The Climb

Stephanie Land essays

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My therapist sat in a leather chair across from me in her small office. I stared out the window as I spoke of the events over the last week, and then looked at her for answers. “I think you normally handle stress very well,” she said. “You’re like a person teetering on a sharp ridge. Then a huge gust of wind comes and blows you off.” The gust she referred to had arrived by phone.

It started buzzing in my pocket on a Wednesday. I’d just parked the car, early to pick my daughter, Mia, up from school. I planned to spend that fifteen minutes dozing in the car. Her dad didn’t call very often, and only to talk to Mia, but I’d been sending him messages asking him to confirm when she’d be at his house that summer. Spring semester had a couple more weeks left, and then I’d have a break before summer school started. We’d planned on meeting halfway over Memorial Day weekend, and she’d be with him in Portland until the end of July.

“I can’t take her this summer,” he said.

“What do you mean, you can’t take her? Like you can’t come pick her up?”

“No,” he said. “I can’t figure out childcare. It wouldn’t make sense, anyway.

I’d only get a couple of hours to see her on the days that I work.”

I juggled going to school full-time and five housecleaning clients in addition to single-parenting an energetic five-year-old. I had no empathy for his plight. I also hadn’t budgeted to have my daughter with me for the summer. He rattled off excuses in an attempt to justify his decision. “Well,” I said. “I’m going to need more money.” More excuses. They took a lot of taxes from his wages. Rent had just increased. And, of course, the money he already had deducted from his paycheck for child support. He paid a low amount, but he never missed a chance to tell me how much it kept him from living the life he wanted.

“I guess I can help you out,” he said. I didn’t trust him. He’d turn this into an act of charity and hold it over me.

I ended the call, saying I needed to pick up Mia. Her teacher told me she’d been talking a lot about going to Portland for the summer that day. I looked over at my daughter through blurry eyes, stinging from tears. What would I tell her? How could I tell her?

Later that night at work, vacuuming an office, a thought struck me. We had a parenting plan. Wouldn’t he be in contempt of court if he didn’t take his visitation time? Wasn’t he legally required to follow through with what he’d signed and agreed to do?

I marched down to the Family Law Self-Help office the following Monday with my huge accordion file containing our years’ worth of court battles. The woman at the desk laughed when I asked if he’d be penalized for not taking his visitation time.

“No judge will force a parent to take their child,” she said. “It’s usually the other way around, they force them to give them back.”

But I wasn’t there to force him. I wanted to stick up for my daughter. I thought I had some legal ground to stand on when I would shake my finger and tell him to get his shit together and be a father. I drove to the child support office. They told me they didn’t have jurisdiction for the order, because he lived in Oregon. When I talked to that office, they told me modifications take up to a year to go through. I couldn’t do anything. My kid’s dad walked away from his parenting responsibilities, and the legal system practically paved the road.

Single parents give each other knowing looks. We’re the only ones who really understand. Even if we have help from parents or a decent co-parent, we know what it’s like to face a tantrum-throwing child an hour past bedtime after an exhausting day and not have the ability to tap out. Though we do get breaks in huge chunks when our kids go to the other parent’s house, even those can be hard, especially over the holidays. We’re left bewildered, wondering what to do with our life now that this little person is gone.

I battle this by staying busy, and getting out of town. I had plans for my break. Summer classes, non-stop work, concert tickets, and reservations at a cabin in the middle of nowhere, and a couple of five-day backpacking trips. I’d been looking forward to the month of July since October. The following summer, I planned to walk the John Muir trail through the High Sierras of California.

Their images disintegrated in my mind.

I called my friends and family, asking if they could take Mia for a week or two.

“I need a break,” I said, still in the frame of mind of someone who actually got one. But it sank in as they each said “no.” I wasn’t that person anymore.

I watched my daughter play with bubbles in the sink. I ached in love for her, but the pressure from being the only one able to take care of her turned into a suffocating pain. I walked into my therapist’s office a couple of weeks later in the depths of an existential dilemma. I didn’t only feel like I couldn’t be a cliché of a single mother anymore, I didn’t want to. My college education seemed a luxury compared to the cost of summer camps. What the hell was I doing, getting an art degree with a kid in my mid-thirties? I lived beyond my means, relying on student loans, grants, and scholarships. Sure, I pursued my dreams of being a writer, but at what cost?

I had fantasies of filling a backpack , jumping on a train, or escaping to the mountains. My mind sent me to dark places at night, whispering in its seductive way that I could go sleep in the river instead. Finding the strength to power through the end of the semester, summer school, and life in general, not only felt impossible, but something I had no desire doing. I left her office with an image of myself looking up from the base of the mountain I’d mentally fallen from, bruised, muddy, and broken. The climb up towered over me.

A friend offered to let Mia stay with her for a few days. Another came over and listened to me talk for hours in my pajamas. One from Alaska called a local pizza place and had them deliver my favorite pie, throwing in some desserts that made me laugh when I saw them tucked in a brown paper bag. The YMCA granted me financial aid. My phone filled with messages from friends, reminding me of my strength, radiance, and love.

I didn’t stop working. I finished the semester with good marks. Through wordof mouth, people called for landscaping and housecleaning. My client list grew to fifteen.

I didn’t stop climbing. Literally. My respite for the last six months had come in the form of a local bouldering gym. I found a little community there full of people encouraging me to not let go. On one Friday night, I walked in and received hugs from several women. They took Mia and I climbing at Lost Horse an hour south of town the following Sunday. Our first time climbing outside. Though they’d all been rock climbing and bouldering for years, I didn’t feel out of place or intimidated. My shoes stuck like weak Velcro to the rocks. My hands found crevices and pulled me to the top of pieces of granite the size of a small house. Mia climbed with ease, looking down on me over the edge, smiling. We went out for pizza when it started to rain. Later that night I sat in a local bar with four other women over beers.

One of the ladies took pictures of me attempting to climb an overhang. In every picture, someone stood behind me with their arms outstretched, ready to catch me if I couldn’t hold on. I didn’t know they’d been there when I reached for the next hold, slowly making progress then dropping back, but determined to try again.

It’s easy to forget those people are there. Even in climbing my mental mountain, I’d forgotten about my network of friends who stood below, cheering me on with their arms outstretched, waiting to catch me if I fell, and encouraging me to get back on and try again. Encouraging me to hold on, and not let go.

Read more from Stephanie now. Thank me later. 

About the Author

Stephanie Land

Stephanie Land's work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon, and many other outlets. She focuses on social and economic justice as a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change, and through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her memoir, MAID: A Single Mother's Journey from Cleaning House to Finding Home, is forthcoming through Hachette Books. She writes from Missoula, Montana, where she lives with her two daughters.

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