WIC Experience Review: Uptown Grocery

Uptown Grocery is the liberal idealist little brother of Buy For Less, and I love it. The fancy cheeses, yummy bakery and quality prepared foods are right up my alley. Sometimes I’ll even indulge in their in-house sushi rolls. The new one at Britton and May is never busy (when I go),  and everything is clean and organized.

Shopping for WIC items there is pleasant, but can be frustrating. Particularly for bread and cereal, they only had a few items that would count for WIC. Unlike at Target, WIC items at Uptown Grocery are not clearly labeled. My advice for WIC users at Uptown Grocery is that you be very familiar with which specific cereals, breads and pastas qualify and which do not. A huge benefit of shopping at Uptown Grocery with WIC benefits is that the produce section is plentiful and well-priced. That $8 per child in produce stretches pretty far. We were able to get lemons, limes, bananas, onions, cucumbers and some frozen veggies too!

By far the best part of WIC experience at Uptown Grocery was checkout. There was no line at all, and when I asked the cashier if he was familar using the new eWIC cards, he said he had done it a few times, but that he would be happy to get a manager to come assist just in case. The manager came over and cheerfully made small talk with my 4 year old and I while the cashier rang everything up. A third employee saw me bagging the groceries while wearing a baby and watching a chatty four year old and came to offer her assistance bagging and loading them into my cart.

One of the major issues with using WIC is that we sometimes can feel burdensome or irritating to store employees or other customers. The staff at Uptown Grocery was so kind and went out of their way to be helpful and express kind sentiments to my family.

Review: The shopping itself takes some time because WIC eligible items are not clearly labeled. Be prepared to sift through all the different options to find the specific products that qualify. The staff is extremely kind and helpful, and checkout was a positive and affirming process.

Score: Three packages of overpriced (but totally worth it) house-made sushi rolls, two of which you’ll eat in the car on the way home because you refuse to share with the toddler.

uptown-grocery

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His Tantrum Tune

We have to be very intentional with our four year old foster son. He needs to know what’s happening tomorrow at night before bed, and first thing in the morning he needs another briefing on the day. Sometimes, if he has a lot of appointments or will be having to do lots of transitions from one activity to another, we will color a visual schedule with him at the beginning of our day. We set timers, we discuss boundaries, we explain step-by-step what’s coming next for every single part of his day in an effort to mitigate tantrums.

Still, the best-laid-plans of mice and foster moms go oft awry, amirite? We went to Chick-Fil-A this weekend. As I sat in the car with my aunt, 4 year old foster son, 19 month old foster daughter, and 7 month old foster son reciting exactly what was about to happen, I knew in my gut It was coming.

“First we’ll go inside and order, then we’ll sit and eat, then we’ll play at the playground for fifteen minutes. How much time is going on the timer, Little Man”

“Fifteen minutes?” His reply was distracted as he stared out the window at the doors to the play area.

Fast word ten minutes and I’m walking away from the table, the 4 year old in my arms kicking my stomach and pounding on my back, leaving my aunt and two other children open-mouthed in shock. Over the course of the next hour, a full blown tantrum takes place. Kicking, hitting, scratching, ripping car seats off their anchors and slamming them against the window–Everything outrageous a 43 lbs person can manage took place in the back seat of my car that hour.

I’d walked away from the table with nothing more than a child and my car keys, and my aunt had been left to manage the other two children as well as a table full of food, two purses and a diaper bag. Another parent had seen my exit and kindly helped my aunt gather the stuff and get the kids to the car. She helped everyone (and everything!) into the front seat with me, and was nice enough to not offer commentary on the tornado taking place in the backseat. Her non-judgement and calm demeanor was powerful and affirming. What was happening with this child was, if not exactly normal, certainly not an apocalyptic event. We would get through it.

Little Man has his own tantrum rhythm. The opening lines sound like sustained whining. He struggles to produce words to describe what he wants or how he’s feeling. The first stanza introduces his Herculean strength and applies it toward escaping. Once the escape attempts are all played out, the next few lines are all about aggression: adults and objects (both large and small) are targets. The last stanza is just heart-wrenching tears and screams for Mommy. As the last cries for Mommy vibrate through the air, something special happens. There’s a pause, and Little Man makes eye contact with me and takes a deep breath in through his nose. He waits until I do the same and then we blow it out together. We take ten deep breaths in utter silence.

The last few notes of Little Man’s Tantrum Tune is just a small voice quietly apologizing for being unsafe and asking if we can go home now.

***

For fact-based information about tantrums, check out this article from TheScientificParent.org: How to Survive When Your Toddler Throws a Tantrum in Public.

WIC Experience Review: Quail Springs Target

Full disclosure: I. Love. Target. I love it. I love their in-house product lines; I love the way the stores are clean and bright; I love their seasonal section. When I feel lonely or sad I like to go to Target and think about how all Targets everywhere are essentially the same, and there’s a world full of little havens for me to retreat to. I know this is crazy. I also know that a lot of you out there feel exactly the same.

Devastatingly, my Target love fest hit a serious slow-down when I became a foster parent. WIC (that’s Women, Infants, and Children to the uninitiated) is a federal program designed to help pregnant or breastfeeding women as well as children under the age of five who are nutritionally at risk, including children in foster care.

A few things to know:

  • WIC is meant to only provide enough benefits to feed the eligible child. A family receiving WIC benefits means that they are eligible for a specific quantity of some specific foods each month that is meant to nutritionally supplement the diet of one child under the age of five. Basically, no one is living on easy street or swimming in luxury groceries with their WIC benefits.
  • WIC benefits are extremely specific. For example, each month we are eligible of one unit of 16.3oz to 18oz peanut butter that has not been mixed with honey or any other kind of spread. We are eligible for $8 worth of fruits and vegetables each month, including fresh, frozen or canned, but not dried or pre-cut. We can get up to 32oz of cereal each month, but we have to choose from a pre-set list of cereals (bran flakes are fine, corn flakes are not). You get the idea.
  • Taking your WIC products to the check-out feels a lot like taking a test to be graded, if that test was being graded publicly in front of a lot of impatient people by an instructor who may or may not have any idea what s/he is doing.

So, at this point, you’re probably wondering why anyone would even bother with this mess. My infant foster son can only have a very specific hypoallergenic formula. One 16oz can of his formula costs close to $30. He eats more than $400 worth of formula each month, and we are very lucky that WIC pays for it. Since we use his benefits for his formula, it only makes sense for us to also use the other children’s benefits.

I took the two babies with me to Target to get groceries and browse (aka walk up and down every aisle in the entire store) to give my husband a break one Saturday. While there, we needed to pick up a few groceries, and some of them were covered under WIC. Helpfully, Target has WIC eligible items marked with a sticker that clearly indicates WIC next to the price tag on the shelves. This is especially helpful in the cereal aisle where there are hundreds of options but only the handful of least flavorful and most boring cereals will be covered. Apart from having researched our benefits forwards and backwards, the WIC stickers beside the products helped me feel confident that I was making selections that would ring up correctly at checkout.

I hop in a line with a cheerful looking cashier, and soon I’m dividing my groceries on the conveyor belt explaining that I would be using WIC in addition to my credit card. The cashier was unruffled. She rang everything up, I swiped my WIC card, and a receipt printed stating which items qualified for WIC and which would be charged against my account. The cashier and I checked it out together and everything looked perfect, but when she hit the button to finalize the transaction, all of the WIC items had been charged to my debit card in addition to being taken off of my WIC card. There was no quick fix for this at the register, so the cashier kindly passed me off to customer service

Customer service is where my experience turned sour. Using the barcode on the receipt, the customer service rep would have been able to “return” all of my purchased items with one quick scan, and then check them back out to me with another scan, enabling us to refund the first transaction and try again. When you use benefits like WIC, you begin to expect that it won’t go perfectly the first try or two or three. But that’s not the real problem. The problem happens when the professionals around you are unwilling to give it that second or third try.

The Target representative at Customer Service simply declined trying to ring up my groceries again. She implied that since it was all covered on my debit card in the first place, I really didn’t need to use WIC at all. When I pushed a little harder, she told me outright that, like many people, I must not understand my benefits, and redoing the transaction wasn’t going to change that. In the uncanny timing of children, my toddler chose this moment to begin making a scene, and I was suddenly that parent. That parent with poorly managed screaming children. That parent using government benefits in a store where most people shop with a $4 latte in their hand. Embarrassed and confused and facing down the judgmental looks of the shoppers in line behind me, I fled. Target is lovely, but it’s no longer a safe haven of mine.

Review: Originally I gave Target three stars for well-labeled products and a kind cashier. I dumped a venti latte over those stars and melted them down after leaving customer service.

Overall score: One melted puddle of Pumpkin Spice disappointment.

Life’s a Beach

This past week my brother-in-law died. He was a wonderful man who dedicated his life to caring for children. He was a good uncle to my (foster) babies, though they didn’t have nearly enough time to get to know each other. The day he passed, several of my friends generously took my dogs so that Daniel and I would have fewer things to take care of for a few days. Today I went to pick up Sabrina, my oldest dog, from a friend’s house.

I adopted Sabrina at a really dark point in my life four and a half years ago. I had just left my job as a teacher–the job that had brought me to Oklahoma. In abandoning my job, I lost all my friends and security here. I was terribly lonely. Sabrina was available for adoption through the Central Oklahoma Humane Society, and she caught my eye. I took her home after a twenty minute introduction. Within hours of being at home, it was clear that there was more to her than I’d realized. Her separation anxiety was severe–she would destroy the house if I left for even just a few minutes. Raise your voice and she’d go flat-bellied to the floor and cry. I later found out that Sabrina had been adopted and returned five times before coming to live with me. Those first few months together weren’t very fulfilling to me. We were constantly at the vet looking for a solution to her anxiety. Every time I became irritated with her I had to spend hours rebuilding her confidence. It was frustrating. She was so ready to be rejected, and I was so ready to be loved by her, and neither one of us were getting what we thought we would.

The night before my brother in law passed last week, Daniel and I welcomed a third child into our home. He’s the older sibling to our two younger ones, and he has been averaging about one home per month. This little man has some serious difficulties, and Daniel and I took him in with the commitment that we wouldn’t ever ever give up on him. Little did we know what was in store for the rest of this week. He’s angry, and he wants to prove to us that we will give up on him. He hits and bites and kicks and says hurtful things.

Earlier today I sat crying  in the hallway following one of his tantrums, and I felt like there was less of me. His trauma and pain and anger crash over me in agonizing waves, and each time it recedes bits of me are drawn away with him. I see the whitecaps rushing in and know that when they’re gone I will be changed.

When I walked in the door with Sabrina this afternoon, Little Man was over the moon to see her. He asked me where she had been and what she’d been doing and if she was going to have to leave again. We were in a calm, and I could see past the breakers out to his horizon. A while later I was thinking about my late brother in law, trying not to cry, and Little Man sat down beside me and began patting my back without a word. Again, I got a glimpse of his depths beyond the waves.

In the years since her adoption, Sabrina has flourished. She’s a happy, affectionate dog. She’s funny. She waits until she thinks Daniel and I are asleep to get on the bed, even though she’s allowed on the bed any time (a throwback to her former anxiety). I look at her and conveniently forget my frustration from four years ago. How could five families have rejected her before she came to me, I wonder. I like to imagine that our years together have been full of loyal doggy love and nurturing human care, but it’s not like that at all. In reality, our early years together were her taking from me the things that she needs, and me finding peace in loving her just the way she is–not for what she could give to me.

Little Man
is not his trauma. He is not his pain, and he is not his anger. Little Man is a vast vast ocean of feeling, and right now I’m the beach where he crashes. In his moments of stillness or joy or comfort, I let myself hope that the bits of me he draws away are taken right to the heart of him, to the lie on the floor of his ocean waiting for the time that he’s a beach for someone else.

This week I have been crashing into others and doing some erosion myself. To the friends and family who brought us food, provided childcare, helped with our dogs and listened to me cry: Thank you. Please know that what I have taken from you as my anger and pain have crashed and receded I will give away again.

A Professional Parent

They’re carried in the door followed by several boxes with their stuff. It’s uncomfortable while the caseworker is sifting through their things on the floor: bottles in one pile, infant clothes in another, toddler clothes, toys, pacifiers. She’s working fast, hands dipping into boxes and pulling out the detritus of two little lives while sharing the intimate details of these two tiny strangers: their medical histories, drug exposure, domestic violence exposure, social services they’re eligible for, religious preference, allergies…

The toddler is awake, and with a glance at me, my husband, Daniel, picks her up and walks to the kitchen. He trusts me to absorb the details of their case, and I trust him to protect her from the methodical dismembering of her privacy. This child has seen her boxes unpacked in three homes before ours. She’s heard the details of her life relayed to strangers like a shopping list three times before this. Her infant brother is asleep in my arms, unaware that in the last hour his whole world has changed again. I glance at his face and everything I thought I knew about parenting is irrelevant. 

 

I’m a case manager for at-risk families of young children. Daniel has taught early childhood education for low income families for over a dozen years. Neither of us wants biological children, so fostering seemed like the natural next step for us. Daniel has taught hundreds of children under five. I conduct home visits, plan parent education workshops, connect struggling families to services and help them set and achieve big goals. Who could be more qualified than us, we thought. We would be professional parents.  What could be easier than using the skills and information we share with others?

 

Three days into parenthood, and we’re sitting at an enrollment meeting to get our new children signed up for childcare. We’ve been assigned an advocate to walk us through the enrollment process. Her job is to connect us to services, take us through paperwork and help us set big goals. She begins sorting through our documents: medical records in one stack, foster documents in another, emergency contacts, child profile sheets… I watch her work work and feel vulnerability creeping up the back of my neck. Once again, the children’s lives are being unpacked and sorted, but they’re now deeply connected to ours. Our family and our story lays bare next to theirs on the table.

In this moment we’re the furthest thing from professionals. We’re struggling to answer questions about their temperaments and routines based on the 72 hours we’ve had them. I’m frustrated and embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of these children. I want to stop the meeting and stand on the table and shout that we really know nothing at all about them that can go on the forms, but we know everything we need in order to be their family: they were miraculously entrusted to us, they’re beautiful, they’re special, and we love them already.

We make it through the meeting without Daniel or I climbing on (or under) the table, and head home preparing to re-enter work life now that the children have child care.

Days go by, and we’re struggling with routines. Breakfast, bedtime, bathtime and school drop off are all producing producing spectacular meltdowns. We try each of them differently every day to try to figure out what will work, and at school we’re gently reminded that a routine only works when it’s done the same way each time. I’m exhausted and emotionally fragile, and this kind advice doesn’t go over well. How many times have I myself preached the gospel of routine to a struggling parent who is just desperate to avoid the next tantrum? How many times have I offered advice instead of empathy?

The next day at work I do an intake on a family that’s new to my program. A parent walks in exhausted with a child on her hip and a manilla folder in her hand. She sets the folder down in front of me, and her anxiety is palpable. I can tell she’s sat in an office waiting to receive services or be accepted to a program before. We both know what happens next: The sorting out of this family’s story. I’ll stack medical records in one pile and income information in another and cut-off notices and bills in a third, and by the end of the meeting have enough data points on the family to fill a fact sheet that will fit nicely on a clipboard. What can’t be tucked under the clip of a clipboard or filed in a manilla folder is the tension of not having slept in days, the fear that rough relatives or a harsh neighborhood will draw your child down the wrong path, the joy when your three year old tells her first joke, the vision you hold close to your heart of your child’s future.

The paperwork can’t be avoided for long, but we have a minute or two to chat before we get started. Her hours at work were recently cut, and now her electricity is about to be cut off. She cried in front of her kid in the parking lot of the grocery store yesterday when the total came out higher than she thought and she had to put the coffee back on the shelf. I tell her that my husband and I welcomed two children still in diapers into our home last week and I had never before in my life changed a diaper. Her straight face holds for only a second before she laughs at me until she cries, and then we’re crying together. There’s really no such thing as a professional parent.