monday musings: you don’t know their story

I had heard wonderful things about Maid, but rarely does a book hold my attention so well that I finish it in one sitting. Before I go too far, the most striking message from this book was the idea that you don’t know their story. Throughout our adoption training classes that phrase has been the refrain. It’s another way of saying to not judge a person based on what they look like or what you think you know about them.

Maid is Stephanie Land’s story of life in poverty and the terrible ways that the poor are treated in the United States. She powerfully describes leaving an abusive relationship, even though it would make her homeless, and the incredibly hard, yet invisible work required to make it every day as a single mom. 

I had to put down this book and have all sorts of feelings at multiple points because much of Stephanie’s story resonated with me as a child of poverty. What comes below are small parts of my story. Full warning, I talk about my lived experience with poverty and domestic violence. You should stop reading if that’s triggering for you. 

Blooming prickly pear cactus in front of a razor wire fence

I remember the dirty looks my mom would get when we used our food stamps at the grocery store (this was WAY before the transition to SNAP and electronic benefits transfer). I remember getting boxes of food from the government that often smelled strange and the advent of “potatoes and with it.” But what I remember most is that my mom was always exhausted. She worked three part-time jobs and went to nursing school. We were “lucky” to have some family members handle after school childcare, but there were times that she would have to take me to class with her when I was sick because there was nowhere else for me to go. 

I was nine when my mom graduated from nursing school as a registered nurse. After years of working hard, in all of the ways, she had her associate’s degree. With the help of a boyfriend, she was able to get a house in Phoenix and started a new job. I was a latchkey kid. On the days she wouldn’t be home when I got out of school, she would safety pin the house key in my shirt pocket and give me strict instructions to tell no one. I didn’t understand then, but she didn’t want anyone to know that I would be home alone and potentially cause problems for her. (I had three brothers then. I don’t remember where they were during the day.)

Things looked up for us when she met the man who would be her third husband. When I was eleven, we (my mom and the four of us kids) moved into his newly built home in a subdivision. It was so strange to me. All of the houses looked the same with stucco and beige paint. There were lawns. There were lots of other families and kids to play with. We went to new schools. No one knew what our life was like before that house. It was a fresh start.

Despite our new and shiny life, things weren’t okay. Eventually, mom married the boyfriend. Shortly after that, things took a turn. The now husband and step-father became emotionally and physically abusive towards all of us. (Had we still lived in the “bad” part of town, the cops would have been called because the neighbors would have heard what was going on. Domestic violence does not care about age, race, or class. It happens in all neighborhoods. “Nice” neighborhoods just don’t know acknowledge it as much because it’s an invisible violence.) Eventually, we left. We moved across the country to live with my aunt in South Carolina. They tried to reconcile and did the marriage counseling thing, but unsurprisingly that didn’t spark any real change and they got divorced. By this time, I was eighteen and had moved out.

The book in my lap with the ocean in the background

The point in sharing this with you all is for you to know that from the outside looking in, my life looks pretty awesome. I’m a highly educated woman. I’m married to an amazing man. We have a really good life together. Heck, I read this book while sitting on a beach in another country. That’s not my whole story though. Getting to this point took a lot of time and a lot of therapy. I’m not ashamed of my story. It has shaped me into the person I am today and has informed many of my current choices. It influenced my studies. There is a reason that my research focused on structural environments conducive to crime. We often want to blame individuals for their situations, but we have to remember that our choices are limited by our environments, culture, abilities, etc. Looking back, I couldn’t understand why my mom made such “terrible” choices. Now I know that she made the best choices she could from those available to her. That’s how poverty works.

Stephanie’s whole story wasn’t simple or linear either. Sure, she eventually went to college and wrote a book. She and I were some of the lucky ones. She writes about the power of community, how she was able to ask for help from her friends, and how she was encouraged to apply for a grant for college. She was able to change her story because of the help she received. She wasn’t looking for handouts; she didn’t want something for free. She simply wanted to create the best life she could for herself and her daughter.

If I still taught, I would probably assign Maid as required reading. The book was easy to read, and the lessons were powerful. More importantly though, Land puts a face on poverty and highlights many of the problems of our current welfare system without making it a policy book. 

What’s in your story that people wouldn’t know from looking at you?


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