While raising her young daughter as a single mother, Stephanie Land cleaned houses through an agency to scrape by. It was back-aching work and the pay — $8.55 an hour to start, $9.25 an hour two years in — just wasn't enough.
Land, who had left an abusive relationship, lived for a time in a homeless shelter with her daughter. She supplemented her housecleaning income with government assistance, at one point accruing seven types of aid simultaneously, including housing and utility assistance, food stamps, child care grants and Medicaid.
Looking back, she says, "There's no way that you can work full time [at] minimum wage and have a family. It's impossible."
Eventually, Land decided to revive her dream of going to college. With the help of a Pell Grant, she pursued a degree in creative writing. Her new memoir, Maid, details her experiences cleaning houses — as well as the hurdles she has faced as a single mother living on public assistance.
On feeling like she knew the people whose homes she cleaned
I knew them by the imprints they left in their bed. I knew them by the ring of coffee from their coffee mug that was always in the same place, or I knew them by what toothbrush they preferred, or what toothpaste or shampoo or just the act of them switching their shampoo. I kind of wondered like, "Oh, I wondered why they do that?" And it very much was a job where I got to know people just by the things that they left out on the counter. Not so much like their home decor or anything but just the little things that they did just in living — that was the interesting thing to me.
On expenses she accrued while cleaning houses
I paid for my gas for the travel between houses, and this was in kind of a rural area, and sometimes the travel time between houses would be a half an hour, and I had to wash my own work rags, which meant driving to a laundromat and doing a few loads of laundry once a week. I was only allowed to work no more than six hours a day. [The agency] said after that I would be too tired and might injure myself.
On the difficulty of trying to get child care as a single parent
The Catch-22 ... is you have to have a job first, and you have to prove that you are employed — gainfully, regularly employed — and then you can get the voucher for a child care, depending on what your income is. And then you can go out to different day cares who accept that grant and see if they have an opening, which for a very young child is pretty rare, because it's just not affordable for day care centers to have [children] under 2 years old, which they still consider infants. So it's a lot of work to not only get the ability to go look for a day care center but then to find one, and if they have a full-time spot or Monday, Wednesday, Friday — it's a huge web of difficulty.
On how there's a disincentive to make more money or you'll lose benefits
There's a thing called a "welfare cliff," and what happens is you get up to a threshold — which is a very firm line — and if you jump over it, then you lose all of your benefits. If there was a time that I made, I think, $50 more a month, and because of that I suddenly had a $50 copay for child care. So even though I was making more a month, I had to pay more. Food stamps is pretty abrupt as well. Like, if you go over the line, then you're suddenly not getting $200-$300 a month in assistance.
On calling the police on her daughter's father, who was abusive
Emotional abuse is so invisible, and it's so confusing [because of] gaslighting. And it usually cuts you down to a point of nothingness. I felt so horrible about myself every second of the day, and he made me believe that I was mentally ill and that I was crazy. So to have a police officer validate what had happened and to have like a slip of paper with a case number on it — I carried that around for months because it was some kind of proof that I wasn't actually crazy, that this person was being truly horrible.
On living in an apartment that turned out to have black mold, which made her daughter, Mia, sick
Mia was very sick as a child. She had constant sinus infections, pinkeye, ear infections. She would come home sometimes and ... we would walk in and I'd look over at her and her eyes were just immediately red. ... I was constantly sick. I think it was just the wet, really damp climate. ...
As a parent you know you want to provide safe, healthy environments for your children. I had a doctor who I was taking Mia to, to be seen for yet another infection. She told me, "You need to do better," and I just looked at her and I'm like, "I can't." It was a defining moment for me — other people are telling me that I need to be a better mom. That was something that I already felt so horrible about.
On going back to school to study writing
I decided to do the paralegal program, because I felt like I needed a job that would make me a contributing member of society and that I would have health insurance and the ability to hopefully pay for housing and child care and food all on my own. Writers are not notoriously a well-paid bunch, so I didn't think that that was really an option for me. But then once [I] ... started going to the University of Montana, which was my original plan ... I felt like if I went for the office job or I went for a job I wasn't totally happy with and then I wouldn't be a happy mother — and I wanted to pursue something that I had wanted to do since I was 10 years old. I felt like if I could possibly do that, then it would show Mia that she could do the same.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new memoir "Maid" - that's M-A-I-D - by my guest Stephanie Land is about what it was like for her to be a single mother trying to get out of poverty by cleaning other people's houses for a living. Land had planned to go to college with the hope of becoming a writer, but an unplanned pregnancy changed that. She was in a relationship that had become abusive, so she was a single mother cleaning houses through an agency, trying to survive basically on minimum wage supplemented by several government assistance programs. For a while, she lived in a homeless shelter with her daughter and, after that, in subsidized housing or in a place that was affordable but had black mold.
Eventually, knowing that she was trapped in a dead end, she decided to revive her dream of going to college. With the help of a student loan and several scholarships, she went to community college in Skagit County, Wash., and then the University of Montana in Missoula where she received her BA in English and creative writing. She's now a writing fellow with the Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Program, which was founded by Barbara Ehrenreich, who wrote the introduction for Land's memoir. Ehrenreich says Land is exactly the kind of person we exist for, an unknown working-class writer who needed just a nudge to launch her career.
Stephanie Land, welcome to FRESH AIR. The first sentence of your book is my daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter. What were the circumstances that led you to live in a shelter?
STEPHANIE LAND: Well, we, Mia and I, lived with her dad for a bit of her life but mainly for the six months previous to the homeless shelter. And it was a toxic relationship, and he kind of forcefully asked us to leave. I went and stayed with my dad and stepmom for a few weeks and wasn't able to stay there for very long and had to leave kind of abruptly and called around and found a spot in a homeless shelter, coincidentally, in Port Townsend where we had just moved from, so...
GROSS: Port Townsend, Wash.
LAND: Port Townsend, Wash., yep.
GROSS: So this was, like, a small-town shelter, not an urban shelter. Would you describe the shelter?
LAND: I wouldn't even really call it a shelter. I think they call it the cabins. It's, like, a line of six or seven kind of quaint-looking cabins. And they have two rooms with built-in twin beds and drawers underneath. It's set up for two families or one really big family. And I guess luckily Mia and I got a cabin all to ourselves for the entire 90-day stay.
GROSS: And 90 days is the maximum you're allowed.
LAND: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: So what were the rules you had to follow when you were living there?
LAND: Gosh, there was, like, four pages of rules, but the ones that I remember the most was that they would check on our house cleaning and make sure that we were keeping the place clean. We were only allowed to have one bag of personal items, so I brought a big duffel bag for both of us. And we had to subject to urinalysis for drug tests - absolutely no alcohol and no visitors, not even, like, a friend stopping by. And it just kind of went on from there. Like, there were curfews and weekly check-ins with your caseworker.
GROSS: So to support yourself, you cleaned houses for a living. You worked for an agency. I'm always interested in how the money works when you work for an agency, whether it's a health assistance agency or a house cleaning agency. So how much did your clients pay per hour, and what percentage of that did you get?
LAND: I think it depended on how long they had been their client. The earlier ones, I think, were $20, and then the later ones, they raised it to about $25 an hour for me to be in their house. And I started off at $8.55 an hour, I believe. And then after two years, I was up to $9.25 an hour.
GROSS: And how much is minimum wage?
LAND: I think it was, like, $8.55 or maybe $7.25 at that time in Washington state.
GROSS: How many hours a week did you work? I mean, how much take home did you have per week?
LAND: It wasn't that much. I had to take into consideration that I paid for my gas for the travel between houses and this was in, you know, kind of a rural area. And sometimes, the travel time between houses would be a half an hour. And I had to wash my own work rags, which meant, you know, driving to a laundromat and doing a few loads of laundry once a week. And I was only allowed to work no more than six hours a day. They said after that, I would be too tired and might injure myself. So my schedule varied quite a bit, but it was anywhere from 20 to 25 hours a week.
GROSS: Actually, you were injured. I mean, you have scoliosis. You've had it since childhood. And you had a pinched nerve while you were cleaning houses. Your - I forget if it's your right arm or your left arm, but the arm that you used the most was affected by the pinched nerve. And it was hard for you to use that arm when you were cleaning, and you couldn't afford a doctor.
LAND: That is correct - couldn't afford, you know, massage therapy or a physical therapist or really sometimes even ibuprofen.
GROSS: So you were in pain a lot of the time while you were cleaning.
LAND: Yeah. Back then, my back would get so stiff that it would wake me up at about 4 o'clock in the morning. And I couldn't really get back to sleep because it hurt so bad.
GROSS: So it seems like the worst part of cleaning houses - and this should come of no surprise - is cleaning the bathroom. I'm going to quote you here. You write "a bathroom could seem clean or pretty with pink toilet seats, rugs and towels to match, a shower curtain covered in roses, but that didn't mean the toilet wasn't horrific."
GROSS: How would you brace yourself for the bathroom?
LAND: Well, I should describe how we had to clean the toilet, too. We had to actually get down on our hands and knees and wipe all the way around the bowl, first of all. And we had to clean out the actual bowl with our hands - not our bare hands, of course. We had the yellow gloves on. But we used a rag to do it and then Comet powder. And so we had to do that. And then if there were any stubborn spots, we had to use a pumice stone. And with hard water, it can get - you have to use some elbow grease to get it. And so I got up close and personal with a lot of toilets during that time.
GROSS: Did you look in medicine cabinets? Were you a little snoopy in that respect and see what medicines people were taking?
LAND: I did in a couple. I - there were a couple of houses that I never, ever saw the people who lived there. But one in particular, it just seemed like they were always sick. And she worked as a nurse. And it just, like - so one time, I looked, and I'm like, well, how many antibiotics are they on, and, like, if it was for her or for him. And it was just a really interesting house in - on a whole because it seemed like they slept in different rooms. And so that was kind of like a mystery type of house that I did get a little snoopy in.
GROSS: You write that when you were cleaning houses, you became a witness. Did you feel like you got to know the people by seeing their homes, how clean or dirty they were, the possessions they had, the drugs, the prescription drugs that they used?
LAND: Oh, definitely. I mean, I'd - I knew them by the imprints they left in their bed, you know? Like, I knew them by the ring of coffee from their coffee mug that was always in the same place or I knew them by what toothbrush they preferred or what toothpaste or shampoo or, like - or just the act of them switching their shampoo, I kind of wondered like, oh, I wondered why they do that. And it very much was a job where I got to know people just by the things that they left out on the counter - not so much, like, their home decor or anything. But just the little things that they did just in living, that was the interesting thing to me.
GROSS: You named one house that you cleaned the sad house. What made it sad?
LAND: It was a man who was older and his wife had died. I'm not sure when or how, but, you know, I tried to make my guesses. But I think his older son had died as well and he had a son who was in the area but I don't think visited him very much. But he was living out his last days completely alone and incredibly sick. I didn't go to his house very often and for long periods of time because he was in the hospital. And piles and piles of - what are those? - when you get checked out of the hospital - checkout sheets or whatever they are - and just loads of prescriptions. And I felt for him because he had so much memorabilia around him from his wife and his family. His countertop was just littered with pictures of his family. And it looked like, you know, late '70s early '80s. And it looked like he sat around remembering them a lot.
GROSS: Did you ever meet him?
LAND: I did run into him once, like, completely accidentally. He usually left, like, right before I got there, which was around noon, I think, and, you know, would drive off to go somewhere and then come back when he knew that I was done. And one time, he just wasn't feeling well and didn't get moving as soon as he needed to. And I kind of, like, literally ran into him and had to stifle, like, a scream, which I felt horrible about because he had a lot of sores on his face. And it just - it looked like he really wasn't doing well. And I was in this position of, like, what do I say? And I just said, I'm so sorry. I'll get out of your way. And he shuffled out. And that was the only time I met him.
GROSS: There's another house that you called the porn house. And what interested me about this - you labeled it the porn house in part because there was a lot of pornography around. But there were also a lot of romance novels around. And it led you to speculate about what this couple's lives were like. So speculate for us.
LAND: Well, they had - it was a pretty small house with, like, a big garage. But it overlooked the ocean, so, you know, I can imagine it was expensive property. But that was the house that I was mentioning earlier where, you know, they had a lot of antibiotics out. But their bedrooms seemed to be completely separate. And in his bedroom, which was the main bedroom with a bigger bed, he had a lot of porn mags in his nightstand drawer that was sometimes kind of left a little bit open so that I could see them. I did not look for anything like that in this house. I didn't want to know.
On the flip side, his wife slept in, like, this back room that looked like it used to be an office on this tiny little twin bed and on a shelf next to the bed was just, like, those romance novels that you see at grocery stores that have like the long, flowy, Fabio-type hair and...
GROSS: (Laughter) I know the cover you mean.
LAND: Yeah, yeah, on the cover - so she just had a stack of those. And they had, like, a little magnet on the fridge or, like, by their sink that said, we're staying together for the cat. And it just it seemed like they had very separate lives. Like, she sat in one part of the living room, and he sat in the other. And these are people that I never saw or met - although I did see her in the grocery store once and just was, like, momentarily staring at her. And I'm glad she didn't notice that.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here for our listeners just tuning in. My guest is Stephanie Land, and she's the author of a new memoir called "Maid." And it's about being poor and surviving by working - cleaning houses, mostly for agencies but also freelance, and how she eventually was able, with the help of scholarships, to go to college and become a writer, which is what she always wanted to do. And now she has this new book. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Stephanie Land. And her new memoir "Maid" is about the years that she lived in a homeless shelter or in subsidized housing and cleaned houses for a living while being a single mother, raising a young daughter, also having, like, food stamps and WIC and then finally being able to get scholarships to go to college, which was always her intention, and study writing. And now she has this new book. She's also written for various publications about issues related to the working poor and single mothers.
So while you were raising your daughter Mia and cleaning houses for a living and trying to get enough money to pay for your housing, you had various forms of government assistance. What types of assistance did you have?
LAND: I think, at one point, I had about seven all at once. If you think about it, there's the SNAP program, which is food stamps. I had housing assistance. I had a Pell Grant for college that helped with my tuition. I had - oh, goodness - utility assistance at some point - it's called a LIHEAP program - and WIC checks, child care grants and one other one that I'm not thinking of. I was just counting to seven. But those types of things, like - oh, and Medicaid. That was the other one.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask you the question that a lot of people ask. When it comes to these government assistance programs, why are my tax dollars - why were my tax dollars supporting you?
LAND: Exactly. I - you know, it's only, I think, nine cents out of the dollar that goes to support safety-net programs. It's really not that much. And they're supporting people because they need to survive. I mean - and, you know, just on a humanity or a human-type of level, there's that. But it's also because people aren't getting paid a living wage. There's no way that you can work full-time minimum wage and have a family. It's impossible. Housing prices are just too high. There's a lot of other things jumbled in there. But the low wages are the main part of it.
GROSS: I was interested in reading about some of the restrictions on the money that you were getting. Like, with WIC, which stands for Women, Infants and Children, you wanted to use some of that money - well, what are the restrictions on that money. What are they - what is it supposed to be for? And what are the restrictions?
LAND: So WIC checks used to be pretty large paper checks, and you would get three months worth printed out at a time. You had to go to an appointment to get those. And you had to have your height and weight recorded and your child's height and weight. And they had to - you had to be nutritionally deficient in some way. And I qualified because Mia was always very tall and very skinny, so she was a lower on the percentile. And so I - they might have switched to debit-card-type of things by now. But - so the big checks, they were divided out.
You got, like, five gallons of milk per month, which, to me, was a lot. Like, I never used all of the milk. And you got, like, a block of cheese and a bag of dry beans or, like, cans of beans - usually got, like, a bag of, like, mini carrots and a very specific type and amount of juice and cereal. And a lot of the times, the specific amount of ounces that you got for juice or cereal, like, wasn't the amount that was on the box that you could get. Like, you could get, like, Cheerios or Corn Flakes or - none of the fun cereals.
And it was a lot of math involved and especially with the eggs. Like, you had to get, like, medium-sized, a certain grade, you know, white eggs. And if you accidentally grabbed large or even sometimes too small, then it didn't ring up as a WIC item. And then the bagger had to run back and get the correct type of eggs for you. And it would hold up the line and - so that program almost became not worth it because the amount in wages that I was missing out on just to go to that appointment and get those coupons, like, wasn't worth all the hassle involved.
GROSS: Well, you also found that there were disincentives to make more money because if you made more money, then you'd lose benefits. Would you describe that conundrum?
LAND: Yeah. So there's a thing called a welfare cliff. And what happens is you get up to a threshold, which is a very firm line. And if you jump over it, then you lose all of your benefits. So if there was a time that I made, I think, $50 more a month, and because of that, I suddenly had a $50 copay for child care. So even though I was making more a month, I had to pay more. And food stamps is pretty abrupt as well. Like, if you go over the line, then you're suddenly not getting, you know, $200 or $300 a month in assistance. And if you find yourself not qualifying for anything, you know, that could be hundreds of dollars.
GROSS: Well, say, there's a month when you got extra hours of work because you freelanced some work in addition to working with the agency. And that made you ineligible for some other government assistance you were getting. Would you then - if the next month you didn't make that much money, would you have to start the application process all over again?
LAND: At the time, they did renewals, I think, every six months or so. But a lot of the programs didn't sync up. And so it did feel like I was reporting income every few months. I would usually see a lesser amount of benefits if I was making more. But even then, you know, if I went from getting $223 a month in food stamps to $187, that's a lot of money because that was all of my money for food. And so that usually meant that I ate a lot less.
GROSS: My guest is Stephanie Land, author of the new memoir "Maid." After a break, we'll talk about getting out of an abusive relationship with the father of her daughter, Mia. And Ken Tucker will review Sharon Van Etten's new album, which he says moves beyond the boundaries of standard singer-songwriter work. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "NO ONE GETS IN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Stephanie Land, author of the new memoir "Maid." That's M-A-I-D. It's about the period when she was cleaning houses for a living, trying to get out of poverty as a single, working mother who had fled an abusive relationship. For a while, she and her daughter lived in a homeless shelter.
The book is about how difficult it is to survive, let alone climb out of poverty as a single, working mother getting paid basically minimum wage. She's since gotten her B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Montana in Missoula and is now a writing fellow with the Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Program.
So I want to talk a little bit about your relationship with your daughter Mia's father. When you got pregnant - and it was an unplanned pregnancy. You weren't married. He didn't want you to have the baby. And he didn't want to have to, like, be bothered with it, take care of it, pay for any of the money that it would take to raise the baby. And you were conflicted about being pregnant. You were hoping to go to college and become a writer.
And now you knew that was going to be more difficult. You had to change paths because because you were pregnant - if you decided to keep the baby. And you decided to keep the baby. Can you tell us what went through your mind when you were trying to decide whether to terminate the pregnancy or, you know, carry to term and become a mother?
LAND: Well, some backstory to that was that my mom had told me that she was very close to aborting me. She said she sat in the parking lot and just couldn't go through with it. And she told me that when I was, like, 13, and it really affected me. It made me feel kind of less wanted. So I can honestly say that I always wanted Mia. I just wasn't sure if it was the best situation for her.
So I called around and kind of, like, checked in with a lot of friends and said, hey, I'm pregnant, and I don't know what to do. And they all said, like, I think you'd be a great mom like - and kind of said, really? And they said yeah. And at the time, I was 28. You know, it wasn't like I was a teenager or anything. And I was also living very close to my entire family. And so I just figured that they would help out. I also figured that Mia's dad would just be involved. Like, you know, he would just kind of do what people do.
And I remember one conversation in particular with my dad, who was 20 when I was born. He said, you know, your mom and I were kind of in the same situation, but, you know, we turned out fine; and you're fine and your brother's fine; and it was all good in the end. So I just - I kind of went into it with that attitude. Like, OK, this might possibly be really hard, but it'll be fine in the end.
GROSS: So before that, he had become abusive. And you write most of his rage had been invisible. But then after one of his rages, he put his fist through the window on the door. And at that point, you called the police.
LAND: I did. I think...
GROSS: How do you calculate whether you should call the police or not? It's a big step. It's also, like, a public display. Like, people will see the police are coming. Then charges might be leveled. And I think it's probably really hard to decide whether, you know, in a lot of circumstances whether to take that step or not. So how did you decide to take that step?
LAND: Well, he had been kind of building up to being violent. He would punch the couch right next to my head. And I was scared. And so when he did that, it was - we were arguing, and then he immediately left. And I called the Domestic Violence Hotline. And I was on the phone, coincidentally, with my usual caseworker. So she knew kind of what was going on. And she encouraged me to call the police. And I said, no, I don't want to do that. And then Mia's dad started calling me repeatedly, and I answered. And he wanted to come back to fix the door, and he wanted to bring the landlord who was also a very intimidating figure to me. And so I decided to call the police then. I said, no, I'm calling the police; I don't want you here.
And really, I mean, emotional abuse is so invisible. And it's so confusing, you know, from gaslighting. And it usually cuts you down to a point of nothingness. I felt so horrible about myself every second of the day. And he made me believe that I was mentally ill and that I was crazy. And so to have a police officer validate what had happened and to have, like, a slip of paper with a case number on it - like, I carried that around for months because it was some kind of proof that I wasn't actually crazy, that this person was being truly horrible.
GROSS: So what was the result of that? Did you press charges? Did the police do anything outside of issue the report?
LAND: It was actually kind of awful. So they put a no-contact order in place that covered me and my daughter, which was unusual and, looking back, I think, kind of extreme because the no-contact order was, like, three years or something. And so I went to a whole different county to stay with my dad and started the process for a parenting plan and kept hitting this huge roadblock of this no-contact order. And in that situation, the worst thing that you want to do is not allow visitation with the other parent because then it looks bad on you that you're keeping the child from them.
And so I was kind of caught up in between these two court systems or these two courts in different counties and had to go back and forth and try and get everything in place so that Mia could spend time with her dad in a - you know, a few hours twice a week or something like that.
GROSS: I'm a little confused 'cause if the court said that he wasn't allowed to have contact with her, how was she able to spend time with him?
LAND: I went to the judge twice, and with the help of a pro bono lawyer and domestic violence advocate and a safety plan that I had made, and asked for them to remove Mia from the no-contact order.
GROSS: How did you feel about Mia spending time with her father knowing that he was abusive? Were you worried that he'd become emotionally or physically abusive with her or that he would just, you know, go into a rage and that she would learn from those rages and accept that as a model of how to behave?
LAND: Well, I mean, this all started when she was months old, like 9 or 10 months old, I think. And so at that time, I was incredibly worried but also felt very guilty that I had called the police because I had just kind of, like, created this mess. And he - we had, like, a back-and-forth notebook. And he would always tell me, like, you didn't put enough diapers in there; you didn't put enough food for, like, a three-hour visit. Or, like, he got really upset that she was sick, and they couldn't go out and do anything.
And I always felt like that was my responsibility. And because I had done absolutely all the parenting, I had kind of brought him into fatherhood without his permission. And - but looking back now, I'm just like, well, he was a dad. Like, he should've had enough food. He should've had diapers. He should've had all of that. That wasn't my responsibility to cover three hours or whatever that he saw his daughter.
GROSS: You not only were a client at a domestic violence center, but you eventually volunteered there. And I'm wondering if it started to seem like all men were abusers or all women were, you know, victims of, you know, emotional or physical abuse because you were so surrounded by it.
LAND: I'm not sure. I didn't see too many clients, but my advocate, especially at the place that I volunteered at, was very worn out and very burnt out. And she said that she would have clients who she would help get away and go to court with them and support them. And then they would go back to the person who had been abusive to them. And that's a pretty common cycle.
You know, not only do you become financially dependent on the person you're with, but it's a very confusing place to be because this person is so horrible. But you love them, and they make it seem like it's all your fault. And so you're constantly trying to make it up. And I think I noticed more that it might not be, like, the best job for me to do - 'cause at the time, I really wanted to be an advocate. And I thought that maybe I could reach more people with a similar story with my writing.
GROSS: Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephanie Land. And she writes about issues relating to the poor and the working poor and working single mothers. And now she has a new memoir called "Maid." And it's about being a maid, like, having her job be cleaning other people's houses. It's also about the period when she lived in a homeless shelter and in government-assisted housing and was on food stamps and WIC. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET'S "EXCERTO NO 1")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Stephanie Land, author of the new memoir "Maid" about her experiences working cleaning houses as a single mother trying and failing to make ends meet. And she is now a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
For a while, you had a studio apartment with your daughter that had a lot of black mold. And no matter how much you cleaned it, you couldn't really get rid of it. Was that a government-assisted housing place?
LAND: No. No, that was a studio that I found on my own. And the landlord allowed me to pay off the deposit. I think I paid him a hundred bucks a month maybe for five months to make up the deposit. But the rent was only 550 a month.
GROSS: So because you were living with black mold, you and your daughter had a lot of health problems.
LAND: We did. Yeah. Mia was very sick as a child. She had constant sinus infections, pink eye, ear infections. And she would come home sometimes and - with me, of course. But we would walk in, and I'd look over at her. And her eyes were just immediately red. And then I had a cough so bad. Like, I thought for sure, like, I had really bad allergies. Or I think I did go to the doctor for it once, and they sent me home with a bunch of asthma prescriptions. And I was constantly sick. And I think it was just the wet, really damp climate. And it just perpetuated.
GROSS: So did all that clear up after you moved?
LAND: It did actually. Yeah. Mia hardly ever gets sick now, and I maybe get sick, like, once a year. So the dryer climate helped us out a lot.
GROSS: So that was another problem you faced being poor, is that the place you could afford to live in was also making you sick and your daughter as well.
LAND: Yeah. And as a parent, you know, you want to provide safe, healthy, environments for your children. And I had a doctor who I was taking Mia to to be seen for yet another infection. She told me you need to do better, and I just looked at her. And I'm like, I can't. And it was a defining moment for me. Like, other people are telling me that I need to be a better mom. And that was something that I already felt so horrible about.
GROSS: So at some point, you decided your only way out of this kind of dead-end life that you were in of poverty and of housecleaning for a living - the only way out of it was to take out loans and go back to school and try to become a writer, which is what you did. You even were able, at the beginning, to get a scholarship for women who had been abused. So did you start at community college?
LAND: I did. Yeah. I started at the community college in Skagit Valley and originally was just going to get my AA-transfer degree. And then I decided to do the paralegal program because I felt like I needed a job that would make me a contributing member of society, you know, and that I would have health insurance and the ability to hopefully pay for housing and child care and food all on my own. And writers are not notoriously a well-paid bunch (laughter). And so I didn't think that that was really an option for me. But then once we got to Missoula in Montana...
GROSS: Where you went to the university there.
LAND: Yeah. I moved to Missoula and started going to the University of Montana, which was my original plan, like, right before I found out that I was pregnant with Mia. But this was six years later. It took a little bit to finally get there. I originally was under a sociology degree and couldn't live with myself. Like, I was on this beautiful campus that I had pined for for, you know, over half a decade to be a writer 'cause they have an amazing creative writing program there. And so it was just a dream. And I felt like if I went for the office job or I went for, you know, a job I wasn't totally happy in, then I wouldn't be a happy mother. And I wanted to pursue something that I had wanted to do since I was 10 years old. And I felt like if I could possibly do that, then it would show Mia that she could do the same.
GROSS: So where are you now financially? Like, what kind of housing do you have? Tell us about your housing and your level of financial security. This isn't a great period for financial security for writers.
LAND: No, it's not, especially with all the recent layoffs. And...
GROSS: I know.
LAND: It's tragic and scary. I mean, I am going to go back into freelancing eventually and, hopefully, mentor other writers to do the same. And I hope that there are jobs. Financially, I mean, I'm still wildly in debt (laughter) so - you know, and I still have...
GROSS: College loans.
LAND: Yes. I still have, you know, $50,000 in student loans that I need to pay off, and so there's that. I don't own the home that I'm living in. I'm renting, coincidentally, from my ex-mother-in-law. And so I need to get out of that place pretty soon. And I have two kids that I'm taking care of full-time by myself. And I hope to be able to put them in college. I hope to, you know, at least help them pay for things. And I mean, I'm always going to encourage them to work as well. But I would hope to be able to help them out if they needed it.
GROSS: If you can make one change in how the government deals with people who are poor, including the working poor, what would that change be?
LAND: I would definitely say to not require work in order to get food. I think that's inhumane. And the amount of money that you're getting is so small. I mean, it's like a dollar-something a meal per person. And I don't understand why there are work requirements surrounding that small amount of money. And again, you know, it's such a small amount of every tax dollar that's spent. And you're feeding mostly children. It's mostly families who are already working who receive SNAP.
GROSS: Well, Stephanie Land, good luck to you. And...
LAND: Thank you.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
LAND: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Stephanie Land is the author of the new memoir "Maid." After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review a new album by singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WIGWAM")
BOB DYLAN: (Vocalizing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.