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Stephanie Land worked as a maid walking the tightrope of poverty and homelessness for years chasing the American dream. Then, she wrote the memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive.”
The bestselling book, which caught the attention of esteemed leaders like former President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris, highlights the reality of people who live off of low-paid service work — a population in America that Land refers to as “invisible.”
Released in 2019, Land’s memoir has since been adapted into the critically-acclaimed, unflinching Netflix miniseries “Maid,” starring actor Margaret Qualley. Despite the title of both the book and series, each have proven to be about much more than a female protagonist tasked with cleaning the homes of the affluent.
“I wanted the book to be more about domestic violence and, and kind of the estrangement from family and then making it to college,” Land said in an exclusive interview with TODAY.
Living in poverty
The autobiography chronicles Land in her 20’s and 30’s as a financially-strained single mom, survivor of domestic abuse and nomad, taking odd jobs such as cleaning bathrooms at the homes of friends and working in landscaping. She explained that she did it all to provide for her child, who now goes by their middle name “Story" and uses they/them pronouns.
While documenting her time as a maid, Land wrote about the various peculiarities in the homes she cleaned. She named most of the homes after their anomalies — titles like “Porn House,” “Sad House,” “Farm House,” and the “Cigarette Lady’s House.”
She said that throughout the years, naming homes for their obscurities became her only creative outlet.
Land explained that she worked as a maid to put dinner on the table and to provide some sort of structure for her child who went to daycare during the hours she cleaned.
“I think a lot of my determination was making their life as best as possible,” she said. “Kids kind of keep you structured in some way because they need structure really bad.”
Land said that after a string of domestic abuse incidents initiated by Story’s father, Jamie, she took Story and moved into a homeless shelter with only $100 in her pocket.
“However temporary, I had done my best to make the cabin a home for my daughter,” Land wrote in her memoir. “I’d placed a yellow sheet over the love seat not only to warm the looming white walls and gray floors, but to offer something bright and cheerful during a dark time.”
No matter how capable Land tried to appear for her child, she noted in her memoir that she didn’t always feel secure in her usual optimism. She even would occasionally pretend that her life were different.
“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,” Land wrote.
She said that she lived in a constant state of fear that she would one day be “forced to hand over” her child to a man she said she knew “was dangerous.”
Jamie’s frequent outbursts quickly turned into emotionally violent threats. And though the abuse that she suffered was reality, Land revealed to TODAY that she would oftentimes find herself thinking that no one would believe her pain if she lacked marks and bruises.
“I would go to the post office in town, and people would stop me and say, 'I can't believe you're taking this child away from their dad, like, how horrible can you be?'” she recalled. “Even in the court system, I mean, I was told a reasonable person wouldn't feel threatened by his actions.”
When Jamie's threats turned into physical blows, Land said that she took careful note of his actions so she could tell the court.
“When he finally punched out the window in the door, it was like I finally had physical evidence and something that I could show somebody,” she said. “It was like a certificate that I wasn't crazy, because before that, he had convinced even my family that I was just desperate for him to love me, and was doing everything that I could including having a whole entire human to stay with him in some way.”
While fighting for custody of Story, she was also fighting for her own will to survive and even recalled losing part of herself during the fight.
“Had I turned the camera around, I wouldn’t have recognized myself. The few photos of me showed almost a different person, possibly the skinniest I had been in my whole life,” Land wrote in her memoir.
"In the mirror, there was that woman — overworked but without any money to show for it.”
Land was on seven forms of government assistance and she needed every single one to help her get through to the next day.
And it would take years before Land truly recognized what she had gone through.
With the help of a therapist, Land said she was able to “identify that it was actual abuse, that some of his actions were actually rape and, and I had this kind of mind blowing couple of months of realizing what I have actually been through and how much trauma that had caused.”
“I don't think I really accepted that it was some kind of abuse until we moved to Montana,” Land said.
Trading toilets for transcripts
In 2008, Land left Washington and moved to Montana with Story to attend college. She enrolled in the creative writing program, following her passion of becoming a writer.
“I knew that I would just be miserable if I didn't at least try to be a writer, because I've known I was a writer since I was, you know, 10 years old,” she said.
After earning her degree in 2014, Land became a fellow at the Center for Community Change in Washington D.C. Before landing a publishing deal for her memoir in 2016, Land wrote for various websites shining a light on her life as a poor and single mom.
When her first essay went viral, Land was certain that she misunderstood.
“I got paid $500 for that essay, and, and I thought I had hit the jackpot," she told TODAY. "I thought it was a mistake.”
Soon after, she was contacted for a book deal and was able to quit her other jobs.
The humble author — who at one point did not have enough money to afford a burger — successfully pursued her dream of becoming a writer. When her memoir debuted, it appeared as No. 3 on the nonfiction chart of The New York Times. When the miniseries premiered in October 2021, it put her memoir back on the NYT nonfiction list, where it lived for nine weeks.
The three-time Golden Globe nominated series enthralled an audience of over 67 million in the first four weeks and is set to become Netflix’s top-watched limited series.
Despite the wide-acclaim and recognition, Land said it wasn’t all that easy reliving what she views as the most difficult time in her life, even calling some of the moments she watched “traumatic.”
“It was really difficult, I think, because they got so many things right. It was just so similar to what I experienced,” she told TODAY.
Land also revealed that watching the show with Story was especially difficult for her.
"At one point, they turned to me and said, 'Was it really like that with my dad?'" Land explained. "And I had to say, yeah, that's pretty close to what it was."
Though after a few episodes, she explained that she was able to enjoy the story for “its own creation,” and referred to the series as both “gorgeous” and “brilliant.”
When riches did come, Land said she didn’t trade in her rags so fast.
“I was just so scared that I was going to screw it up somehow. And that is, I think, you know, when you go from food stamps to being able to buy a house and a new car in a very short amount of time, like nothing really seems like it's going to last because it came on so quickly," she said. "And so I don't know if I'll ever stop hustling.”
And she was hustling since the day she put pen to paper.
Land added that she recognizes her privilege as a white person in America and understood what would sell.
“'I’ve kind of known since my book started getting a lot of attention, like a year before it was published that people were grasping on to my story because it was a story told by a white person," she said. "And a privilege story, it's a success story. It's the rags to riches story, it's all of these things that society in general really loves to listen to."
She explained that's her motivation to "stand up and talk about it and advocate.”
“I always thought if they're listening to me that maybe they'll listen to other people,” she said.
What Land is doing now
Before she got her book deal, Land saw America’s divide first-hand and albeit her triumphs, the activist has not lost sight of her past.
The author and activist has garnered nearly 140,000 followers across her social media accounts and is using her voice to “expose the reality of what it’s like to pursue the myth of the American Dream while being held back at the poverty line.”
Since the book’s release, Land has been traveling the United States, voicing her struggles and successes. She plans to continue raising her voice, “speaking up for the invisible people who are struggling to survive.”
In addition to the memoir and the limited series, Land has a multitude of published essays centered around social justice, single parenting, domestic violence and more. She also co-founded a freelance writing course to share her breadth of knowledge with aspiring writers.
Land conquered her goal of pulling her and Story out of poverty. She now has another child — a daughter named Coraline — and a husband, plus two stepchildren. She also has a stable food supply, a roof over her head and even a “she-shed” to write in.
But her journey is far from over. This year, Land plans to continue traveling the country exposing the reality of what it's like to be a low-paid service worker in America.
“Domestic work in the service industry is the backbone of our society, and what makes all other work possible," she told TODAY. "And so we're asking all these people to support us, and we're not supporting them."
Land is currently working on writing her second book, “Class," where she plans to address the inaccessible nature of higher education for low income populations.