Shortly after I started writing about homeless people in New York, my friend recommended I start reading Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land.
Right away, I was struck by the similarities Land’s story had to my own life, or rather, my mother’s.
Land, like my mother, was a pretty, white woman in her 20s when she became a mother and a victim of domestic violence. She starts the memoir off homeless after she leaves her abusive boyfriend and works her way to a studio apartment, a one-bedroom apartment and eventually to Missoula, Montana where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and started using her story to advocate for those in similar circumstances.
Most of the story takes place in the Pacific Northwest, a region my mom and two of my younger siblings currently reside and where I spent my formative years.
In her book, Land describes what it’s like to live on food stamps, to need childcare grants, and other government assistance. She describes the stigma she faced as a single mother who relied on, and needed, help to survive and the grueling manual labor she endured.
There are a few key differences between Land’s stories and my mother’s. Land is a writer. She was given the gift of articulating her plight. My mother, an intelligent and sometimes eloquent woman who has privileges awarded to her that many other mothers don’t, could not articulate herself in the way Land did. Though Land, as Barbara Ehrenreich, a New York Times bestselling author, says in her forward to the memoir, had the help of editors. Her story was told with help.
Land touches on trauma. Her daughter’s father continued to be emotionally and verbally abusive long after she left him. Her family was not able or willing to help her when she needed it most. She describes the trauma of living in poverty, but she doesn’t describe anything as messy as what my family (and I assume many others) live through. It’s not clear if her experiences did not reach the same level of messiness or if she chose to omit those parts for fear that they would overshadow her story and the goodwill she aimed to procure for those in need.
My mother became pregnant at 19, much younger than Land’s 28. She was a junior in college, had been valedictorian in high school and had grown up middle class in Norfolk, VA. Her family even had a maid when she was growing up.
But her father was abusive, mostly to her older brother but to her mom and herself too. He was also a gambler and an addict. She claimed he’d lost her college fund and in her later college years. She and my grandmother rented out an apartment and lived without his financial help.
By the time I came along, she was also a survivor of multiple sexual assaults. She had not received the support she needed after these traumas from her family or community. She was told, as a child, that she was a liar and the messages she was taught at Catholic school reasserted the slut shaming she learned to internalize.
My father was 23 and fresh off the boat at Norfolk’s Navy base. He joined the Navy during peacetime as a photographer. He thought it was his chance to see the world but then the Gulf War occurred and the pictures of civilian bodies he was forced to take were more than he’d bargained for.
Land met Jamie and knew instantly she liked him because she saw the Bukowski on his bookshelf. They were together for about four months before she became pregnant.
My parents bonded over 90s era hippie culture. Together they traveled across the U.S. following bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish. My parents were “dating” for about three months before my mother discovered she was pregnant.
My father, understandably, was not enthused. He tried to convince her to terminate the pregnancy or give me up for adoption. But she was convinced that I was a sign. She had been on birth control and thought I was a miracle. She thought she was meant to have me. And my father, though he didn’t want to be a dad, also wasn’t ready to abandon his child. His own dad was not present enough in his life and he didn’t want to make the same mistakes.
So, the two stayed together living in places like Montana and Colorado, working in restaurants and trying to finish college. They were together throughout the first year of my life, maybe up until I turned two, before my mother realized that their relationship was unhealthy and left.
She returned to Norfolk for a short period, but she didn’t want me exposed to the same world she grew up in and she feared that her family, though well-meaning, would instill values and practices that were toxic.
So, we moved to Burlington, Vt. where she went to college. We lived above Church Street in an apartment with one other woman. We were happy there. I don’t think I had a lot of toys, but I had plenty of books and she read to me at least once a day. Eventually, we got a small TV. It was black and white, but it played my copy of Sleeping Beauty which I would watch over and over again. I never wanted for food or clothing. My mother made a lot of my dresses herself and she’d give them to me for my birthday or Christmas and tell me they were from Mrs. Clause.
Once a week, we’d go out for lunch. We walked through the cobblestones on Church Street and eat at Stone Soup or Adams Apple where I always had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with chips. Occasionally, our friend Jessica would join us and we’d go to a sushi place where I ordered unagi and miso soup. Looking back, I know that we didn’t have much money but life felt abundant to me.
Sometimes, I’d catch on to some of the stigmas my mother faced. At preschool, I remember a little girl who repeatedly bullied me. When I asked her why she told me her parents had told her to stay away from me because my mother had dreadlocks.
There were also times when people would shame my mother for being so young and having a daughter. Strangers would say things to her while we were shopping. She got a lot of dirty looks. Other parents were also rude to her. Other women saw her –years younger, beautiful, and a child serving as proof of her questionable morals — as a threat.
Things changed though when my mother met Billy.
Billy is the type guy who, if he were smarter, would be a cult leader. I remember that we (my mom and I) thought he was handsome and charming. He used to read me as many pictures books as I could carry and the way he made my mother smile made me certain she’d found her knight in shining armor.
In her book, Land describes a relationship she stayed in because it eased her financial burden and gave her daughter a safe male role model. Single motherhood is difficult not just because raising a child is difficult but because the world is easier for women who have partners.
But Billy didn’t remain our knight for long. He was our downfall. Billy was abusive in every way possible and he became even worse once my mother became pregnant.
Most of our time with Billy involved us moving, a lot. Billy would leave us and then appear with presents begging for forgiveness.
I think we both stopped wanting him to come back. But there were still moments.
I remember living in a motel room for a few weeks. I don’t think we came with Billy, but he showed up anyway. It was my 6th birthday. We started it by watching a Star Wars marathon. It was the first time I’d seen Star Wars.
I was angry that Billy showed up, but he brought me a ballerina marionette doll. I think it was my only present and that softened my stance toward him. He said he wanted to be there for my birthday. He and mom left for what felt like forever. When they returned, as they were playing with my brother, he took his first steps. We called it his birthday present to me.
Land opens her book with the story of how her daughter took her first steps in a homeless shelter. My family was fortunate enough to have never lived in a homeless shelter, but my little brother took his first steps in a motel room while we attempted and failed to hide from his abusive father.
Eventually, with the help of a local domestic violence group, my mother, brother and I ran away from Billy to Tahoe, California.
In California, my mother struggled. She worked in the kitchen at a local ski resort. At first, we spent a month or so living in the living room of a friend’s one-bedroom apartment. Eventually, we moved into a big house we couldn’t afford.
That summer, I left for a few weeks to visit my father and his new girlfriend in Rhode Island.
Only a year before we left for California, my dad had followed us to Vermont. While on the East Coast, he’d met a woman at a jam band music festival. Around the time that they were getting serious and looking to move in together, he got a call from my mother telling him we were moving to California to escape Billy.
My dad, who felt like he was finally getting his life together stayed, but he felt resentful towards my mom for leaving. I don’t think he really understood how awful Billy had been and I think part of him didn’t want to know or to empathize with my mother.
In Land’s book, while she’s staying with her father and stepmother, after leaving her abusive boyfriend, she witnesses an instant where her father is physically aggressive to his wife. Land leaves and ends up at a homeless shelter but her father, in an attempt to deflect from his own misdeeds, tells the rest of their family that she lied about being abused by her daughter’s father.
Even today, I find myself angry at family members when their faces or voices change as they ask about my mother. Most of them know by now that snide remarks are unwelcome. To them, she is a villain. I want to scream that it was this misogyny displayed by them, and the rest of the world, when she needed help and support that resulted in her situation, not the other way around.
When I returned that first summer, my mother was living with my brother in a tent. It was summer, and she managed to make the whole experience fun like they were camping.
My mother, who hated the long nights working in the kitchen, desperately tried to find another job. At the start of the school year, she left me for a few weeks with a couple of family friends. She and my brother went to Santa Rosa to visit a restaurant owner who was professionally courting her.
I didn’t like the thought of us moving again and having to start over. I don’t know what happened but my mother either didn’t take or didn’t get the job offer.
Instead, she began working as a manager for a local coffee shop, The Java Hut. My mother enjoyed her job there. They seemed to hire mostly young, attractive women who she made fast friends with. But the hours were still long. She’d wake up at 4 or 3 a.m. and not come home until 7 p.m.
We moved into a two-bedroom condo. At first, I got the loft bedroom to myself but soon my mother realized that the expenses of childcare were adding up.
She met a teenage girl who had run away from an abusive household and we gave her the bedroom, in exchange for watching me and my brother. That meant that the three of us shared a small room together. The room consisted of our three beds, two bunk beds and my mother’s below, which my brother and I used to jump onto from the top bunk. We delighted in thrill of catapulting ourselves down.
At school, I knew the other parents didn’t like my mother. I knew the teachers didn’t like her either. I went to a charter school filled with children of rich yuppies. My mother, who no longer had dreadlocks was one of the few single and notably young parents. While most of the families at my school lived in nice neighborhoods with big houses, we could only afford to live in Kings Beach, where all the immigrant families lived. It wasn’t the sort of place many kids came over for playdates at.
We moved again once I reached third-grade to Humboldt County. Billy had followed us to California and tried to fight for custody of my brother. During this time, my mother seemed to change. She was no longer as present. She was thin and pale and constantly stressed. Billy was threatening her and she wasn’t sure which threats she should take seriously. She grew paranoid. I don’t think she was eating.
Land writes in her memoir, “we work, we love, we do. And the stress of it all, the exhaustion, leaves us hollowed. Scraped out. Ghosts of our former selves.” My mother was becoming less and less like the woman I remembered in Vermont and more and more a shadow person, existing on caffeine and granola bars and struggling every day to survive. We were poor even if I didn’t feel it.
While my brother’s needs and my needs were met, she went without. She used rags and socks for feminine hygiene when she couldn’t afford to buy pads. She went without food and without sleep as she fretted into the night about survival, both because we were poor and because Billy consistently threatened our lives.
Shortly after we moved from Tahoe to Humboldt County, my grandmother moved from Virginia to California to help.
In her book, Land describes her own relationship with her mother, which had grown tense after she became an adult. Land’s mother and her boyfriend helped Land move out of the homeless shelter. Her mother demanded that they go out to eat and when Land couldn’t afford to pay for her $11 burger, her mother’s boyfriend made a scene.
My mother hasn’t always felt supported by my grandmother. My grandmother isn’t perfect and didn’t always know the best way to help my mother, but my mother is fortunate to have had someone who loved her enough to move across the country to help.
Land didn’t have that. She was truly alone. Those are the people who end up in homeless shelters; the ones who don’t have anyone else who can help them.
Still, my grandmother’s presence didn’t alleviate my mother’s stress. The baggage of having her mother in her home, of being reliant on her and having to contend with the conflicting values my grandmother was instilling in my brother and me, was too much for my mother to bare.
And even though we had my grandmother and her help with childcare and rent, we were still poor.
I remember the first time we went to the food bank. I’m sure we had had financial assistance before. We were the recipients of toys for tots and other charity programs, but I didn’t have to go pick the toys up. Didn’t have to see the pity. I, being 9 and increasingly angry at the world, threw a fit about having to go to the food bank. At this point, I felt certain that I would never make friends and I knew that my poverty was one piece of why I felt so lonely and unliked. During the car ride to the food bank, I wore a paper bag over my face and waited in the car while my family went in to pick up food.
Humboldt, however, was an okay place to be poor. Many of my friends were also on assistance. It wasn’t something that made me a social piraya.
My mother moved from work in food manufacturing, coffee shops, odd jobs on the side and eventually to bookkeeping. When I was 12, after my mother was dealing with the financial outcome of a broken engagement, we moved into a two bedroom apartment with my grandmother. The apartment had less space than my boyfriend’s current New York City studio, but the four of us managed.
I remember a cool and popular girl coming home with us after cheerleading practice one day, she took one look at our neighborhood and our tiny apartment and told me I lived in the ghetto.
The summer in-between seventh and eighth grade my mother met Chris.
I knew almost immediately that Chris was bad news. Three months into their relationship, his house caught fire and he pushed himself into ours. My grandmother had left at this point and my mother was having trouble paying for our house alone.
Chris was abusive, and it didn’t take long for his true colors to show. My mother, who was in a deep depression at the start of their relationship, didn’t seem strong enough this time to put up much of a fight.
At night, I could hear them fighting. She was explaining to him why she didn’t want to have sex a certain way. It reminded her, she said, of when she was raped. I could hear him pouting and pressuring her.
Then, there’d be a crash and sobbing and I’d rouse myself from sleep and rush to the scene. Chris would be standing over my mother, who was curled up on the floor. He would breathe shallowly and shake.
I left after eighth grade. I was supposed to stay at my dad’s house for only a year to visit my new baby brother. I stayed, mostly because my mother couldn’t find the strength to leave Chris. She became pregnant with his child and, while I was away, Chris almost killed her, nearly breaking her spine.
My mother’s depression grew. Her friends stopped speaking to her to encourage her to leave Chris.
Meanwhile, River’s father, Billy, had moved to Oregon and was threatening taking custody if my mother didn’t move also.
She, along with Chris, moved to a tiny shack on a mountaintop overlooking Ashland, Oregon. I visited the summer between 10th and 11th grade. The shack had a tin roof, uneven floors and the water was brown and smelled like skunk. Neither Chris nor my mother, had work when they moved and the economy was in an especially tight spot. Every day for a year my mother applied for jobs. She handed out her trusty resume and her references and attempted to court businesses. Eventually, she was able to obtain unemployment. Meanwhile, Chris squandered away the savings she’d built for the move.
Eventually, we were successful in running Chris out of my mother’s home.
The next summer, when I came to visit, she had moved to lower income housing. It was two bedrooms. My brother had his own room and my mother and little sister shared. There was a community garden. They lived off of Wick and food stamps. About once a month, they’d spend less than $10 for the whole family at a local pizza shop that had a Grateful Dead cover band.
My mother was grateful that she could live in a community that had safe options for people like her, but she was also terrified. She was going to school for a bachelor’s in accounting and contracted as a bookkeeper with a nonprofit drug counseling center. She knew if she made too much money, she would lose her benefits and that she wouldn’t have enough money to make up for the loss. Meanwhile, the company she was bookkeeping for was violating various tax laws. When she approached them about it, they told her to look the other way. She was afraid of losing her bookkeeping license.
In Maid, Land describes a similar level of insecurity. She doesn’t have money for medical bills or for emergencies. “Every day I walked on a rug that could be yanked out from under me at any moment,” she writes.
When my mother found a better job as an apprentice for a small accountant’s office, she had to move from lower income housing. She walked her belongings miles to the new house. Pulling the belongings and my little sister along in a red wagon.
My mother got her degree a semester before I did. In the summer of 2016, she graduated with honors. She is no longer below the poverty line, but she still struggles to support my two siblings and my now elderly grandmother. She works long erratic hours and is reading up on how to conduct yourself as a woman in the workplace. Last year, her work sponsored her attendance at a women’s business conference.
I know she’s not in the clear yet. Land isn’t really either at the end of her book, but things are getting better and there’s a sense of optimism.
The truth is, like Land, my mother wouldn’t have been able to raise my siblings and I if it weren’t for the few government programs offered to her and even then, it was a struggle. No one should have to go through the hardships of holding together a family without assistance.
And, had someone believed my mother about her abuse, about the sexual assault, she would have been able to pull herself out of poverty sooner. Women like Land and my mother are the exception, not the rule.
I don’t believe people should have to work as hard as they did. Many other women have to work even harder. It is on all of us to combat issues like poverty and domestic violence. We can do so by voting for candidates that support financial assistance, by donating to programs that combat poverty and by listening and supporting women.
If you or someone you know is in involved in domestic or dating violence encourage them to talk to a crisis’s hotline. For resources on domestic violence check out the thehotline.org or Loveisrespect.org.
For resources for homelessness check out the nationalhomeless.org.