If She Wants To Be Something, She Can

Stephanie Land Single/Step Parent

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My 9-year-old daughter wants to be a writer, or that’s how she answers when they ask the question at school. It’s written clearly on the paper she recently brought home from school, a list of 30-some questions.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Writer. Who is your hero? My mom.

I’ve been on my own for most of her life. We were homeless when she still nursed all night, before she could walk. She’s followed me, whether she wanted to or not, as I chased my dreams of getting a college degree and putting it to work.

Like my daughter, I have also wanted to be a writer since I was very young, her age, and a teacher made us keep a daily journal. As an introvert, writing suited me. I never felt like I could express myself well in conversation, but when I wrote, my thoughts came out clearly and easily.

In college, I learned how to be a storyteller. I learned the craft of story arcs. I learned how to develop my voice. I learned what it meant to write a good essay and then dream of getting it published. I did not learn how to make money at it. That part I had to figure out myself.

While I raised my daughter and put myself through college, I cleaned houses. I spent hours on my knees, scrubbing the floor around toilets. And there, I learned things—the place under the toilet where pee collects in a house full of boys; I knew to check the wall next to it for dribbles. It was hard, but I was thankful for that work. Even to the point of bowing my head nearly every day, taking a moment to give thanks. But I knew it was temporary. I knew that the work had a purpose: to get me through college, and to get me here.

Graduating college felt almost as uncertain as being homeless. At least when you have absolutely nothing, the only way to go is up, and every day provides opportunity for moving forward. And you can’t stop moving or you’ll lose everything you’ve worked for. For six years, I felt this way as I trudged towards my degree. And when I graduated, I found a new goal, a new way forward, through writing. Despite not knowing how I’d pay for living expenses. Despite being on food stamps. Despite raising my daughter on my own, without family to help, and due to have a second baby in a month.

Over the next two years, with a nursing, sleeping baby in my lap, I learned how to make a living as a freelance writer. My defiant act of stubbornness to never again clean anyone’s house but my own. Some days that meant reading countless articles. On other days, it meant sending out 20 emails to editors. Occasionally it meant networking, learning the game, and finding virtual co-workers even though I worked from home. Eventually it meant writing thousands of words a day, submitting pieces that had been assigned to me, and then sending invoices for pay.

One of those articles—about cleaning houses—proved to be popular. So popular that it brought the attention of almost a million people, including an agent who wanted to represent me as an author. And after working with him on a proposal for the next 11 months, it brought in a book deal.

When I sold my book, I knew immediately that our lives would change, but there was really no way to know how much. Just a few months earlier, I had worked my way off of food stamps, and was finally able to afford full-time daycare for my youngest daughter. But the day that I received the payment intended to support me for a year of writing the book, it was as though the crushing hopelessness of ever not living paycheck to paycheck faded away.

The morning after, I woke up to Mia rustling in the kitchen. I remember immediately growing tense. I thought, “What is there to put in her lunch?” “Do we have any juice boxes?” “Is there bread for a sandwich?” “Do we still have apples?” And then I remembered that we’d gone to the store yesterday, that I’d filled the cart so full that we had to put things on the bottom. The relief that followed was so sudden, so overwhelming, like nothing I’d felt before.

I felt it again with an unexpected bill coming in the mail. The relief came so often that I had to write it down what triggered it. I could afford to purchase clothes that we had needed for a long time. I could afford to join friends for dinners out. I could afford to spend time exercising. I could afford to hike. I could afford to take care of myself. I had the energy to care for my girls. I could laugh with them. I hadn’t realized how paralyzing that was, to have that constant doubt in my head, until it was gone.

I don’t know if my daughter really will be a writer. But I do hope she doesn’t limit herself.

I hope she remembers our beginnings. I hope she remembers the little car that broke down constantly. I wonder if she’ll remember me graduating college. I want her to know that she has no limits. That if she wants to be something, she can. There’s nothing to stop her from not only chasing after her dream, but catching up to it, grabbing the tail, and never letting go.


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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September 2016 – the sky's the limit
This month we are delighted to partner with the State of Montana on a really cool national story-telling campaign called “THE SKY'S THE LIMIT.” For Montana, this project – including a special edition of Mamalode magazine and accompanying video series – features heartfelt stories about life, work and play under the big sky. But whether we are here or there, sky's the limit is about dreams come true, being your best self, letting your imagination lead and perhaps, conquering the impossible.
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