Juggling Work And Motherhood On A Shoestring Budget

Mar 13, 2014
Originally published on March 12, 2014 7:06 pm

There are more than 4 million American families living under the poverty line today that are led by a single mother. Katrina Gilbert is one of those moms.

Gilbert is a certified nursing assistant in Tennessee. To support her three children, she sometimes works seven days a week at a nursing home. But at $10 an hour, her paycheck doesn't go very far.

HBO followed her for a year for its upcoming documentary, Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert. The film airs Monday and will also be available online.

For Tell Me More's year-long series marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Gilbert spoke to host Michel Martin about the film and the challenges she faces in her day-to-day life.


Interview Highlights

On letting cameras follow her life

Getting involved in the film, I really wanted to do it to inspire other single mothers, other single parents, other people out there that are living and struggling like I am. To inspire them. Show them that they can do it. You can be strong. You can be independent, hard-working. You can get through it. It's just your storm. You may be going through a storm right now, but you'll get out of it. Just have a little bit of faith.

On small comforts being out of reach

The worrying about the car going out, that scares me to death. Because if you don't have the money in the bank to fix it, if something does happen to it ... you have to have your car. Because you have to get back and forth to work. You have to take [the kids] back and forth to school and day care. And so, that's a real scary thing. And then the day to day, the kids wanting a candy bar, or "Mommy, I want a toy," I can't. I just tell them, "I don't have the money for that. I can't do that right now." So it's hard and they get upset, but hopefully they understand.

On choosing between money and medicine

Because you only have this amount of money, so I know I'm going to need my antibiotics because I have a sinus infection. I know that I'm going to need my thyroid medicine because I have thyroid disease. So I have to have that — that's a very serious thing for me to have. Me having the headaches, the migraines, the migraine pills were just going to have to wait because they cost way too much.

On making her kids proud

When I actually sat down and I watched the film, I was just like, "Wow, that's my life." Like, I'm a single mom and I would sit back and I would think, "Am I doing this right? Am I being a good mother? Am I making the right decisions?" And then after watching the film, and seeing everything that we went through, I can sit there and I can say now ... "I'm a good mother." My children are proud of me. My children love me. And I'm hoping one day when they grow up they can be like, "I'm so proud of my mom. Look what she did."

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. So all this year we've been talking about what poverty looks like in America now, who is poor, the struggles they face and the different ideas about the best with help them and eventually eradicate poverty in this country. Today, more than 4 million American families who are living under the poverty line are headed by a single mother, somebody like Katrina Gilbert. She's a certified nursing assistant in Tennessee.

To support her three children, she sometimes works seven days a week in a nursing home. But at $10 an hour, her paycheck doesn't go very far. HBO followed her for a year of her life for their upcoming documentary "Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert." It was coproduced by The Shriver Report, a nonprofit that supports projects that examine women's lives in the U.S. And here's a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KATRINA GILBERT")

KATRINA GILBERT: Late at night, Saturday morning, started early in the day, and I went and paid rent. Then I'll have to pay Medicare, the storage, the car insurance, the phone and the loan. It's gone, except for gas. Check was $730. It's gone. That's for two weeks pay.

MARTIN: "Paycheck to Paycheck" airs this Monday on HBO and online, and Katrina Gilbert is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

GILBERT: Hello.

MARTIN: I was wondering how you felt about my introduction. You know, we're talking about poverty, and kind of by definition we are saying that you're poor. How does that feel to you?

GILBERT: It kind of - it touches me. It might, you know, just...

MARTIN: Does it hurt?

GILBERT: Yeah, to be on that line, the poverty, you know, line. I live under poverty level.

MARTIN: Even though you work every day.

GILBERT: Yeah, I work every day, five days a week, eight hours a day - sometimes more than that. The most I have worked is 16 days straight, a couple of 16 hour shifts in there.

MARTIN: The film makes the point - you make the point in the film that you didn't start out and you certainly weren't planning to be a single mom. He's in the film, too. Your former husband is in the film...

GILBERT: He is.

MARTIN: ...Too, and trying to stay a part of your kids lives. And you talk about - very frankly about how hard that is sometimes to maintain. I mean, there are times when, you know, he doesn't have gas money to even visit. So I know you said in the film - I remember it very clearly - where you said that this was kind of my worst fear. Did you have a sense of how hard it was going to be, even recognizing you felt you were making the best decision for yourself and the kids, given that your husband was struggling with an addiction?

GILBERT: I didn't think it was going to be this hard, but every challenge and trial, tribulation, I've pulled through. It's just made me a stronger woman. I'm a hard-working strong woman.

MARTIN: The film makes it clear, I mean, just kind of the day-to-day decisions that you have to make. And I remember one scene - I think any parent who doesn't have a sitter, like, on 24/7 can relate to is when you were taking your kids to get your taxes done - you know, critical. And you get that return - at least you're looking for getting a return - and you're trying to make some decisions about, you know, what to do and it's - the choices even there were tough. Do you mind talking about that?

GILBERT: Yeah, those choices were tough of what to do. Like, I got the tax return back, so I know I'm going to pay my car off. So that's a bill gone. So that's a must. So pay my car off, you know, get the kids something for them because, you know, I wasn't even able to give them a birthday party or a birthday present or anything. So I spent some money on them. But it was mostly just paying off bills.

MARTIN: But then there was the whole question of medical insurance, too. And one of the points is that you've got insurance for the kids, but you didn't have it for yourself. And I just want to play a short clip from the film of where you are visiting the doctor's office trying to get yourself together since you hadn't had a chance to do that. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KATRINA GILBERT")

GILBERT: I had a headache straight for three months. The panic attacks were getting a lot worse. I mean, it was getting to the point where I couldn't even work. My panic attacks were just, like, hitting me that hard while I was at work. I don't know what's causing my headaches.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I want to make sure we're not missing anything, so the MRI will help. If your insurance will let me, I'll do an MRI. That looks for things like...

GILBERT: I don't have insurance.

MARTIN: How do you go about it? Can you even describe for people who have not had to think about finances as carefully as you have how you go about deciding what to do in it a situation like that?

GILBERT: Well, when you have a headache for that long, you think something is wrong and it needs to be looked at. In the past, we had a CT scan done of my brain, and it was a possible brain aneurysm. From there, the migraines just continued. And so we did a MRI, and the MRI was clear of no brain aneurysm, no tumors. They can't find anything that's causing the headaches. And then it was - it came down to me possibly having glaucoma or developing glaucoma. And that...

MARTIN: Well, you go in for one thing, and then you come out with four prescriptions.

GILBERT: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean...

GILBERT: I was thinking...

MARTIN: ...How do you even handle that?

GILBERT: You have to pick and choose. That's all you can do is pick and choose because you only have this amount of money. So I know I'm going to need my antibiotic because I have a sinus infection. I know that I'm going to need my thyroid medicine because I have thyroid disease. So I have to have that. That's a very serious thing for me to have. Me having the headaches, the migraines, the migraine pills were just going to have to wait 'cause they cost way too much.

MARTIN: What's the hardest decision you've had to make since you've been taking care of the kids on your own? Is it the big things or the little things - worrying that your car will go out? Or is it, like, I can't give the kids a birthday party? What's the hardest thing?

GILBERT: The worrying about the car going out, that scares me to death because if you don't have the money in the bank to fix it if something does happen to it. But you have to have your car because you have to get back and forth to work. You have to take them back and forth to school and daycare. And so that's a real scary thing. And then the day-to-day like the kids want a candy bar or, mommy, I want a toy, I can't - I just tell them I don't have the money for that.

I can't do that right now. So it's hard, and they get upset. But hopefully, they understand. And then, like, it's really hard when Lydia was at school, and she's sick. And she was really sick with a fever. I think she had strep throat. And Lydia told the nurse that - not to call her mommy because she knows that mommy has to work. She didn't want me to leave work 'cause that's missed money, missed pay, and she didn't want me to stress. But she's only 6 years old. So that just - it tore me up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Katrina Gilbert. She's the subject of the new HBO documentary "Paycheck to Paycheck." It premieres on HBO as well as online next week. Do you feel like you see a future - like, any light at the end of the tunnel?

GILBERT: I do.

MARTIN: Yeah. What would make - what's making a difference?

GILBERT: Well, just looking at the children, you know, that gives me light at the end of the tunnel every day. You know, I'm really pushing to get back into school, get back into college.

MARTIN: Can I play a short clip from - another clip from the film? This is where - you're not just kind of saying this as kind of a wild dream, you actually have taken steps. And I just want to play a short clip from the documentary of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KATRINA GILBERT")

GILBERT: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You're welcome. Congratulations.

GILBERT: Thank you. I can do what I want to do now. I can go to college. Start back towards my degree that I want. I don't want to be a CNA for the rest of my life.

MARTIN: But what happened with that?

GILBERT: Well, the financial aid - it's in bad standing right now because of the past when I was in nursing school. That's when they thought I had the brain aneurysm. And I was in and out of the hospital doing tests and everything so I was missing school. Well, when you're in nursing school, you can only miss 10 days. So I got kicked out because of my medical condition, like, they weren't excused, it's not excused. When you're in a nursing program they're very strict. And so I have to go through a whole appeal process, and so that's what's being done. And if it's going to get appealed - I don't know.

MARTIN: What made you want to participate in this documentary? It can't have been easy - I don't know what it was like, having the cameras around a lot - I don't know if they were there 24/7, but they sure seemed like it?

GILBERT: Well, getting involved in the film - I really wanted to do it to inspire other single mothers, other single parents, other people out there that are living and struggling like I am. To inspire them, show them that they can do it - you can be strong, you can be independent, hard-working, you can get through it. It's just your storm. You may be going through a storm right now, but you'll get out of it, just have a little bit of faith. You'll get out of it.

MARTIN: But are you out of it?

GILBERT: It's getting there. It's getting better. It's getting better. I still have my faith, it's getting better. I think watching the film - when I actually sat down and I watched the film and I was just like, wow, that's my life. Like, I'm a single mom and I would sit back and I would think am I doing this right, am I being a good mother, am I making the right decisions? And then after watching the film and seeing everything that we went through, I can sit there and I can say now, I can say I'm a good mother, my children are proud of me, my children love me. And I'm hoping one day, when they grow up, they can be like - I'm so proud of my mom, look what she did.

MARTIN: That was Katrina Gilbert. She's the subject of the new documentary "Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert." It premieres on HBO next week. And she was kind enough to join us here in Washington, D.C. on a brief visit. Katrina, thanks so much for speaking with us. Good luck to you and your family.

GILBERT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.