Maid by Stephanie Land is a single mother’s personal, unflinching look at America’s class divide, a description of the tightrope many families walk just to get by, and a reminder of the dignity of all work.
Barack Obama, in his social media post announcing his summer reading list, 2019.
My job offered no sick pay, no vacation days, no foreseeable increase in wage, yet through it all, still I begged to work more. Wages lost from missed work hours could rarely be made up, and if I missed too many, I risked being fired. My car’s reliability was vital, since a broken hose, a faulty thermostat, or even a flat tire could throw us off, knock us backward, send us teetering, falling back, toward homelessness.
Stephanie Land, Maid
Her book has the needed quality of reversing the direction of the gaze. Some people who employ domestic labor will read her account. Will they see themselves in her descriptions of her clients? Will they offer their employees the meager respect Land fantasizes about? Land survived the hardship of her years as a maid, her body exhausted and her brain filled with bleak arithmetic, to offer her testimony. It’s worth listening to.
From the New York Times Review of this book by Emily Cooke
It’s been a lot of years since I read the modern-day classic, Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. It is an honest look at the work of the people in low-wage jobs. Barbara Ehrenreich, a woman with a Ph.D., went “undercover,” working as a house cleaner at a motel, a server at a diner-type restaurant, a stocker at a Walmart. It is a book still very much worth reading.
A more recent book is Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. Barbara Ehrenreich, by the way, wrote the forward. I presented my synopsis of this book at the October Urban Engagement Book Club, for CitySquare. This book is the perfect follow-up read to Nickel and Dimed.
This is a memoir, with plenty of insight about the life and struggles of a single mother who had very, very little money and few resources, working as a “maid’ for a house cleaning company, and a few “private” clients.
At the center of this story is the love Stephanie had/has for her daughter, Mia.
It is a very good book to read.
As always, I ask What is the point? The point is this: listen to the story (stories) of a single mother struggling to make it. This provides a journey into a class of people struggling daily, in a country of plenty.
And I ask: Why is this book worth our time? Here are my three reasons for this book:
#1 – This book will help you see, in a graphic way, how someone struggles to work, and juggle benefits, to make it. To make it pretty much alone; on her own…
#2 – This book will remind you how invisible the everyday worker seems to be.
#3 – This book puts a very human face on the struggles of those invisible among us…
I always include a few dozen Quotes and Excerpts from the book. Here are the best of my selected highlighted passages:
• Many things I learned from therapists throughout the turmoil Mia and I endured with Jamie said that, in order for children to develop emotional intelligence and be resilient, it’s important, if not vital, for them to have one stable caregiver in their life, one adult person who doesn’t waver in being there when they say they will. …as long as one pinnacle person remained.
• I had looked under every stone, peered through the window of every government assistance building, and joined the long lines of people who carried haphazard folders of paperwork to prove they didn’t have money. I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor.
• She treated me like a person, tucking her short, copper-red hair behind her ear as she spoke. But my thoughts were stuck on when she called me “lucky.” I didn’t feel lucky. Grateful, yes. Definitely. But having luck, no. Not when I was moving into a place with rules that suggested that I was an addict, dirty, or just so messed up in life that I needed an enforced curfew and pee tests.
• I was grateful for programs that fed my family, but I’d also carry back home a bag of shame, each time mentally wrestling with what the cashier thought of me, a woman with an infant in a sling, purchasing food on public assistance.
• Though I didn’t know it then, the government had worked that year to change the stigma surrounding the twenty-nine million people who used food stamps by giving it a new name: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But whether you called it SNAP or food stamps, the assumption that the poor stole hardworking Americans’ tax money to buy junk food was unchanged.
• The months of poverty, instability, and insecurity created a panic response that would take years to undo.
• To the government and everyone else, it was inherent they shouldn’t trust me.
• Decisions over what to keep and what to donate or attempt to sell weren’t easy. Things I stored were equally useless and priceless.
• I needed a hug from a mom so badly I could easily see myself choking on a few tears and asking for one.
• I’d been there for Mia, but I’d needed someone to hold my hand, be there for me. Sometimes mothers need to be mothered, too. …If I started crying every time something hard or horrible happened, well, I’d just be crying all the time.
• As the night stretched out before me, I created a vision of a “happy” life. There would be a large yard of freshly cut green grass and a tree with a swing hanging from a branch. …Most of my clients had these things—the things I yearned for in those dark nights sitting up alone—and they did not seem to enjoy life any more than I did.
• 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. …How would a stay-at-home mom, whose child had tantrums for normal things, understand my daughter’s anger? …I couldn’t provide her with a home, or food, and accepted handouts to help with the tiny space we occupied.
• I compartmentalized my life the same way I cleaned every room of every house—left to right, top to bottom. Whether on paper or in my mind, the problems I had to deal with first—the car repair, the court date, the empty cupboards—went at the top, on the left. The next pressing issue went next to it, on the right. I’d focus on one problem at a time, working left to right, top to bottom. …but it also kept me from dreaming. “Plan for five years from now” never made it to that top corner.
• One weekend, I pulled The Alchemist off my shelf to read. The short book took two whole days to get through, since almost every page had a line that I’d underline, read again, and had to stare out the window to think about for a while. …the main character’s journey to find his destiny, only to discover it had been at home all along.
In my synopsis, I included these points and lessons from the book:
- What you don’t have
- a place to put stuff
- My lack of living space afforded me room only for things that were useful.
- money for escape – even to McDonald’s
- money to bring joy to your daughter
- a partner; or, anyone to call for help…anyone…
- I craved a mom, someone I could trust.
- I wished there was someone I could call to help or even talk to.
- the ability/freedom to make more money – because, the more money you make, the more they take away from your benefits…
- More in wages meant I received a smaller amount of food stamps
- The most frustrating part of being stuck in the system were the penalties it seemed I received for improving my life. …On a couple of occasions, my income pushed me over the limit by a few dollars, I’d lose hundreds of dollars in benefits.
- a safe place to live – (mainly about physical health; i.e., living with dangerous mold…)
- You need seven different kinds of assistance to survive:
- If I had stopped to add it up, the Pell Grant, SNAP, TBRA, LIHEAP, WIC, Medicaid, and childcare would total seven different programs I’d applied for. I needed seven different kinds of government assistance to survive.
- The work of a maid (house cleaner)
- when she worked for the “company,” she did not get to know the clients; and she made only slightly better than 1/3 of the money charged by the company
- Classic Clean charged $25 an hour to have me work in a home, but I still only made nine.
- she had to clean things “a certain way” — with limited resources.
- I had to clean the house in a specific way, the exact manner and amount of time as the person before me, to prevent any differences between cleaners being noticed.
- Here’s a lesson – that other person’s meanness may not be at you, but from within them…
- I understood now why she’d fired me. It wasn’t my incompetence. She’d fired me because she couldn’t afford the barter anymore, or wanted to do it herself to save money, and tore me down in the process.
And here are my six lessons and takeaways:
#1 – It takes great courage to keep going when times are truly tough. Let’s applaud those with such courage.
#2 – The system is tough to navigate. You have to make enough money; but not too much.
#3 – People can cause great heartache with their intentional, and unintentional, meanness, and lack of empathy (or even simple sympathy).
#4 – No matter how bleak, one has to have some hint of a dream — a dream of hope — to keep going.
#5 – In the end, you can only rely on yourself. But one can find help along the way. Welcome it; be grateful for it. – (Maybe The Alchemist had been right. Maybe if I took the first step toward my own dreams, the Universe would open and guide the way).
#6 – And, we probably all need to read a few more books like this. It will do our hearts good.
Here is one thing that comes through in both this book, and in Nickel and Dimed. These jobs are demanding. They require serious hard work, and a good work ethic. Stephanie Land was praised, by her clients, and her books, for her work ethic. She was not a lazy worker!
If you are a person with resources, then read this to remind you of those who do not have such plenty. If you struggle with too few resources, read this to find a fellow traveler; and, maybe, to find a little courage.
This is a good book. It is worth your time to read it.