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The thing no one tells you about being a poor single mom

In my near-decade of being a single mother, there have been countless times of struggle. I’d say struggle is a daily, unwanted guest in the house. Even this week, when I pulled in to our parking spot after picking up my girls from school and daycare, I saw steam coming out from under the hood of our truck and lifted the hood to see coolant spraying everywhere, forming a puddle on the street. For years, this would have sent me into a state of near-panic.

When my older daughter was 1, I started taking college classes online full-time. By the time she was 3, I added working full-time as a housecleaner. We lived in a tiny studio apartment. I usually had about 50 bucks a month for spending and toiletries.

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I look back at that time with such nostalgia and love for our little life then. Because we got out. Even though my car broke down all the time, even though we had absolutely no money, there was a sweet simplicity to finding free activities that I grew to love.

Getting out, at the time, meant moving to Montana where I finished my degree. Making the switch to taking classes online to attending them full-time took my breath away. My daughter Mia, who was 5 by then, spent many hours entertaining herself or watching television while I did homework. When I told her I didn’t get in to grad school, she celebrated in the back seat and said she was never going to college. I winced a little. What had my struggle taught her? She’d only seen the hard work involved, and not the reward and wouldn’t for a few more years.

Graduating with my degree did not bring any fanfare or relief. I was happy to be done and happy to have accomplished what I’d set out to do, but I was also tens of thousands of dollars in debt and eight months pregnant. For the last few months, I’d spent all of my savings on legal fees to fight for more child support from Mia’s dad. I’d been so stressed about not having any money to live off of after the baby was born, I’d been experiencing pre-labor symptoms for weeks.

I was wracked with guilt over getting my degree then. I’d put my family massively in debt, and I’d done it to pursue a dream of being a writer. I tried to keep my older daughter oblivious to our struggles. I found out the local YWCA had a program where people could donate birthday presents. Instead of having a party, Mia went out to a local water park with another family for the day and came home to cupcakes. The only thing of value I had was my truck, which was worth about $4,000. I promised myself that if things got really bad, I could always sell it to pay rent.

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Our situation didn’t improve for months. I squeaked along, working a couple of writing and editing jobs from home with a newborn while spending several hours a day searching for housing we could afford. I didn’t find it until the end of September, four months after I’d run out of money.

Much of the pressure I feel in being a single parent is the responsibility of being the dependable one. I show up when I say I will. We have several quirky routines that never change. My job is to provide security, a safe haven, a place of comfort, even if it means pretending we have one.

I’ve always wondered what my kids will say about me and their childhoods when they are older. Now that things are evening out, and I have a decent freelancing career, I’m able to sigh and relax a bit. My truck breaking down this week was an annoyance, instead of a cause for panic. I rounded up a few friends to help with taking the baby to daycare, and drove the truck to the mechanic around the corner. It’s the end of the month, and money is tight, but at least I have money to cover it.

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For the last two years, I’d teetered in the shuffle that was having 10 bucks in my account and several maxed-out credit cards. I don’t feel as much guilt in not feeling like I am secure enough to raise them on my own, but it’s still there whenever I see people post photos of family vacations.

I’m not one for patting myself on the back. When good things happen, when big paychecks come, I nod in recognition, then get to work on the next project. I still feel caught up in the daily struggle to survive, and I’m not sure how much longer it’ll be until I feel an overwhelming sense of “I did it!” Maybe it won’t happen until they’re both through college.

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