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The all-encompassing worlds of motherhood and poverty

Author Stephanie Land on parenting and writing 'Maid'

Left to right: Rylea Nevaeh Whittet as Maddy and Margaret Qualley as Alex in episode 101 of "Maid."
Left to right: Rylea Nevaeh Whittet as Maddy and Margaret Qualley as Alex in episode 101 of “Maid.” Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix © 2021

Stephanie Land’s book “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive” detailed her personal experience struggling with precarious work as a housecleaner while raising a young child. The book became a best-seller and was adapted into the 2021 Netflix series, “Maid.”

Shannon Henry Kleiber from “To The Best of Our Knowledge” talked with Land in 2019 the week the book was released. Land’s daughter Mia mentioned in the interview now goes by her middle name, Story. And Land has a new memoir expected out this fall, called “Class.”

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This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Shannon Henry Kleiber: You write about being overwhelmed by two things: motherhood and poverty. These are two experiences that have changed you so much. How did they both change your life and are they so intertwined?

Stephanie Land: Wow. I think they’re both pretty all-encompassing, in different ways. In motherhood, of course, you’re constantly worried about your child and just making sure that they’re okay. I’m thinking about them constantly. Poverty was kind of the same way. I couldn’t go to a grocery store without first budgeting. I had a tally in my mind almost constantly of what bills had been paid, what check was about to go through. How much money would that leave me? So can I buy a new dish sponge? There was just a constant taking care of my financial situation as much as taking care of my daughter.

SHK: I can see how they’re different things, but they are all-encompassing. You’re always thinking about them. I don’t know any mother who doesn’t feel the difficulties of being pulled between kids and work, and it’s so much harder on single moms and those who are barely making enough to live. How do you work with that constant pulling?

SL: Oh, boy. Well, it’s not necessarily working with it. It’s just doing the work. And you have to show up for the work and you don’t have a choice in the matter because you’re the only one.

I think there was a lot of lack in thinking about the future. Thinking about the future was kind of depressing. I didn’t want to think that we were going to be in that situation for years and years. And so the short sightedness, I think, allowed me to appreciate the little moments a little bit more. And time slowed down a lot and in a good way. And I was able to be really present with my daughter and just focus on the good moment, or the good environment. The little things that came to us were appreciated a lot more.

Now I rush through the day more. I depend on television or tablets. I feel like I am not as present for my kids now as I was then — but (back) then, (my attention was) all I had to give.

SHK:What do you mean you were more present? That’s really interesting.

SL: Well, imagine living in a 300-square-foot apartment with a three-year-old who was very energetic and very well-spoken and smart. And I was constantly trying to come up with ways to keep her occupied and keep her busy. And we were all up in each other’s business all the time. And I think there were more opportunities for connection and there were more opportunities for us to have moments together.

SHK: Yeah. And you tell the story in the book of one of those moments, Mia learning to walk in the homeless shelter.

SL: We moved into the homeless shelter when she was seven or eight months, and so she started walking on her first birthday or the day before, and we moved out of the homeless shelter the day after her first birthday. So she did a lot of a lot of growing in those few months, from crawling to learning how to walk. And given the environment, it was drab and a little sad and disappointing. But it’s still amazing to watch your child reach that milestone.

SHK: That’s a beautiful memory from that time, even though the time was hard.

SL: Yeah. Looking back at it now, I can appreciate it a lot more and think to myself even though we were in this environment, we were still learning how to move forward with our lives and things were happening even though I felt like I had absolutely nothing.

SHK: And she literally was moving forward. She walked, which is pretty amazing. Maybe it wasn’t the apartment you had pictured or the house you had pictured. But she was still changing and growing.

SL: Yeah. And I don’t think she really wanted for anything. For her, it was just life, and it was great for her. She had me and she had a few toys. I felt like I wasn’t giving her enough, or I wasn’t enough, several times a day. But looking back, I can see that she was just fine.

SHK: When you look back at those times and you think, ‘Okay, she had a few things and that’s all she needed, we were kind of happy. We had this and we didn’t need that.’ And then you went to clean people’s houses, and they had so many physical objects that needed to be cleaned and needed to be organized. That was a little overwhelming too.

SL: What struck me the most was cleaning entire rooms. I cleaned rooms that were as big as the space that we lived in that never got used — they were just spare rooms. And those were the types of things that I just couldn’t understand. Especially because I struggled so hard to pay for the space that I lived in. I couldn’t imagine having the same amount of space just hanging out and not using it at all and then paying someone to take care of it and clean it.

SHK: Sometimes I think mothers are almost superhuman when they need to be. We figure it out. We think we can’t do it and then it just happens. Did motherhood drive you to do what you needed to do out of necessity and love?

SL: Oh, most definitely. Not only did it drive me, it centered me. I don’t know if it made me feel small, but it definitely gave everything that I did a much bigger meaning. It wasn’t about me at all anymore. Everything I did was about Mia. And now I have two kids, and it’s about both of them. But it still is kind of for Mia because she’s been with me since the beginning, and I’ve brought her through so much. A lot of what I do is to show her that she can do the same.

SHK: What do you hope for them, for your daughters, as they eventually find work? Do you think about the idea of finding your passion? And is that something that’s a good idea or even realistic?

SL: Well, I hope they don’t feel limited in any way, but I also hope that they work both sides of the spectrum.

I wouldn’t want them to not experience what it’s like to be a waitress or someone who is in the retail department or someone who has a job in customer service. I think everybody should work a job in customer service, so at least they do some of their time doing that.

Getting them through college, or … I just hope they feel like they can do what they want to do. Whatever that is. Mia wants to be an astronaut, and I encourage her on a daily basis to do that.

SHK: And you tried to make things really special for her. You focused on keeping schedules, and you had your rituals.

SL: I heard a discussion by (psychologist) John Gottman when she was three or four months old, really young. And he said as long as (children) have one stable person in their life, like one primary caregiver, that is predictable and always shows up whenever they say that they will, then the rest of their life could be chaos, but they’ll at least have that one person who is like a lighthouse or a pinnacle point which will keep them from living in a constant state of chaos.

So I tried to fall into a place of predictable nature as far as our home life was concerned, too. Even though we were moving around a lot, I always set things up in the same way or tried to move from start to end completely. Like on a weekend that she was at her dad’s house, I would make the environment exactly the same, even though the building we were in was different.

SHK: Your story, Stephanie, is so evocative about yourself, but it’s really the story of so many moms, so many women, so many single moms especially. You’ve given a lot of a voice to single working moms. Do you think it will move beyond you?

SL: Oh, I hope so. That’s why I wrote the book. Part of my mission from the beginning is to bring into the light the expectations that we put on single parents. We expect them to be two people, physically, emotionally and financially.

And they’re stigmatized. When I was a single mom, I felt like I was constantly begging for help. I had someone send me a message recently on Facebook that said, ‘Boy, if I would have realized how much you were struggling at the time, I would have agreed to babysit more often.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, yeah, why aren’t you doing that normally?’ That’s the biggest way you can help a single parent — just showing up on a regular basis, taking their kids somewhere, giving them a break, but also forming a relationship with their child so that the parent has someone else that they can send their kids to whenever they’re having a hard moment or need to talk.

Because my daughter could never talk to me about me or about her dad. And it’s been really important to her that she has close relationships with other adults so that she can talk to them about things that she would feel uncomfortable talking to me about.

SHK: That’s really good advice. A lot of people say, ‘Let me know what I can do.’ And people mean well when they say that. But it’s much more helpful to be more specific with an offer, like, ‘Hey, can I take your daughter to the movies?’ or whatever.

SL: That is so huge. Just to give them an experience that their parent probably can’t really afford to do either time-wise or financially. And to just give the kid a one-on-one focus with another person is enormous.

I often get so busy that I forget the importance of having the sit-down-on-the-floor-with-them-and-play time, or to listen about school or whatever it is they’re really into. It’s really important for (kids) to feel like they’re connecting with other adults.

SHK: And it’s also important for the rest of society to see. You mention how people will say something like, ‘You’re welcome’ when they see how you’re paying for your groceries. Do you feel like that’s changing? Or how can you get people to understand what single working moms, people who need to pay that way are going through?

SL: I would just ask people to maybe imagine themselves in the same spot having to fill out packets and packets of applications and prove that you’re working and what your rent is and utilities. It’s an air of distrust when you’re applying for government assistance. And it’s degrading and it’s humiliating.

And then to actually buy groceries with an EBT card and use it in that visible way so that everybody knows around you — or it feels like everybody knows around you — that you can’t afford to provide bread and necessities for your kids, it’s incredibly embarrassing. I fortunately haven’t been on government assistance for a few years now, but I can imagine it still is (the same).

SHK: Tell me about having fun with your girls. What do you like to do? And I know as a parent, sometimes you’re just so focused on school and work and life, and you look up and you think, okay, we’ve got to just have fun today, or just be silly. What do you do?

SL: Well, Missoula’s pretty great. You can drive 20 minutes in any direction and you’re on a river in what feels like the middle of nowhere. And you can just kind of have a day doing that.

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