What it’s like to be a single mother and a maid

Stephanie Land’s New York Times bestselling memoir, Maid, is a rich and nuanced account of life as a financially struggling single parent. We were lucky enough at Motherwell to talk to Stephanie about her experience. Here’s what she had to say, with each question introduced by some of the book’s wonderful prose on motherhood.

My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter. It was an afternoon in June, the day before her first birthday. I perched on the shelter’s threadbare love seat, holding up an old digital camera to capture her first steps…From behind the camera, I took in the folds of her ankles, the rolls of her thighs, and the roundness of her belly. She babbled as she made her way toward me, barefoot across the tiled floor. Years of dirt were etched into that floor. As hard as I scrubbed, I could never get it clean.

Lauren Apfel: This is the powerful opening of your new memoir, Maid. Looking back on those first steps your daughter, Mia, took, what are your overriding feelings now about the experience of that milestone?

Stephanie Land: I think now, more than ever, I see how much those small, wobbly steps were a metaphor for our journey. We were both taking some steps we weren’t totally sure about, but moving forward nonetheless. Not only were hers such an accomplishment, but witnessing it, being a part of it, and celebrating with her in spite of our surroundings set the stage for how I’d mother her. Our surroundings never mattered. Sharing those moments did.

I’d asked him to take Mia for longer periods of time a lot lately, in an attempt to get as much work done as I could before the season ended.”No,” he finally said. “Why? Jamie, this is so I can work.” “I don’t want to help you out,” he blurted. “You’re taking all my money; you don’t send her over with diapers. I have to feed her dinner. So no.” I kept talking, trying to change his mind. “NO!” he yelled again. “I’M NOT HELPING YOU WITH SHIT!” And he hung up.

LA: Co-parenting can be incredibly challenging, even in the best of circumstances. I am sure many single parents will read this passage with sharp pangs of recognition. What have you learned over time about dealing with an ex-partner when it comes to sharing childcare responsibilities? 

SL: Sadly, I learned it’s best to not engage. To not defend. To keep it very business-like. To hold him accountable to the schedule and parenting plan we have in place and not waver from it. I no longer give him opportunities to cut me down or threaten me. I stopped doing that nearly five years ago, but it took a long time for his insults to stop playing in my head like a skipping record. Now, our communication is severely limited, and if I do speak up it’s to advocate for Mia. I’ve always tried to do my best in giving him every chance to be a father, but in a way that was still protecting Mia from disappointment or being in situations where she wasn’t cared for like she deserved.

Mothering, for me, so often meant learning to say goodbye in the hope of gaining trust in my return. Many things I learned from therapists throughout the turmoil Mia and I endured with Jaime said that, in order for children to develop emotional intelligence and be resilient, it’s important, if not vital, for them to have one stable caregiver in their life…Through Mia’s earliest years…I became incredibly strict in keeping our schedule, our life at home, a predictable pattern…My hope was, if everything else in her life was chaos, at least she knew that wherever we called home, there’d be pancakes cut in the same way.

LA: I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment about kids needing one stable caregiver to thrive and, as a newly single parent, have repeated it to myself many times. Eleven years down the road, do you still think it holds true? Do you still aim for that kind of predictability?

SL: I do. Absolutely. Recently, I tried to explain to Mia some parts of the book that might be difficult for her to read–namely where her dad and I disagreed on going through with the pregnancy. She said, “But you always wanted me, right?” and I said “Of course!” She just kind of nodded and said “Okay” and it was the end of the discussion. I also know that she thrives on order, routine, and knowing what’s coming at all times. We have several calendars around our house, spaces for grocery lists, opportunities to communicate things in a visible way. I try to be as predictable and dependable as possible, and I still see the importance in doing that almost on a daily basis.

Socializing opened me up to the painful reminder that most people had normal lives. They afforded concerts, takeout, trips, all without losing a night’s sleep. Despite Mia’s constant touch and pull of her sticky hand finding mine, I ached for affection, for touch, for love. I never saw a time I wouldn’t crave that. I wanted to be strong and not need it, but I always would.

LA: Filial love is fulfilling, but it doesn’t quench all of our needs as human beings. Tell us a little about your experience dating and bringing new partners into your life as a single mother. 

SL: After I saw how heartbroken Mia was from my first relationship ending after I split from her dad, I made a point to involve her as little as possible, or not until I thought it was something she’d either benefit from or would be lasting. I also didn’t push her to think that person was or ever would replace her dad in any way. But I worried, since dating is often so fleeting, that she might distance herself as a self-preservation by default, so I was mostly single for about five years. I still dated, but it was never serious, and I kept Mia out of it as much as I could. I don’t know. It’s all a crapshoot. I’ve fallen madly in love with someone who I thought was a perfect match who physically hurt me only months later.

It’s hard to know what will happen months or years down the road. But I didn’t want Mia to not see me in relationships, or not ever witness how relationships do and don’t work. I didn’t want her thinking that they were easy or perfect or that there’s a perfect, soulmate type of match out there for everyone and we all live happily ever after. I wanted her to see the disappointing side to it, and that you have to pick yourself up and try again if it’s what you really want. I do know that she prefers me to be in a relationship rather than single, because it’s easier on me to have a partner, and it’s more of a comfort for her knowing she has someone else to go to for help. I am dating someone now, and it’s been kind of beautiful watching it all unfold. He’s also a full-time single dad so there are a lot of hoops to jump through in that way, but somehow it’s working so far and I’m thankful every day that I didn’t give up entirely.

“Your landlord is required by law to do what he can to get rid of the mold,” the pediatrician said, looking in Mia’s ear. “That one’s infected,” she mumbled, shaking her head, almost like it was my fault. “He cleaned the carpets,” I said, suddenly remembering. “I don’t think he’d do anything else.” “Then you need to move.” “I can’t,” I said, putting my hand on Mia’s leg. “I can’t afford anything else. “Well,” she said, nodding at Mia, “she needs you to do better.” I didn’t know what else to say. I nodded.

LA: This passage is heartbreaking, being told by somebody of authority that you are not doing the best for your kid. And yet, we are all constrained, to different degrees, by circumstances whereby the “best” is not available to us. What would you say to parents trying to cope with this reality?

SL: It’s important to not be hard on yourself. It took me a long time to realize that it was okay that I couldn’t be enough for my child. How could I be? One person cannot be everything for another person. So now I reach out more to other adults and ask them to get involved. Before I felt like such a failure, so I didn’t try. I didn’t want to admit that I was failing my child. Now it’s not a failure on my part, it’s reality. Back then, when that doctor said that to me, I didn’t see or think Mia had a happy childhood because I only saw the things she lacked. But she didn’t know she lacked anything. I didn’t stop trying to give her a better life, though. I still haven’t.

Sometimes just walking behind a two-parent family on a sidewalk could trigger feelings of shame from being alone…These moms could say things that I never could: “Honey, could you take this?” or “Here, can you hold her for a second?” The child could go from one parent’s arms to the other’s. There were countless times I told Mia she had to walk, because my arms were tired and I couldn’t hold her anymore. 

LA: Being a single parent is utterly exhausting. Being a single parent who is struggling financially is even more so. Do you still have this sense of being without somebody to pass the child on to, literally and metaphorically, or have you managed to build another kind of village? 

SL: No matter what sort of village or relationships I find myself in, the ultimate responsibility will fall on my shoulders. I have several people I can ask for help, but in the chance they all say no, I’m still the one left to do it on my own. It’s a lot. I fear major illness or injury. I live a very cautious life. I have life insurance and a living will. I worry what will happen to my kids if something horrible happened and I couldn’t be there to run the show. So yes, I still have that sense of panic imagining those scenarios. I don’t suspect that will ever change.

Journalist Stephanie Land’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Vox, Salon, and many other outlets. She focuses on social and economic justice as a writing fellow through both the Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. 

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