There is a dollar figure attached to my right to exist. Do not tell me it is not there. That is a lie. I see it every time I look in the mirror as if tattooed on my forehead. There exists a ledger; a balance sheet of what I contribute and what I take.
Intangibles count for nothing.
Joy counts for nothing.
Every op ed piece I read defending food stamps or other benefits bend over backwards to point out the majority of recipients are employed. The majority are good people. Good people work.
But I do not work. I am autistic, and being the autistic I am means I am real world, social model disabled. I do not work because I cannot. There are a dozen hypothetical ‘what if…’ or ‘should be…’ scenarios in which I could hold down a job, but that is not my reality.
How much of myself do I have to lay bare for you to accept that work, as it exists today, is a thing I cannot do? I tried, and I had to choose between powering through another year or two that would kill me or come damn close, or admitting I cannot so my children could grow up with a mother.
My childhood was infused with a popular feminist theme. I was taught that a Real Woman is financially independent. She doesn’t need a man be it a husband or larger entity (The Man) to support her basic needs or the needs of her offspring. A Real Woman knows children are an accessory to a career, not something one builds a life around. I regularly heard the words “housewife” and “brood mare” used interchangeably. I am loathe to believe this is real feminism, because empowerment that exists on the denigration and neglect of other’s needs empowers no one.
Growing up, I was also told over and over again my worth was tied to doing Great Things. That lesser people lived ordinary lives, and that for me to live an ordinary life would be tantamount to complete failure. In order to be a worthy human, I needed to be financially independent while actively improving society. Nothing less would do.
So do I own my complete failure, or do I redefine what it means to do Great Things? I embrace both, which yields a very messy work in progress.
I started to apply for disability once, but every worker I spoke to asked the same question: if you are too disabled to work, how can you be a fit mother? I was told, repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that if I submitted an SSI application, a Child Protective Services investigation would be in my future. That is not a risk I could take. My children need me. I know this as much as I know anything. I am the best possible mother on earth for those particular children. That is not negated by my sometimes inability to speak, or walk, or work.
I cannot do it, and I am sick to my teeth justifying myself on this. I had to justify my dirt poor, EBT dependent self daily. Now I am privileged enough to not be poor. Now I am loved unconditionally for exactly who I am by a partner who can work, but I refuse to hide behind that veneer of acceptability. I cast off strangers’ easy assumption that I choose to stay home. If I could choose, I likely would stay home, but I don’t really have that choice. I’m too disabled for gainful employment, and it would be a slap in the face to too many people I respect to fake that.
So here I sit, grateful for the privilege of things I still do not take for granted. Indoor plumbing on demand. Food my children can actually eat. Health insurance, and the ability to make copays. But all those privileges; privileges that should be rights, do not make me a better person than I was when I bartered baked goods made with food stamp purchases for enough cash to make sure my cancer was still in remission.
I am just as autistic,
I am just as disabled, and
I am just as valuable.