2026. Two-zero-two-six. When I signed paperwork in 1995, commencing what would become a series of student loans to take me from undergraduate through graduate school, I had no concept of what that number would mean to me. 2026 was more of a lock combination than the year my students loans would be paid off.
Three majors, three universities, a handful of student loans and a lot of bartending tips — my undergraduate career in a nutshell. At 18, I had no concept of money. I lived in the now and assumed that student-loan debt would be something I could worry about later. Imagine my surprise when I began receiving bills just six months after graduating from college, shortly after the dotcom bust. I was making pennies working in a bookstore, was forced to move back home, and my student-loan payment, for just my undergraduate degree, was a thorn in my side that wasn't going to go away for a very long time.
By age 30, I had a graduate degree under my belt, with student loans totaling over $50,000, and I was finally established in a career that allowed me to cover my bills and still manage to have drinks with friends a few times a month.
Marriage and my subsequent pregnancy changed everything.
I got pregnant just months after quitting my publishing job and moving out-of-state for my husband's blossoming career. I hadn't found another position before the pregnancy test proved positive. My job hunt was effectively over.
I suppose I could have kept searching, but really, who was going to hire a woman who would be asking for maternity leave in seven months, legal or not? There is no way I would have not disclosed that information, so I took a part-time job in a bookstore to keep me occupied throughout my pregnancy and earn a little money to put towards the baby gear we'd eventually need.
Once my son arrived, that $450-a-month student-loan payment was a larger black hole in our monthly budget than ever. Had I not had student-loan debt, finances would definitely have been a little more cushioned than they were. I breastfed and used cloth diapers, yet finances were still incredibly tight. I can't imagine what we would have done had we needed to purchase formula and disposable diapers.
While the amount doesn't seem terribly big, for a family living paycheck to paycheck, $450 is the difference between being able to have a break and order takeout with a newborn, or having to shuffle around in the kitchen, half-asleep with a baby strapped to your chest.
For the first time in my life, I wasn't earning an income, forced to rely on my husband for grocery money and any other purchase I wished to make. As I sat rocking my newborn, I found myself without a familiar identity (career) and in the awkward position of not contributing to our household financially. My husband was now paying my student loan payment — for me to sit at home and change diapers, a fact that I couldn't get out of my head. It just didn't add up.
It didn't really add up for me to go back to work either. If I were to return to work full-time, working in a creative field, I would be spending more than half of my income on daycare. I was also caught in a Catch-22 situation; I would need to work to be able to afford the down-payment for a daycare slot, since we were living paycheck to paycheck, but working would be impossible without daycare.
The sad thing about this situation? I knew I was not alone. In fact, I was in parenting groups with women facing the same dilemma as myself.
My husband was paying over $450 a month for degrees he didn't earn, while I was at home nursing a baby, washing dirty diapers and losing my mind with fatigue (and boredom). I spent much of my time wracked with guilt for not contributing to our household financially, alternating between being jealous and grateful that my husband had a job, and adjusting to going without many extras in our lives.
2026. I have a number that represents an end-date, and a hefty balance to back that up. That payoff date has come to represent many things in my life — things I can quantify, assign meaning, put my figurative finger on. What I don't have is a number representing the years I've had with my son, able to nurture him while I stayed at home doing nothing remotely close to what my monthly student loan payment signified.
Today, I'm still at home, raising my son, now working from home while he attends nursery school three days a week. Everything about this feels right, despite feeling wrong for the first few years. What I do know is that 2026 is more imaginable now than it was in 1995. My son will be in middle school, and I will have had time with him that I can never, ever quantify.