Non-Fiction November: ‘Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive’ by Stephanie Land ***

As far back as I can remember, I have always tried to read the book before I watch the adaptation. Sometimes, though, this just doesn’t happen – as in the case of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. The book has been somewhere on my to-read list since I heard about it, but I only picked up a copy after watching the excellent Netflix adaptation, ‘Maid’.

Maid is a memoir which details Land’s life as a struggling single mother, working long hours as a housekeeper in order to give her daughter some stability, and at the mercy of the often ridiculous grants and benefits in Washington state. Alongside her work, Land wrote; she noted down stories of the people she cleaned for, alongside her own experiences of welfare, from a perspective which was difficult to find elsewhere. This is an individual memoir, yes, but in writing about herself, Land also writes about so many voiceless people in the United States.

Maid is told in retrospect, written from a position of emotional and financial security. Land continually asserts that her incredibly hard work, and the many hoops which she had to jump through, were the only things which allowed her to leave her life of poverty behind. At the end of the memoir, we see her move to Missoula to attend a Fine Arts college, and to study Creative Writing. She had planned to do so just before she found out she was pregnant, at the age of twenty-eight, with her daughter, Mia, and had to give up her place.

Land escaped from a violent relationship with Mia’s father in 2008, when her daughter was just seven months old. The pair moved into several unsuitable homes in the town of Port Townsend, sometimes damp, and sometimes dirty, and had to learn to rely on a dizzying series of handouts from their local authority. At the outset, Land and Mia are moving from a temporary home in a rundown cabin, into transitional housing. Half of the residents are moving out of homeless shelters, and the other half have just been released from jail.

Able to work a certain number of hours per week, Land soon found a job as a housekeeper, earning barely anything by working for a series of people who ‘had financial cushions beneath them’. She also worked part-time as a landscaper for a family friend. However, nothing was set in stone, and no hours were guaranteed. Port Townsend, around two hours from state capital Seattle, is a small city which appeals to tourists; therefore, much of its employment is seasonal, and is often difficult to come by.

Land is incredibly frank and forthright from the outset. Her memoir begins: ‘My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.’ When she goes on to discuss her money troubles, and how exhausting the process of applying for welfare and proving your need is, she writes: ‘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.’ Later, she says: ‘I was on government assistance, having regular anxiety attacks, still unable to process much of the emotional abuse I’d just experienced or know the depths to which it had affected me. My life was at some sort of standstill in its new identity; in being consumed with motherhood, which I wasn’t sure I really even liked.’

Land is clear that she had very little support at this time; whilst she hears from her parents occasionally, she acknowledges very early on that they left her ’emotionally orphaned’ during her childhood. Her slip into poverty was something unseen, though: ‘… after one kid and a breakup, I was smack in the middle of a reality that I didn’t know how to get out of.’ She writes about the societal stigma attached to welfare, particularly the use of food stamps: ‘It felt like a weighted vest I couldn’t take off, or like someone had hidden cameras on me all the time… When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me: someone plain-faced and white. Someone like the girl they’d known in high school who’d been quiet but nice. Someone like a neighbor. Someone like them.’ She is humiliated throughout by no fault of her own when using these stamps in the supermarket, and also in other situations – for instance, when her mother and her husband fly over from France to help her move into the transitional accommodation, they expect her to pay for a dinner out for them. Land can barely afford the $10.59 which her own burger cost.

The author details the start of her relationship with Mia’s father, Jamie, and the way in which she moved into his trailer so quickly. She was wooed to do so by the copies of ‘Bukowski and Jean-Paul Sartre in a line of books above the table.’ She falls pregnant just four months into their relationship, and Jamie tries to force her to get an abortion. It is from this point that the relationship starts to become emotionally abusive, and later, physically. At this point, she reveals: ‘In spite of all my hopes for a different path, I softened in the days that followed and began to fall in love with motherhood, with the idea of me as a mother.’ As her confidence in motherhood, and her own ability, grows, she still questions whether she is a good enough mother, and whether she is making enough effort for Mia.

Land writes extensively about the particularly grants and programmes which she applied for, and the differences which these made to her life. She says: ‘We were expected to live off minimum wage, to work several jobs at varying hours, to afford basic needs while fighting for safe places to leave our children. Somehow nobody saw the work; they saw only the results of living a life that constantly crushed you with its impossibility.’ Land found no opportunities to lift herself out of poverty, or away from the welfare state which she was forced to rely on. She tells us: ‘There was no incentive or opportunity to save money. The system kept me locked down, scraping the bottom of the barrel, without a plan to climb out of it.’

The book includes a foreword written by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who worked undercover in low-paid jobs, including housekeeping, and then wrote about doing so. She writes that maid ‘is a dainty word, redolent of tea trays, starched uniforms, Downton Abbey. But in reality, the maid’s world is encrusted with grime and shit stains.’ She goes on to remark that although such workers are invaluable to the middle- and upper-classes, ‘they remain invisible – overlooked in our nation’s politics and policies, looked down upon at our front doors.’ A short critique of class prejudice follows, before she focuses on what Land reveals in her memoir. Ehrenreich comments: ‘When confronted with an obstacle, she figures out how to move forward. But the onslaught of obstacles sometimes reaches levels of overload. All that keeps her together is her bottomless love for her daughter, which is the clear bright light that illuminates the entire book.’

Maid is readable, but it is very matter-of-fact. Land has chosen to discuss a lot of often repetitive cleaning processes in detail, and I did tire of reading these after a while. However, this is an incredibly important and eye-opening memoir, which exposes the faulty welfare system, and the unreliable work which so many people have no choice but to use.

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