'Maid' review: Stephanie Land's memoir of hard times and domestic work
MAID: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, by Stephanie Land. Hachette Books, 270 pp., $27.
The cover of Stephanie Land’s new memoir, “Maid,” bears — perhaps not coincidentally — a striking aesthetic similarity to the cover of Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild”: stark white background, four-letter title in lowercase, and an object emblematic of each author’s burden and escape: a red-laced hiking boot for Strayed, a pair of yellow rubber gloves for Land.
This is where the similarities end. While Strayed overcame her grief and demons by walking the length of the Pacific-Crest Trail, Land works on her knees cleaning houses in the Pacific Northwest. Land is 29 and working in cafes around Port Townsend, Washington, when she becomes pregnant. Her boyfriend of several months is unhappy at the prospect of becoming a father. His verbal abuse escalates after the baby is born, and Land feels increasingly desperate and alone. For a short time, she and her daughter live in a homeless shelter. Eventually, Land carves out enough time to start work for a cleaning service.
Land finds the work arduous and impossible to survive on. Initially she does not work more than 10 hours a week, but there’s drive time, and gas to pay for, and body aches and the work itself, which she finds demeaning. She proves good at it, though, which gets her more work, a cycle that feels like an existential trap as well as an economic one; she just cannot seem to get financial traction.
There is certainly cause to show the reader the indignity of wiping pubic hair from the underside of a toilet seat, and a little of this might go a long way in summoning compassion (or the "Ew!" factor). But Land’s complaints about the work go on for nearly the length of the book — her dissatisfaction with clients, co-workers and family; with mothers who have more resources than she has, friends she feels have betrayed her, and strangers she perceives as saying negative things about her because she gets assistance from, at one point, seven social agencies.
Land is right that social safety nets can be arduous to navigate (“I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor”), and it’s not fun to feed yourself and your daughter only peanut butter for a week (many of us have been there), but the hero’s journey benefits from more than innumerable variations on laments like this one: “I had a crushing amount of responsibility. I took out the trash. I brought in the groceries I had gone to the store to select and buy. I cooked. I cleaned. I changed out the toilet paper.”
A dust jacket blurb from Barbara Ehrenreich (who also wrote the foreword) asserts that Land “has something to teach us about both sides of the inequality divide.” Land may be living on one side of the divide while trying to get to the other — she badly wants to become a writer and writes during the margins of time she has available — but her method of calling close attention to personal affronts can grown wearying. Only when Land focuses on several clients whose home she cleans — their loneliness and how she’s able to bring some solace to their lives, and they to hers — do we get a sense of her humanity and grace.
By book’s end, Land has marshaled the confidence and resources to achieve her dream of becoming a working writer (with an assist from Ehrenreich’s Economic Hardship Reporting Project). And while one is glad she’s gotten to the other side of the divide, one wishes for a broader vista along the way.