Meet the Parent

REVIEW: ‘Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education’ by Stephanie Land

Class by Stephanie Land
January 28, 2024

In the acknowledgments to her book Class, Stephanie Land explains why she wrote her first book, Maid. "I wanted to dismantle stigmas surrounding single moms, especially those who parent under the poverty line." Her new book seems to have a similar goal. It covers what she calls "my hungriest year," when she is 35, her senior year of college, "when my stomach and brain lived in a constant state of anger and lightheadedness."

With a six-year-old daughter to care for in Montana, her abusive ex (and the girl’s father) in Oregon, Land decides to pursue a four-year degree in creative writing at the University of Montana. Through a combination of odd jobs cleaning and babysitting, some child support, food stamps, and student loans, Land is able to piece together enough money to feed, clothe, and house herself and her daughter while also writing papers on Truman Capote and Shakespeare, as well as her own fiction and nonfiction.

If the stigma of single mothers is that they’re lazy, then Land has certainly succeeded in undermining it. She has hustled in a way that few readers of her books can probably imagine, working around the clock, living for months on end wondering how she would be able to afford her next meal at times, having to spend her last dollar before the end of the month, praying that neither she nor her daughter would need to see a doctor, turning down the heat so far that she would go outside and come back in during Montana winters just to feel warmer by comparison.

But it’s not clear that there is a stigma against single motherhood anymore. It’s true that according to a 2022 poll, almost half of U.S. adults say "single women raising children on their own is generally a bad thing for society. … A smaller share (43%) says it doesn’t make a difference, and just 10% of adults say it is good for society." But if, by stigma, we mean some attitude among the public that makes women who have children outside of wedlock the subject of scorn or shame such that other women are reluctant to do it, then it is safe to say that stigma has all but disappeared. The share of births to unmarried women has doubled in the past 40 years.

It is true, Land claims, that a professor once told her that "children don’t belong in graduate school," and she believes that professor is the one who kept her out of an MFA program. An employee at a crisis pregnancy center did ask her where the father of the baby was. And one friend suggested that maybe deciding to have another child, whose father was a casual acquaintance of hers (though she wasn’t sure which one) but wanted nothing to do with the baby, might not be the best choice. Does all of that add up to a stigma? Does a few people raising questions about the wisdom of caring for children alone while on a financial precipice constitute a societally imposed state of disgrace?

Land is outraged that applying for government assistance programs involves answering a lot of questions about her income and work habits. They "operate on the assumption that every person who walked into their office brought with them the possibility of scamming them in some way." Indeed, she says, "it was ridiculous to imagine that anyone would try to pull a fast one by spending hours at a government assistance office in the middle of the workday so they could possibly leave with a couple hundred bucks a month for food." For someone with a creative writing degree, Land displays a surprising lack of imagination. Given that the GAO estimates the cost of welfare fraud at $247 billion a year, let’s just say there are a few people who are pulling a fast one.

The questions public officials ask before they would give her money made Land feel uncomfortable—"these invasions of my privacy caused me to fidget and squirm but I submitted to them, like everything else, because it was another means to an end." The government’s demands that Land shows she is working enough—both by the judge who is presiding over her child support case and the welfare offices—feel unreasonable to her.

It does seem that the judge is not accounting for the fact that she cannot work around the clock and take care of a young child. But she also says what some readers may be thinking about Land’s choices. When Land tells the court she is a full-time student, the judge asks, "why aren’t you taking classes that meet online or that allow you to work full-time?" When she says she is planning to get an MFA after graduation the judge says, "so you are voluntarily underemployed." Maybe this seems like a harsh judgment, but the truth is that Land has made some impractical choices and she wants other people to fund them.

A woman in Land’s original situation, getting away from an abusive ex with a young child and with no family to support her, has few options available to her. And few would deny her the safety net this country provides both through the government and through various private charities. But she is not a child when the book begins. A woman with Land’s industry, intelligence, ingenuity, and fierce devotion to her daughter would not have remained poor for long were it not for the path she chose.

Let’s say she had decided to get an associate’s degree first or even go to a vocational training program—she would have had almost no loans and would have been able to earn a lot more than she did cleaning houses and offices. She could easily be working as an administrative assistant or other white-collar job, with health insurance and a decent salary. Land knows how to read, write, and show up to places on time. She claims she could write 1,000 words per hour when she was under pressure on a paper deadline. This is no small feat in today’s market. Many of the jobs would have paid for her to go back to school while she worked. Even if she had decided to wait until she was a Montana resident so she could have paid in-state tuition, that would have helped significantly. But she is outraged by this requirement. "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 the learning. God forbid they would make it affordable or easy."

Yes, it is true, as Land recognizes, our country rewards four-year degrees for no other reason than that they are four-year degrees. And when she is presented with the numbers on her student loans (which eventually add up to more than $50,000), she looks around at the message society is sending. "Student loan debt seemed like something that everyone—even President Obama—had to pay off eventually. Though the debt was real, it didn’t count as heavily toward a debt-to-income ratio as, say, credit card debt." She knew that it could keep her from affording a house or getting a car loan, but "this was good debt, I told myself, a good investment. Suze fucking Orman told me so, with Oprah nodding in the background. Beyond college, I’d magically qualify for jobs because of a paper that cost me fifty thousand dollars."

The person at the real center of Land’s book and Land’s life is her daughter. And then her second daughter. Land wants her daughter’s life to be better than hers. Throughout the book, she touts the "community" of people who help her—babysitters, roommates, other single mothers, friends—when she has to work or go to class. When she goes into labor, there is a veritable army of sisters to support her. But that was rarely enough.

She continues to date men who want nothing to do with her daughter. At least one stalks and threatens her. And when she finds a male roommate or friend who doesn’t mind hanging out with them or babysitting in exchange for lower rent, her daughter wants the man to be her dad. Pondering whom to date, Land says, "sometimes I didn’t feel like I needed a romantic partner so much as I needed someone to provide backup in parenting." No kidding. This is what fathers are for. It is not that Land should have stayed with her abusive ex. It is that she doesn’t seem to understand the effect that these other men are having on her daughter. To the point where she accidentally gets pregnant again and has another child on her own.

Which brings us back to the public’s view of single motherhood. It is not that most Americans don’t believe single mothers are hardworking women doing what they can for their children—financially, emotionally. Many Americans see them as heroes fighting for the safety and well-being of children when the odds are stacked against them. It is that they think that it is bad for society when too many children grow up without fathers. And that is an idea Class has done nothing to "dismantle."

Class: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hunger, and Higher Education
By Stephanie Land
One Signal, 272 pp., $28

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, is the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.