clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The author whose story inspired Netflix’s Maid on why welfare is broken

How Stephanie Land went from Vox article to book deal to Netflix show.

A person wearing a maid’s smock wipes off outdoor seats behind a mansion on the ocean shore.
Margaret Qualley as Alex in Netflix’s Maid, based on the memoir of the same title by Stephanie Land.
Ricardo Hubbs/Neflix
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When Stephanie Land moved out of her abusive boyfriend’s house at age 29, she was a single mother, unemployed, with no savings and no college degree. So she did what she had to in order to keep herself and her daughter alive. She moved into a homeless shelter and then into subsidized housing, enrolled in every government program she could, and got a job as a maid. It was all only barely enough to keep her going.

Land eventually drew on the back-breaking, grueling experience of cleaning houses for an essay that she would publish on Vox in 2015. Titled “I spent 2 years cleaning houses. What I saw makes me never want to be rich,” the piece went massively viral. It was full of voyeuristic details about what Land learned about her clients from cleaning their homes, and in its descriptions of the difference between Land’s precarious existence and her clients’ lavish lifestyles, it seemed like a perfect encapsulation of the US’s ever-widening income inequality. To date, it’s garnered over 1.3 million page views.

In 2019, Land turned the experience into her memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, which became a New York Times bestseller. And now, Land’s book has become a Netflix series.

With Maid now streaming, Land returned to Vox for some full-circle perspective. Over the phone, we discussed the failure of the welfare system in the US, why her experience publishing with Vox in 2015 was not wholly great, and why the narrative of a poor white woman is so attractive to Hollywood. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

One of the things that both your book and the Netflix show are so good at laying out is the incredible number of hoops you have to jump through to receive government assistance. What were some of the biggest frustrations you had to deal with during your time in the system?

Honestly, it was child care. The last time I tried to get a child care grant, my youngest daughter was 1. It was probably in 2015, right around when the Vox article came out. I had been freelancing for a little while.

You have to hand in three months of income, and they do their calculations. And it turned out that I was $100 over the limit for [continuing my] child care grant.

When my caseworker told me that, I was just kind of like, “Really? Like, for 100 bucks?”

My income at the time was so variable. I was extremely honest with my income, and as a self-employed person I could have lied a little bit, but I didn’t.

And so when I was talking to [my caseworker], she said, “Well, it looks like your work hours are from 9 at night to 2 in the morning, so you don’t really need day care.”

I said, “Well, that’s not ideal!” I would much rather work during the day and not lose that amount of sleep.

It’s the child care grants. I mean, I was audited. They called me and threatened to remove my child care grant immediately because I had handed in a handwritten pay stub at one point. It’s terrifying, because I can’t work without child care, and that was the most important thing that I had.

The book does a really great job of laying out that problem. You describe having to choose between child care and the work that you need to do to survive. So what do you think needs to change about the way we approach child care in America so that people don’t have to keep making those kinds of choices?

I argue for universal child care all the time. I think they’re trying to cover that in the infrastructure bill that they’re trying to pass. Child care is part of the infrastructure of our country, because parents need to have a safe place to bring their children while they’re working. It’s just as important as the road that they’re driving on.

It was such a struggle just to have that support. It was baffling to me. And it’s all wrapped up in work requirements. I never really understood why I constantly had to prove that I was working. It just seemed like my value and my worth as a human being were completely wrapped up in how many hours I was working a week at a very low-wage job.

That’s something that you also write about in the book and that comes out in the show as well. This sort of sense of judgment that you get from strangers and even from close friends who would say things like, “Oh, you’re welcome,” about receiving government assistance. There seems to be a lot of people who have this idea that people on welfare are just lazy and taking advantage of hardworking taxpayers. So what do you wish that people who had that idea understood about the experience?

The SNAP program is such a small part of the federal budget. It’s something like 1.3 percent. It’s such a small amount, but because it is so visible, people kind of feel personal about it. When I pull out my SNAP card at the grocery store, people start to look at all the things that I’m buying, like, “Oh my god, she got blueberries! Those are $5. Why didn’t you just get grapes?”

They feel some kind of connection because they believe that their tax dollars are buying me organic milk.

Another thing that’s really quite haunting about your experience, and that I think the Netflix show does a really great job of evoking, is just how much time and mental energy gets taken up keeping track of a budget when you’re making minimum wage. What was the hardest part of making that money stretch?

A lot of it was just being able to afford toiletries and tampons and toilet paper. I remember very specifically standing in the grocery store aisle. I really needed to buy a sponge, and I was trying to think, “How much money do I have on my credit card balance?” Because usually I would pay the minimum payment on my credit card, and that was the money that I had to purchase all of those things like toothpaste and shampoo and diapers if I needed them.

So that’s one memory that I have, of just trying to figure out if I could purchase a $2 sponge that I needed, and deciding that I couldn’t.

It’s also really striking, looking at this story, how much our system seems to incentivize survivors of domestic violence to stay in relationships that can be damaging, and the way it keeps pushing people to fall back on their existing personal connections, which might not be the most healthy. What do you think needs to change in our system to move away from that model?

I think emotional abuse needs to be recognized as violence. It’s domestic violence, and it’s deadly.

Once emotional abuse really takes hold, you are controlled in almost every way. Abusers will most often turn you against all of your friends and family and isolate you. They will take away your self-worth, and they financially control you. They control your phone, your vehicle, just everything. And that’s when the physical abuse starts to happen.

Often up until that point, you don’t believe that you’re in an abusive relationship because they haven’t hit you. And then they start hitting things near you, but that’s still “not really domestic violence” until you have bruises.

For me in that situation, not only did the court system tell me that a reasonable person wouldn’t feel threatened, they saw me as the bad person because I was removing a child from a stable environment and a stable home. My abuser was seen as the better parent because he had a house and a full-time job and had resources, and I was homeless.

In the book, you write about the sheer physical pain that comes with cleaning houses, and how that can be exacerbated by a lack of medical benefits. How common is it for house cleaners not to get any basic benefits?

I don’t know how every cleaning company handles their employees, but as far as I know just from talking to agents with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, it’s incredibly common to not have any kind of benefits whatsoever.

If you’re working for a cleaning company, your pay is usually cut in half. They will charge a client what they charge, but then they will pay you a very low amount. What comes with that is insurance, so if you are hurt or if you damage something, then you have the company to pay for all of that. But you also risk losing your job if you mess up in any way.

And then if you go on to be self-employed, you don’t have that safety net of workers comp, or even unemployment insurance if you lose your job, like so many domestic workers did at the beginning of the pandemic.

You’re also just so vulnerable. I remember going to really shady places. Sometimes there was no cellphone coverage. I was a single mom and I had just dropped my kid off at day care and she was sick, and there was no way for anybody to contact me. And I also didn’t know what kind of situation I was going into. It’s pretty scary.

There’s no sick pay, there’s no vacation days, and there’s just nothing for you if you get injured.

Then you also write about having to pay for your own gas and cleaning supplies and other equipment. How does that end up cutting into the paycheck?

I was making at one point $9.25 an hour. I did the math and figured out it was actually about $6 an hour with all the gas. And I had to wash my own cleaning rags and the clothes that I worked in, and that wasn’t covered in my paycheck either.

At one point, I finally made enough of a stink that they offered me a little bit of pay for mileage, and then my boss offered to wash my rags. But that was after six months of struggling and finally just saying, “I can’t afford to do this.”

On top of the low wages and physical pain, there’s also having to deal with the way clients treated you. We see a lot of disdain for people who clean houses in popular culture — I’m thinking of the influencer Rachel Hollis, who was heavily criticized a few months ago for referring to her house cleaner as “the woman who cleans my toilets.” What is it like for you, having done that work, to see that sort of sneering, dehumanizing attitude playing out in the culture at large?

I think that’s the reason why I can’t bring myself to hire my own house cleaner. I felt that so much.

I remember one time I went to clean a person’s house who was the same age as me. They had a really nice place and a couple of kids, and their kids’ bedrooms were just immaculate and like something that I wished for my own kid. And as she was walking me through, she pointed to a couple of spots that I had missed on a light switch. She said, “Can you just make sure that you get this next time?”

I just remember thinking, “Really? You’re going to point that out to me?”

It was just so demeaning. I mean, every single time that I had to get on my hands and knees to scrub something and the client was home, it was just a really horrible feeling. There were times that I would be cleaning, and the client was home and they answered the phone and they said, “Oh I can’t talk, the maid is here.” It was a really odd feeling.

I wish that type of work held the same amount of dignity that [my clients’] work did. I’m not really sure why it doesn’t. Because domestic work is the work that makes all the other work in this country happen.

In 2015, you published a piece on cleaning houses for Vox. Then in 2019, you published the book. And now it’s a Netflix series. Can you walk me through what happened to get you from one to the other?

The Vox essay was my first big paycheck as a freelance writer. It was something that I had worked on in college and beyond. I saw a call for pitches through another publication, I think it was Literary Mama. They put out an email that said these people are looking for personal essays.

So I emailed Vox and entitled it “Dear Editor,” and sent them a couple of paragraphs that I thought were really good. And they emailed back immediately and offered me $500. That was like the most money I’d ever seen. I was just falling all over myself.

The morning that it was published online, my friend actually called me on my flip phone and said, “Are you okay?”

And I said, “Yeah, why?”

And she said, “You need to go look at your computer.”

That essay went so viral. I really wasn’t set up for that amount of virality. I started getting hundreds and hundreds of emails through the contact form on my website, and they were all so angry.

I was called dumb. God, what did they call me? They called me a roach. They called me a bum. A leech on society. I was called dirty a lot.

That essay was edited to make me a very unlikable character. At the time I was just like, “Fine, whatever. Just pay me my money!” But now that I have some experience, I definitely would have pushed back on some of those edits. [The editor of Land’s essay is no longer employed at Vox.]

I received hate mail for so long and at such magnitude that I remember going out for a walk in the woods with a friend of mine and feeling so exposed and raw. It just really affected me.

But on the other hand, an agent from New York reached out to me that morning and asked me if I had a book in the works and I lied and said yes. I wrote up a couple of chapters and a book proposal, and we had a book deal 11 months later.

After that, every time I pitched an editor and included a link to that essay, they said, “Oh my goodness, you’re the woman behind the house-cleaning essay!” My freelancing career really took off after that.

I still get hate mail from that essay every once in a while.

Oh god, I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. So you get this book deal. And then how does that become a Netflix deal?

I have a wonderful agent at CAA, Michelle Crows, and she sent out advance copies of the book. So I ended up talking to different groups of producers and directors and people who were interested in this story.

John Wells and Margot Robbie were my last call. Up until that point, a lot of people really wanted to do a straight adaptation of the book. And to me, that sounded horrible. Because it’s such a white person story, and it’s such a privileged story. In memoir, you’re tied to your experience, and I was very isolated. I didn’t talk to anybody. I kept thinking about the movie trailer guy saying, “One white woman dipped into poverty — and how she got herself out.”

John Wells and Margot Robbie proposed fictionalizing it, and bringing in a really diverse cast, and making the story look like the real world does. I love that, and so that was why I went with them.

I’m glad you brought that up because I know you’ve written about how the ways we talk about poverty can feed into a lot of ideas about systemic racism. For instance, the way we talk about poor Black people as welfare queens, and all of the political baggage around the idea of the white working class. I don’t think this is necessarily present in the book, but you can see a way in which the idea of a white single mother is politically attractive to certain agendas in a way that it might not be if it were the story of a woman of color who is having to navigate this treacherous system. Is that disconnect something that you’ve seen in the reception of this story?

It’s something that I talk about every chance I get. I knew right off the bat that my story was very attractive to publishers because it was marketable. I am a very palatable and very likable poor person because I am white. I could look like your cousin or your neighbor for a lot of the population who purchases memoirs and reads these books.

Going into that, I had a moment of realizing that I was being lifted up. And what am I going to do with that? So even though I am a pretty shy introvert, I realized that they’re listening to me. And because they’re listening to me, then hopefully that will open up space for other people to share their stories.

We don’t listen to people of color. We especially don’t listen to people who are in systemic poverty or systemic racism, which go hand in hand. And we especially don’t listen to people who are still in that situation and who are angry.

One thing that I’ve seen on social media that honestly really encourages me is that people are angry, and they’re talking about their anger, for that thing that you’re talking about: It’s a white woman’s story who’s being lifted, when the majority of domestic workers are women of color. I’m grateful that they are able to talk about that anger. I want them to have space to talk about how angry they are about the systems that are in place that keep them in poverty.

I talk a lot about how the government assistance program is broken. But it is almost impossible if you’re a person of color in this country or you’re an immigrant.

What is the biggest thing that you hope people who read the book and watch the show take away from them?

I hope they gain some empathy for people who are in poverty, especially the people who are experiencing homelessness. I think we have this idea in our heads that it’s always the person who is sleeping on a sidewalk, when that’s really not the case. There are many, many families in this country who are sleeping in their vehicles and taking their kids to school and going to work. And it’s a real tragedy.

I hope that people start to realize that and have some compassion, and take that compassion with them when they go to the voting booth. And vote some people into office who have lived experience in the margins, or have empathy for those who do.