We meet Stephanie Land in a homeless shelter as her daughter learns to walk. She only has $10 in her bank account and is soon moving into transitional emergency housing. In the 2019 best-selling book Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, we see Land’s struggle to provide a better future for herself and her daughter. If you like biographies, sociology, or underdog stories, do check out Maid and see poverty in America’s Pacific Northwest from Land’s perspective.
Although Stephanie Land grew up in a middle-class home, she never lived comfortably. Her parents could not afford the luxuries, but they were able to provide a stable upbringing and some experiences for Land. While her childhood was by no means carefree, the sense of security that she enjoyed in her youth is something that becomes a distant memory in her young adulthood.
We skip past most of Land’s early years and meet her again as a young woman at a bar. There, she meets Jamie, who agrees to go on a date with her. Although Jamie ends up taking Land back to his cluttered trailer, she is not bewildered by the cramped quarters, rather besotted with the young man for his small literary collection. The relationship is not serious, but Jamie asks Land to move in with him with the understanding that in a few months they will go their separate ways — Jamie on a bike trip with friends and Land to Montana to pursue a creative writing degree. This adolescent romance is promptly destroyed, however, when Land announces that she is pregnant and keeping the baby. From here, we see how Land’s life takes a turn for the worse as she slips into the trap of poverty and struggles every day as a single mom.
As the title of the book suggests, Land works as a ‘maid,’ a ‘cleaning woman,’ or just ‘the nameless ghost, who leaves your house in a better state than you left it.’ Life in the cleaning service is grueling. The labor is strenuous, so much so that these ladies [Land never once mentions a male maid] are limited to 6 hours of work per day. The job is also without benefits. Land writes during the time of the recession and mentions making just around $9.00 an hour without sick days, without a gas allowance (some of her commutes are 45-min each way), or without any type of health insurance or employee protections. This system meant that if a client cancelled after Land arrived at the property, she would not be paid at all (which is a loss of precious time and money that she will never make up). Living from paycheck to paycheck means that a missed shift (even for sickness or injury) can mean a missed bill.
Through Land’s experiences, we can feel the weight of the unapproving landlady’s gaze as she declares that Land’s work does not meet her standards. We are cast aside with Land as homeowners don’t look Land in the eye and subtly treat her like she is less than them. We grow frustrated when total strangers judge Land for shopping with her much appreciated and desperately-needed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) card (aka ‘food stamps’). We feel for Land because she is a hard worker who remains optimistic, honest, and persistent as she pursues her goals to get an education and provide for her daughter. Through Land we feel the crushing weight of the stigma that those in financial hardship endure and the sense of entitlement that those who look down on Land feel empowered to have.
Land’s story is also powerful because she is a writer herself. Throughout the book she tells us of her dream of becoming a writer and that she blogged during the time that this book covers. She not only divulges the filthy details of some of the homes that she’s cleaned, but also invites the reader to share in her struggle and understand her story of hardship. Through Land we learn that the burden of poverty is not only financial but also psychological. It is the weight of knowing that any extra expense or minor disruption can sweep the thin rug of stability out from under your feet and send you spiraling out of control in a seemingly endless fall to rock bottom.
If you are lucky enough (and, yes, some degree of luck is involved) to live life rather than just survive it, please do consider reading this book. America is not a classless society and poverty is a real problem. Land’s voice is one that is not loudly heard in society, but it is one worth listening to.
Even if it is a little sad, I hope you will enjoy this read!