Three weeks after my first book was published, I sat on a ragged couch in a greenroom at a studio in San Francisco, working furiously on two cough drops in my mouth, debating whether to chew them.
On a small table in front of me was a paper cup containing tea too hot to drink. My husband, who’d joined me through most of my book tour, didn’t complain about my sweaty hand clutching his. I’d finished my 17th and final event on the road that afternoon and looked forward to having an evening off before flying home the next day, but my publicist had emailed about one last thing: a live interview with Ana Cabrera of CNN.
Related: Why I came out as being poor
Through a fog of cold medicine, my introverted, weary mind tried to comprehend what that meant. The interview was set for six minutes. I knew I couldn’t keep that cough quiet for that long. When they sat me at a table in a dark room, a green screen behind me, I muttered “Just don’t cough” while someone put an ear piece in my ear, then directed me to look at the red light. “That’s where the camera is,” he said.
I searched for a monitor to see what they were showing onscreen, and there was none. It was me, a curved table, a bright light on my face, and a silent black room.
When Ana asked me how I wrote my story, the one about making ends meet in America as a single mom cleaning houses, my response was, un-intellectually, “I don’t know, honestly.” But then I looked down (I wasn’t supposed to look down, I was supposed to stare at the red light) and thought about the dozens of messages I had been receiving every day for over a month. I said: “The more vulnerable you’re willing to be, the more nerves you touch with other people who have been through similar situations but might be too scared to admit it. And, really, that’s how we no longer feel alone.”
The messages had started coming in shortly after I began doing interviews about my story. Messages filled every inbox on every social media platform. There were hundreds.
Surprisingly, only a few were like the ones I’d received in the past – ones that were full of hate and disgust that I’d dared to have children when I was poor. Many asked me for help in writing their own story, which was impossible for me to give individually. Every other one seemed to be an invitation to speak at a festival, conference, library, or bookstore.
And then, lines like these seemed to stand out so much it was like they were in bold: “Just knowing that I am not alone in my experience has been uplifting and powerfully healing today.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Sometimes, if I did, I’d get several longer messages. People seemed desperate to feel seen, and for that brief moment, I did see them. I carried their stories with me, and still do.
“Your story is my story, only my daughter’s name is Molly.”
Some of them just stated: “I am Mia,” the name of my daughter.
I want those invisible, forgotten people, and their stories, to come into the light. I want them to feel seen. I want people to see them
Some wrote about their current struggles, thanking me for giving a voice to the working poor. “I got a job at a daycare making $9 an hour and because of that they cut my food stamps down to $40 a month. $10 a week to feed my daughter and I.”
People sent me photos of their kids at college graduations, saying they still cleaned houses and struggled to get by, but their kid would have a better life. Many talked about escaping abusive relationships, growing up in violent homes, and watching their mothers hold back tears, feeling so helpless and powerless. Invisible, isolated and alone.
“Your story gave me hope and relief that someone understands.”
A few women still email me about once a week, even a year after the book’s release, to update me on their lives. Even though I am not always emotionally or physically able to respond, they seem to know that I read them. That we have that connection.
“I just wanted to say that although I do not know you, I want to thank you for being a voice for many of us.”
One woman sent me a photo of her cleaning bucket, and a large house she did a move-out clean in that day. She said she felt pride in a job well done.
“Thank you for putting a face to the countless numbers of us who got lost in the shadows for so long.”
I want those invisible, forgotten people, and their stories, to come into the light. I want them to feel seen. I want people to see them. I heard from people who said they paused for a minute to learn the name of the woman who cleans their office building. From a man who said he asked his housecleaner how she was doing that day instead of muttering a hello.
My book, somehow, had started a movement, however small, affecting the most vulnerable of lives, and gracing them with empathy and compassion.
That’s what I carry with me whenever I travel to speak in front of an audience. As exhausting as it can be, in ways I have never imagined could exist, I stand up, again and again, to speak for those people who feel left in the dark. That, beyond anything, has become my greatest honor.
Stephanie Land’s book, Maid: Hard work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to survive is out on paperback 21 January and will be made into a Netflix series. She is also launching her own campaign called #MAID2REPS to get a copy of her book on to the desk of every legislator in the US