Woonsocket Call

Sum­mer not fun and games for sin­gle work­ing par­ents

- By STEPHANIE LAND Land’s writ­ing has ap­peared in many pub­li­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the New York Times and the New York Re­view of Books.

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 tui- tion 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.

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