Each day Stephanie Land got down on her hands and knees to scrub a toilet, she was buoyed by love for her child – and a dream that one day she would be a writer.
Land had escaped an abusive relationship and lacked support from her family. At one point she was on seven different forms of government assistance. A single mom without child care from 2008 to 2016, cleaning houses was the only job available to her.
Her struggle became her muse, and her memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and A Mother’s Will to Survive” debuted on The New York Times bestseller list in 2019. It’s now the basis for the series “Maid,” premiering Friday on Netflix.
She spoke with CNN about her work to spotlight the everyday experiences of millions living in poverty, including cycles of abuse and trauma, the inhumanity of welfare requirements, and the dignity of all work.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
CNN: What was it like seeing a version of yourself played on screen?
Land: It was really validating in a lot of ways because the things that I went through and how I felt about them over the last several years have been questioned a little bit. “Was it really abuse that you experienced?” It felt so validating to see the emotional abuse on the screen, and just how realistic it was. And then watching it with my family – when they were watching the scenes where she’s cleaning, each of them turned to me at one point and said, “Was it really like that?”
Yes, it was. I keep using the word “relief.” Relief to see such an authentic representation of my experience.
CNN: How do you hope others in the same situation might react?
Land: I hope they feel validated as well. It’s so rare that people in poverty have an accurate portrayal of their life on screen or even in the media. Of course, Alex (the character based on Land) is a White woman who is working a job that is mostly done by people of color, so my experience isn’t necessarily representative of most people doing this work. But in another sense, it’s the way that she is treated, and just her absolute desperation to work a job that’s making her physically throw up. It’s just because of the desperation to have housing for her daughter. That’s a very accurate, authentic, realistic way of what life in poverty actually is. I hope other people can feel validated and heard and seen.
CNN: What are some of the myths about living in poverty that you hope this show could address?
Land: The biggest stigma or misconception that people in poverty are up against is that they’ve brought it on themselves, because it’s so easy to just go and get a better job. It’s not.
We tell people to just get out of it, go get a better job, get some better housing. Leave him. Don’t go back. The show, really, really, really shows just how difficult that is and how impossible it is. I mean of course it was wrapped up in a bow, because it followed my story of moving to Missoula. But it’s so hard to find the resources and the emotional ability to do something like that.
CNN: What do you wish you had done differently?
Land: I started being vulnerable with people and asking people for help. And just being really honest. I wish I’d done that more. I wish I had been more vulnerable with people and really talked to people about how hard it is to never be able to tap out. I wish I had been more honest with people about that and how difficult things were. Struggle shouldn’t be shameful. We all struggle. We need to be a little bit more compassionate.
CNN: Some of the most illustrative scenes show Alex trying to apply for government assistance, and there are so many different hoops to jump through to qualify for a particular program. Are they designed in a way that can help poor people?
Land: I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the fault of the agency, because the workers are very tired, and they’re trying their best to help people. The system itself is designed to keep people from signing up, and they do that by making it incredibly difficult.
They can say, look, the numbers are down, less people are signing up for unemployment, we’re getting better. But that’s not always the case. That can mean that somebody’s paperwork got lost and they were kicked off, or it just became too difficult to fill out all the reevaluation paperwork, or they didn’t have some pay stub or some slip of paper that they needed.
There are a lot of reasons why people go off government assistance, and it’s usually not because they now suddenly have the resources where they just decided to jump off the welfare cliff. I think it’s because they are fatigued at being in the system.
CNN: The show captures your character Alex’s love for her daughter, Maddy, which is based off of your relationship with your own child. How did that love keep you pursuing your dream?
Land: Oh, it was everything, literally my reason for waking up and for breathing and getting through the day. Every time I got down on my knees to clean the toilet, it was for my kid. (Land had a second child in 2014.) It was so that we could hopefully eventually get out of that situation. They referred to that time in my life as a constant, crushing sense of hopelessness, and I did not want (my kids) to live that ever. I did everything I could to make sure that they wouldn’t have to do that.
CNN: Why do you feel it’s important to highlight the dignity of working in a service job?
Land: There are two reasons that I think there should be an equal amount of dignity in all work. A doctor is just as important as a janitor. But I also think that we wrap up so much of our own personal dignity in the type of job we have for how many hours were able to work. With food stamps, you’re required to work a certain number of hours a week in order to get a benefit. As a human being, getting food to eat is dependent on how many hours you can work at a job. It is so degrading. It’s so demeaning. It still affects me five years later.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
That’s because we don’t assign equal amounts of dignity to human beings. In Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste,” she points out there’s a caste system in America. And it’s very apparent right now in just how we are treating people, expecting them to work through a pandemic, and how we’re even treating doctors and nurses right now. I always try to see everybody as my equal. Everybody deserves the same amount of respect and dignity.