Sometimes things…and people…aren’t what or who they appear to be. That is just one of many fascinating things I garnered from the intriguing Netflix series “Maid” and even more so from the thought-provoking book by Stephanie Land that it’s based on. I don’t often binge a series or feel like I can’t put a book down, but that was the case with both of them.
In short, it is a true story about Land’s life, who at 28 saw her dreams of going to college and becoming a writer dissolve after a summer fling resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. God bless her for choosing life and keeping her precious baby, but before long she found herself scraping by after leaving her abusive ex-husband and writing off her quirky mom and unreliable dad. She took a job as a housekeeper and from there it was all hard work and low pay but a will to survive and succeed.
When I bought the book I knew the premise of it but what she sees and the obstacles she faces were mind-boggling. Land tries incredibly hard to live honestly and honorably on the minimal means she provides and on what is provided for her and her young daughter. She is qualifies for food stamps, WIC coupons, and government housing but constantly has to prove her worth…or in her case, non-worth. Navigating the many rules and regulations associated with government funding…including finding day cares and housing that would even accept payment in the form of that funding…was as back-breaking as her job. It is truly alarming how hard she had to fight to receive help even as she faced the stigmas encountered of the working poor.
“I had to work constantly. I had to prove my worth for receiving government benefits. I made too much money to receive Medicaid.” And yet, she could hardly pay her bills. Getting approved for any government assistance also meant filling out loads of paperwork, meeting with often condescending government employees, standing in an endless array of lines, missing work to do so, dealing with constant illnesses her daughter picked up at day care and their mold-infested apartment, and pretty much jumping through constant hoops while juggling a very physically demanding job. Every day she hurt inside and out.
She had few friends as she was embarrassed to befriend anyone and have to come clean about her cleaning job. Still, she never gave up on her dreams of going to college and is the first to admit she didn’t fit the government assisted typecast in many ways when she writes, “When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me: plain-faced and white; like the girl they’d known in high school or like a neighbor. Someone like them. This makes them nervous. With one lost job, one divorce, they’d be in the same place as I was.”
“They” here meaning the thousands living paycheck to paycheck then and even into today as inflation continues to rise as do groceries, gas, and a host of other life necessities. In a different sense however, it can also mean those Land cleaned for and for who life wasn’t always as pretty as the picture. As a matter of fact, it was often dirty and full of dirty little secrets.
This part of her story amazed me and had me wondering, “what does this tell us all?” I know! I know! Raising my hand. It serves as a healthy reminder that the grass ain’t always greener yet sadly we all strive for those big lawns, big paychecks, and big houses. Many of those big houses with big lawns (she served numerous times as a gardender too) paid for with big paychecks that Land cleaned were homes to people who shared Land’s aches and pains and health problems. And love? Land’s meager apartments contained more love inside than all the mansions she cleaned.
“Living with illness or pain was part of my daily life, part of the exhaustion. But why did my clients have these problems? It seemed like access to healthy foods, gym memberships, doctors, and all of that would keep a person fit and well. Maybe the stress of keeping up a two-story house, a bad marriage, and maintaining the illusion of grandeur overwhelmed their systems in similar ways to how poverty did mine.”
Hello, it’s reality calling. Time to pick up.
Basically, what she learned is a lesson to us all: the upper-middle class and the rich have a whole lot of problems and spend a whole lot of energy hiding their imperfections and guarding their secrets. “Rich people still have problems and lack something,” she writes. “They hide in dark corners and self-help books and maybe have longer hallways and bigger closets to hide the things that scare them.”
As startling as that is to read, I would venture to say each of you know at least one person…probably more…similar to who she writes about. Maybe it’s a neighbor. Maybe a family member. Maybe a friend. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s way more prevalent than we’d all care to admit.
And yet, we just keep racing and chasing and buying and bingeing. All the while hoping that new house, new toy, or new spouse will bring us the happiness and health we long for. Newsflash and spoiler: that doesn’t always happen.
“If we only had these things I thought, we would be happy,” Land writes about her and her daughter’s humble and minimal belongings. “Most of my clients had these things-things I yearned for in those dark nights sitting up alone-and they did not seem to enjoy life any more than I did.”
Read that again and remind yourself that Land is doing it all alone…a single mother barely making it by and yet never giving up. Being a single mom is hard enough; doing so like Land did is commendable on so many levels and yet earned her very little, if any, downtime and me time. Time most of us take for granted. Scanning recipes online? No way. Bingeing something on a smart TV? Nope. Strolling leisurely through Target or Trader Joe’s? Negative. Being a book lover and considering Land is a writer, it killed me most when she wrote reading a book was a luxury she couldn’t afford.
“Time lounging to read a book felt overly indulgent; almost as though such leisure was reserved for another class,” she wrote. Pretty sure she’s not talking about a classroom.
Don’t get me wrong, “Maid” is not a depressing story by any means as there are many beautiful and inspiring moments throughout. What it is, is a first-hand and honest account of what workers like Land go through day after day and week after week. They are people we all know and yet perhaps don’t really know. This includes both those living in what we assume to be perfect little worlds and those laboring to improve their worlds. Most assume those homes are happy ones and many might assume those workers are either doing okay or living off the government. In reality, neither is 100 percent true.
So, the next time you’re driving by mansions on the hill or through secure suburbia, keep in mind that behind and inside those walls life may not be as perfect and trouble-free as you think. And most of all, when you see someone less fortunate but hard working keep in mind that they have dreams; dreams of hearing and thinking “you MADE it!” and maybe retiring from being a maid. Stephanie Land is proof that it can and does happen. You could say the former maid’s circumstances and results are what dreams are made of.