Friday, April 19, 2019

Book Review: Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive by Stephanie Land (audio)

If you've read Nickel and Dimed and/or Educated a lot of this book will feel familiar. That's not to say don't read it, it's repetitive. There aren't enough voices out there speaking for the underprivileged, the overworked, the abused. Even better if those voices can be as eloquent as Stephanie Land's.

Stephanie never made it to college. She meant to go. In fact, in her late twenties, she was enrolled to start at the University of Montana at Missoula in the creative writing program, when she became pregnant. Her boyfriend reacted with anger and violence, and I kept begging her to just walk out and never look out, right there. But alas. (People, two parents are NOT good for the kids when it leads to major problems. One parent is just fine if it's a sane, relatively stable parent.) After an especially violent outburst involving the police, Stephanie takes her baby daughter, Mia, and leaves. Her angry ex fights her for custody (seemingly more to hurt Stephanie than because he gave two figs about his daughter), her own parents are either struggling themselves (her father) or clueless nincompoops (her mother) who can't/won't help, and they end up homeless. Thankfully it seems that all along the way, Stephanie had great case workers, counselors, and others in the system to advise her. After the abused women's shelter, she ends up in a little cabin available to the homeless, and then transitions into low income housing. I was hopeful at that point that things would slowly but surely keep progressing upward. But then she gets involved with another man and quickly moves in with him. He's not violent, but he's not good. This is where she starts to get into house cleaning.

She works for two different companies and also for herself. She has a process, and she seems to really like learning about her clients, even the ones she never sees who don't seem to know she exists. The voyeurism was very tempting (and also made me aware of what our own house cleaner might be learning about us!) There is "the sad house" and "the porn house" and even (shudder) "the clown house." She knows who is ill, who is down on their luck, whose marriages are in trouble, without ever laying eyes on the people. It's intriguing, to be sure.

But it's also backbreaking, exhausting work, that pays very little and can be highly demoralizing. Luckily, Stephanie has Mia to inspire her. She comes up with a plan, to attend community college and get a degree. She takes online classes at night and studies while Mia is with her dad. She doesn't sleep much and she eats even less. I did worry several times about just how she was going to break out of the cycle of poverty in which she was trapped. And to that end, she does have advantages other abused homeless single moms do not: her parents went to college. She's white. She owns a computer. In that regard, even though she didn't have even half the safety net that Barbara Ehrenreich had (admittedly, she had the entire safety net, as her experiences of poverty were entirely self-inflicted for the sake of journalism, and could be and in fact were ended on the spot when she decided her experiment was over.) For Stephanie this was no journalistic foray to check out the life of The Other. But it still is a half a step removed from the truly impoverished who cannot break the cycle.

That said, it is Stephanie's story and no one else's. And I'm not making light of her experiences which were pretty awful. It's simply that when this book, and Stephanie herself, are held up as examples of why-can't-all-poor-people-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps, I'm just saying hers is not the same situation. But she's told it well and I have hope for her and Mia's future. I even have hope that she might develop better taste in men.

Meanwhile, I will continue to use a maid service myself, as I know it's valuable job for the unskilled and for non-English speakers, and I will continue to tip very, very well. I hope that's the number one thing my house cleaners remember about me.

I listened to this eaudiobook via Libby/Overdrive from my local library.

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