My first husband and I moved back to Ontario from BC so he could take a radio job in London. I would be unemployed and look for work while he carried the load. Due to a miscommunication, he thought the salary number he was given referred to his monthly pay. We soon found out that the number meant annually, in the thousands. Not many thousands. It was a lot less than we counted on before packing to move across the country.
We found a townhouse we could almost afford. We grocery shopped with a calculator and made tough decisions about what to buy. Neither of us qualified for credit so we lived and died by the bank account balance. I remember the embarrassment of standing aside in a busy grocery store with a buggy full of food, while he drove back home to get his forgotten wallet. Every month, we drained our bank overdraft to within an inch of its limit. His paycheque brought it back to a zero balance when we were lucky.
There were no takeout dinners or impulse purchases. We went to see a movie once but couldn’t buy treats. One night, he went out with the guys from work and blew $30 on dinner and drinks. I was livid. We were so broke. That money was earmarked for something practical like milk or toilet paper. Fun was something that other people had. We simply couldn’t afford it.
Things got better then worse and then better through my life, for various reasons. I’m telling you this because it’s not something that’s obvious when you see me now, but it’s part of what makes me “me”. Social media sometimes exudes a false positivity. It can appear that someone who has a great life doesn’t know what it’s like to struggle. Beginning a broadcasting career on a shoestring and Kraft dinner is common. The pay is terrible, the hours are long, and sometimes you’re on your own far away from home.
The wish for enough change to buy a take-out coffee came back like a giant wave as we watched the Netflix series, Maid. The limited series was inspired by Stephanie Land’s New York Times best-selling memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. My historical struggles to keep my head above water washed over me. I felt how it felt. Endless and depressing.
In the series, Margaret Qualley plays Alex, a young mom fleeing an emotionally abusive relationship and trying to create a better life. She has no support system. Her mother (played by her real-life Mom, Andie MacDowell) has mental health issues and is a hot mess. Alex doesn’t trust her father. And she unintentionally ruins almost everything good that comes her way. You can’t really blame her, considering where she comes from.
Alex is much poorer than I ever was. I knew that if I was desperate enough, I could ask my parents for help. I never grabbed that lifeline, preferring my meagre independence to relying on anyone else. Alex deals with homelessness and hunger. And she has a 3-year-old daughter to care for. Maddie is the center of Alex’s universe. She keeps Alex going. And when it comes to survival, Alex is truly alone.
Alex’s desperation might have been intolerable if not for the talent of Margaret Qualley. She gives Alex an inner light and optimism that suck some of the defeating gloom out of her situation. She’s easy to root for, even after circumstances turn another hopeful situation into a disaster. It’s sickening to see how people treat this resilient young woman because she doesn’t have any money and desperately needs their help. Maid is an antidote to the Real Housewives and fill-in-the-blank Island shows that present all human lives as tanned, toned, and gluttonous.
My previous financial struggles weren’t anything special. But they’re part of my history and I have deep empathy for anyone who finds themselves in such a pickle. At one point in Maid, Alex made a bold move and Derek yelled out, “ATTA GIRL!” We already know she eventually finds a way out through her journal writing. But the Alex we’re watching right now doesn’t know that. And she has no one to tell her that the way things are right now aren’t the way they’ll always be – if she manages to hang onto hope.