My Feminist Dream: or, How My Dad Paid off My Student Loan
Achieving economic independence from—and with the help of—the men in my life.
At thirty-one and a half years of age, my $32,000 student loan was whittled down to just $7,000, thanks to my dad.
I’d been having trouble falling asleep. I didn’t tell anybody this. I was so anxious about my inability to pay back my enormous loan out of my meager freelance income and the small academic salary of my partner — we’ll call him James — that was supporting us both. I was envisioning paying the loan off past forty. That fear had joined my pre-sleep jolt-awake fears, along with the fact that my mum was long dead but my semi-conscious mind still had trouble accepting it. And that everyone I loved would also die one day, but I would still have the loan.
I’d taken the student loan out in 2001 when I started university in New Zealand. I had never been very smart about it, taking the maximum amount when I shouldn’t have. I’d added an extra year to my degree by studying in the Czech Republic for a semester and traveling around Europe afterwards. That was adding to my anxiety about paying it back: my knowledge that although it had been necessary to pay for my education, I’d been a bit foolish and too blasé about the true weight of it. I was studying the humanities, not medicine, after all.
My mum died when I was twenty-six. Post-menopausal, her heart gave up suddenly. Unexpectedly.
All of the things I never got to discuss with her weighed me down. I never learned how to do more than cast on, cast off and knit straight lines. I never got to convince her that not every woman wearing a scarf in the name of Islam is oppressed. I never asked her why she had once told me she thought the name “Marie” was unpleasantly foreign (“too French”) yet gave her second daughter a quintessentially French name.
I also never got to ask her how easy it was to get pregnant. How she coped with the bad morning sickness she’d alluded to. How it felt to give up her career when she had children. Things I wondered at my age.
When mum died of a heart attack on my dad’s fifty-seventh birthday, she left him some substantial life insurance. Not that money can replace a loved wife, but it meant that he didn’t have to struggle when he stopped working for a few months. It meant that he could pay off the mortgage and buy a plot of land at the back of the house to build on later. He had more to leave me, my brother and sister.
My dad told me that purchasing the land, five years after mum’s death, felt like her gift to him. She’d gone, but she had provided for the family in her death. I floated the idea that if there was any extra money left, perhaps he could help me out by giving me an interest-free loan.
He phoned me back a week later and said he’d give me $25,000. Not a loan. He’d give it to me. He didn’t want to see me struggling while he was still alive, and then inherit that money once he was dead. He could live another year, he could live another thirty. How could we know?
I’d been in the USA almost a year when dad came to visit. I wanted to thank him for the money, but more than that I wanted to share what it meant to me to not feel the burden of the loan any longer. That I could sleep easier. He understood. Over a dinner of tacos in Chicago, he leaned in conspiratorially and said: “When you and your brother were small, when your mum wasn’t working, we were really struggling for money. You probably don’t remember.” I was a well-fed, well-clothed child, so I didn’t. But I always knew, to some extent.
Dad isn’t normally one to dole out unsolicited advice, but he offered this: “That’s why you’re in a relationship. So you can look after each other.” He was talking about himself, as well as me. I knew he was right. Uncharacteristically sentimental, with one hand I clasped James’ hand over the table, and with the other my dad’s.
That day we’d gone shopping in Chicago’s northern Andersonville neighborhood. We found a feminist bookstore appropriately called Mothers and Children. I had taken a fancy to a colorful notebook and a historical novel, and wanted to make an impulse purchase. Painfully aware of having little money of my own, I sidled up to James and asked if I could buy them. It wasn’t really a request for permission, more a notification that I would be spending $30 from the joint account that, despite its name, was solely comprised of his earnings. He laughed and pointed out the irony of my asking his permission in a feminist bookshop, given my track record (I have a PhD in Gender Studies).
It was a gentle mockery of a circumstance that was no individual’s doing. It was another echo of the unexpressed self-pity that I’d been nurturing since coming — willingly — to the U.S. as a dependent.
I was thirty-one and still floundering, financially and career-wise. When my mum was thirty-one, she had me. I don’t remember my parents’ financial struggles but I do remember some of the effects. At four or five, I wanted a doll’s baby bath and kitchen. Never especially into dolls, this desire must have come from something being advertised at the time. My mum, always creative, made me two elaborate play stations out of cardboard boxes, decorated with fabric and lace. A plastic bowl was installed as a baby bath, an accessories tub filled with hand-cut sponges and soap boxes. A labor of love from a mother who wanted her daughter to have her heart’s desire, yet without the means or inclination to spend grand sums on it.
I loved my baby bath set; loved it all the more because it had personal touches. Because nobody else’s mum was clever enough to make such a thing.
My sister is five years younger than me, and at the same age wanted the same play things. She got them, shop bought. My sister was my parents’ “post-poverty child,” so they said. I told my mum that I thought it was unfair that my sister had got a shop-bought baby play station when I’d just gotten a hand-made one.
“But we didn’t have very much money then,” mum replied sadly.
It’s easy to regret the careless cruelties spoken as a child, now that she is gone. I can’t tell her how the hand-made play station was a treasure.
Mum didn’t work when I was small, but went back to full-time work when my sister was a toddler. Before that, she taught stained glass window design at evening classes and made windows on commission. She was always productive and busy, so her lack of a “real job” wasn’t noticed by us kids.
I remember an early foray into a discussion on feminism with her. “If women don’t want to work, they shouldn’t have to,” I tested. I must have been eight.
“But the argument is that it deprives them of economic independence,” she replied.
I didn’t understand at the time, either the concept of economic independence or the word “economic.” Yet those words stuck with me, making sense eventually. Except—and I began to understand this at about the same time—my mum was never financially independent, not really. She always worked, after my sister was old enough to go into day care, but her job was the second income. If she’d had to survive on it, especially with three kids, she wouldn’t have been okay.
Six months after that dinner in Chicago, after my dad paid off so much of my loan, I left James. No single thing caused me to leave, but many small decisions, actions and feelings that, when combined, made sense as a whole. I would leave the USA, leave all but the possessions I could carry in a single suitcase, leave the safety net of the joint bank account and (meager) tenure-track academic salary. The moment I realized I had to leave, there was no room for alternative narratives of my life. But I know I would have lived a very different narrative if I still owed that $32,000.
My riverside fling with a Nepali river guide while on a press trip to the Himalayan country would have remained a fling. My dream of moving to Nepal would have remained a dream. The idea that I could support myself on my freelance writing and editing would’ve remained just an idea. The love of a gentle, long-haired Nepali man with a sweet smile couldn’t have unburdened me of $32,000. My feeling that I needed to be in Nepal to live the kind of life I wanted would’ve seemed self-indulgent in the face of an unpaid $32,000. My travel writing about trekking in the Himalayas would have been a cute hobby compared to a $32,000 debt—as my deepest desires had been while I lived in the USA and was supported by James.
Dad was right. Relationships are a comfort and a support. But without the economic freedom to leave if you need to, how is staying simply an act of love?
A year after leaving, I paid off the rest of my student loan. Entirely on my own, from my freelance earnings. I wasn’t making very much from my editing and writing, but I had a low cost of living in Nepal. Friends in their forties congratulated me while lamenting they were still paying theirs, so I made it clear that I hadn’t done it alone. My dad, and my ex, had helped me so much.
Later that week, I took a pregnancy test. Positive. Pregnant to my gentle Nepali man who was utterly broke. It wasn’t his fault — his house fell down in the 2015 earthquake. I’d been supporting him for most of the year already, so the thought of a second person to look after on just my income was stressful. But he assured me he’d look after the child so I could work. When the child got bigger, he could go on some short trips for work, he said, but otherwise he’d be there to play with it, feed it, wash it, take the child out when I needed to be alone. Most of all, he told me wistfully, he was looking forward to walking around with the baby strapped to his chest. I would be the provider and he the primary carer. It seemed like a good deal, like some kind of feminist dream. And, by then, I knew that “some kind of” is about as close as it gets.
Elen Turner is a freelance writer and editor living in Kathmandu, Nepal. She has a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities (Literature, Gender Studies and South Asian Studies) from the Australian National University. Most of the time she can be found riverside or mountain-top in Nepal, or chasing the terrible Nepali Wifi around her neighborhood. See more of her work at www.wildernessmetropolis.com.
Support The Billfold