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Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive
Foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich
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Maid is an emotionally raw, masterful account of Stephanie's years spent in service to upper middle class America as a "nameless ghost" who quietly shared in her clients' triumphs, tragedies, and deepest secrets. Driven to carve out a better life for her family, she cleaned by day and took online classes by night, writing relentlessly as she worked toward earning a college degree. She wrote of the true stories that weren't being told: of living on food stamps and WIC coupons, of government programs that barely provided housing, of aloof government employees who shamed her for receiving what little assistance she did. Above all else, she wrote about pursuing the myth of the American Dream from the poverty line, all the while slashing through deep-rooted stigmas of the working poor.
Maid is Stephanie's story, but it's not hers alone. It is an inspiring testament to the courage, determination, and ultimate strength of the human spirit.
"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." -PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, Obama's Summer Reading List
I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.
Welcome to Stephanie Land’s World
The price of admission requires that you abandon any stereotypes of domestic workers, single parents, and media-derived images of poverty you may be harboring. Stephanie is hardworking and “articulate,” to use the condescending praise word bestowed by elites on unexpectedly intelligent people who lack higher education. Maid is about her journey as a mother, trying to provide a safe life and home for her daughter Mia while surviving on pieced-together bits of public assistance and the pathetically low income she earned as a maid.
“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. These workers unclog our drains of pubic hairs, they witness our dirty laundry literally and metaphorically. Yet, they remain invisible—overlooked in our nation’s politics and policies, looked down upon at our front doors. I know because I briefly inhabited this life as a reporter working in low-wage jobs for my book Nickel and Dimed. Unlike Stephanie, I could always go back to my far-more-comfortable life as a writer. And unlike her, I was not trying to support a child on my income. My children were grown and had no interest in living with me in trailer parks as part of some crazy journalistic endeavor. So I know about the work of cleaning houses—the exhaustion and the contempt I faced when I wore my company vest, emblazoned with “The Maids International,” in public. But I could only guess at the anxiety and despair of so many of my coworkers. Like Stephanie, many of these women were single mothers who cleaned houses as a means of survival, who agonized throughout the day about the children they sometimes had to leave in dodgy situations in order to go to work.
With luck, you have never had to live in Stephanie’s world. In Maid, you will see that it’s ruled by scarcity. There is never enough money and sometimes not enough food; peanut butter and ramen noodles loom large; McDonald’s is a rare treat. Nothing is reliable in this world—not cars, not men, not housing. Food stamps are an important pillar of her survival, and the recent legislation that people be required to work for their food stamps will only make you clench your fists. Without these government resources, these workers, single parents, and beyond would not be able to survive. These are not handouts. Like the rest of us, they want stable footing in our society.
Perhaps the most hurtful feature of Stephanie’s world is the antagonism beamed out toward her by the more fortunate. This is class prejudice, and it is inflicted especially on manual laborers, who are often judged to be morally and intellectually inferior to those who wear suits or sit at desks. At the supermarket, other customers eye Stephanie’s shopping cart judgmentally while she pays with food stamps. One older man says, loudly, “You’re welcome!” as if he had personally paid for her groceries. This mentality reaches far beyond this one encounter Stephanie had and represents the views of much of our society.
The story of Stephanie’s world has an arc that seems headed for a disastrous breakdown. First, there is the physical wear and tear that goes along with lifting, vacuuming, and scrubbing six-to-eight hours a day. At the housecleaning company that I worked for, every one of my coworkers, from the age of nineteen on, seemed to suffer from some sort of neuromuscular damage—back pain, rotator cuff injuries, knee and ankle problems. Stephanie copes with the alarming number of ibuprofen she consumes per day. At one point, she looks wistfully at the opioids stored in a customer’s bathroom, but prescription drugs are not an option for her, nor are massages or physical therapy or visits to a pain management specialist.
On top of, or intertwined with the physical exhaustion of her lifestyle, is the emotional challenge Stephanie faces. She is the very model of the “resilience” psychologists recommend for the poor. 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.
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that this book has a happy ending. Throughout the years of struggle and toil reported here, Stephanie nourished a desire to become a writer. I met Stephanie years ago, when she was in the early stages of her writing career. In addition to being an author, I am the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, an organization that promotes high-quality journalism on economic inequality, especially by people who are themselves struggling to get by. Stephanie sent us a query, and we snatched her up, working with her to develop pitches, polish drafts, and place them in the best outlets we could find, including the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. She is exactly the kind of person we exist for—an unknown working-class writer who needed just a nudge to launch her career.
If this book inspires you, which it may, remember how close it came to never being written. Stephanie might have given in to despair or exhaustion; she might have suffered a disabling injury at work. Think too of all the women who, for reasons like that, never manage to get their stories told. Stephanie reminds us that they are out there in the millions, each heroic in her own way, waiting for us to listen.
My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.
It was an afternoon in June, the day before her first birthday. I perched on the shelter’s threadbare love seat, holding up an old digital camera to capture her first steps. Mia’s tangled hair and thinly striped onesie contrasted with the determination in her brown eyes as she flexed and curled her toes for balance. From behind the camera, I took in the folds of her ankles, the rolls of her thighs, and the roundness of her belly. She babbled as she made her way toward me, barefoot across the tiled floor. Years of dirt were etched into that floor. As hard as I scrubbed, I could never get it clean.
It was the final week of our ninety-day stay in a cabin unit on the north side of town, allotted by the housing authority for those without a home. Next, we’d move into transitional housing—an old, run-down apartment complex with cement floors that doubled as a halfway house. However temporary, I had done my best to make the cabin a home for my daughter. I’d placed a yellow sheet over the love seat not only to warm the looming white walls and gray floors, but to offer something bright and cheerful during a dark time.
By the front door, I’d hung a small calendar on the wall. It was filled with appointments with caseworkers at organizations where I could get us help. 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.
We weren’t allowed to have visitors, or to have very much at all. We had one bag of belongings. Mia had a single basket of toys. I had a small stack of books that I’d placed on the little shelves separating the living area from the kitchen. There was a round table that I clipped Mia’s high chair to, and a chair where I sat and watched her eat, often drinking coffee to quell my hunger.
As I watched Mia take those first few steps, I tried to keep my eyes from the green box behind her where I kept the court documents detailing my fight with her father for custody. I fought to keep my focus on her, smiling at her, as if everything was fine. Had I turned the camera around, I wouldn’t have recognized myself. The few photos of me showed almost a different person, possibly the skinniest I had been in my whole life. I worked part-time as a landscaper, where I spent several hours a week trimming shrubs, fighting back overgrown blackberries, and picking tiny blades of grass from places they weren’t supposed to be. Sometimes I cleaned the floors and toilets of homes whose owners I knew, friends who had heard I was desperate for money. They weren’t rich, but these friends had financial cushions beneath them, something I didn’t. A lost paycheck would be a hardship, not a start of events that would end with living in a homeless shelter. They had parents or other family members who could swoop in with money and save them from all of that. No one was swooping in for us. It was just Mia and me.
On the intake papers for the housing authority, when asked about my personal goals for the next few months, I wrote about trying to make it work with Mia’s dad, Jamie. I thought if I tried hard enough, we could figure it out. Sometimes I would imagine moments when we were a real family—a mother, a father, a beautiful baby girl. I’d grasp onto those daydreams, like they were a string tied to a huge balloon. The balloon would carry me over Jamie’s abuse and the hardship of being left as a single parent. If I kept hold of that string, I’d float above it all. If I focused on the portrait of the family I wanted to be, I could pretend the bad parts weren’t real; like this life was a temporary state of being, not a new existence.
Mia got new shoes for her birthday. I’d saved up for a month. They were brown with little pink-and-blue birds embroidered on them. I sent out party invitations like a normal mom and invited Jamie like we were a normal co-parenting couple. We celebrated at a picnic table overlooking the ocean on a grassy hillside at Chetzemoka Park in Port Townsend, the city in Washington State where we lived. People sat smiling on blankets they’d brought. I’d bought lemonade and muffins with my remaining food stamp money for that month. My dad and my grandfather had traveled for almost two hours from opposite directions to attend. My brother and a few friends came. One brought a guitar. I asked a friend to take pictures of Mia, Jamie, and me, because it was so rare, the three of us sitting together like that. I wanted Mia to have a good memory to look back on. But Jamie’s face in the photos showed disinterest, anger.
My mom had flown in with her husband, William, all the way from London, or France, or wherever they were living at the time. The day after Mia’s party, they came over—violating the homeless shelter’s “no visitors” rule—to help me move to the transitional apartment. I shook my head a little at their outfits—William in his skinny black jeans, black sweater, and black boots; Mom in a black-and-white-striped dress that hugged her round hips too tight, black leggings, and low-top Converse shoes. They looked ready for sipping espresso, not moving. I hadn’t let anyone see where we’d been living, so the intrusion of their British accents and Euro outfits made the cabin, our home, feel even dirtier.
William seemed surprised to see that there was only one duffel bag to move us out. He picked it up to bring it outside, and Mom followed him. I turned back to take a final look at that floor, at the ghosts of myself reading books on the love seat, of Mia rummaging through her basket of toys, of her sitting in the built-in drawer under the twin bed. I was happy to be gone. But it was a brief moment to take in what I had survived, a bittersweet goodbye to the fragile place of our beginning.
Half the residents in our new apartment building, the Northwest Passage Transitional Family Housing Program, were like me, moving out of homeless shelters, but the other half were people who had just gotten out of jail. It was supposed to be a step up from the shelter, but I already missed the seclusion of the cabin. Here, in this building, my reality felt exposed for all to see, even me.
Mom and William waited behind me as I approached the door to our new home. I struggled with the key, setting the box down to fumble harder with the lock, until finally we were in. “Well, at least that’s secure,” William joked.
We walked into a narrow entryway; the front door sat opposite the bathroom. Right away I noticed the tub, where Mia and I could take a bath together. We hadn’t had the luxury of a tub in a long time. Our two bedrooms were on the right. Each had a window that faced the road. In the tiny kitchen, the refrigerator door grazed the cupboards on the opposite side. I walked across the large white tiles, which resembled the floor at the shelter, and opened the door to a small outdoor deck. It was just wide enough where I could sit with my legs stretched out.
Julie, my caseworker, had briefly shown me the place in a walk-through two weeks earlier. The last family who’d lived in the apartment had stayed for twenty-four months, the maximum amount of time possible. “You’re lucky this one opened up,” she said. “Especially since your days were up at the shelter.”
When I first met with Julie, I sat across from her, stammering in my attempts to answer questions about what my plans were, how I planned to provide shelter for my child. What my path to financial stability looked like. What jobs I could do. Julie seemed to understand my bewilderment, offering some suggestions on how to proceed. Moving into low-income housing seemed to be my only option. The trouble was finding an empty slot. There were advocates at the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services Center who kept a protected shelter available for victims who had nowhere to turn, but I had gotten lucky when the housing authority offered me my own space and a path to stability.
Julie and I went over a four-page list of terse rules during that first meeting, rules I’d have to agree to in order to stay at their shelter.
Guest understands that this is an emergency shelter;
it is NOT your home.
RANDOM URINALYSIS may be requested
at any time.
Visitors are NOT allowed at the shelter.
Julie made clear they’d still do random checks to make sure the daily household chore minimums were met, like cleaning the dishes, not leaving food out on the counter, and keeping the floor tidy. I again agreed to random urine analysis tests, random unit inspections, and a ten p.m. curfew. Overnight visitors were not allowed without permission, and for no more than three days. All changes in income had to be reported immediately. Monthly statements had to be submitted with details about what money came in and how and why it went out.
Julie was always nice and kept smiling as she spoke. I appreciated that she didn’t have that worn, drawn-out look that other caseworkers in government offices seemed to have. 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.
Being poor, living in poverty, seemed a lot like probation—the crime being a lack of means to survive.
* * *
William, Mom, and I moved things at a reasonable pace from the pickup truck I’d borrowed to the stairs leading up to my door on the second floor. We’d taken my stuff out of a storage unit my dad got me before I moved into the cabin. Mom and William were so overdressed I offered them t-shirts, but they declined. Mom had been overweight my whole life, except during the period when she divorced my dad. She had attributed her weight loss to the Atkins Diet. Dad later discovered that her sudden gym motivation was not fitness but an affair, along with a new desire to escape the constraints of being a wife and mother. Mom’s metamorphosis was a coming out or an awakening to the life she had always wanted but sacrificed for her family. For me, it felt like she was suddenly a stranger.
The spring my brother, Tyler, graduated from high school, my parents divorced, and Mom moved to an apartment. By Thanksgiving, she had shrunk down to half her previous dress size and grown her hair long. We walked down to a bar, and I watched her kiss men my age, then pass out in a diner booth. I was embarrassed, but later that feeling transformed into a loss that I did not know how to grieve. I wanted my mom back.
Dad had dissolved himself into a new family for a while, too. The woman he dated right after the divorce was jealous and had three boys. She didn’t like me coming around. “Take care of yourself,” he said to me once after breakfast at a Denny’s near their house.
My parents had moved on, leaving me emotionally orphaned. I vowed to never put the same amount of physical and emotional space between Mia and me.
Now, staring at Mom, married to a British man who was only seven years older than me, I saw she had ballooned several sizes larger than she’d ever been, so much that she seemed uncomfortable in her body. I couldn’t help but stare at her while she stood next to me speaking in a fake British accent. It had been maybe seven years since she’d moved to Europe, but I’d seen her only a handful of times.
Halfway through moving my many boxes of books, she started talking about how good a burger sounded. “And a beer,” she added the next time we passed each other on the stairs. It was barely noon, but she was in vacation mode, which meant drinking began early. She suggested we go to Sirens, a bar downtown with outdoor seating. My mouth watered. I hadn’t been out to eat in months.
“I have to work after this, but I can go,” I said. I had a job cleaning my friend’s preschool once a week for $45. I also needed to return the truck and pick up Mia from Jamie’s.
That day Mom cleared out several huge bins of her own—old photos and knickknacks she had stored in a friend’s garage. She brought it all over to my new place as a gift. I took it willfully, with nostalgia, and as evidence of our former life together. She’d kept every school portrait, every Halloween photo. Me holding my first fish. Cradling flowers after my school musical. Mom had been in the audience, supporting me, smiling and holding up a camera. Now, in the apartment, she looked at me only as another adult in the room, an equal, while I stood there feeling more lost than I’d ever been. I needed my family. I needed to see them nodding, smiling, reassuring me that I was going to be okay.
When William got up to use the bathroom, I sat next to Mom on the floor. “Hey,” I said.
“Yes?” she answered, like I was about to ask her for something. I always got the feeling she worried I’d ask her for money, but I never did. She and William lived a frugal life in Europe, renting out William’s flat in London while they lived in a cottage in France, not far from Bordeaux, which they would turn into a bed-and-breakfast.
“I wondered if maybe you and I could spend some time together?” I asked. “Just the two of us?”
“Steph, I just don’t think that would be appropriate.”
“Why?” I asked, straightening.
“I mean, if you want to spend time with me, then you’ll have to accept that William will be there, too,” she said.
At that moment, William walked toward us, loudly blowing his nose into his handkerchief. She grabbed for his hand and looked at me with her eyebrows raised, like she was proud of herself for setting that boundary.
It was no secret that I didn’t like William. When I’d gone to visit them in France a couple of years earlier, William and I had had a fierce argument that upset my mother so much she went out to the car to cry. This visit, I wished to gain back the lost relationship with my mother, but not just as someone who could help me care for Mia. I craved a mom, someone I could trust, who would accept me unconditionally despite my living in a homeless shelter. If I had a mom to talk to, maybe she could explain what was happening to me, or make it easier, and help me not see myself as a failure. It was hard, admitting that level of desperation, vying for the attention of your own mother. So I laughed whenever William made jokes. I smiled when he poked fun at American grammar. I didn’t comment on my mother’s new accent or the fact that she now acted uppity, as if Grandma didn’t make salad from cans of fruit and containers of Cool Whip.
Mom and Dad grew up in different parts of Skagit County, an area known for its fields of tulips, located about an hour north of Seattle. Both their families had lived in poverty for generations. Dad’s family was rooted deep in the wooded hillsides above Clear Lake. His distant relatives were rumored to still make moonshine. Mom lived down in the valley, where farmers grew fields of peas and spinach.
Grandma and Grandpa had been married for close to forty years. My earliest memories are of them in their trailer home in the woods that sat next to a creek. I stayed with them during the day while my parents worked. Grandpa would make us mayonnaise and butter sandwiches on Wonder bread for lunch. They didn’t have much money, but my memories of my maternal grandparents were filled with love and warmth: Grandma stirring Campbell’s tomato soup on the stove, she’d have a soda in one hand and stand on one foot with the other tucked into her thigh like a flamingo, and there was always a cigarette burning in an ashtray nearby.
They’d moved to the city to an old house next to downtown Anacortes that became so run-down over the years it was nearly inhospitable. Grandpa was a real estate agent and would pop in between showing houses and burst through the door with little toys he’d found for me or won from the claw machine at the bowling alley.
As a child, when I wasn’t at their house, I’d call Grandma on the telephone. I spent so much time talking to her that in the bin of photos were several of me at four and five years old standing in the kitchen with a large yellow phone pressed to my ear.
Grandma had paranoid schizophrenia, and over time it became nearly impossible to have a conversation with her. She had grown delusional. The last time Mia and I visited, I’d brought her a Papa Murphy’s pizza that I purchased with my food stamps. Grandma, with thick black eyeliner and hot pink lipstick, stood outside smoking most of the visit. We had to wait for Grandpa to get home so we could eat. When he did, Grandma then said she wasn’t hungry anymore and accused Grandpa of having an affair, even of flirting with me.
But Anacortes was the keeper of my childhood memories. Though I had fewer and fewer ties to my family, I always told Mia about Bowman Bay, an area of Deception Pass—a crevasse in the ocean dividing Fidalgo and Whidbey islands, where my dad took me hiking as a little girl. That small pocket of Washington State, with its towering evergreens and madronas, was the only place that felt like home to me. I’d explored every nook of it, knew its trails and the nuances of the ocean currents, and had carved my initials into the twisted reddish-orange trunk of a madrona tree and could point out exactly where it was. Whenever I returned to Anacortes to visit my family, I found myself walking the beaches below Deception Pass Bridge, taking the long way home through Rosario Road, past the large houses on bluffs.
I missed my family but took solace that Mom and Grandma still talked every Sunday. Mom called her from wherever she was in Europe. It consoled me, like I hadn’t lost Mom entirely, that she still had some remembrance inside of the people she’d left behind.
* * *
Mom ordered another beer when the bill came for our lunch at Sirens. I checked the time. I needed to give myself two hours to clean the preschool before I picked up Mia. After watching Mom and William amuse themselves with outlandish anecdotes about their neighbors in France for fifteen more minutes, I admitted that I had to leave.
“Oh,” William said, his eyebrows rising. “Do you want me to get the waitress’s attention so you can pay for lunch?”
I stared at him. “I don’t,” I said. We looked at each other, in some kind of standoff. “I don’t have money to pay.”
It would have been appropriate for me to buy them lunch, since they were visiting and had helped me move, but they were supposed to be my parents. I wanted to remind him that he just moved me out of a homeless shelter, but I didn’t and turned to my mom with pleading eyes. “I can put the beer on my credit card,” she offered.
“I only have ten bucks in my account,” I said. The knots in my throat were growing in size.
“That barely pays for your burger,” William blurted out.
He was right. My burger was $10.59. I had ordered an item exactly twenty-eight cents less than what I had in my bank account. Shame pounded inside my chest. Any triumph I felt that day about my move out of the shelter was shattered. I could not afford a damn burger.
I looked from my mom to William and then excused myself to use the bathroom. I didn’t have to pee. I needed to cry.
- "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." —President Barack Obama, "Obama's 2019 Summer Reading List"
- President Barack Obama, Summer Reading List (2019)
Amazon, Best Books of the Month
—People, Perfect for Your Book Club
—New York Times Book Review
—Roxane Gay, New York Times bestselling author of Bad Feminist and Hunger: A Memoir
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
—Harvard Business Review
—Entertainment Weekly, Must List
—Gretchen Carlson, Politico
- On Sale
- Jan 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Legacy Lit