At 28, Stephanie Land dreamed of attending college and becoming a writer. Then, an unplanned pregnancy and other trying circumstances threw a wrench into her plans, and the middle-class woman from the Pacific Northwest slid into poverty.
Still, Land never gave up. She supported herself, then her infant daughter, by toiling as a housekeeper. Despite long hours, physically demanding labor, low pay, an abusive relationship, and other challenges, Land kept fighting, and writing. She attended college, and when she submitted an essay entitled “Confessions of the Housekeeper," her professor promised her it’d become a book one day.
Her professor was right. MAID is an eye-opening and heartbreaking look at how the working poor battle nearly impossible odds to survive their situations, let alone improve them. In an exclusive interview with StreetWise, Land shares how her life has changed since the book hit the bestseller lists, and the cost of being poor in America.
Besides the obvious (i.e. money), what are some of the differences between the times you write about in MAID, and now?
I think about the future a lot, and not with the usual dread or utter exhaustion. I'm able to talk to my daughters about what they want their futures to hold without ever feeling as if I need to encourage them one way or another. I'm able to support whatever they want to pursue.
What are some things you think most people don't understand about being poor in America?
People don't seem to understand how expensive it is to be poor. That it's not a lack of budgeting ability. A poor person has an extremely intimate relationship with how much money is coming in and going out. There's just never enough. No hope for saving large amounts—with hidden costs, like higher interest rates, no ability to buy in bulk, no chance at investing--always eating away at the penance of cash coming in for physically demanding work.
How did being poor change you? What sorts of things about that time have stuck with you?
I see the world through a different filter, but I am gradually getting used to privileges and comforts without realizing it until they're not there for some reason. Like when you use a public restroom, expecting everything to be automated, but it's not, so you stand there with your hands under the faucet for a few seconds before realizing you have to turn it on manually. I do check my privilege a lot. I force myself to remember, as I'm reaching for another tube of toothpaste under the bathroom counter, how incredibly fortunate I am to no longer be in that place.
What are some things you hope folks reading MAID come away with—what do you want readers to know or understand?
My mission from the beginning has been to break down the stigmas surrounding poor single moms that prevent people from having any empathy for them. Single moms take a lot of blame for their situation, and rarely fall into the category of the "deserving poor." We expect them to do the job of two people, then chastise them for reaching out for support.
Economists talk about America's "permanent underclass." Do you think there's hope for people living under the poverty line?
There's hope if we can somehow take the shame out of struggle, stop posting about our best selves, and speak openly about what our lives would look like without a paycheck for a month. We strive for excellence, for perfection, for a life without fault, and put on our best faces. We forget how far away that is from real life. Of being a human being. I think the more we admit how human we are, the more we might start seeing others as equals.
Stephanie Land is a freelance writer, and a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change and Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Salon, The Nation and other platforms.