“My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.” This is the stark, opening line of Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid. And from this very beginning, readers know the kind of writing that they are in for: honest and unflinching. Throughout, her writing is straightforward but still jarring and raw. Land takes readers on a journey from when she first started dating her daughter’s father to when she moved to Montana and attended school there.
At the age of 28, Land left an abusive relationship with the single hope of leading a safe and happy life with her daughter, Mia. Land had stopped working when her daughter was born, financially relying on her boyfriend while she stayed home with their daughter; consequently, she had no real savings of her own. Her father and stepmother wanted to help, but they could not offer much other than shelter. Eventually, they could not even continue to offer that, so Land set about the daunting task of trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps, as the saying goes, with a barely-there social safety net: “Being poor, living in poverty, seemed a lot like probation—the crime being a lack of means to survive.” Land notes that many of her friends who are also struggling to make ends meet can fall back on family if they need to:
Sometimes I cleaned the floors and toilets of homes whose owners I knew, friends who had heard I was desperate for money. They weren’t rich, but these friends had financial cushions beneath them, something I didn’t. A lost paycheck would be a hardship, not a start of events that would end with living in a homeless shelter. They had parents or other family members who could swoop in with money and save them from all that. No one was swooping in for us. It was just Mia and me.
As the title suggests, Land’s long and hard-fought road to upward mobility included working as a maid. She landed a job at a cleaning company called “Classic Clean,” which offered her $8.55 an hour but forbade its employees from working more than six hours a day, making it impossible for Land to earn a full-time living. Moreover, she was not compensated for commute time or reimbursed for gas. So, even though she worked as much as she could, she also needed government assistance to get by. Still, this job offered her a stable schedule, something that her previous jobs hadn’t.
Her life as a maid was not for the weak. While cleaning, Land was not afforded breaks as her time commuting was considered a break. She lugged heavy supplies to and from her car and scrubbed floors on her hands and knees. In one particularly grueling clean, Land writes about cleaning black mold in a stand-up shower while wearing goggles and a face mask to avoid breathing in the toxic fumes from the cleaning solution. It was both physically demanding and emotionally draining. As Land notes, she went in and out of these houses like a ghost, as the owners were often not home while she worked. She was a faceless worker. She longed to be acknowledged by her clients and treated as an equal. When Land eventually left this job, she wondered if her clients even noticed: “There wasn’t any fanfare in quitting my job. Most of my clients wouldn’t know that I’d left, that I’d been replaced by a new person . . . . After a couple of years, my clients trusted our invisible relationship. Now there would be another invisible human being magically making lines in the carpet.”
At the end of every day spent cleaning, Land ached with exhaustion from bending and scrubbing and driving, but she did not get a reprieve because she also survived the struggles of single parenting: “Every single parent teetering on poverty does this. We work, we love, we do. And the stress of it all, the exhaustion, leaves us hollowed. Scraped out. Ghosts of our former selves.” Land loves her daughter fiercely, but she didn’t have the time with her daughter that she desired because she was either working or fighting for the benefits she needed to survive. Sadly, the stress and humiliation of poverty took its toll on her experience of motherhood. While she acknowledges that she did indeed escape the cycle of poverty, she also emphasizes that the hardship seems never-ending when one is still caught in that cycle.
Yes, her story does have a happy ending: she finishes her degree at the University of Montana and becomes a writer. However, Land does not allow readers to forget that millions of people continue to go through what she did. While their fortunes may have changed for the better, the kind of stress that she and her daughter endured day in and day out has lifetime effects. Land writes about Mia’s angry outbursts during this difficult time:
Mia was too young to verbalize her feelings of loss, confusion, sadness, longing, or anger, but knowing this didn’t soften the afternoons when she would rage instead . . . . I didn’t know what to do. I had no resources, no parents to call, no parenting coach or therapist or even a group of moms I’d connected with. I’d asked my child to be resilient and cope through a life of being tossed around from one caregiver to the next, and she screamed from underneath that weight.
While many readers will not experience the kind of poverty Land describes, nearly all readers with young children will be able to relate to the self-doubt and blame and lack of parenting resources she describes.
One of the reasons Land works so hard to overcome poverty is her love for Mia. Though other relationships are explored in the memoir, theirs is the only one that matters because it anchors Land to her goal: seeking a happy, stable life for both of them. This drive to deliver a peaceful life for her daughter cuts across all socio-economic statuses. Land hits upon something that binds us as mothers.