Grandma Bonnie lived around the world with her Army officer husband, and it was just expected that you’d pay locals to do housework while you took care of social duties. At twenty I couldn’t imagine ever having household help. The husband couldn’t wrap his mind around my resistance to the joy of a hypothetical housekeeper. Obviously this was a crucial conversation for newlyweds living in a basement, fresh out of college with the loans to prove it. I had three main arguments against it: 1) Bonnie’s stories about her cooks and maids all involved them stealing from her; 2) I don’t want a stranger poking around my house and getting in my business; 3) hiring a housekeeper is only for rich people/ my mom never did so why would I/ why would I ever pay someone to do something I’ve been able to do since I was twelve/ I’d feel like a failure if I wasn’t taking care of my own home.
Fifteen years in, my tune has changed. I finally hired a regular cleaning service this fall and it’s my favorite check to write every month. I still don’t love having somebody poking around my house. My valuables are socked away and I chose a company big enough that their insurance would cover damage/ theft so my Grandma-induced paranoia is allayed. I’m still pretty private, but a lot of that went down the drain when I delivered my first baby with about 8 strangers in the room.
The other benefit of the bigger company is that the lady who comes has no connection to the rest of my life, so even if she tells tales about what she’s seen, I don’t care. And I’ve been in enough people’s houses now to know that she for sure sees worse, even if there’s something particularly funny at my house that day. My own grandma now employs a woman from her church to take care of her cleaning, and while she pays less per hour than I do and gets the added satisfaction of financially helping someone she knows… I just don’t want to have a deep relationship with the person I tell, “The milk for hot chocolate boiled over last night, and I was so excited you were coming today so I didn’t have to really clean it up.” (The only chore worse than the stove and oven is the bathtub. Blech.)
Which brings us to the stickier wicket, my self-consciously middle class, Protestant work-ethic holding, deeply patriarchal upbringing. “My mom didn’t” was the easiest to get past; my mom also didn’t have three kids in three and a half years and, frankly, her house wasn’t very clean very often. I’m comfortable with the level of mess I grew up with, but my husband isn’t. As I got to know more people I discovered “only rich people have house help” is simply untrue. It still feels bourgeois, but so does our mini-van and annual family portrait session and I’m not ashamed of those. I confronted all those horrible, self-hating, find-your-value-in-how-things-look/ what-kind-of-woman-doesn’t-cheerfully-vacuum-in-pearls mores… but still wanted a clean house because my husband and I both feel happier in one.
I got over the arguments against, but I didn’t really have an argument for getting cleaning help. The house wasn’t spotless (we had toddlers, so…), but we were holding it together enough that we felt comfortable with last minute guests most of the time. But then we had a third kid and everything got exponentially crazier in our house. And then the husband, who’s always carried at least his fair share of the housework, started traveling a lot for work.
I quickly discovered that while he’s gone I can either be a decent, mostly kind parent and just attempt to keep up on dishes and laundry or a lousy, stressed out parent who gets all the chores done. Weeks I chose the obviously preferable first option he’d come home and feel like he had to spend Saturday morning mopping before he could relax. He doesn’t treat me like I’m not doing my job when he spends Saturday sweeping after a 60 hour week at the office, and I know my value as a human isn’t predicated on my floors being clean… but there’s enough cultural baggage in those back corners of my brain to still make me feel badly about it. My love for Twilight isn’t the only factor that makes me a Bad Feminist. My kids are big enough to try to help, but not big enough to actually lighten the load much. But, frankly, there just wasn’t enough wriggle-room in the budget to justify the expense. It was still a luxury, and we only get so many of those.
And then, after eight years out of the workforce wrangling babies, my littlest was ready for preschool and I got offered a job. Just enough work to cover the cost of three hours of cleaning every other week after that preschool tuition was paid. And I found the answer to my last remaining question: How can I justify paying someone else to do work I’ve been able to do since I was 12? Twenty year-old me would ask, “Why should I work another job so I can pay someone to clean my house?” Because, you sweet, opinionated, young thing, I have skills I’ve developed since I was twelve or twenty that make my community better, and paying someone else to mop my floors frees me up to use them. I love my job and don’t love scrubbing and, darn it, that’s ok! And that person mopping needs her cleaning paycheck, so I’m adding value to her life too.
And because it makes me happy. Some people are happy after a massage or a pedicure, some love a little retail therapy or a fancy coffee. Days when I’m gone and come home to a magically sparkling kitchen everything seems a little better. I’m happier about making dinner and don’t feel like I’m getting behind by sitting down to read an extra story to my girls. In fact, we all really want to sit down together to enjoy that shiny, pristine, freshly dusted and mopped living room. And I don’t have to make them clear all their toys off the couch first, because we did that the night before in a mad-dash, all-hands-on-deck, cooperative effort to tidy so the cleaner can do her work efficiently and there will be less chores overall for our family to do rather than me prodding them to do one chore while they daydream about the next mess they’ll make.
Days when I can be home to work alongside the cleaning gal are even better. Keeping things tidy while parenting three small kids solo most weekdays feels like shoveling in a blizzard. The more things I wash and pick up, the more the kids decide to feed real crackers to their dolls or pack everything they own in a suitcase and dump it in another room in a classic game of “going to boarding school.” Single parents, you have my utmost respect. To have somebody else on my side, who will do all the jobs I like least without complaining, who vacuums the room after I dust it (and doesn’t sprinkle the room with cracker crumbs thereafter) is truly glorious.
I know hiring someone to clean your house is a luxury. But it’s not as crazy a luxury as you might think, and I wish all of you a treat that makes you as happy as this one makes me. If you can swing it, I highly recommend it. And next year, when my smallest one is in school full-time and I get to go to work more, I’m looking forward to doing even less of my own housework. But I’ll continue to keep the valuables out of sight. Grandma Bonnie taught me that.