I wake up and sense the space heater just inches away—the only source of heat in the entire apartment. With just enough money to pay the rent, it’s a luxury if the utilities are on. My two small children roll over to watch me as I straighten out the toddler mattresses on the floor where the three of us sleep.
“Momma, I’m hungry.”
My chest tightens, a visceral reaction to these words, because I know I cannot feed them what they need.
I leave the bedroom, making sure to quickly close the door behind me, and I’m hit with an icy chill. Shivering from the lack of heat, I walk into the kitchen knowing exactly what I would—and would not—find there.
Pancakes it is.
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While I’m preparing the last of the mix, I realize that there is only enough for one person. I split the pancakes between two little napkins while my own stomach growls ferociously. I walk back into the bedroom. The food is gone almost as soon as I hand it to them.
“I’m still hungry, Momma.”
But I already know. I tickle them in hopes that they forget the churning feeling within their little bellies. My heart breaks.
Getting them ready for the doctor is more ritualistic than the everyday grind. I’m careful to part their hair perfectly, placing the curls into well-groomed styles. Then I pull out two brand new outfits—Christmas gifts from Grandma—that I was saving for a doctor’s appointment or a food pantry visit (whichever came first). I did not qualify for the local food pantry this month, so the doctor’s visit it is. Once my children look as perfect as possible—as normal as possible—we set out in the Volkswagen my sister gifted us. The gas is just about gone.
It is hard to miss the luxury vehicles in the doctor’s office parking lot, or the families tossing half-eaten breakfast sandwiches and lattes into the trash. Once we’re inside I watch a woman at the front desk rummage through crisp dollar bills, searching for one small enough for her co-pay. I think about the $70 I lost by missing work that day.
I’m anxious for the visit to be quick and painless. I know that the doctor will ask questions that I would rather leave unanswered. My children move sluggishly beside me.
“Momma, I’m hungry.”
With weak arms, I lift my smallest child and hold her close while I check in at the desk. After telling the nurse my children’s names and appointment time, I hurry to find a seat—trembling from the weight of my two-year-old child.
The nurse comes to take their weights and measurements, then shows us into Examination Room Three. I change them into the office robes without messing up their hair, and fold their new outfits with precision. As the doctor approaches, I start to worry about what he would say about their progress—or lack thereof—on the growth scale. Are they underweight? Am I a bad mother because I do not have more to give?
The doctor enters the room.
He is always polite, clean, and empathetic. He cares about the children he sees daily, and wants them all to grow healthily. Yet he is ignorant to the realities that the families face—or at least, to the one that my family is facing.
“All seems great,” the doctor says. “Is everything alright at home?”
“I’m just tired and hungry.”
“Me, too! Be sure to eat breakfast next time,” he says, blithely.
As we leave to go home, I listen to the music of my dwindling gas tank. There are 69 cents on my debit card, $12 on my food stamp card, and a week left in the month. My kids have fallen asleep, and I am already thinking about what I will feed them when they wake—singing an all-too-familiar song of hunger.