Ten years ago I was living in a different world. I had a great job that I loved passionately. I earned a nice salary, had health insurance, and even had $20k in a retirement account. I was driving a new car and could afford hobbies. When I was sick, I went to the doctor. When something broke, I fixed it or replaced it. I had a beautiful home full of antique furniture. I volunteered at local nonprofit agencies. I went to concerts. I had met the Governor of Pennsylvania and many legislators through my job, and I loved being involved in shaping policy and making life better for others. Life was really, really good.
I was married and in love. The only thing missing from my life was parenthood, which would come the following year. I felt like I had everything I could possibly want, and I could honestly say that I was happy almost every day of my life.
Then a few things happened. First, I became a parent. This lead me to "temporarily" leave my career, a decision I will never regret. Second, the economy began to tank, making future employment hard to find. Finally, my marriage died slowly and painfully, over many long, sad years.
Fast forward to 2010, the year I finally admitted that my marriage was over. My young daughter and I were living in my parents' guest room after the unemployment from my lost part time job ran out. My ex was living in the house I had painstakingly restored, driving the newer car, while I struggled to keep my nine year-old car on the road and relied on my parents for groceries. I had enrolled in graduate school that year, hoping that I could find a way to replace the career that had vanished. I had so little money that I became eligible for Medical Assistance. My ex and I made an appointment with a bankruptcy attorney because we could no longer cover our debts with so little income.
By 2011, my prospects were brighter, or so I thought. My part time job teaching preschoolers had returned, and I loved every minute I spent with them. With help from relatives, we avoided bankruptcy and I was on track to finish graduate school by the end of that year. My ex and I agreed to sell our house so he could move on and I could have my name removed from a mortgage I could never afford. On a Friday in June we made plans to list the house. Three days later, he moved his girlfriend and her family into the house and informed me that I could no longer have access to the property or my belongings still inside. About a month later, they packed my things and my daughter's toys in trash bags and put them in a storage unit.
I think that the worst day happened when I called my local credit union to get a supplemental loan to finish graduate school and was told that my credit score had plummeted from A+ to "don't even ask us to loan you money." I found out that my ex was not paying the mortgage on time and that I may have to leave graduate school two courses shy of my degree. Meanwhile, I had not received any child support and was relying heavily on my parents to cover my expenses.
It was at this point that I realized how far I'd fallen.
I still find it hard to believe that I took so much for granted. I find it harder still to believe what I've lost. If the younger, 2002 version of myself could see me now, I suspect she would be shocked and appalled. My generation was raised to expect more out of life. We thought we had nowhere to go but up. And we did climb higher and higher. For a while. Until things started to fall apart and we found ourselves in a slow descent to the hard, unforgiving ground below.
There were bright spots in an otherwise dark period. I met a wonderful man and fell in love. I did manage to finish school, although I had to change my program and forgo additional credits that would have made my degree more marketable. I found a new part time job and moved to a new town with this man who is my best friend and partner. We made a new home for my daughter, and she has made new friends. She tells me she is happy, and she and I are closer than ever before. She brings me joy every minute of every day, and I cherish her. I have made a new family in my new home, and we are very happy together.
But I continue to lose my foothold in this slow climb back from the bottom. This week, my new job will end after five months due to state cuts to social service programs. My fancy teaching degree is useless when education cuts are deep, and my old career - nonprofit fund raising - barely exists in a world where people have little to spare. I am frantically lining up freelance writing and editing projects to cover my bills and hoping I won't have to cancel my health insurance. I am not even thinking about hobbies and pets and volunteer work now. I am in full-on survival mode, praying my 11 year-old car doesn't die (since I am still on that mortgage and have no access to credit) and hoping my forthcoming unemployment checks are enough to cover the groceries.
I am thankful that my partner is well employed and able to take care of most of our living expenses. Without him, I don't know what we would do. He tells me not to worry because he has my back and we will manage together. He loves me as much as I love him, and he loves my daughter, too. He makes every day special in a way I'd not thought possible, and that makes these hard times worth it.
But my bruised ego insists on keeping score, and it reminds me of how wrong my life is. I am 40 years old, divorced, have ruined credit, am all but unemployed, and owe $33k in student loans with my first payment due in two months. I have a Masters degree and can't even find a minimum wage job. I have 20 years of work experience behind me. I am smart, knowledgable, and very capable. But in this new world of unemployment, budget cuts, and broken marriages, I am less employable and less financially secure now than when I was 20 years old.
How did this happen to me? How did this happen to all the women like me who worked hard and did everything we were expected to do? It is more than unfair. It is a crime that we've fallen so far.