Maid author Stephanie Land always planned to be a writer. A talented, keen and passionate young woman, her life seemed like it was on an upward trajectory. But just before she was planning to move to Montana to earn a creative writing degree, things took a surprising turn when she discovered she was pregnant. Grappling with the reality of becoming a mother while also dealing with a crumbling relationship and having to put her dreams on hold, Land found herself falling into a cycle of poverty, hardship and incredibly hard work.
Over the course of several years Land survived off of irregular work as a house cleaner and by applying for and using government programs for housing and food. Her memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive chronicles her experiences of poverty, and explores what low-incomes individuals and families face when they try to seek help. Land’s story is heart wrenching at times, especially when she describes the humiliating situations she faced because of her financial status. Land constantly dealt with passive aggressive comments from strangers at the grocery store about her food stamps and snarky comments from her family about being greedy or lazy. Maid is also a deeply frustrating read at times. Land’s decisions - particularly in terms of romantic relationships - can seem absurd at times. And perhaps that’s the point. It’s easy to judge her choices and emotions when you’ve never been in her position.
It would be easy to call Land’s tale a Cinderella Story. She started with nothing and is now a bestselling author. But Maid isn’t about overcoming obstacles in pursuit of success - it’s about having to function and live under the constant weight of poverty, disparity and judgment. Land doesn’t live her life constantly looking for the silver lining or secure in the knowledge that some day things will be better. In fact, quite a lot of her life is spent grappling with the reality that things may not get better. Though she makes no secret of her desire for more, Land often doesn’t have the privilege of focusing on and dreaming about the future.
Maid is bleak. It’s a gritty, raw story that’s incredibly uncomfortable to read at times. But there are also lovely moments. Land shares both the brutal and the beautiful stories of being a young mother. Her relationship with her daughter and her will to provide for her drives the story, as does her constant - though sometimes back-burnered - desire to pursue writing. Throughout the story it’s a comfort to know that Land has achieved her goals and that she has come out of her experiences and produced a piece of work so important and well executed.
Where memoirs like Educated by Tara Westover and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls are filled with bizarre religious fervour and fantastical adventure, Maid is more grounded in everyday reality. The power of Land’s story isn’t in its originality or abnormality, but rather from how common her experiences are, and how widespread the judgment and prejudice she faces is. While Maid is of course a memoir, it’s also a poignant commentary on wealth inequality in America and a searing critique of the way society fails to acknowledge the difficulty of being poor. Land won’t let her readers look away from the way things really are, and she does her country a great service by so beautifully laying out the things so many people choose to ignore.