A New Memoir Offers the Real Dirt About Not Getting By

Posted by Goodreads on January 16, 2019
Few books have as powerful a first sentence as Maid, Stephanie Land’s memoir about living in poverty, working as a house cleaner and struggling to survive on $9 an hour.

“My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter,” her story begins.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive describes the years that Land worked as a single mother, finding jobs in the gig economy and stretching food stamps and minimum wage to pay rent, buy food, secure childcare, and navigate a complicated and onerous system of government assistance.

Rate this book
Clear rating
Land chronicles a life of cleaning and caseworkers with moments of normalcy that challenge stereotypes of homelessness and those living in poverty. She works constantly. Her mother, father, grandfather, brother, and former boyfriend celebrate her daughter Mia’s first birthday party in the homeless shelter. The two become transitional homeless after Land’s abusive relationship fails and family members don't have enough income themselves to account for one—or two—more.

Writing and motherhood inspire Land to pursue scholarships, a university education, and a better life despite exhaustion and a bank account always near zero. She spoke with Goodreads contributor April Umminger about writing, the American dream, how to treat the people you hire, and homes too big to clean.

Goodreads: First off, I wanted to say that I think it’s important to have a book like Maid in the public discourse to speak for folks in the service industry who don’t have a voice. What inspired you to write this book?

Stephanie Land: The inspiration came from an article going viral—an essay that I wrote in college called “Confessions of the Housekeeper.” People said, “Oh my God, this is going to be a book someday!” But of course, I had no idea how to make that happen.

After I graduated college, I was trying to grow my platform. And in the process, I had that article go viral on Vox. That was my first real, paid piece of writing. It was $500, and it was the most money that I thought I would make, ever. My agent contacted me that morning through the contact form on my website and asked me if I had a book in the works. And I lied and said, “Yes,” and he said, “Great, send me an outline and a few chapters.”

And 11 months later to the day, we had a book deal.

Initially, I thought Maid was going to be more focused on the voyeurism of it. I thought the essay went viral because it was this kind of exposé written in the Vox voice to make it clickable. I assumed the whole book was going to be like that.

Rate this book
Clear rating

Rate this book
Clear rating
I was happy to find Krishan Trotman and everyone at Hachette, who focused on bringing out the social justice aspect of the book. That was a huge relief. In our conversations, I said I was hoping those parts would be a gut punch to the stomach, à la Upton Sinclair with The Jungle and all of that.

I wasn’t going to promote it that way, because I thought it would turn people off. But the book came out so wonderfully, and I’m glad that part of the story was supported. It has become more and more important as the years have gone on.

GR: You mention that you were maintaining a blog—just a stream of consciousness—as you were going through these different hurdles in life. How did your writing style change from when you were writing a blog to writing Maid?

SL: My writing grew up a lot. I’ve always written essays, and those essays had grown from these blog entries. Throughout the years and going through college, you learn a few tricks to make your writing a little more readable and interesting.

The book is when things really clicked into place as far as finding all the ranges of emotion in my voice. Before, it was very matter-of-fact and simplistic, and I let the words evoke all the emotion. A lot of the things that I struggled with the most were learning how to write dialogue well and learning how to move a scene forward with dialogue.

In the process of writing an entire book, I grew more as a writer. Or at least grew more confident. A published author is a lot different than an essayist or journalist or freelance writer or whatever.

GR: You talk a lot about the notion of home and happiness from your work during this time. Can you explain how your attitudes changed from cleaning houses?

SL: I went through a bit of a disenchantment process because I assumed that once I had the nice house on the hill, or a nice house not necessarily on a hill, but the fenced backyard, the garage, the 2.5 baths or whatever, that I would be happy. And I just discovered that it didn’t necessarily mean that.

I don’t ever want to live in a place where I can’t afford to keep it up myself, cleaning-wise. You know, I appreciate the small spaces and having every part of your house have a use. I appreciate that it gets used, and gets loved on, and needs to be cleaned constantly, and it’s not just a presentation of your status.

I also learned that houses that big are a lot of work to keep up. So I no longer wanted a really big house. I’m in a three bedroom, one-and-a-half bath right now, and it’s a lot of work. It’s almost too big for me. I’m hoping I’ll be able to buy a house someday, but looking at places in town, my first thought is always, “Nope, too big to clean.”

GR: Through the course of your book, it seems like you did a lot of learning about these different programs and different assistance as you went along. What lessons or recommendations would you give to your younger self or someone in this situation?

Rate this book
Clear rating

Rate this book
Clear rating

Rate this book
Clear rating

Rate this book
Clear rating

SL: Before writing the book, I was so ashamed I had been through that. There’s always a lot of shame in being on government assistance and having kids out of wedlock. There are always things that people put on you, like you’re there because you made these bad choices. I felt like I had to overcome each one of those stigmas on an almost daily basis.

At the time that I was living it, I only felt like I was a failure. I didn’t see all the invisible little cushions that other people had, that I didn’t. It was just me, scrambling, to make it completely on my own. I faulted myself for that, and I was so incredibly hard on myself—just beating myself up at night, just feeling like, “Why can’t I do this, why can’t I just make it work? What did I do to make it so that I can’t pay my electric bill?”

Now that I’ve come out on the other side and have written about it, I have so much more compassion for that part of myself. I wish that someone had sat with me at that time and said, “You’re going through something really hard.”

Today I can hold on to those years and that version of myself and feel much kinder toward that time. Not in a rosy-glasses type of way, but just like, “Yeah, you did OK. You made it.”

GR: Before your literary career took off, what were you doing for work?

SL: I was trying to figure out how to be a freelance writer. As soon as I graduated college, I started taking any job that I got paid to write for. I read more than I can even fathom on how to be a freelance writer, and how to write for money and stalking all these editors. [Laughs]

Once the article went viral, suddenly those pitches that I was sending out started to come back. Editors were like, “Oh, you’re Stephanie Land—you’re the woman behind the housecleaning article.” And the opportunities were a little bit easier.

There are mentorship programs where they take on—I guess you would call them low-income writers—writers like I was. I was a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change (CCC). I placed my first piece with them at that time, too. I was still struggling on food stamps and living in low-income housing. Through CCC, I actually got a stipend that I could budget for.

Freelancing today—you know, in the gig economy—you scramble to do everything on your own. It’s nearly impossible when you’re getting paid $60 a piece. I worked with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which supplements whatever a publication pays. They shoot for a dollar a word, which is huge.

I learned a lot, especially through CCC, on how to take what I had always written and turn them into reported, narrative-style articles. I found that there was a huge niche, and huge need, for first-person narrative pieces on people who are struggling in poverty. It seemed like everyone was circling around poor people and writing about them, but nobody was writing from that place.

GR: You mention the role of books and literature and writing during this time. What were you reading that gave you inspiration? Or were you just going job to job without any time for that sort of break?

SL: I always move my books first. As soon as my books were in place and organized in whatever way I decided to organize them in a house, then I was finally home and I could unpack everything else.

During that time, I didn’t have a lot of time or space or funds to read. I will say that I always returned to the genre that I wanted to publish a book with, and that was a breakout memoir from a female author. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing.

Liz Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love was hugely monumental. I reread that [Eat, Pray, Love] while I was in the homeless shelter. I had just finished it before I went in, and the part where she talks about the older, wiser self that she prays to—I did that. All the time. I realized this year, this was the version of me that was ten years later that I was praying to. That book was hugely important to me to have faith in myself. I had to believe that I was going to get out of where I was, or I might not have.

David James Duncan has always been one of my favorites. I’ve carried around River Teeth and My Story as Told by Water in my bag constantly for years.

I was carrying around old favorites, like old friends, that I would check in with from time to time.

GR: What would you want your former clients to know about you or those in the personal service business? I imagine some of them will be reading your book.

SL: [Laughs] Some of them have. I would say the tiniest little bit goes a long way.

Like that woman in the book who handed me $10. That bought us dinner that night, and it was a huge treat to be able to go out for dinner—even though it was to McDonald's.

Just those little, tiny perks.

Your life is this crushing hopelessness because you feel like you’re not going to make it through the day. And you don’t even want to think about the future because that means that you’re going to be doing this for that much longer.

Even that little candle that a client left me [was huge]. Just treating the people who work for you like human beings and recognize that minimum wage is not enough to live off. I rely heavily on babysitters these days. I always make sure to pay them $15 an hour, because if I’m going to be a proponent of a fight for 15, I have to do that in my own home.

Don’t assume that because you’re paying $20 an hour to clean your house, it doesn’t mean that [your house cleaners] can pay all their bills.

A little bit of kindness goes a long way. I think that speaks on a universal level, too.

GR: At one point in Maid you mention finding ten minutes a day and just free-writing. What is your process now?

SL: I am very much a mental writer. I think about things and mull them over. Usually things will come to me, like a first line of an essay or a piece, and I’ll rush and get it down before I forget it—it usually happens in the shower.

When I was freelancing, I didn’t have childcare, and had a nursing infant. I would keep a notebook close to me and take notes throughout the day, like that first sentence, and then the ending sentence of a paragraph, and get the whole arc of the piece that I wanted to write. As soon as the girls were asleep for the night, I would make myself a huge cup of coffee and write all the things that I had been mulling over in my mind all day.

In writing the book, I wrote it pretty quickly and straight through without looking back for the rough draft. That meant sitting down for four or five hours in the morning and working on it, taking a lunch break, and then working on it in the afternoon until I had family duties. I felt incredibly grateful that I was able to do that, that I had enough advance money to live off.

GR: Who would you say is your ideal reader for this book? Who would you want to pick this up if you could choose an audience?

SL: Definitely the legislatures. You know, the people who are going to someday decide what we’re going to do with this broken system of government assistance.

And anyone who believes that poor people are lazy. On Goodreads I am an author who reads all the reviews. I had one from a teacher saying that she looked differently at the kids in her classes, especially the ones who came from low-income homes, because she recognized now that their parents weren’t neglectful, they were just busy. And working and tired. That really touched me, too, that she saw something that brought out some compassion. I’m hoping the book does that little by little.

GR: Given that topic—that there is this gap in the knowledge and coverage of the working poor—what books or stories do you recommend for people who want to read more about this?

SL: Evicted is a gorgeous book, and Matthew Desmond does an extremely good job being an invisible narrator, and it’s a piece of literature.

I’m a huge fan of Kathryn Edin. She has that book that she coauthored with Luke Shaefer. It’s called $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, and it’s a heavy book to chew on. They go through so much policy and explanation of how…impossible it is to receive cash assistance. It follows a few families and is very descriptive.

Then, of course, I reread Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America in the last year.

When I did, I was struck by how similar things were. I mean, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote that book…in ’98 or ’99 she did that.

GR: I didn’t realize it was that old.

SL: And that book still sells. The work that she’s doing still, and she’s been tirelessly doing it for 30 years. I thought it was interesting that my book took place ten years ago, and hers did so long ago, and yet very few things have changed. We haven’t really evolved in the way that we stigmatize the poor people of this country, and it’s causing them a lot of hardship.

GR: In your book it’s a triumphant end. Do you feel a sense of relief now or is there still part of you that is anxious from the past?

SL: I’m an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it type of person. Even with the amount of success the book has received, it’s still, “Yeah, but you never know…”

I don’t know when I’ll feel like I’ve actually made it. It has a lot to do with paying off my student loan debt and having some money to help my girls through college, or owning a home, or all these things that are still the basis of the American dream. I think I’m still scrambling to get there. I think I’ll always scramble.

GR: What books are you reading now?

SL: I just read Pam Houston’s new book, and I reread half of Jitterbug Perfume. I thumb through a lot of things. The last book I read from cover to cover was Small Animals by Kim Brooks. It’s just a brilliant book, so I would highly recommend that one.

I picked up The Alchemist again, for my last plane trip. I realized I hadn’t read it since that time I mention in my book. It’s one of the anniversary editions, where he has the new forward and is talking about the book’s success and how overwhelming that’s been, and I was like, “Goddamnit, you’re right there with me again.”

GR: Is there anything additional you would want readers to know about your book, or you, or this period of your life?

SL: I really appreciated how many people have commented and left reviews on Goodreads. People tell me to not read those, but I’ve been writing on the internet long enough that it’s hard to get through my skin. I appreciate people recognizing Mia’s importance in the story. And I know she does, too. I tried to write a book about motherhood that didn’t necessarily hit people over the head with it. I’m glad people are seeing that thread and how it held the book together, because she really held my life together.

Comments Showing 1-25 of 25 (25 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Gerald (new)

Gerald Steinmetz Hugely impressed by Stephanie Land. Yet she did not mention what you can salvage en route. Doing a similar job and living in a tiny London bed-sitter in the early Sixties, I found myself cleaning EMI offices in Manchester Square. Spread out on executive desks were the day's hopeless submissions. I mulled over them in my own despairing way. Were Beatles*standards (1962) on view? Sure were. Did I steal mannerisms from them? Sure didn't. I was however touched by the sheer ambition of it all. And it kept me going. Similar stimulus kept Stephanie going, no doubt. The result is her awe-inspiring modesty, which moves us still in this later, uncaring epoch. Has it always been so? Yes, always. And it will always be so for those for those who strive to put their most private thoughts on public view. At the time, reward is not the issue. Gerald Steinmetz Helsinki

message 2: by Robin (new)

Robin Walston I am not a reader accept for self articles and books. This kind of book could definitely be considered self help in my library. I am very anxious to start reading it! Thank you for opening up your life to us.

message 3: by Migdia (new)

Migdia Chinea Educated Hispanic bias. You probably don’t even see the exclusion from your vantage point. Sometimes it’s subtle and requires analysis because it is done as if “help” were being offered.

I am not a “racism vigilante” and continue to work on my films, my almost-completed feature film When it rains (80minutes/800 scenes/115,000 frames), my historic home (my museum of lost props engaged in an against-the-elements sweet aging process), my son working as an Art Director in VA (he could not get that title here in LA), and my two little Schnauzers, Cato and Tullia (maned after Roman historical characters — I have a UCLA ancient civilizations degree with an emphasis on Ciceronean times). I also have a UCLA masters in film and digital media studies 2012. Nor exactly outcome-driven degrees, as I have learned through discrimination, unemployment, exclusion and working min wage retail in a dank basement. My vast screewring directing producing experience and expensive UCLA MFA notwithstanding.

I love superheroes (house bought thanks to my work on the Incredible Hulk and crossover TV ) and my narrative fiction awarded zero-budget films usually revolve about interrelationships — human foibles. Visual imagery. Not causes.

But I am distressed and feel the need to reach out about the systematic exclusion of educated Cuban-Americans, and other educated Hispanics like me, from southern CA higher academia rosters, our nation’s socio economic narratives, estranged from all facets of the media, under the guise of help. I often feel like the elephant woman screaming in Increíble Hulk fashion, “I am a human being”.

Please, take me seriously. I may appear blunt at times, but I am very saddened by a reality that I don’t deserve, and I’m quite affected personally, financially, and professionally by it. Migdia Chinea.

message 4: by Dianne (new)

Dianne Jacob Terrific interview. Who conducted it? Give the interviewer a byline, please.

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm going to eventually read your book because of the content of true reality. I've been homeless several times, divorced twice, and worked cooking and doing other service oriented jobs all my life. I can't imagine the stress of being a mom or the heartbreaking torture of having to work for rude people.
Folks needing assistance should try to see all the helps we get are really blessings from God. Being truly thankful to Him puts us in the place where, like the air He let's us breathe, we can start finding peace and contentment. That's the lawn before the gate before the doorway to the garden of God's mercy. This note is me reaching out my hand.......

message 6: by Annanson (new)

Annanson John Incredible assay of society-real revelation! And thank you for cutting ✂ through the mindset of those people who think poor people are lazy.

message 7: by Joseph (new)

Joseph Odhong Good work. It can change people's views on servants

message 8: by Khalid (new)

Khalid Mahmood Wonderful social service for humanity.

message 9: by Richard Gault (new)

Richard Gault Inspirational for a grandpa. I will find your book. Dic k Duffer

message 10: by Maryann (new)

Maryann Gestwicki Wow, A book I love to read someday soon, That's How I feel, I'm a struggling self-employed housecleaner with 2 clients for the past 9 years & determine self publish writer since 2015, Living off of food stamps & disability government check. I have a Learning disability & personality disorder. Still living with a parent. Never was able to move out since graduating High School in 2003. I just turned 34 today. yep, that's my life.

message 11: by B. (new)

B. Arnett Fantastic interview! I SO want to read this now. Thank you!

message 12: by Susan (last edited Jan 17, 2019 01:20PM) (new)

Susan Very distressing that this is reality for so many. I am recommending this book for my book club. Glad you came out on the other side.

message 13: by Warren (new)

Warren Franks I've managed a lot of minimum wage service providers, in the security and hospitality industries. I was struck by the authors frustration with available public assistance, as though it were a right. And, if everyone gets to $15 an hour, then $15 an hour is the new minimum wage. The problem isn't the structure of hourly wages in this country. The problem is the accumulation of wealth and subsequent failed distribution of benefits to living together. We don't "live together."

message 14: by Rita (new)

Rita Boehm As a retiree living on Social Security and a small pension to the tune of approximately $4.50 an hour, I have no sympathy. The point of life is to learn to live with what we have, not what we think we should have. I will definitely NOT read this book. Now, if it were about gratitude for what we have and how to find ways to get along with what we DO have, maybe I'd read it.

message 15: by Robert (new)

Robert Nwadiaru A Behaviorist Writer!
This is a masterfully written behavior adjustment narrative. It transcends ordinary novel idea. It's equally good for psychology and mental health professions.

message 16: by Dawn (new)

Dawn Morgart I couldn’t wait to read “Maid” but was disappointed. I think I would have enjoyed more if it had been written in third person. Too many “I” did this and “I” did that. Read like a depressing diary.

message 17: by Mark (new)

Mark Interesting interview - thank you. I am going to read this book.

message 18: by Elaine (new)

Elaine Torrence Great interview. I look forward to reading the book. This country doesn't like to talk about or even admit class and its impact on opportunity.

message 19: by Cybil (new)

Cybil Dianne wrote: "Terrific interview. Who conducted it? Give the interviewer a byline, please."

Love that you want to know! In the introduction we say that this interview was conducted Goodreads contributor April Umminger.

message 20: by Jonathan kates (new)

Jonathan kates I just finished MAID, I couldn’t believe the struggles of this young, single Mom, inspiring and also made me thankful ...

message 21: by Nabil (new)

Nabil Belabbassi Very inspiring story. Worth reading the book. Thank you for the interview.

message 22: by Michele (new)

Michele I will read "The Maid" Good interview from Good Reads. I am sure it is eye opening just as Barbara Ehlringer's book was. I read that also in 1999 or so. I'm glad Stephanie came out on the other side. Thank you for your honesty, Stephanie. It sounds like you are very inspirational to those around you, especially your daughters.

message 23: by Beth (new)

Beth Grant DeRoos Such a timely book! Am donating my copy to my local library. Am an elder and have a lovely woman who comes twice a week to help clean and while I am not well off I strive to pay a living wage and consider her family not 'hired help'.

message 24: by Dywane (new)

Dywane The Maid That's Wonderful Book?

message 25: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Stephanie Land's book struck a chord for me as I am currently struggling to support my three-year-old-son in a country where the working poor are shunned. While the minimum wage is considerably higher in Australia than it is in America, people still struggle to put food on the table and pay their bills. I don't know when my fortune will change; however, her book has inspired me to become a better mother, a smarter freelance writer, a doctor and an advocate for people in my position.

back to top