Author Q&A: Stephanie Land

Maid (Trapeze, £14.99)

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As a struggling single mum in the US, escaping an abusive relationship and determined to keep a roof over her daughter’s head, Stephanie Land worked for almost a decade as a maid, scrubbing the toilets of the wealthy while also juggling higher education, assisted housing and a tangled web of government assistance. This best-selling memoir grew out of an essay she wrote for Vox in 2014 that sparked the interest of a literary agent.

You always wanted to be a writer. How did you manage to keep it up through your struggles with poverty and what did it mean to you to be able to do so?
Writing isn’t just a hobby or want for me. It’s a lot like breathing, or more pointedly a way for me to process what happens in my life. It’s how life makes sense to me. I did have to force myself to find time – 10 minutes a day – to write. It was an exercise I had learned in classes and workshops and books I had read that helped me immensely with keeping up the writing practice.

In Maid you describe how the welfare system was degrading to navigate. Are there fundamental problems with the way people are treated within the system?
Absolutely. There’s an air of mistrust and judgement, and a feeling of not only proving you really need it, but proving you are constantly working to keep it. It’s not a system that works for you – it works against you.

Do people understand just how much time and effort you have to put into being poor in the US? It seems like a high-pressure job in itself.
It really is. I spent hours some weeks applying for resources, meeting with caseworkers, finding who offered what. There are several grants and opportunities that organisations outside the government offer, and they require the same meetings and paperwork. Then, nothing is easy. Nothing can be bought in bulk. I couldn’t call in sick. I couldn’t get some rest to stave off a worsening cold or flu. It’s a very stressful, very taxing lifestyle.

You were shown kindness by one employer, Henry, who noticed you and treated you like a human being. Can small acts of kindness like his make a real impact on people’s lives or do they just point up the structural cruelty of the system?
I think small acts of kindness can make real impacts on everyone – treating each other like human beings, having empathetic responses to what we see instead of immediately judging the situation and assuming the worst.

Does society give enough support for struggling single mothers? Or mothers in general?
Not at all. We expect single mothers to do the emotional and physical work of two people. We expect them to do a job that is impossible. It’s hard enough to be a single mother, but then you have this stigma of “you brought it on yourself so why should we help you?” Women are shamed for having abortions and for going through with pregnancies when they are struggling to get by. I have heard the whole gamut so much. My decisions are inspected as a woman who was pregnant, who chose to have a child, but I rarely hear anyone click their tongues at fathers who completely drop out of the picture or don’t provide adequate support.

Mothers are struggling because they can never do enough, never do anything right. We’re in some kind of emotionally abusive relationship with society who keeps telling us to work, to take care of our families, to laugh and eat salad and stay healthy, when really what we need are men to understand that’s way too much for one person and to step up and do their share.

You’ve turned your experiences into an acclaimed new book. If you could go back in time to the moment you watched Mia take her first steps in the homeless shelter, what would you tell yourself?
“What you’re doing is incredibly difficult. It’s really, really hard. You’re not failing her. She’s going to become a person you strive to be.”

Now you’re on your feet and experiencing some success are you treated significantly differently? 
I started noticing it the most when my bio included “author”. The comments on what I published were supportive instead of harsh, calling me a victim or whiner. I’d “made it” and people respected that. People don’t respect people who are still struggling. Struggling is shamed in a country where we’re fed a myth that if you work hard you’ll make it.

But I also think I carry myself differently. I’m more confident to speak up about things I cannot do or don’t like or feel wronged by. I’m not always sure of myself, but I hope my actions have some greater good.

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