The Blurb On The Back:
”My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.”
As a struggling single mum, determined to keep a roof over her daughter’s head, Stephanie Land worked for years as a maid, working long hours in order to provide for her small family.
As she worked hard to climb her way out of poverty as a single parent, scrubbing the toilets of the wealthy, navigating domestic labour jobs as a cleaner whilst also juggling higher education, assisted housing, and a tangled web of government assistance, Stephanie wrote. She wrote the true stories that weren’t being told. The stories of the overworked and underpaid.
You can order Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay And A Mother’s Will To Survive by Stephanie Land from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK. I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Stephanie Land is from a working class background who, shortly after the birth of her daughter, found herself as a homeless, single mother. In this ultimately unsatisfying memoir she describes working as a cleaner for a middle class oblivious to her problems and is very good at describing how she had to navigate the byzantine US welfare and food stamps system but I never felt that I knew who she was or why she was in this situation.
What’s good is how Land conveys the sheer grind of poverty. She writes clearly about the difficulty of navigating the US benefits system and how she has to carefully assess how much she will receive from work against what she could get in benefits because of the impact it has on rent assistance and food stamps. I felt a lot of compassion for her as she described the difficulty of trying to find good accommodation and the impact that living in a studio flat with mould had on both her and her daughter’s health and the constant judgment she faced from the medical personnel treating them. Similarly, it’s easy to empathise with her when she talks about the stigma she gets from supermarket staff and other customers when she’s seen using food stamps who believe that she’s in some way taking from them when the truth is that the minimum wage work she does simply doesn’t pay what it takes to live.
The sections of the book that deal with Land’s work as a cleaner are less successful, however. In part this is because I found them repetitive but also weirdly empty. A lot of the time Land doesn’t meet her clients because they arrange for her to come when she’s out so what we get is her constructed impressions of the people she works for. That’s fine insofar as it goes but there’s no real insight there and after a while I found it quite samey. It isn’t helped by the fact that even when she does speak with clients, there’s little depth to the interactions – some are nicer than others, some are uncomfortable but there’s no personal connection there and while that is the point, it left me thinking so what?
More effective is the relationship between Land and the cleaning company she worked for, which had been started by a single mum. Land does well at conveying the complicated relationship at play – Land’s fear at losing shifts, the company’s fear at losing customers if cleaners take too long, don’t do a good enough job or they charge too much money. Again though, there’s nothing personal here – conversations are all work related, you learn nothing about Lonnie or Pam, which means it’s difficult to make an emotional connection.
That lack of emotional connection is further hurt by the fact that Land doesn’t give an awful lot of herself away in this book. She’s clearly made some poor choices – her daughter’s father, Jamie, comes across as a massive swine in this book and she talks a lot about the emotional abuse he dishes out but she doesn’t give many concrete examples of what he did or why she stayed with him for so long. She talks about his attempt to gain custody of their daughter and how he had a lawyer, but is coy about whether she was represented or how she was able to win. She clearly has a distant relationship with her parents (her father, in particular, behaving in a particularly appalling way) but she doesn’t explain why she stays in contact with them or whether she tries to counter what, by any count, amounts to emotional abuse. Similarly, she enters into at least one other poor relationship with Travis (whose family owns a stables and farm) apparently because she needs company and a home, but even when Travis throws them out they appear to remain on good terms despite that and Land doesn’t explain why or how.
I got the impression that the sections where she talks about her dream of going to university in Missoula, Montana are supposed to be the bits where audiences make an emotional connection. However again, we don’t get much about the studying she does in her spare time or what keeps her going and ultimately that’s the big issue with this book for me – for a memoir, I came away from this book without ever really knowing that I knew Land. Sure, you learn a lot about how difficult it is to be poor and in a precarious situation but for me, that simply wasn’t enough for this book and as such, while it’s an okay read, for me it simply doesn’t hit the notes that Land was aiming for.
Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.