I started my senior year at the University of Montana in 2013 when I was almost 35 years old. My belief, my near expectation, was that a diploma, a piece of paper, could offer me a full-time job with benefits like health insurance and sick days — something service industry jobs never had — and allow me to support my family without government assistance.
While some of my classmates complained that Montana was the only school their parents would pay for, it was my dream. I was there to work, to build a bridge over the welfare gap to get us out of poverty and to learn how to become a published writer. No matter how hard it was to attend college while raising a little girl, it would be better than the unsteady and low-paid work on which I relied for years.
Between classes, I’d go to the university center, where I’d focus on my academic work and try not to worry about whether I had enough paid work that month to make rent or about my parenting responsibilities. I was barely two weeks into my final year of college, and a three-hour break between classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays was my time to just study, because I didn’t always have a relatively quiet home to work in. Not with my 6-year-old’s new obsession with “SpongeBob SquarePants,” anyway.
By this time of the day, other students were mostly gone. I assumed they went to their dorms or an afternoon class or maybe even to work, but a few of them hung out here at the tables. After I speed-walked downstairs to the bathroom, I stopped by the snack store. It accepted E.B.T. cards, the debit cards to spend food stamps, but I was too embarrassed to use mine. I never saw anyone else using one. I walked slowly past the back wall of glass, my mouth watering at the sight of the smoothies, but I couldn’t stomach the prices.
My second class of the day was up on the floor of the building that housed the English department. A warm room with a row of windows meant that I could take off my coat and look outside. Sitting for any length of time often blanketed me in heaviness, though. It felt similar to the sensation of falling asleep after crawling into bed, feeling the weight of my body sink into the cushion below.
I hated it when I got this tired. In the fall semester the previous year, I had an American literature class first thing in the morning that I could rarely stay awake for. In my defense, I started my day that semester at 5 in the morning, when I left my daughter, Emilia, in the care of my roommate before I drove to the gymnasium where she went to preschool to clean it for two and a half hours, went home to get her ready, then dropped her off and immediately went to my first class.
Emilia was now in public kindergarten, so I no longer had the gym to clean in exchange for her tuition, but there still wasn’t enough time to carve out an adequate amount of paid work. Cleaning houses takes time. My earned wages were barely $100 a week, and they went straight toward what food stamps didn’t cover — toilet paper, printer paper, books, clothes, soap, fuel and tampons. Night was my only time to do schoolwork at home, and I stayed up late to finish it after I had cleaned someone’s house, picked up my kid from school, cleaned my own place and made whatever dinner I could.
My experience as a single parent and full-time college student was not uncommon. “Single parents constitute the majority of parenting students, and they are often at a distinct disadvantage,” noted a report released in May 2020 written by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Carrie R. Welton and Vanessa Coca. More than one-fifth of college students are parents, and about one-tenth are single mothers.
In August 2023, the Temple University Hope Center for College, Community and Justice reported an even more staggering statistic: 23 percent of undergraduate students and 12 percent of graduate students face food insecurity, which adds up to more than four million students. Eight percent of undergraduate and 5 percent of graduate students, or 1.5 million, reported themselves as homeless. While I forced myself to focus on my studies, I battled exhaustion, hunger and interruptions due to lack of child care. On my days off from school, I cleaned houses while my daughter was in kindergarten and averaged 10 to 15 hours a week.
The May 2020 report estimated that the lifetime need for public assistance is reduced by $25,600 to $40,000 when a single mother is able to complete her college degree. As a country, this should be a logical investment. A college degree helps to break the cycle of poverty, especially if two generations are supported at the same time by adequate, no-cost, safe and reliable child care.
Yet that would possibly encourage women to remain single and therefore independent. What is also called welfare is now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The program’s purpose, aside from the obvious cash assistance, is to “reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage.” And as far back as 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services also stated its goal to “prevent and reduce incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.” Even a program originally designed to assist single mothers who had lost their husbands to war has a hidden message: It believes they are not enough and maybe shouldn’t exist.
All of this felt purposeful; as a country, we rely on low-wage work to make everyone else’s jobs possible, even as it complicated my own work as a full-time student. My predetermined place in my societal class added to the feeling that I didn’t belong in college. Academia wasn’t an environment that felt familiar in the slightest. Even so, the disadvantages I faced there — which to me were all-consuming — might not have been apparent to others. While my classmates asked questions about the syllabus, I didn’t know what “office hours” meant and didn’t think to ask for clarification.
The first hour of my afternoon class went by quickly, but it was nonetheless a relief when the professor suggested we take a 10-minute break. I reached into the front pocket of my backpack for my phone. I flipped it open and immediately saw that I had missed three calls and five texts from my roommate.
“Everything is OK,” he said after answering on the first ring.
That wasn’t reassuring. I imagined he was speaking to me from a hospital waiting room. “OK?”
“Did you maybe forget it’s Thursday? Apparently she gets out of school an hour early today?” my roommate’s voice rose at the end of each sentence, and my head felt full of static. I heard ringing in my ears. At Emilia’s school, students were released an hour early on Thursdays to give teachers some prep time, but two weeks into the school year, we still fought to find a routine, and an early-release day was so foreign to me, I’d completely forgotten it was a thing.
“Oh, my God.” I leaned into a wall and slid down to the floor of the hallway. My right hand pressed the phone to my ear while my left thumb massaged the space between my eyebrows, moving up a bit, then back down to start again.
When she had gotten to our apartment and seen the place was empty, my kid, backpack still on, had run back to her bus stop, across a busy street, and knocked on the door of the girl close to her age who had gotten off at the same stop.
She must have been able to say everything that had happened, including going home to discover the babysitter wasn’t there. Emilia didn’t know my number, and I stupidly hadn’t written it on her backpack. The girl’s mom had written a note saying Emilia was at her house, included her phone number and walked four small children across the street and back to leave it taped to my door.
“Oh, my God. Is she OK? Can I talk to her?”
He handed the phone to Emilia, who immediately said, “I looked both ways, Mom! I crossed the street by myself and looked both ways so all the cars stopped for me!”
I couldn’t believe no one had called the police, but maybe it was normal to see small humans running across the street by themselves at that time of the day. I managed not to say any of this and told her how proud I was of her for remembering to look both ways, then asked her to give the phone back.
“Thank you,” I said. I couldn’t catch my breath. “Thank you so much.” I walked down a bit down the hall to the stairwell. “I feel like I’m having a panic attack.”
“Oh, it’s totally OK,” he said, while I had to force myself not to sob.
“I’m so sorry. I…I forgot. I’m so sorry.”
Ten minutes had passed by the time I hung up the phone, and my classmates were funneling through the door back into the classroom. I shoved my phone into my front pocket and rushed to the bathroom, peed as fast as I could, avoided looking at my face while I washed my hands, took one deep breath and held it for five seconds, then walked across the hall, took my seat and sat through a lecture on story arcs.
I can see myself, eyes darting nervously to see if anyone noticed my heavy breathing, so clearly that I want to reach through the lines of words describing my old life to put a gentle hand on her shoulder to say she’s not alone. I want her to feel compassion instead of relentless, unforgiving reminders that she’s not making ends meet and can never do enough.
I wasn’t alone then and unfortunately, if I were in the same position now, I would still need help from others. Though the eligibility requirements through SNAP have expanded to include single parents who are full-time students with a child under 12 to qualify for food stamps, reinstating the work requirement of 20 hours a week only once their child reaches age 6, the need for child care hasn’t changed. I still had to work, I still had to go to class, and I still needed child care for the hours that Emilia wasn’t in school.
A 6-year-old shape bounded toward me when I got home that evening. Before I could put down my backpack, Emilia rushed over and told me about crossing the street and getting ice cream. Our roomate mumbled something about needing to go get some noodles and brushed past me to walk out the door. I looked for evidence that my kid had eaten dinner and found nothing, then looked in the cupboard for a box of mac and cheese and didn’t see one of those, either.
We walked out the back door, then down the alley toward North Higgins, the main street that goes through downtown Missoula. There wasn’t really anywhere close to us where we could both sit and enjoy a meal within our budget. Emilia had grown up almost completely on a food stamp diet — one that was painstakingly budgeted and had no room to purchase expensive produce for the sake of multiple introductions. I had to keep to things I knew she would largely consume without leaving leftovers, since she wouldn’t eat those, either. When we had a bit of extra money, like the beginning of the semester when the student loan money came in, even if I took her to a huge grocery store and told her to get anything she wanted for dinner, she would still pick out a box of mac and cheese and a packet of crackers with the bright orange cheese substance in the middle, which is exactly what she chose that night.
Because my family couldn’t afford to send me to college, by the time I attended on my own, I faced constant, all-consuming stress that caused me to feel like an impostor. Not once did I feel I deserved an education. By graduation, I felt nothing but guilt for the amount of the loans I had taken out to help pay for basic needs like food, housing and child care.
Yet who I was that year, how relentless I was, is who fought to graduate, get off government assistance and accomplish everything I have as a writer. I’m eternally indebted to her.
Stephanie Land is the author of “Maid” and the forthcoming “Class.”
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