Kicked out of an abusive relationship with a young daughter in tow, Stephanie Land was able to stay temporarily stay with her father and his girlfriend, but they were also struggling to get by. Her father was also abusive, and the presence of his daughter and granddaughter was creating even more of a strain. Kicked out yet again, Land and her daughter found themselves living in a homeless shelter for a while, and Land learned the ropes of the various government aid programs available to her. On the day they moved out of the shelter, her mother and stepfather (with whom she has a contentious relationship) came to the US from Europe for a visit. Her mom wanted burgers, so they went out for lunch — Land’s first meal at a restaurant in months. When the bill came, they expected Land to pick up the tab, and when she stammered that she only had $10 to her name, they grumbled and expected her to put those entire $10 towards the bill.
So. Clearly Land doesn’t have much in the way of a support system. She moves from the homeless shelter into another questionable relationship, and then into a tiny, cramped apartment that ends up being infested with black mold. Her daughter ends up with serious health issues from the mold, but they’re trapped for lack of any other living options.
To make ends meet, she picks up shifts as a maid. She learns to navigate the welfare system, struggling with internalized stigma about having to depend on programs like WIC, while also sometimes having to confront people’s negative attitudes about poverty and welfare head on.
I think this is a book that will garner polarized reactions. It’s being marketed as the new Nickel and Dimed, in which Barbara Ehrenreich took on low-wage jobs to report on the state of working-class America, but that’s not quite accurate. Maid is a straightforward memoir that offers insight into some of the hardships she faced, but it is by no means a work of sociological exploration. And because it’s so personal, I think it’s easy to judge. Land makes a lot of questionable decisions. Like, a lot. At the same time, statistically speaking, people living in poverty do, so I’m reluctant to judge on that alone.
For me, there were a couple of problems with the book. Beautifully written as it was — she excels at capturing the inhumanity of welfare bureaucracy — it also felt like it was written at a distance. I actually listened to it on audiobook. Even with Land as the narrator, I felt like she was keeping a lot at arm’s length.
The other problem is her privilege. Even on food stamps, even living in an mold-infested death trap, even with possibly the two most selfish parents on the planet (for real), she had it a lot better than most of the undocumented population that makes up that kind of service work. She’s white, speaks English, has a social security number, and can qualify for government aid. She’s slowly working towards a college degree, and her dreams of a better future actually have a chance at coming true one day. She does briefly mention some of this, but because of her privilege, it’s easy to see why some readers might not be so forgiving of some of the things she includes in the book.
Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive was released in January 2019.