I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.Maya Angelou
I only heard about this book when I watched the Netflix series with the same name. That was heartbreaking to say the least and when I saw it was based on a real story, a real person who scrubbed toilets for a whole year just to be able to afford a place for herself and her daughter, that made me feel like seeing what the book has to offer.
Maid is about her [Stephanie Land’s] journey as a mother, trying to provide a safe life and home for her daughter Mia while surviving on pieced-together bits of public assistance and the pathetically low income she earned as a maid. “Maid” is a dainty word, redolent of tea trays, starched uniforms, Downton Abbey. But in reality, the maid’s world is encrusted with grime and shit stains.Foreword to book
Alex (Margaret Qualley) has fled from her abusive partner, lives on the street for a while, then becomes a cleaning lady to support her daughter. She earns so little that she lives below the poverty line. She also has PTSD from a car accident when she was 16.
There is a smell of poverty which seeps out of this book and it’s the constant anxiety of : Will I be able to afford this? Feed the child or go hungry? Put petrol in the car to go earn money? It’s admirable that the main character took on this path – as it’s the hardest one to walk on. Escaping poverty while not having an education and a well paying job or parents with love and/or loads of money – basically the support pillars of a good life – it’s near impossible. It’s swimming against the tide. Add in alcoholism and domestic violence and you are facing what a lot of women have to live through with no way out. Not every decision is a good one, but as long as you make more good decisions than bad ones, you are bound to slowly get out of the mud.
I had looked under every stone, peered through the window of every government assistance building, and joined the long lines of people who carried haphazard folders of paperwork to prove they didn’t have money. I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor.
Nothing is reliable in this world—not cars, not men, not housing. Food stamps are an important pillar of her survival, and the recent legislation that people be required to work for their food stamps will only make you clench your fists. Without these government resources, these workers, single parents, and beyond would not be able to survive. These are not handouts. Like the rest of us, they want stable footing in our society.
Sometimes I would imagine moments when we were a real family—a mother, a father, a beautiful baby girl. I’d grasp onto those daydreams, like they were a string tied to a huge balloon. The balloon would carry me over Jamie’s abuse and the hardship of being left as a single parent. If I kept hold of that string, I’d float above it all. If I focused on the portrait of the family I wanted to be, I could pretend the bad parts weren’t real; like this life was a temporary state of being, not a new existence.
This dream is a repeated occurrence throughout the book – as she compares her life to other parents’, as she hears about struggling single moms who still have the luxury to move back to their parents and who don’t have to pick between eating and having a roof over their heads.
We lived, we survived, in careful imbalance. This was my unwitnessed existence, as I polished another’s to make theirs appear perfect.
It’s the different houses she visits that bring that extra outside vision to her own life. Watching people’s belongings, trying to figure out what they do for a living, whether the couples she sees are still in love or slowly drifting apart and what secrets they hide. Why eat healthy and smoke alone in a kitchen? I suppose the moment we open our house to an “invisible” outsider – we allow the questions to take place and a judgement to fall.
Thankfully Alex is really kind with hers.
As she’s juggling a job, being a single mom and trying to survive, she enrols in college and attempts to fight for a future that will mean a stable job. A lawyer, an accountant. Anything. Writing classes were optional but she enrols as deep down she always wanted to be a writer.
Neither of us had college degrees—Jamie admitted that he hadn’t even graduated from high school—and we did whatever work we could to make money.
Somehow, it reflected badly on me that I’d removed Mia from a place where I was punished and brutalized until I was curled up on the floor, sobbing like a toddler. No one saw that I was trying to give my daughter a better life—they only saw that I’d taken her out of what they considered a financially stable home.
The Netflix show focused heavily on the court case and how she would be deemed an unfit mother as she had no plan when she left to live in the homeless shelter. The book, not so much, attention being drawn more at the injustice – at the ex, Jamie, being mad about having to pay $250 for child support and being a mostly absent dad during his time with the child. And a lot can be said about parental alienation and manipulative behaviour that is literally sickening. This man is scum.
The other thing I liked about the book was the advocacy about what being on food stamps really meant. The poor cannot choose not to be poor. It’s a terrible cycle to break off out of and the stigma follows Alex everywhere, especially visible when grocery shopping.
How would they view a cleaning lady on food stamps? As a hard worker or as a failure? I’d become so self-conscious about these things that I tried to hide the details as much as possible. In the middle of conversations, I’d wonder if the person’s view of me would change if they knew I was on food stamps. Would they assume I had less potential?
Alex is proud – and she had to do a lot of things that went against this proud streak of hers. She hated doing bathrooms the most. When she tries to do “normal” things like dating, she runs into Trevor – who will be her boyfriend for a while and use her as an unpaid farm hand until she manages to break free of him and move on her own to a mouldy apartment. I was still impressed that he still gave her money for bills and helped with moving and would still allow her and her daughter to garden on his plot. It’s the other unnamed dates that show the true feelings. She wanted to be loved for who she is (who doesn’t) and feel that she has worth.
A text gone unanswered or a call going straight to voice mail meant rejection, proof that I was unlovable. I hated that neediness, and I was sure that men could sense it, that it lingered like a pungent odor. Additionally, socializing opened me up to the painful reminder that most people had normal lives.
Every single parent teetering on poverty does this. We work, we love, we do. And the stress of it all, the exhaustion, leaves us hollowed. Scraped out. Ghosts of our former selves. [..]
When a person is too deep in systemic poverty, there is no upward trajectory. Life is struggle and nothing else. But for me, many of my decisions came from an assumption that things would, eventually, start to improve.[…]
The book does offer a happy end with the Maid becoming the Student as she moves to attend university, taking her daughter with her.
Things that were different from the Netflix show:
- The accident happened towards the end of the book
- Jamie – the ex – was an ass – always mean, always looking at ways to demean her and their interactions were limited
- She did receive a car from a date but she only used it shortly as she purchased her own
- Travis and his farm do not appear at all
- Her mom was not the bipolar mess we see on TV but a woman who went to live in Europe with her new boyfriend/husband called William. They seem far removed and barely involved.
- Her mom and boyfriend did help her move but they appeared dressed in fancy clothes and did expect their food to be paid for in the restaurant, knowing full well she didn’t have any money. I was appalled at her mother’s behaviour and the bf’s calling her ENTITLED for asking for the bill to be split.
- The times in the women’s shelter and the other women she meets there are not featured in the book
- The big house that she goes to clean on an island is fictional and so is the woman living in it
- Her dad’s abuse to her mom is made up – she said she had a suburbs upbringing and a clear future in front of her until she became pregnant with a guy who wanted nothing to do with her.
- Her grandfather picked her up from the accident scene and he was so nice but poor too – he couldn’t cover gas and it was mentioned that he lived in a rented room barely making ends meet.
All in all, the book is gorgeous, the writing well done and I can’t wait to see if she writes anything else.