Earlier this week, I spent nearly three hours on the phone and online trying to consolidate my student loans. The whole thing went better than I expected. The customer service person was personable and helpful. The application process was smooth.
When I was finished, I felt both relieved and completely depressed. It’s 2017, 10 years since I graduated from college. Ten years. That’s a long time. And I still have $20,000 in student loans to pay off. Granted, some of that is from my master’s degree, though the majority of my master’s was paid for through my husband’s job benefits.
Still, the debt is crushing. But do you know what is even more crushing? The guilt I feel as a stay-a-home mom about the fact that I don’t contribute anything financially to pay off my debts.
My husband is a wonderful, selfless, hard-working provider. When I told him how guilty I felt after the consolidation, he said, “I’ve always taken care of you, and I will continue to take care of you.” And that was when my gratefulness ballooned to the size of my guilt over the fact that he’s paying for degrees that I am no longer using.
I worked so hard to scrape together every scholarship possible to finance my private school education. I worked for a year after high school to save money. I took (and passed) half a dozen CLEP tests to save on tuition. I kept my grades up and earned the Honor’s scholarship. I worked my butt off to become an RA in an incredibly competitive program and received a room and board scholarship. I had a work-study position every semester I was in school.
And I still had to take out loans.
I also fell in love and got married young. Ten years ago, I was unexpectedly pregnant with twins when I walked at graduation. I planned a career in teaching, and when my twins were 15 months, I went to grad school and earned my MA, graduating with a 3.9 GPA in two years. I worked for over five years as an adjunct, but I quit last year because the stress of motherhood and working was too much.
Our society tells women that they can be anything they want to be, but every choice — good or bad — has consequences. I look back at my life, over the 10 years (and before that too), at all the choices I made to get to where I am today, and I wonder, “Was it worth it?” I have never defaulted on my loans. And I’m not interested in badgering the government to forgive loans for degrees that I chose to get.
But the question goes deeper. I wonder, Am I worth it? Now that I have two expensive pieces of paper that are basically worthless because I chose to be a stay-at-home mom? Now that I’ve saddled my husband with thousands of dollars of MY debt?
But when my guilt starts tipping toward regret, I find myself violently pulling back, reminding myself of the advice my grandmother gave me when I was a little girl. When I told her I wanted to be a mom — like my mom — when I grew up, she said, “It’s great to be a mom. But get an education. A woman always needs a way to support herself because you never know what will happen in life. No one can ever take your education away from you.”
And I never, ever forgot that, even now, as the guilt of my student loan debt gnaws at me. I’m learning to live with my choices: my choice of university, my choice to take out loans, my choice to marry young, my choice to embrace my role as a mother, to say no to work when I couldn’t do it all, to stay at home to raise my children.
Not everyone has these choices. I am humbled and grateful for the privilege in my life.
But the choices are so complicated at times and both financially and emotionally damning. I wish so many things. But wishing that you had made different decisions in the past doesn’t alter your present responsibilities. One thing I know for sure is this: I don’t wish my education away. It is valuable, not because I am using it to earn money, but because I am valuable as a person.
I think about my son who has autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities. I don’t advocate for his education because of his high earning potential one day. I advocate, pursue, persist, and fight for his education because he is valuable as a person and investing in his education is right and good and valuable because investing in people is right and good and valuable.
Education always adds to a person; it never takes away. And while my education still requires a hefty payment from my husband’s paycheck each month (God bless that man. I am beyond grateful for him), my education can never be taken away from me. It was right and good and valuable. And hopefully, when my children need me a little less, I will be able to use my education to give back to others.
And pay off those damn student loans once and for all.