My flip phone started buzzing in my pocket right before I drove into the parking lot of my daughter’s school. I had arrived 15 minutes early, planning to use that time to sit in the car with my eyes closed, giving myself a rare opportunity to relish a quiet moment in my transition from my morning full of cleaning a client’s house and attending a literature class. It was Friday, which meant I would have my bouncy 5-year-old daughter with me, and I involuntarily gritted my teeth thinking about the mental and physical exhaustion that was sure to come. I looked at my phone and my stomach immediately did a flip.
It was my daughter’s father and he never called, especially during the day when Mia was at school.
I had been sending him several emails and messages nearly begging him to confirm our plans to meet halfway over Memorial Day weekend to exchange Mia, then she would spend two months with him in Oregon while I worked and took summer classes at my college in Montana.
I answered the phone. “I can’t take her this summer,” he said.
“What does that mean? Like you can’t come pick her up?” My hands started shaking. It was only a few weeks before the end of the school year. Summer camps were probably full, and I couldn’t afford them anyway. I had already paid tuition for the four classes I hoped to knock out with relative ease, besides having to physically attend them.
“No, I can’t take her,” he said slowly, like people do when they’re trying to cross a language barrier. Only I knew he did this to make me feel stupid. “I can’t figure out child care.”
“So you’re not taking her at all?” My voice shook. I was nearing a panic attack. I had maxed out a credit card to pay tuition, planning to pay it off over the summer. What money I made from landscaping and cleaning houses paid the rent, and I had a little less than $200 per month in food stamps. Having Mia with me, with the potential work hours I would miss, plus the cost of child care, would be nearly impossible.
“I gotta go pick up Mia,” I said, ending the call. I closed my eyes and breathed, counting to five on every inhale and exhale — my attempt to keep myself from sobbing, or screaming, or both.
At $200 or more a week, most summer camps, at least where we live in Missoula, are not only unaffordable but also impractical, as many start late and end early, or are only half-days. I would have to pack her a lunch and buy her new tennis shoes, and that’s if I found something I could afford. Gone was my plan to work on the weekends doing move-out cleans as the town’s college students went home for the summer. Child Care Resources had some kind of Best Beginnings program that included summer camps, but it was through the Boys and Girls Club, and those spots had been full for weeks by then.
“Mia’s been talking about going to Portland this summer all day,” her teacher said with a warm smile. “She said her dad bought her a bike and he’s going to teach her how to ride on two wheels!”
“Yup,” I said, blinking back the sting of tears as I watched my sweet girl put on her coat. She attended this preschool partially on scholarship, and I bartered for the rest by cleaning the entire facility every morning before Mia woke up. She was trained to knock on our roommate’s door if she needed anything. The school offered summer day camps, but even with the pieced-together funding, I couldn’t afford to pay the tuition plus the before and after care so I could clean a house after I finished class.
Later that night, I let Mia do the dishes, which really meant playing in the sink. I watched her gently apply suds to her cheeks, aching with love for her. Maybe there was still time to get a refund on summer tuition. Considering that sacrifice made a flash of anger rise, then a burn of guilt and shame. My college education seemed like an unnecessary luxury compared with what I would need to pay for child care to attend.
Besides, I was a single mother in her mid-30s whose kid ate food I bought with food stamps. Who was I to get a degree? I relied on student loans, grants and scholarships to pay for it all, without any idea how I would pay off the money I borrowed. My pursuit of higher education, my dreams of being a writer, everything I had worked so hard for, seemed more like an expensive car. Like, sure, I needed it to get me around, but a $50,000 price tag seemed a bit much, don’t you think?
I looked back at my computer screen where I had been chatting with a friend. “I think the YMCA offers financial aid,” she had written. “I think they even have reserves for some kind of emergency situations.”
My other phone calls that day to file for a child-support modification, or even to force her father to follow the parenting plan, had been fruitless. Would this count as an emergency? I filled out the paperwork the following Monday, bringing my “proof of income and expenses” folder with me just in case they needed copies of utility bills or paychecks.
By that afternoon, a woman called, and said she was looking through my file but had a few questions.
“Okay,” I said, reaching down to pick up a client’s entryway rug so I could shake it outside.
“We have space for her, so don’t worry about that,” she began. I audibly sighed. “Our camps go all day, from 7:30 to 6:00, and the little kid camp is $90 a week. Some of the other camps are more, like soccer or climbing, if you wanted to do those.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering where the financial aid came in.
“So, I’m looking at your application for emergency assistance, but could you elaborate a little on it?”
I rambled on for a while, my own guilt level rising, assuming she had heard far worse stories than mine. People who deserved this more than I did. There was always someone worse off.
“So,” she said after a pause, “would paying 50 percent of the tuition be enough financial aid?”
I thought for a minute and multiplied it by four, then divided that by hourly wages. Even if I found more clients, I wouldn’t be able to go to class and work enough to pay an extra almost $200 during the hours she would be at camp. Maybe I could work more in the evenings, but what to do with Mia then?
“Not really,” I admitted.
“What amount can you pay?”
I paused. Held in a breath. “Like, $25 a week,” I said.
“Okay!” she said in a happy tone. “I’ll put that in your file so they’ll know to charge you that amount at the front desk. Will she be here all summer?”
Here was my emergency safety net.
We talked through logistics, scheduling. And then I realized I’d stopped working while we figured this out. I’d have to go 15 minutes over my regular stopping time.
I did end up buying Mia new sneakers. One morning, as I held her hand while walking to the front door of the summer camp, she stopped, looked at me and then threw up all over the sidewalk, splattering vomit on her new shoes. I looked down in alarm. I would have to call in sick, miss class and try to reschedule clients so I wouldn’t lose that income that would feed us.
Gathering up my poor girl, I knew: Even with summer camp financial aid, summer was still not a break.
Stephanie Land’s writing has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. Her memoir, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive” is coming from Hachette on Jan. 29 and features a foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich. Because of this (and to make up for all the cool summer camps her daughter missed out on), she is able to afford to send Mia to space camp this summer.
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