BOOK REVIEW Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive
Reading Stephanie Land’s Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive reminded me of the short time I spent as a maid. I only did it for a short period of time while I was a teen. Even as a kid with boundless energy, I remember it being exhausting. People left the rooms so messy and I often saw disgusting things.
I don’t remember quitting or how the job ended, but I didn’t like it and didn’t want to do it. It never occurred to me then that the people who did this job full-time might hate it as much as I did. Back then I didn’t understand that sometimes people took jobs because they had to. I didn’t understand how life’s circumstances can put us in a place we never wanted to be.
Maid tells the story of these workers who do the job most of cannot imagine. Land cleaned other people’s houses while living in the Pacific Northwest and caring for her daughter. The book gives a face to the often faceless service workers invited into people’s homes to clean for them, and also to the working poor who use assistance programs like food stamps, housing programs, Medicaid, or childcare waivers. Land had been like most, planning to go to college when she became pregnant from an abusive boyfriend.
As a maid and as someone using public assistance programs, Land is treated like a person who doesn’t matter. While cleaning, she is the “invisible human being making lines in the carpet,” noted as just “MAID” or “cleaning service” on the calendar and not by name. At the grocery store others are annoyed with her that she is using food stamps. One man even yells, “You’re welcome!” to her as she walks away as if he has paid for her groceries.
She refers to the houses she cleans by nicknames such as the Clown House, Porn House, Plant House, Loving House, or Sad House based on their contents and their mood since she rarely sees the people who live in them. As she moves about their houses she imagines the people who lived inside and how they filled their days and nights.
In a way she saw the most intimate side of these people, the one even their family and friends rarely did. She knew if they were sick, what medications they took, where they put their used tissues, and picks up their balled washrags. She begins to see how her clients may not be much better off than she is when she counts up their sleep aids, their pills for depression, anxiety, or pain. She wonders if the stressors of keeping up appearances of a beautiful home wear on them in the same way poverty wears on her.
We see how the system that is designed to help her treats her as if she is an addict and unable to care for herself. In one housing project she is subject to routine checks to make sure she is doing her laundry and dishes. Land is a good cleaner and works as much as she is able too, taking on extra jobs cleaning and doing lawn maintenance she finds on her own outside of her permanent cleaning job but finds herself punished by the system if she makes even a little bit more money. If she makes even $50 more in a month she can lose the assistance she needs, such as childcare vouchers for the daycare where she takes her daughter so she can work.
It is the time with her daughter that ultimately is Land’s lifeline. She begins writing an online journal about the small moments of clarity and peace when they are together. From there she begins to see her life as a maid as only the beginning. She learned to clean top to bottom, left to right, and had been treating her life like that too, only focusing on one problem at a time, too afraid to dream. In the end, she is able to fulfill the dream she had before she became pregnant of moving to Montana and getting her degree.
The book is moving and at times I found myself shedding tears both at Land’s experience and her thoughts and interactions with some of the clients she does get to know. At first, she is quiet when others say hurtful things about people who use the types of programs she uses to get by but eventually finds that she can no longer do that.
As a memoir, Maid gives us a glimpse into one woman’s story, that is not only her story. Countless Americans live this life. As such, Land is not content to let others fall between the cracks as she once did. She now works with the Center for Community Change, an organization that works “to build the power and capacity of low-income people, especially low-income people of color, to change their communities and public policies for the better. ”
Originally published at catherinelanser.com on March 21, 2019.