Jenny Rogers is deputy editor of the Talent Network at The Washington Post.
Anyone who has felt the white-hot humiliation of being caught in a weak moment of parenting — all eyes on you at the grocery store when you snap at your kid, another parent pointing out that the snack you’ve handed your toddler is a choking hazard — will cringe at one particular scene in Stephanie Land’s new memoir, “Maid.”
Land had taken her young daughter, Mia, to the doctor once again for a hideous sinus infection, brought on by the mold in their dank studio apartment. After examining Mia and hearing about the mold, the pediatrician advised Land to move for the sake of her daughter’s health. Land told the doctor she couldn’t afford a move. “Well,” the doctor said, “she needs you to do better.”
Land withered under the admonishment, which was not wrong but also not particularly realistic. Of course she should have pushed her landlord harder to address the mold. Of course she should have found a safer place for her daughter to live. But could she? The rest of “Maid” pretty clearly answers the question: No.
Any policy discussion around poverty in America quickly devolves into a series of “shoulds,” and the facts of Land’s life dare you to judge her. She should have gone to college. She shouldn’t have gotten pregnant. She should have left that man. She shouldn’t have been with that other man. She should have done things differently.
“Maid” answers all of those unspoken shoulds in a plain-spoken rejoinder to everything one hears about poor people on cable news. Land’s story is not defensive, but it is a defense of sorts — an unapologetic account of how a smart, talented woman ended up a homeless mother, in and out of bad relationships, and reliant on public benefits and meager pay earned by cleaning houses. And she apparently does need to defend herself, mostly against the brazen shoppers who announce “you’re welcome” when they see her using benefits at the grocery store. But also against her relatives and even one of her oldest friends, who cruelly points out during a phone call that her tax dollars are paying for Land’s federal assistance.
“I wish I’d had the courage to speak up for myself,” Land writes. She blocked that friend on Facebook and tuned out comments and news stories disparaging poor people.
“‘Welfare is dead,’ I wanted to say. There was no welfare, not in the sense they thought of it as. There was no way for me to walk into a government office and tell them I needed enough money to compensate for the meager wages I needed in order to pay for a home.”
Land grew up in a middle-class home and was enjoying a sort of bohemian existence in her 20s, working in cafes and bars with plans to attend college and pursue a writing career, when she found out she was pregnant. She put school on hold to have the baby, a decision that caused her boyfriend to turn vicious. Things got darker after Mia’s birth, and ended with a call to a domestic violence hotline and then the police.
Soon Land was living in a homeless shelter and clinging to custody of Mia. One of her book’s strengths is illustrating the perverse incentives for domestic-abuse victims: Once she left, Land lost her home, her ex’s income and the status of being a two-parent family; she nearly lost her child. She and Mia ended up living with a new boyfriend, a hard-working farmer whose appeal quickly faded. Their strained and unkind cohabitation, which she couldn’t afford to end, was a cautionary tale about what romance can turn into for the financially broken.
Land wound up cleaning houses, the only work she could find. Despite hours of backbreaking labor, she was never quite able to achieve stability. The $250 she received each month in child support went almost entirely toward gas to drive Mia to and from her father’s house. She was often at the mercy of landlords who didn’t maintain their properties and didn’t return security deposits; employers who couldn’t give her the hours she desperately needed; her aging car; the touch-and-go generosity of friends; and the largesse of the United States government, which was not particularly large and required her to jump through humiliating hoops.
Her book is not, however, a treatise on public housing, labor or welfare policy. Land is an expert in her own story, and she wisely sticks to it. We see the little tricks Land used to make her daughter feel like a regular girl out to lunch with her mom — buying a sandwich on clearance at a food co-op, where Mia was able to get a free piece of fruit. As she reluctantly consigned Mia’s old baby clothes, she started to tell the sales clerk that she had been keeping them for another baby, but having a second child seemed impossible now. “I’d been saving it for no reason,” she ended up saying.
There are no jaunts to colorful destinations to eat, pray or love; no suspenseful moments on the Pacific Crest Trail to keep the narrative moving along. Not much actually happens in “Maid” except a lot of brutal hours scrubbing appalling bathrooms and some truly bleak scenes of relational discord.
Yet the book, with its unfussy prose and clear voice, holds you. It slows down when Land dwells on the houses she cleaned and nicknamed (the Sad House, the Sick House, etc., which I struggled to care about), but she doesn’t linger there long. Land doesn’t indulge in diatribes or bog the pages down with obligatory data. She sticks with small details that show the cost of being poor — forgoing treatment that might relieve her chronic back pain and instead relying on costly over-the-counter meds that only mask the symptoms; not being able to afford a day off when Mia is miserably sick. Though this isn’t a policy book, and doesn’t pretend to be, it does offer a personal indictment of the policies that govern the lives of the working and lower classes.
It’s also not a success story, though Land does find some just before the pages run out. “Maid” isn’t about how hard work can save you but about how false that idea is. It’s one woman’s story of inching out of the dirt and how the middle class turns a blind eye to the poverty lurking just a few rungs below — and it’s one worth reading.
By Stephanie Land
Hachette. 270 pp. $27