The new Netflix series, Maid, which is inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir, touched me on many levels. It’s written by and about a struggling single mum who is determined to keep a roof over her daughter’s head. She works hard to climb her way out of poverty, scrubbing the toilets of the wealthy, navigating domestic labour jobs as a cleaner, whilst also juggling higher education, assisted housing, and a tangled web of government assistance. I not only grew up in a house with a single mother from the age of eight, but I became one aged nineteen when I got pregnant in the middle of my A level exams, while still living at home and sharing a bedroom with my two sisters. The father was gone three months later, before my son was even born.
I got on the with all that was required to become a lone mum; I put my name on the council housing list, saved every penny I had in my long hours as a waitress, where I worked until three weeks before giving birth, and started reading all the books I could get from the library about labour. I knew how to look after babies. I’d been mothering my three younger siblings since I was four and our mother went in and out of mental homes, and we in and out of care/orphanages/my grandma’s house. But birth sounded terrifying.
My son Conor was born in January 1991. So began the hardest, but most ultimately rewarding seven years of my life. Being a single parent. Back then there was no help with childcare and no tax credits, and his father didn’t pay any maintenance until CSA became law eight years later. I relied solely on benefits (£80 a week for everything, the bills, clothes and food for both of us) and milk tokens for Formula and eventually free school dinners. Each week I wrote a shopping list adding up the cost before I went to the supermarket. Then, like Stephanie in Maid, I totted it up in my head as I went around, putting back what I couldn’t afford. I still do it now. When we married Joe asked why, and I told him that being poor stays with you, forms lifelong, helpful habits.
When Conor was about four I got a job cleaning for an elderly lady. She paid me cash so I could keep my benefits. It suited her as much as it helped me. That £30 extra once a week meant Conor got Christmas presents and went on the odd school trip. All of my jobs – aside from my writing and when I was a travel agent for a few years – have been what you might describe as menial, and definitely minimum wage/zero hour contract. I’ve been a chambermaid, a cleaner, a waitress, an usher, a carer, and I’ve made pizzas in a takeaway. I’ve never shied away from hard work. I’ll do what’s necessary to feed my family.
I’d like to write more one day about those seven years before I met my now husband Joe and we then had our daughter Katy. I wrote my memoir, Daffodils, during lockdown but it mainly explored my own childhood and my mother’s bridge jump. My time as a single parent could fill a book of its own. Stephanie Land’s Maid shows that life is still just as hard for single parents. Societal judgement and snobbery is definitely still present. I remember being tutted at by people when I pushed my pram, being questioned harshly by the doctor, being told by older people that I should ‘be married’. Behind every single parent is a parent who left. Remember that. Judge them. I always make time to talk to young mums, to give attention to their tots, because I remember lonely days where I might not see a soul. Parenting is a hard job, doubly so when you do it alone, but the rewards are rich. When my son made me a card at school or said I was the ‘bestest mum in the world’ it made every tiring night and long day worth it.