TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. In the new book "Class," writer Stephanie Land picks up where her 2019 book "Maid" left off. In "Maid," spelled M-A-I-D, Land wrote about what it was like as a young single mother living below the poverty line, fleeing to a homeless shelter to get away from an abusive boyfriend, and cleaning houses for a living.
In "Class: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Hunger, And Higher Education," Stephanie Land is in her mid-30s at the University of Montana, desperately trying to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer, juggling classes, child care, rent, the loneliness of it all as a single mother and a plot twist - a second pregnancy. Her first book, "Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay And A Mother's Will To Survive," was picked as one of former President Obama's best books of 2019 and made The New York Times Best Seller list. It was also adapted as a Netflix series under the same name in 2021. And, Stephanie Land, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
STEPHANIE LAND: Thank you for inviting me.
MOSLEY: You call this time in your life, when you were a senior at the University of Montana, one of the parts of your story that you're the most proud of.
LAND: Absolutely. It was a lot of work. It was really hard. It would have been very easy to quit. There were many times in the path that I took in getting a degree in higher education that I did quit. It just felt so much like a game. And it was expensive. It just - it got frustrating over and over again because I was there for a specific reason. And, you know, that was a degree so I could get a better job. But I was very rapidly going into debt in the process.
MOSLEY: Right. You were focused on getting your degree. You had dreams of becoming a working writer. Your daughter was 6 at the time, and you're navigating day care, working part time cleaning a gym while taking classes. You needed public assistance, but some of the programs you actually applied for required you to go through classes or jump through hoops that were basically in opposition to actually working or going to school.
LAND: Yeah. The TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is the main one that requires different classes. You kind of have to sit through - I don't know what you would call it, even. It's like, they tell you about all of the jobs that you could possibly do. I think they told me that I would be a good baker's assistant at one point.
MOSLEY: Wow. So there's a list of potential jobs, and they're giving them to you as directives. Or here are some things, like, ideas that you could take to go out into the job, the workforce.
LAND: Yeah. And then you meet with someone about, like, what kind of jobs that you would like to do. It's very work focused. It's very - like, a trade school type of focus. Government assistance will not recognize that you are going to school unless you are in a very short-term, like, trade, like a car repair person or something like that. They'll recognize that if it is something that leads directly to a job. And then, you know, you have your meetings with caseworkers, and you have so many caseworkers, and they're all in person. And you have to do this in order, really, to get food, which is hard in and of itself, but then it's also - it creates an impossible situation at times.
MOSLEY: The value placed on these low-wage jobs - did it also feel like perhaps greater society puts greater value on these low-wage jobs versus you getting an education?
LAND: I would say so. I very much felt like I would earn their - and by they, I guess I mean the government assistance programs or the government - I felt like I would earn their approval if I had, like, a quote-unquote, like, "real job" because I was self employed. I didn't have a regular pay stub. And so I felt like what they really wanted me to do was work some kind of full-time minimum wage job simply just because that would have made it easier, and I would have been able to prove that I was actually working. They - my caseworkers often got frustrated with me because I couldn't really prove that I was working. I would have to get, like, letters from my house-cleaning clients. If they paid in a check, I would usually make a copy of it. But they - I felt like they really wanted me to clock in and out.
MOSLEY: Part of that was because - so they could track it, so then they could understand how much money that they would then be giving you as assistance. But if you had a full-time job, how would that affect your schooling?
LAND: It would have been impossible. I wouldn't have been able to go. There was a - for example - a required class that I had to take the final semester of my degree program that met Monday, Wednesday, Friday from like - it was in the afternoon from, like, noon to 1 or 1 to 2 or something like that. And it was so in the middle of the day, and that was my only class that day that - I couldn't really schedule my cleaning clients around it because I just didn't have enough time. And it was just - it was really frustrating. And, you know, there were other classes that only met during the day. Very few were just purely in the evenings.
MOSLEY: I was really struck by this core question in the book, and that's, who has the right to create art? Basically, who has the right to chase dreams? It's a question that you're asking of yourself and the reader.
LAND: Yeah because I asked myself that all the time. Every time my car broke down, I felt guilty. I felt selfish. And it was just for getting a bachelor's degree in English. I mean, to a lot of the population, that's just an extension of high school, and it's just something that you do. But for me, I felt like I was wasting money, wasting time that I actually should be working. I really felt like I did not have any value as a human being unless I was actively working.
MOSLEY: What gave you the fortitude to continue going to school then? Because it could have been much easier for you to say, OK, I'm going to take a full-time job and take this route.
LAND: It was really hard to find work. You know, there wasn't a lack of trying on my part. I applied for, like, admin assist jobs all the time. And I just - I didn't have any experience with that. All of my experience from my 20s was working in coffee shops, you know, working at a Montessori school. I worked at a doggy day care, you know, like, all of these things. And if I wanted, like, a real job, you know, like 9 to 5 Monday through Friday with benefits. I mean, those jobs just weren't available to me.
MOSLEY: How did people react when you showed vulnerability, when you'd say, hey; I need help?
LAND: It was embarrassing on my part. I very much wanted to be like everyone else. And so, like, I assumed that everybody else was fine and they had enough food and they could pay rent just fine. And so I really hid the parts of me, the parts of my life that were affected by food and housing insecurity. I was very good at hiding it. I didn't want anyone to worry about my ability to care for my daughter. I didn't want anyone to get concerned - you know, with, like, a capital C - and call people about it. I really just wanted to be normal in social settings. And I was scared that if people knew that I was on food stamps, then they would start to kind of question, like, if I could meet them for coffee or not, or if I even should, I guess - like, if I'm on food stamps and that means that I can't buy a cup of coffee, right?
MOSLEY: What were some of the ways that that you would hide it, especially your food insecurity?
LAND: I was hungry a lot. And for a while, I always had a peanut butter Clif bar in, like, the side pocket of my pants or in my backpack or something. And I would take little bites off of that while I was in school during the day. It was pretty rare that I ate anything out in public just because I couldn't afford it. When I talked about the time period of the book with my friend Reid (ph), who is in the book, one of the things that he said was, you always had some kind of, like, peanut butter thing with you. And that's - I mean, that's true. I just - I kind of lived off of that main protein source.
MOSLEY: But you always had to think about your daughter. And so I would guess that there is always this loop in your head and thinking about what options you had for her. And she's always asking for food, as kids do.
LAND: Yeah. Fortunately, by then her diet didn't vary all that much. Pancakes were cheap and easy, boxes of mac and cheese. One thing I always made sure to splurge on was that I got the Annie's Organic mac and cheese. And she ate a lot of yogurt. She ate a lot of crackers. One thing that really saved me was that they fed her lunch. She was on the free lunch program at school. So during the school year, we had a little bit of extra room in our food budget, and she always ate first. And I guess, like most moms do, I would eat whatever she didn't eat.
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, our guest today is Stephanie Land, writer of the new book "Class: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Hunger, And Higher Education." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET'S "EXCERTO NO.1")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today I'm talking with author Stephanie Land. She's written a new book titled "Class: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Hunger, And Higher Education." Her previous book, "Maid," spelled M-A-I-D, was a New York Times bestseller and focused on Land's escape from poverty and domestic abuse, which was the inspiration for the Netflix series "Maid." Land's work has been featured in several publications, including The Guardian and The Atlantic. Her new book, "Class," picks up were "Maid" left off about Land's last year in college as a single mother trying to make ends meet while holding on to a dream of being a professional writer.
There is a plot twist in this book, and I'm not giving it away by sharing this. But you become pregnant with a second child during your last year in college, and this wasn't planned.
LAND: Oh, no. No (laughter). No, it wasn't planned at all.
MOSLEY: One of the striking things that leads up to this pregnancy is these relationships that you have with men that are casual relationships that people have all the time, and especially in college, people have, even though you were in your mid-30s at the time. But it's spicy, Stephanie. You're writing a lot about sex and a yearning for love and romance. Why was that important for you to write about?
LAND: Well, it wasn't at first. I was really trying to figure out a way that I could write around the how of getting pregnant. And I felt a lot of shame in that pregnancy, and just because I was following...
MOSLEY: What were you ashamed of? Yeah.
LAND: I was following this this trope that everybody expected. You know, you're a single mom on food stamps, and then you're having a whole other child out of wedlock, you know, father will not be involved. And at the time, even then, there was a lot of discussion over women doing that on purpose so that they would get more government assistance. And I just - I knew what people would think about it. You know, I knew that people probably wouldn't agree with my decision to go through with the pregnancy. When it came to writing the book - and, you know, Coraline, my youngest - she's 9 now. And she is just this ball of sunshine and just so funny. And I knew that she would likely read this book someday. And I didn't want it to be about the shame. I wanted to come at it in a moment of empowerment and really talk about that I was out there. I was having fun the summer before my senior year of college. Like, my friend and I kind of joked that it was the hot single mom summer. And, like, I was rock climbing all the time. It was free, and it was fun. And, you know, my kid was amazing, and she was always hanging out with us. And so I decided to come at the actual conception with that feeling of, yeah, I'm out here. I'm having fun, and I'm going to college. And, yes, I'm a single mom, but there are plenty of other people who do this, so why can't I?
MOSLEY: What you also capture so well is that it's not just hard work that goes into being a single parent, but it's also really lonely. It's lonely being a single mom.
LAND: It is. And it's hard to kind of explain why. You know, I'd - because people would tell me things like, well, you have your daughter; your daughter's with you. And I said, yeah, but I can't, like, go to her for emotional support. She's 6. So there's an aspect to it where it's not necessarily a forced isolation, but it's - you just - you can't go out. You can't really go and do things without your child unless you pay for a babysitter. And, of course, I didn't have a lot of money for that. And so I missed a lot of opportunities to go out and socialize. And it just kind of got to a point where I didn't want to even know about it. I didn't want to know what I was missing out on.
MOSLEY: You decided to keep your second child, Coraline, even though you and her father weren't really together. The men you were seeing at the time were more like friends with benefits. But there's this whole section in the book where you take us through the process of deciding whether to have an abortion. What were the calculations that made you decide not to?
LAND: Well, it's actually probably not a spoiler alert - I didn't know who the father was. And, you know, I could make a educated guess, but I thought that an abortion would be just the necessary trajectory. I didn't even feel like I could wonder or, you know, if I had the ability to decide whether or not I wanted to keep the pregnancy just based on my situation with the food insecurity and going to school. And it just - it seemed like a resounding no, you know, like, from the outer world and just my situation. And - but then I just - I kind of had this moment that I wrote about in the book that not knowing who the father was allowed me to do this on my own, and at the time, that was very attractive because I was still dealing with, you know, all of this emotional abuse and just going back and forth and having to send my daughter to a place that, you know, I didn't think was very good for her and everything that came with that and the...
MOSLEY: Her father.
LAND: Right. Yeah.
MOSLEY: Right. Sending her to her father during those visitations.
LAND: Yeah. I had to put her on a plane to fly. And I never felt good about it. And the thought of not having to do that just felt really freeing. And it was what I wanted.
MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking with writer Stephanie Land about her new book, "Class: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Hunger, And Higher Education," which is a sequel to her bestselling debut book, "Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, And A Mother's Will To Survive." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROB DIXON TRIO'S "WISHING WELL")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today my guest is author Stephanie Land. She's written a new book titled "Class: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Hunger, And Higher Education." Her previous book, "Maid" - spelled M-A-I-D - was a New York Times bestseller and focused on Land's escape from poverty and domestic abuse. Her new book "Class" picks up where "Maid" left off, about Land's last year in college as a single mother trying to make ends meet while holding on to a dream of being a professional writer.
You know, I love how the titles of both of your books are these play on words - like class as in school and class as in social and economic status. Because "Maid" was such a success after - and that's your first book - after it came out, what surprised you most about moving up in class?
LAND: Really it was how I felt about myself. I bought a house, and that was right at the beginning of the pandemic. And there have been moments or there were, you know, when I was kind of growing more comfortable financially and had this nice - to me, it's the biggest house I've ever lived in, and it's really super-fancy. There's, like, a view and, like - but it's - you know, it's a modest house, I think you would explain it as. And the part of it that really bothered me was I kept thinking, like, this is the kind of house that I used to clean and how I felt about the person who lived in that house and how they were sometimes kind of mean or just not very nice, you know? Even if they tried to be really nice, it was still, like, oh, you missed a spot last time. Can you make sure to get that? And I just - I felt like I was becoming them. And that really bothered me for some reason.
MOSLEY: Did people start treating you differently?
LAND: Absolutely. People started treating me differently as soon as I didn't have to use Medicaid, when I could take my children to the doctor and I had regular health insurance that I had paid for. When I took my oldest to the doctor a lot when she was really little - she was sick all the time 'cause we lived in this apartment that was full of mold, and it really felt like it was my fault. I had a doctor tell me that I needed to do better. And there was - all of that was gone once I had my own health insurance.
MOSLEY: Is it true that some fans were actually bothered to see you moving up in life after your book was published? And I'm thinking about "Maid." Somebody actually hassled you for sitting in first class on a plane?
LAND: Yeah. I mean, I - hassled is a strong word (laughter). I took Story - my oldest goes by her middle name of Story. A year ago, Lizzo was playing in Seattle, and I decided it would be really fun to go there. And I bought tickets for all of my single mom friends in the Seattle area. There was about, like, seven of us and their kids. And we flew first class because for my speaking gig contracts I usually fly first class. It's paid for by the client. And so for this, it was, well, all right, let's - it's only, like, a hundred bucks more or something. And on the way home, Story and I were sitting in the front seat, like, in the very front row. And it was like one of those planes where you had to kind of step around my seat as you're coming in.
And I looked up, and this woman was looking at me and looking, you know, of course, down on me. But it was just kind of this stern look on her face, and she didn't smile or anything. She just said, thank you for your work. And then she kept going. And it very much felt like it was not an approving way of telling me, thank you for your work. I - it almost felt like I was caught doing something that I shouldn't be. But I - I'm really sensitive to that kind of stuff, you know, of just - because I don't really know where I belong on social status. I lost my community. You know, I lost my co-workers - you know, the service industry, the low-wage workers. It's kind of like, you know, in a tourism town, it kind of feels like this underbelly, like, gritty group of workers who serve all the people who can afford to eat at these restaurants.
MOSLEY: What do you think people who have never experienced poverty get wrong about it?
LAND: I think the most common thing that I hear from people is, why didn't you go to college straight out of high school? You know, 'cause my - "Maid" - the story, the book - I'm in my late 20s. And so there is a lot of question of like, well, what did you do in your 20s? And it's kind of this, like, well, were you just, like, screwing around? Are you messing - and just not even thinking about the future? And, no, I was working and paying rent and taking care of myself. And, you know, rent was still very expensive and wages were still very minimum, and I just always had multiple jobs. And college was really expensive. And so I think there is always this assumption that I am poor because I chose to be, in some way, by making bad choices.
MOSLEY: Who do you especially want to read this book? I know that you want everyone to read it, but there is an underlying message.
LAND: The people that I really want to be able to read this book are the people who see themselves in it, and that's who I wrote it for. I think, you know, if someone is not going to think very highly of me from reading the book, I don't think the book will really change their minds. You know, if they truly do believe that I had made a bunch of bad choices, you know, I was going around and partying or something instead of being responsible, I don't know if I will actually be able to change someone's mind. I just - I see such a lack of empathy toward people who live in the margins of society. And every single time someone comes up with this incredible program that - you know, the child tax credit extension, you know, and all of that and the expansion lifted millions of children out of poverty. And then when they talked about making that a permanent thing, people talked about work requirements again. And...
MOSLEY: Right, that happened during the pandemic where there was actually a stipend that went to families with children. And it did. It single-handedly lifted, at least temporarily, people out of poverty, mostly single moms and small children.
LAND: Yeah. And then it was over, and millions of children went right back into poverty. And it just - it happened, you know? There was no, like, gee, maybe we should continue this program. It seems to be working really well. But as a country, we don't like giving poor people money, and that's what they need the most. And, you know, every study that - or every experiment that they've done with universal basic income, the results have been people find work, people have better mental health, people spend money on rent and clothes. And they are for the better because they had this amount of money that they can budget for. But as a country, we just - we won't do that.
MOSLEY: Do you ever have fear or feel afraid that you'll fall back into poverty?
LAND: Yes. It's just knowing how fast it happens. And as much as I try to have a cushion underneath me in case I do fall, like, there's still - you know, I don't have a job that I can necessarily budget for. And...
MOSLEY: Being a writer, yeah.
LAND: Yeah. I mean, I'm still kind of essentially freelance. Like, all of my work comes through my email account, and it's because somebody somewhere thought I was interesting and they want me to come and talk to somebody. And - or they want me to write something or - and it's not something that I definitely know is going to still be there in five years. So there is kind of this constant worry of, you know, will I still be able to afford this house in three to four years? Or will I be able to afford to put my kids through college? Like, will I be able to afford anything (laughter)? So, I mean, there's still not a lot of security in that sense.
MOSLEY: Stephanie Land, thank you so much for this conversation. And thank you for your book.
LAND: Thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to talk to you.
MOSLEY: Writer Stephanie Land. Her new book is "Class: A Memoir Of Motherhood, Hunger, And Higher Education." Coming up, our rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new album from guitarist Marnie Stern. This is FRESH AIR.
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