‘A Nameless Ghost’: One Mother’s Reflection on Life Cleaning Houses on Minimum Wage
Although the relationship wasn’t supposed to last, it wasn’t supposed to end the way it did. Stephanie Land was 28. She and her boyfriend were working in cafes in Port Townsend, Ore., living together and saving up until they could part ways to fulfill separate dreams. She planned to move to Montana to study creative writing. Then she got pregnant, the boyfriend got abusive, and she left him. “My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter,” Land writes of what happened next, in “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.”
“Maid” is a memoir of Land’s years as a single mother, working as a housecleaner on minimum wage, moving from shelters to Section 8 housing, struggling to support her daughter and herself. It’s also a study of just how expensive it is to be poor in America, and how the government punishes people who apply for assistance, demanding time and effort Land couldn’t spare as she scrubbed floors and toilets, and took care of her daughter.
“I’d become a nameless ghost,” Land writes of her relationship with many of her housekeeping clients. “My job was to wipe away dust, dirt, to make clean lines in carpets, to leave without a trace.” But while she was an apparition in her clients’ homes, she was conspicuous and judged in public. Strangers criticized her purchases in the grocery store checkout line. A friend even said Land should thank her for paying taxes that contributed to the programs Land depended on for basic survival.
Now a journalist in Montana, Land spoke to Truthdig shortly after “Maid’s” release, about what people get wrong about poverty in America, the reaction to the book and what she hopes readers learn from her story.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Ilana Novick: Americans who are not poor, or who are not on public assistance don’t often understand what life is like for people who are. What do you think people misunderstand, misinterpret or just generally get wrong about being poor in America?
Stephanie Land: People don’t realize how expensive it is to be poor. There are a lot of conveniences I have now that I’m in a more privileged place—like buying in bulk or doing really big grocery shopping trips so that I don’t have to go to the store as much. I live in a house with a washer and dryer and I don’t have to go to the laundromat.
There’s so much effort that goes into struggling that much. If you think about it, you don’t have a dishwasher, or you can’t heat your whole house, or you can’t always buy new clothes and you wear through the ones you have. And so you’re constantly keeping the things you have as usable as possible; I was very good at not throwing things away and getting as much use out of them as I possibly could. All of that is just an exhausting amount of work, and I think people don’t really see just how difficult that is.
IN: Speaking of struggling, the application process for SNAP benefits, WIC and other government assistance programs involves jumping through multiple bureaucratic hoops, and investing time and effort, both of which applicants need to be able to go to work and take care of their families. For programs that are supposed to help people with so few resources, why do you think the process is so cumbersome and time-consuming?
SL: Well, I think there’s two things. I think the system we have in place is one of not really trusting people at face value, and I think we tend to force people to prove they are [as] low income as they say they are, and that they are actually working. We’re constantly asking poor people to prove that they’re working to get assistance of any kind. There’s kind of a backhanded way of making it as difficult as possible, because if it was easy, they’d be scared that anybody could walk in and get all of this money, even though it’s not that much money at all.
Every time legislators make the process more difficult they get less people signing up, and I think they don’t see that people aren’t signing up because it’s difficult, I think they only see that the numbers are going down, so therefore because they put more work requirements in place, then [they believe] they’re being successful and getting people off government assistance, when it’s really just that [low-income people] are not using that resource anymore, they’re going somewhere else.
IN: So, it’s not that they’ve suddenly got a well-paying job, or that their own circumstances have changed. It’s more that they’ve been discouraged?
SL: Yeah, because it is a discouraging process and you need access to a computer, and the internet, and a telephone and time during the day to meet with your caseworker, and you know, things like a printer, you need utility bills, you need a lot of things just to get the assistance you need. And maybe they do take that into account, I don’t know, but it seems to me the more difficult they make it, the less people sign up, therefore they think that the system is successful because the numbers are going down.
IN: In your time cleaning houses, even when your clients weren’t home, you seemed to learn a lot about them just from being in their homes and seeing their possessions. What surprised you about them?
SL: I went into it thinking that wealth saved you from hardship, but I think that the most surprising thing is that rich people still suffered from things like the common cold. I thought if you had access to a gym membership, and juice, and kale, and yoga studios and all of these things, you had the ability to take advantage of all of these things, then you wouldn’t get sick. And it was surprising to me to see that they still suffered from everyday illness. And suddenly that they were human beings, I’d never really associated with wealthy people and my perception of them were ones that were in the media. So it was surprising to see the human aspect of them.
IN: The book is honest about all the things you had to do in order to get childcare for your daughter, in order to pay for basic life expenses, in order to make sure that you even had enough money to travel to work in order to make money. Was it hard to be that revealing?
SL: Actually, I didn’t think all that information was necessary in the first draft, and skipped over a lot of it. I didn’t think it was interesting, like it was so ingrained in my daily life that to me it was like describing what I had for breakfast. But when my editor started working with me on revising and editing the book, she encouraged me to bring a lot of that out.
And I actually went back and reread “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich, and a lot of that book is just her going to meet a potential landlord, or looking through the classifieds, or looking for housing for the most part, and describing what she was eating and wearing, and I guess I’ve realized that living that way is not normal to most people. When to me, I was so consumed by it that I didn’t know there was any different kind of life. So, yeah, it was not my original impulse to be as detailed as I was in the end draft, or in the final draft.
IN: Now, having written this book, I was wondering if you could talk about the reaction to it. Is it the reaction you expected? Is there anything that’s surprised you from either readers or reviewers or anyone else who read through the book?
SL: Yeah, I’m honestly surprised that people like the book. I don’t know, I’ve been a writer for social and economic justice, and I’ve been writing on the internet for several years at this point, almost four years, and I know what the comment sections are like, and I know how people usually react to people seeing a single mom on government assistance. People like to place blame on the person going through that, like their bad decisions are what got them there and so they brought this on themselves. And I guess I expected the reaction to the book to be kind of similar to that in some way, or that people would write it off as this victim blaming, or woe is me, or whining, and I didn’t think that people would react so strongly and emotionally to my story, and feel so connected to it.
I think a lot of it is just timing, and I think the government shutdown that happened recently really showed how close the average American worker is to not being able to afford food. And I think people are seeing that this is a problem that isn’t just affecting whatever image they have in their mind of people in poverty, because usually when people imagine an impoverished person, they don’t imagine a person that looks like me.
And that has been extremely detrimental to people living that life because there’s all these stigmas and assumptions made about them when really the person who is struggling could be your neighbor. It’s not just people who live in the dark side of town, or this part of town [where] we never go and is run-down. It seems like people are more ready to listen to stories of hardship because they’re seeing how close they are to it.
IN: I was struck by how often in “Maid” total strangers felt the need to comment on say, the groceries you were buying for your daughter with SNAP benefits. Why do you think they do that?
SL: It always surprises me how personally people take things. Like I really got the sense that people felt like they were personally paying for my groceries, like their tax money bought whatever I bought, like potato chips or something. And they were so offended that I was wasting their money on potato chips. I never really understood that. Like I don’t know, I don’t know if they see it like an involuntary donation for my life and health and taking care of my child, and so they’re a little resentful about that. But it’s also such a visible form of, I don’t know, I don’t want to say a visible form of charity, it’s a visible form of government assistance, it’s probably the most visible.
I guess I don’t understand why people are so offended by people using that program and feel like they can tell them what they should and shouldn’t eat. It just seems like there are so many ways that we try to limit people on food stamps and how they spend that resource at the grocery store, that it’s really insulting. I just kept thinking, How is it any of your business what I choose to feed my daughter, or what I choose to eat?
IN: Health care, particularly the issues with obtaining it for your daughter, comes up a lot. I’m curious what you think needs to change, in terms of cost, accessibility and how doctors treat child patients and their parents or other caregivers?
SL: First of all, I think there should be no question about whether or not children should be covered. I don’t know why children aren’t covered for health insurance just by default, and why that’s not universal. Also, I had a friend tell me she went to the doctor recently and had my book with her, and her doctor asked her, “Oh, what’s that about,” and they were talking about the book, and the doctor said, “I’ve had to realize or come to terms with I need to treat people with low income differently than I do more privileged people, because I can’t just assume a low income person can just go home, and rest, and drink fluid and spend the day in bed and just wait out this viral thing they have. They’re going to continue to get worse and worse and worse because they cannot take a break, because they have to work.” And I guess the doctor was just talking about how hard a realization that was and how he’s really tried to change the way he treats patients because of that.
IN: What were the reactions from your friends and family when you became a single mother? Did they expect to stay with your daughter’s father? Did they, were they supportive at all? It seems like you were going through a lot of this alone.
SL: I don’t know if I can speak to how they felt because I still don’t really know. I just know that I didn’t feel like I could ask them for help. I was always longing for my family to reach out and to help me with childcare, or to help me with my car, or you know. There was so many times that I was in a place that I really, really needed help, and the very few times I reached out to them and said I need you to step up and help me with this, they either couldn’t because they couldn’t afford to, or I think they couldn’t because for some reason they didn’t trust me.
I got the sense from the beginning that they thought I wasn’t being honest in some way. I kind of felt like I had to fend for myself and not tell them what a hard time we were going through. Because for my dad and my stepmom especially, and most of my family, really, I knew they weren’t in a position to be able to help me, and that maybe they wish they could help me more. I didn’t want to make them feel bad by knowing how hard of a time I was having.
IN: I know Mia, your daughter, was a toddler when you first started writing, but I imagine she must be older now, and I was wondering if she’s read the book, and what she thinks about it?
SL: She has kind of grown up with me writing about her, and she kind of loves knowing that her picture is in The Washington Post, or she would ask me how many likes did it get, or how many shares, and are people talking about me. She loves the fame involved in it. But, I also, I’m letting her read the book because I’m home this week, and so I wanted to be around to talk to her and answer any questions she might have about it. So she’s kind of going through the experience and learning what her life was like. I’m trying to be as empathetic to that as possible, because that must be a weird experience to go through.
I’m very thoughtful in how I write about her and make sure that it’s not something that she would be embarrassed of later in life. And I would never do it if she was the type of person who was very private and didn’t want me to write about her in that way. I’ve tried to not do anything that she was uncomfortable with.
IN: What do you hope readers will take away from your experiences and from your book?
SL: Well, I hope first and foremost that people see how hard people in poverty work. I think the general consensus is that we’re lazy and we’re not working hard because we haven’t made it. This myth is kind of shoved down our throats that if you work hard you’re going to make it in this country, and so the people who aren’t making it are obviously not working hard.
But also I hope people do see what a privileged position I was in, I was white, I am white, I was able to get an education, and grew up in lower-middle-class suburbia, had two parents, did not grow up in systemic poverty, and so there are so many, there are millions of other stories like mine that are way worse. And my story is not unique in any way, there are millions of people who are struggling. So my hope is that now that I have people’s attention, that they might start listening to people who are in way more adverse situations than I was, and way less privileged.