Stephanie Land’s new memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, is a bracing one: When Land was 28 and unexpectedly got pregnant, she threw out her plans to study creative writing at the University of Montana in favor of raising her child. But with little support from the father and no close relatives who could help out in any meaningful way, Land soon found herself in a homeless shelter in Washington State with her tiny daughter, Mia.
In the years following, Land took on a series of low-paying jobs, familiarized herself with the convoluted system of government benefits, and eventually found relatively steady work cleaning houses with a maid service, all while still hoping to one day earn her degree. Most of Maid chronicles those years, the ones Land spent scrubbing toilets during the day and completing college credits online and writing essays and blog posts on her laptop after Mia had gone to bed.
Maid is a wide-ranging work, about not just the social and emotional realities of being poor, but also the monetary and opportunity costs of single parenthood and the secret lives of houses when only maids are around to get to know them. I spoke to Land about what she saw during those years and what life has been like ever since for her and for Mia, who’s now 11 and a half.
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!
I went back and reread [Barbara Ehrenreich’s] Nickel and Dimed, actually, and most of that book is her trying to find housing. And then I saw that through a different lens, like, Oh, I guess that is kind of evocative because it’s not normal. And so I did write more about it, in kind of an exhausting way—I wanted it to feel exhausting, as exhausting as it is. But my mission from the start has always been trying to prove how hard it is to be poor, and a lot of that is because everything takes so much work. It’s expensive to be poor. And all this is wrapped around this stigma that you’re lazy.
Fetters: Maids, as you point out in the book, get a very intimate kind of insight into other families’ lives, and a lot of the families whose homes you cleaned were, despite their wealth and their comfortable living, having struggles of their own. Since so much of the book is about how psychologically and physically damaging it can be to not have enough money, how do you square that with this other lesson you learned: that simply having enough money doesn’t necessarily make you happy?
Land: I think a lot of that [latter part] was my own disenchantment. I assumed that once you had that house on the hill with the fenced-in yard and the garage, that a lot of the things I struggled with would just disappear. And it just showed how naive I was.
But I also came across parents of kids who were addicts, or in jail, and they were kind of bewildered that it was happening to them. It was surprising to me, too. It felt to me like those types of situations were only for low-income people, not respectable people who are involved in the community. It was always something that the town would whisper about, but it wasn’t marking them in a similar way that it would mark me. If something happened to me like that, then that would just be another thing people could point to as a bad decision that I made and say, “Why should we help you? You brought this on yourself.” There were a lot of freedoms that they seemed to have that I never would have.
Fetters: The book ends on a really positive note: You and Mia have just moved to Missoula, Montana, and you’re starting school to get your degree. What happened next? What have the years since been like for you and Mia?
Land: At the end of the book, I’m actually still on food stamps. Still cleaning houses and struggling to go to school. We struggled for a long time, probably up until 2016. That’s when I was finally off of food stamps. And even that was just out of stubbornness. I was barely [qualifying], and I just decided to not apply anymore, because I couldn’t take the reapplication process. As a freelancer, it’s really hard to prove your income and prove that you’re working.
There were a lot of times when I thought we were going to lose the place we lived. There were weeks when I was incredibly hungry. The book ends on a really happy note because it’s a moment of celebration; it was a huge accomplishment for me to move. But it wasn’t necessarily like, We’re here and everything’s fine.