29 April 2021

Maid by Stephanie Land

I saw this on a "best of" list from Obama a few years back and felt compelled to read it. I have always been drawn to the "maid plot" - movies like Sunshine Cleaning and Maid in Manhattan, heck even Blue Crush, really interested me a lot growing up. That's not to say I like cleaning, I hate it, but I respect the work. 

I wasn't prepared for the emotional rollercoaster of this book at all. I was ready for the maid plot but not the poverty plot, a topic I rarely read about, and certainly not the raising-a-child-alone-in-poverty plot. The first sentence reads, "My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter," and I about had a breakdown. My son is 8 months old so all my emotions are now heightened towards anything to do with kids, but I think anyone would find this hard to read. 

Land and her daughter Mia

Maid is Stephanie Land's memoir about raising her daughter Mia on her own and trying to make ends meet in a system that really wasn't doing her any favours. Land wanted to be a writer and move to Missoula for school when she got pregnant accidentally and decided to have the baby. She leaves Mia's dad, who is verbally abusive, when Mia is only seven months old and they spend some time homeless before eventually working their way into a government housing situation and forward from there. 

It was exhausting just to read it, never mind doing it. I'm exhausted at the end of the day just from my own 8 month old with absolutely none of these problems to deal with. I have learned from this book though to stop saying the phrase "I can't imagine" because it really just equates to "I don't want to imagine"... we all would do the work necessary, we're just lucky not to have to.

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 isn't looking for a pity party in writing this book. She's a simple yet compelling writer and knows how to make her point without beating a dead horse. Almost immediately readers understand that there's no "woah is me" to her story, not that she's not deserving of it, but she's writing to shed light on a bad situation that needs to change.

Land works harder in the few years this book takes place than I likely ever will have to in my life. We have this idea of lazy people sitting around on welfare who don't want to work, and while I'm sure those people exist, there are certainly more hard working people (some of the hardest working people) who actually need government assistance and wish they didn't. 

The foreword is written by Barbara Ehrenreich who wrote a book called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America which, as the title suggests, is about how hard it is to make a meaningful living in the USA. She says in the foreword (I'm summarizing) that people can only be rich if other people are poor, and its in the best interests of rich people to keep poor people poor, and yet rich people look down on poor people as though those people aren't poor so they can be rich. There's a Kate Baer poem with a line about how nobody ever mentions the women who clean their houses when they're asked about their journeys to the top. Unfortunately I couldn't remember the name of a poem if my life depended on it.

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 mentions how she doesn't have parents to swoop in if she can't make the rent, or if she gets sick, or if her car needs work. I've been supporting myself entirely for eight years now but it never occurred to me how much of a privilege it is just to know I have my parents as a security blanket. I don't ever worry for a second about losing anything that matters to me over my finances.

Land's daughter Mia amidst all of Land's cleaning supplies

The other biggest takeaway for me is how incredibly messed up the system is for people who are living in these paycheque to paycheque scenarios. Nobody makes enough money on minimum wage to live even less-than-comfortably in the United States so there are a ton of people taking advantage of government assistance either for housing, childcare, food, or a combination of it all. But if you do start to work enough or earn enough to save even an iota of your money you'll lose that assistance and perhaps never get it back, so people in these situations are walking a fine line of making just enough to scrape by and qualify for whatever they can, but not a penny more. It's a system you can't really get out of and it's discouraging just to read about.

Reading this also highlighted for me how important validation and witnesses are to our lives. Land is totally on her own and has nobody to say, "yeah that's hard", "me too", "I'm sorry to hear", etc. She mentions how nice it was to finally be able to call the police on Mia's dad just to have someone tell her "I see that he did this to you". I think in writing a book like this, millions of people can bear witness to something that was a totally solitary experience and say, "woah that must have been tough". I bet it feels good. I think we all sort of take this validation for granted. 

As a poor person, I was not accustomed to looking past the month, week, or sometimes hour. 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." 

I kept waiting the entire book for one of Land's clients to die and like, leave her their fortune or something but that's just not what happens. Land works hard. She studies. She gets her degree. She moves to Missoula with her daughter and becomes a writer. I'm not sure what it says about me that I was expecting her to succeed out of a stroke of luck instead of hard work, but I think the whole point is that hard work was the only way forward. For this reason I felt like the ending was sort of anticlimactic, but that's what happens with true stories I guess? It's not Maid in Manhattan, after all. 

When a person is too deep in systemic poverty, there is no upward trajectory. Life is struggle and nothing else. But for me, many of my decisions came from an assumption that things would, eventually, start to improve."

I've always believed we should help as many people as we can as much as we can collectively as a society and am willing/would be willing to have less to do so. Stories like this reinforce my belief that lazy people taking advantage of a system are the exception to a group of people I've likely never been exposed to (or have, unbeknownst to me) who rely on said system for actual survival. I wish everyone could read it and feel a kind of empathy they've never felt before.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes these sort of bestseller memoirs. It's not been something I've been interested in in the past but I think I'll dabble more now. The book is also currently being adapted into a Netflix series starring Margaret Qualley as Land which I think has the potential to be really good.

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