graffiti on a wall showing a monkey holding a can of red spray paint, with the words "follow your dreams"
Photo by Ale, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Stephanie Land has a sobering personal essay in the New York Review of Books about her struggle to support herself and her two small daughters while attending college and trying to break out as a writer. The essay, written with support from the non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project, details Land’s series of difficult choices: attending college in her 30s as a single mom of one child; cleaning houses for a living; living in a homeless shelter; going through with a second pregnancy after a one-night-stand; and relentlessly sticking with her commitment to learning, writing and publishing — even at moments when becoming a writer seemed a frivolous ambition.

Every time my car broke down during those years, or I had to fill out renewal forms for our food stamps, my stomach clenched in selfishness and guilt. We were struggling like this because I had chosen to get an art degree instead of work. Being on government assistance, that didn’t seem like an option for me, let alone one to accept, even though it never felt like there was any other option but that. I was a writer. I had to write.

As a full-time student (and mother), I could only work ten to fifteen hours a week, shuffling around half a dozen housecleaning clients on my own. I took out the maximum amount of loans to give us something to pay all our monthly bills, which I managed to keep around a thousand dollars. A Pell Grant and a small scholarship for survivors of domestic violence paid my tuition for the fall and spring semesters, but they didn’t cover the classes I took during the shorter winter and summer study periods. The tuition for those usually went on a credit card.

Since we’d moved away, Mia’s dad had declined to take her for the summers, leaving me to scramble to pay for child care. Eventually, I decided to do something that I’d promised him I wouldn’t—petition to double the amount he paid in child support. As a result, by the time I neared the end of my required classes, I’d racked up almost $1,000 in legal fees. Plus, I had $50,000 in student loan debt, and about $12,000 in credit card debt. My minimum monthly payments on the credit cards alone hovered around $300. I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I’d have to start making the $500 monthly payments for the student loans once the six-month grace period ended after the commencement ceremony.

Coraline came only a month after I graduated college in June of 2014.

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