'Maid' in America: Author Stephanie Land struggled as one of the working poor

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“My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.”

That’s the brief, searing opening sentence of Stephanie Land’s just-published memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive” (Hachette, $27). In it, she writes about how, as a young single mother, she extricated herself from an abusive relationship and spent years supporting her daughter Mia by cleaning houses — physically demanding work that paid minimum wage without benefits — and struggling against a system seemingly stacked against the working poor.

Barbara Ehrenreich, whose “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America” explored similar territory almost 20 years ago, wrote the introduction to Land’s book. “If this book inspires you, which it may,” she writes, “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.”

Land’s story unfolds in a Pacific Northwest landscape. That homeless shelter (and subsequent transitional housing) was in Port Townsend; the tiny, mildewed studio apartment she later shared with her daughter was in Mount Vernon; the city to which she and Mia eventually moved was Missoula, Montana, where Land slowly worked her way through college in her 30s — and finally realized her longtime dream of becoming a writer.

“Maid” was born as a college essay called “Confessions of the Housekeeper,” but quickly it grew. “I sent a pitch to (the online magazine) Vox that wasn’t really a pitch, it was more like, Dear Editor, I wrote this in college, maybe you might like it,” recalled Land, in a telephone interview this month from her Missoula home.

She sent two paragraphs from the essay, describing her experiences cleaning for an early client: the Sad House, the home of a frail widower “dying slowly in a shrine that hadn’t changed since his wife had passed away.” In “Maid,” Land writes that before the Sad House, she’d thought of cleaning as “a mindless job and something to pay my bills, but now it felt like the work had an unexpected imprint on my life, and the vulnerability I was exposed to somehow relieved me of my own.”

“Maid” focuses on a two-year period of Land’s life, when she worked as a housecleaner for an agency — one that charged clients $25 an hour, of which the cleaner only received $9. “My editor at Hachette really encouraged the social-justice part to come out,” Land said, referring to her struggles with public assistance and housing despite her willingness to work. “To me, that was like describing a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich — it was so much my day-to-day existence that I thought it was really boring.”

Land’s book is rich with poignant detail, about cleaning houses filthy with neglect (“a film of dusty grease, like rubber cement, covers the kitchen”), about the scorn and derision she receives from both strangers and friends when she temporarily relies on food stamps (“You’re welcome,” a friend pointedly says, adding “my tax money’s paying for all of that”); of the struggle to provide for her daughter and of the solace that Mia gave her. Of weekends spent together, doing puzzles and exploring beaches, she wrote, “Suddenly, my week of teeth-grinding grit would fade. And we would drift in a bubble, just me and this amazing kid.”

Some of her cleaning clients were friendly and kind; others were not. Land doesn’t spare us the grossest descriptions (cleaning a stranger’s toilet is exactly what you think it is), but she’s careful not to villainize her employer.

It was a tough job; housecleaners were expected to work as fast as possible (clients paying by the hour didn’t want to feel overcharged), with no sick pay, paid vacation or perks of any kind. Hours were impossible to predict, making it hard to take a second job, and rarely added up to 40 paid hours a week. Unpaid hours — washing her own cleaning rags at night, driving to and from distant clients, redoing work that clients weren’t pleased with — were plentiful, and repetitive stress injuries were frequent. But the owner of the cleaning company “worked alongside me a lot, and that says something, I think, for the financial place that she was in,” said Land. “I wouldn’t fault her too much. This was the height of the recession and people were struggling everywhere in general. I understand what she was going through.”



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