Some people believe that my fall into poverty began with an unexpected pregnancy, but I have a hard time seeing it that way. Mia didn’t learn to walk in a homeless shelter because I’d chosen to bring her into the world. She took those first steps on that dirty, tiled floor because I’d just escaped an abusive relationship with a couple hundred dollars. Because my family had turned their backs on me, or couldn’t help us. Because I simply couldn’t find work. And because I couldn’t find work, a grant for child care wasn’t obtainable.
Mia, age 9 months, in the bedroom of the homeless shelter where we lived for 90 days.
You see, I needed to obtain a job that I could do while my daughter was at daycare before I’d get approved for that grant. And because most of the daycare centers that accepted the grant were only open Monday through Friday, nine to five, it meant the evening or weekend work which I’d done through my twenties was not an option. Without office skills or a college degree, and in the height of a recession-era job market, cleaning houses rose to the surface as the only job I could do.
During those years, working as a housecleaner and landscaper, I worked through illnesses, and brought my daughter to daycare when she was sick, and should have been at home with me. My job offered no sick pay, no vacation days, no foreseeable increase in wage, yet I begged to work more. Wages lost from missed work hours could rarely be made up, and if I missed too many I risked being fired. My car’s reliability was vital, since a broken hose or even a flat tire could throw us off, knock us backward, and send us falling back toward homelessness again.
Self portrait from June of 2010 in our studio apartment in Mount Vernon, Washington State.
I relied on government assistance to survive. Child care grants, food stamps, Medicaid, utility assistance, and even gas vouchers were absolutely vital, and made it possible to use my limited income for rent. Because the rent always eats first. There were days in the month, before the food stamp money was replenished, that I went to bed hungry, or ate very little. After paying bills, I often had no more than $20 left for the month. No matter how hard I worked, it never felt like it was enough. That I was enough. This was my unwitnessed existence, as I polished another’s to make theirs appear perfect.
In writing MAID, I hoped the book would change the stigmas that surround single mothers, especially those living in poverty. The stigmas that say we somehow deserve hardship because of the terrible decisions we made to get us there. I hoped people would see how hard we work to make ends meet, and how fiercely we love our kids. How much we struggle to be enough while the government scolds us, telling us we’re becoming dependent on things they call hand-outs, but we call means to survive.
I also hope that you’ll begin to notice the millions of other domestic workers, those who are working two or three jobs, who invisibly clean up after us for minimum wage.
Mia holding up an issue of Mamalode magazine with a featured article written by her mom.
For almost a decade, we barely scraped by like that as I worked my way through college. In May 2014 I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Montana, gave birth to my second daughter, and started a career as a freelancer, supporting my family purely from writing words. A year later, my essay about cleaning houses was published on Vox. It went viral, catching the attention of Jeff Kleinman, an agent at Folio Literary Agency. In 11 months, I accepted an offer from Hachette Books to publish my memoir MAID. It received critical acclaim, made its home on the NYT bestseller list for five weeks, earned a place on President Obama’s Summer Reading List, and has been picked up by Netflix for a series produced by John Wells and Margot Robbie.
Currently, I continue to work as an author and public speaker. My writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Salon, The Nation, and many other outlets.
In 2019, I spoke to thousands of people about my journey, many of whom also shared their struggle to make ends meet for themselves and their families. These experiences make it clear that we all want the same things for ourselves and our loved ones – to be safe, healthy and to thrive. That’s why I continue to use my voice to stand up for people living on the brink, especially single moms.
I truly believe that the only way we’ll see change in this country is by listening to not only stories like mine, but also those of people who have experienced systemic poverty and racism. If we can somehow start to remove shame from struggle, we’ll start to see how many of us are fighting in our own way.
We need to listen to people in our own communities. We need to stop and talk to those who are homeless, instead of ignoring them. By listening to others’ stories, we will evoke empathy, and inspire compassion.
Please know how sincerely grateful I am for everything you have done and will do to help me share my story. Thank you.
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