still having kids.
God Bless the Debt Collectors. What dirty, rotten job they have to slug through every day. God Bless the families that can’t pay their electric bills. God Bless those families that abstain from having more children in order to avoid conversations like mine. And God Bless newborn baby girls who are their mothers' greatest treasure.