by Stephanie Land
Atria/One Signal Publishers, 2023; 288pp; $28.00Buy Book
It’s not easy to follow your dreams when you’re an outsider. As a fifty-four-year-old mother and grandmother in graduate school for creative writing, I sometimes feel like the oddball of my MFA cohort. Fortunately, I have a strong support network of family and friends that I can lean on while pursuing my education. Stephanie Land did not have the same kind of support, and that’s one of the themes of her new memoir, Class, which explores how Land earned her degree as a single mom navigating school, work, and parenting while living in poverty.
Class continues the story Land started in her debut memoir, Maid, a book that became a New York Times bestseller and Netflix series. Maid tells how Land escaped an abusive relationship with the father of her child and found a path to college through the help of scholarships, loans, and public assistance.
In Class Land is now a 35-year-old undergraduate and a single mother living in poverty with her kindergarten-aged daughter, Emilia, in Missoula, Montana. In honest, clean prose, she describes their life on the margins. “Most of my time as a mother had been spent weighing the pros and cons between a horrible and not-so-great situation. There was hardly ever a good choice.” A broken-down car means no way to get to school or work; no money means nothing to eat but peanut butter until next month’s government SNAP benefit is deposited into her account. Their apartment thermostat won’t heat above 65 degrees. It gets worse when the temperature falls below freezing outside. When it becomes a matter of survival, Land brings portable heaters into the house. “I stopped caring if my landlords would find out,” she says. “I tried to imagine a baby crawling on the freezing floor. Add that to the feral cat who lived under the front porch of the house that Emilia and I were allergic to, the mildew and mold growing in the bathroom, and it was a perfect formula for constant illness.”
Land’s situation is both precarious and humiliating. Each time she submits paperwork to recertify her eligibility for food stamps, she is forced to undergo a microscopic examination of her life, as if she were attempting to cheat the government. “These invasions of privacy caused me to fidget and squirm but I submitted to them, like everything else, because it was another means to an end,” she recalls. On Emilia’s first day of kindergarten, the cafeteria cashier loudly calls Emilia “a free meal kid.” When Land later receives her SNAP recertification, the benefit has been reduced because Emilia is now in school during the day. Readers feel the discomfort and shame heaped on Land’s shoulders. It’s both heartbreaking and infuriating.
In addition to government assistance, Land combines funds from a partial scholarship, Pell grants, and student loans to cover her education and living expenses. Some readers might wonder why she doesn’t leave school, work full-time until Emilia is older, then return to her studies later. But all mothers who have faced the impossible task of shrinking our career aspirations into smaller and smaller vessels while we pour ourselves into our children understand why Land presses on.
When Land was younger, she was obsessed with writing. Before motherhood she claimed her diaries would be the first thing she’d grab if her house caught fire. Later she reflects, “Now I had to dig them out of my basement. This downright poetic indication of their lower status in my life created an indescribable discomfort in the deepest center of my chest. The last time I had looked at these things, motherhood hadn’t yet consumed me.”
Then, in Land’s senior year at Montana’s creative writing program, a professor calls her writing “solid gold.” Another professor predicts Land’s success: “This is going to be a book. This is going to be a movie!” Their words inspire her to apply to the university’s prestigious MFA program, despite pressure to earn wages. When a judge in her child support case says she is “voluntarily underemployed” and insinuates Land is a grifter because she lacks full-time employment, she thinks: “This was a child support hearing, not a criminal case, but I felt like I’d been charged with negligence or worse, and I needed to defend myself for going to college.”
At times I wondered whether Land would fall into deeper debt or successfully claw her way out of poverty. Her monthly budget covers only minimum payments on student loans she accrued from her undergraduate studies in Alaska, she needs roommates to help cover her rent, and she runs out of food and money before the end of the month. She says of her student loans, “Given the monumental sum, I knew with certainty that I would have that debt for the rest of my life.” Almost every decision Land makes is measured against its cost. When she takes Emilia for a special ice cream treat, the moment is clouded by the knowledge that money spent on ice cream is money unavailable for groceries. Unlike her carefree classmates who party hop every weekend or the well-dressed married moms who mingle at the bus stop, Land navigates these hardships alone. “My desire was for the overwhelming feelings of desperation, of panic and having nowhere to turn and disaster always breathing down my neck, to end.”
At one point in her studies, Land seeks guidance from the program’s director, a woman who had attended graduate school as a single mother, written a book about it, and gone on to lead the department. Land hopes the director will be a mentor, but she turns out to be another gatekeeper who tells Land the department won’t be able to help her with graduate school. Later she criticizes Land’s writing, calling it relentless. Land uses her disapproval as fuel for her work. In her notebook she writes, “My life may be relentless but goddammit so am I.”
The most compelling part of Land’s story is that despite all of these obstacles, she keeps going: “Every time I wanted to cry from the crushing hopelessness that life seemed to bring, something inside me hissed you must not allow yourself to fall apart.” She does it for Emilia. “I needed her to know I was good at this thing I fought so hard to become.”
As a mother there were times I chose to put my education and career on hold because I couldn’t juggle it all. I felt like I had failed. Reading how Land found a way through all of her difficulties inspires me to keep going with my own writing now. It reminds me that the only way through the hard moments is to never give up.
Land narrates her journey with a straightforward voice that seeks neither praise nor pity. “It’s not that I wanted things to be easy, but a little less hard would be nice,” she says. From navigating the byzantine financial aid process to finding student housing as a single mother, her story exposes indignities in our socioeconomic structure and reveals the inequitable nature of higher education. “I had forgotten the part of the game where no one’s education mattered more than the money the university could make from your opportunity to soak up all that learning. God forbid they would make it affordable or easy.”
At its core, Class is about how deeply a mother can love her child while at the same time trying to love herself. Land wants more than anything to be a writer—and a mother. Against impossible odds, she is both.