About the Book
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land is a memoir where Land describes the traumatic experience of going from a confident college-bound dreamer to a depressed single mother, struggling to navigate poverty as she toils as a maid to polish other people's seemingly perfect lives.
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- Stephanie Land’s Website
- Is the American Dream over? Here's what the data says
- The Brutal Economy of Cleaning Other People’s Messes, for $9 an Hour
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“One of the many gifts that books give readers is a connection to each other. When we share an affection for a writer, an author or a story, we also have a better understanding of people unlike ourselves. Books cultivate empathy.”
That was a reflection on reading from the actress, Sarah Jessica Parker. Reading is one of the best things we can do in our day because it's a critical habit that helps us be more informed and empathetic. So in each episode of the We Should All Be Bookworms Podcast, we build our reading habit by taking a quick look at a page-turning, magnetic, universally appealing book that once you start reading, you won't want to put down. I'm your host, Mykella, a budding novelist and a bonafide bookworm. And today, we're talking about the book: Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land.
Maid is a memoir where Stephanie Land describes the traumatic experience of going from a confident, college-bound dreamer to a depressed single mother, struggling to navigate poverty as she toils as a maid to polish other people's seemingly perfect lives. Netflix has released a mini-series called Maid that is loosely based on this book. It is excellent. I suggest you watch it. But, trust me when I say the book is better.
So join me today as we preview this story. It doesn't matter if you've just finished reading your 33rd book so far this year, or you can't even remember the last time you read a book — this podcast is for you. In fact, if we can change the world one book at a time, then we should all be bookworms.
WHY THIS BOOK
"Years ago, when I thought about my future, poverty seemed inconceivable, so far away from my reality," says Stephanie Land, the author of Maid. "Safety was instilled in me. I was safe, and never questioned that, until I wasn't." (p. 24)
Stephanie never expected to be poor. So it shocked her that it only took an unplanned pregnancy and a bad breakup to plunge her into poverty so deep, she couldn't see a way out for years. She wasn't on drugs. She wasn't sitting around collecting welfare checks. She was working her body raw and barely had time to spend with her daughter. And still, it wasn't enough to climb out.
There's this thing called the American Dream. Have you heard of it? It's this idea that the United States of America is the best country in the world for anyone, no matter what class they're born into, to start from nothing, and through hard work and determination, turn themselves into whatever they want to be.
But the statistics from the last few decades suggest otherwise. Economists measure success based on a metric called "upward mobility." Do you earn more, adjusted for inflation, than your parents? According to the World Economic Forum, if you were born in the US in 1940, you only had a 5% chance of earning less money than your parents by the time you were 30. But if you were born in 1980, you had a 55% chance of making less than your parents did in their 30s. Upward mobility in the United States has degraded significantly.
And yet, the myth persists. And because of this myth, we tend to turn up our noses at the plight of people who find themselves homeless or penniless. We look at millionaires and say to ourselves, if I just work hard enough, I'll be like them. And we look at poor people and say, if you just work hard enough, you'll be like me. Go to school to get a better job, we say. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we say. And the worst thing we say is - You're welcome. My tax dollars paid for those food stamps, so you're welcome. My tax dollars pay for your subsidized housing. So, yeah. You're welcome. I don't get handouts, we scoff. I'm self-made, and if I can do it all by myself, so can you.
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive is a powerful story that helps dispel that myth. It also sheds light on how because of the myth, we as a people have become complacent and allowed our national and local government to throw together a sorry patchwork of underfunded and inefficient subsidy programs that work more as poverty snares than safety nets. And it's also an enlightening story from someone who spent hundreds of hours cleaning our houses, bearing witness to how even financial stability doesn't guarantee a happy and peaceful home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author of Maid is Stephanie Land, who worked as a maid, cleaning houses for about 6 years. The work was hard, and the pay was crap — about $8 an hour on average. “No matter how hard I worked, she said, “it never felt like it was enough. That I was enough. This was my unwitnessed existence, as I polished another’s [existence] to make theirs appear perfect.”
But Stephanie had a dream, and that dream was to be a writer. She chronicled her struggles with poverty in a blog, and she took classes part-time, eventually earning a degree in creative writing. One of her essays about her experience cleaning houses went viral, and she was offered a contract to write this book, which also went viral. It was on the New York Times bestsellers list for 5 weeks straight, and even President Obama chose it as part of his 2019 Summer Reading List. Most recently, as I’ve already mentioned, it has been adapted into a binge-worthy mini-series on Netflix, also titled Maid.
“We all want the same things for ourselves and our loved ones,” says Stephanie, “to be safe, healthy and to thrive…. I truly believe that the only way we’ll see change in this country is by listening to not only stories like mine, but also those of people who have experienced systemic poverty and racism. If we can somehow start to remove shame from struggle, we’ll start to see how many of us are fighting in our own way.”
Now here's a summary of the plot:
Stephanie Land discusses how she grew up in a middle-class family but fell into poverty in her late twenties when she decided to leave her abusive boyfriend with her 9-month-old baby. Before she became a mother, she was free. Even though she didn't have a college degree yet, there was plenty of work available in restaurants and coffee shops where she could work days, nights, or weekends. She also only needed to feed and care for herself, so her financial needs were modest. And although she didn't make a lot of money, she didn't feel poor. She had a plan and knew that she was off to bigger and better things.
But then she got pregnant. Her boyfriend, Jamie, wanted her to get an abortion. Because she refused, Jamie, full of resentment because of the loss to his own freedom being a dad would mean, verbally abused her all throughout her pregnancy and beyond. When her baby was about 9 months old, Stephanie had had enough. She made the difficult decision to flee to a domestic violence shelter.
It was a difficult decision because Jamie had a full-time job, he had a house. He paid all the bills and bought all the food while she stayed home full time and cared for their baby. Stephanie's mother was overseas with just enough money to support herself. Her father was wiped out financially and mentally by the 2008 real estate crash. She didn't have any support other than Jamie.
Choosing to leave Jamie and their abusive relationship meant she was choosing to be homeless and penniless. It meant she had to start all over again from zero. Except now, she had another mouth to feed. And this mouth could not be left alone in the house like a pet while she went out to work. This mouth needed food AND someone to care for it all day. And daycare costs money. Lots and lots of money.
Fortunately, she qualified for government grants to help her pay for daycare. But these grants required her to work. They wouldn't pay for childcare while she went to school to be trained for a better-paying job, resulting in her eventually not needing the grant. No. They would only payout if you worked at a low-paying job. AND the few daycare centers that even accepted these grants were only open Monday through Friday, 9-5. So the abundant work for people without specialized training - the restaurant work of evenings and weekends - wasn't even an option for her. One of the only jobs available to her was in housekeeping - which, if you spend any time cleaning your own house, you know, is hard work. And it becomes back-breaking work if you have to do it all day, every day. And it can be demoralizing work when you're getting paid peanuts to clean big, beautiful homes.
And thus, Stephanie found herself trapped in poverty. Her job did not pay her enough to survive. So to feed and shelter herself and her child, she was dependent on the occasional charity of friends and the cobbled-together assistance of vital but inefficient and underfunded government programs.
And the worst part was, as soon as she crossed the income threshold for these programs, they would cut or eliminate her benefits. So she literally could not afford to save. If she made an extra $50 this month, she'd lose $50 worth of benefits next month. This meant anything extra she managed to earn could never go towards saving for a more stable life. She spent many years exhausted, lonely, and struggling with no light at the end of the tunnel. It almost seemed as if the American welfare system was designed to keep her poor.
FAVORITE STORY MOMENTS
"As a poor person, I was not accustomed to looking past the month, week or sometimes hour… that shortsightedness kept me from getting overwhelmed, but it also kept me from dreaming." (page 241-242)
This is what Stephanie Land says in one of the most powerful story moments.
A few years ago, I listened to someone on the radio talk about how we have an animal brain and a human brain. Our animal brain is similar to what dogs and cats and every other animal out there have. It is only concerned with what matters right now at this moment. Am I hungry? I need to eat now. Am I sleepy? I need to sleep now. Is something threatening me? I need to either hide or fight right now. And so, animals operate purely on ancient, genetic instincts guided by the urgent needs of the moment. They don’t think about tomorrow. But humans have this unique ability to dream. We can look at the past and see what worked and what didn't, and we can look towards tomorrow and imagine how to change our actions so that we can build ourselves an easier future.
And while we have unlimited potential to dream, we have a limited capacity to act. There's only so much we can do in a day. And acting on plans for the future, especially when that action won't necessarily bear fruit today, takes an enormous amount of faith and energy. So we have a tendency to fall back on our animal brain, the instinctual and efficient survival-mode brain, to get through the day-to-day when we are under intense stress. When our survival is threatened, our brains dismiss any action that doesn't bear immediate fruit as a waste of energy. We don't slide into our imaginative human brain until things calm down in our lives and we have the space and time, and energy to dream.
When you're in poverty in America, you're in perpetual survival mode. You're thinking: I need a place to sleep tonight. I need food to eat tonight. I need a way to get to work tonight. Often the jobs available to you are the jobs that are physically demanding and keep you on your feet all day — housekeeping, retail, food service, manual labor. These are jobs that drain your body of all energy after 8 hours a day, more if you're working overtime to make ends meet. And then add to that a responsibility to care for children, make sure they're fed and dressed and, most importantly, interacted with — that you look them in the eye and have a conversation with them, enjoy them. After all that, where do you find the energy to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" and plan a better future? Where do you find the drive to pursue the American dream?
Stephanie's story shows us that most days, you don't. You begin to accept being shut out of the dream, and you're just grateful for a few moments of rest before the next day's grind to secure food and shelter begins. And all the while, you also have to live with the social stigma of being poor. Stephanie worked her fingers raw but still got Dirty looks in the grocery store when she pulled out food stamps at check out. Doctors shook their heads in disappointment at her when she brought her daughter in repeatedly for respiratory issues because she couldn't afford to move out of their moldy studio. And this was a hard-won studio apartment. She searched far and wide for this place because most landlords didn't want to accept her welfare rent subsidy.
But Stephanie survived — barely — with vital government programs and help from her network. Food stamps fed her child. Child care grants enabled her to get a job. Rent subsidies kept her from being homeless. Tips from her housekeeping clients were occasional crucial boosts to her income that helped her splurge on stuff like fresh fruit for her daughter or a bottle of Tylenol for her back. Friends donated furniture. One friend let her use his car when she lost hers in a car accident. These were all lifeboats that kept her from drowning. But it wasn't enough.
It wasn't until she found the space and time to dream again that she was finally able to climb out of poverty. I won't spoil it for you and tell you exactly how she found that pocket of peace. You have to read the book. But she did manage to find a crack in the system that she could fit through and escape.
Stephanie is a poverty survivor, and her story is important for you to read. But this story is not a pull yourself up by your bootstraps, self-made, American dream story. Remember, the American dream is mythical. From the beginning, white men who didn't own property, women, and people of color were all shut out. And even though the profile of who can dare to dream has broadened, actual attainment is still elusive.
But the beauty of America, the true nucleus of our country's glory, is the power of the people's voice. The power that comes from telling our stories and using our stories to connect with each other and advocate for change.
Reading Stephanie's book will open your eyes to how difficult it is to navigate poverty, especially as a single mother. But mostly, I hope it will help you dream, dream about how we might design a society where our tax dollars go not just to programs that help people survive day-to-day poverty, but give people the space to dream and plan their way out.
The myth of the American dream that anyone can build a stable life in the United States, no matter where they start, does not have to stay a myth. We can make it real. And understanding stories like Stephanie's helps show us how.
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive will take the average reader about 4.5 hours to read. That means if you read for at least 30 minutes a day, you should be able to finish this book in about 9 days, which is a little over 1 week.