This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ashley Fetters: In Maid, you point out that maids often spend their days in the homes of wealthy families while raising their own children in poverty, and a recurring theme of the book is that families like the ones whose homes you cleaned misunderstand what poverty is really like. What were the key things they misunderstood?
Stephanie Land: I think they didn’t know how much I was actually struggling. I kept it hidden from my friends and especially my clients—I never wanted to evoke sympathy from them or have them feel sorry for me. But I also didn’t want them to know that I was on food stamps, or anything like that. That’s sort of stigmatized, almost as thievery. When you’re being trusted to be alone in someone’s house, you don’t really want them to think that about you [laughs].
I don’t think they really knew just how hard the work was physically—how much it took a toll, how often I was sick, how often my daughter was sick. How much I desperately needed them to not cancel at the last minute. How disappointing that was when they would say, “Oh, you don’t need to come today, I’m just going to stay home from work.” For me, that was like, Agh! I’m losing 40 bucks!
Fetters: So much of the book is about your relationship with your daughter and the sacrifices you made on her behalf. How did you talk to your daughter about the book as you were writing it?
Land: She’s kind of grown up with me writing about her. I originally had a blog, and when I started publishing pieces, first in a local magazine and then online, she loved it. She loves knowing that her picture is in The Washington Post. She wants to be famous.
The book, I haven’t let her read it yet. I let her read just one of the chapters, where she gets the ear tubes put in her ears. I want to be with her when she’s reading it. I want to talk her through some of what I think are the heartbreaking scenes, like at the beginning of my pregnancy, the conflict [over whether to terminate the pregnancy] that was there. I want to be the one to talk to her about that.
Fetters: One thing your book does so well is talk through the logistics of why raising a family when you’re paycheck to paycheck is so hard—how difficult it is to prove you need the housing and the child-care grants necessary to even hold a steady job, and how much bureaucracy is involved. Was that an aim of yours, shedding light on the logistical challenges of poverty in the United States?
Land: Originally that stuff was all really boring to me—it was so ingrained in my daily life. But my editor encouraged me to bring more of that stuff out. She was like, Wait, what happened between you living in the homeless shelter and getting an apartment? And I was like, Oh, well, I was in transitional housing, I had to do this and this, and she was like, Where is all of that? That needs to be in there!