Thursday, April 06, 2006

Outsourcing the Housework

Our cleaning lady, L, has given notice. Now I am in a quandary. Should we replace her or manage on our own? How will we manage with my illness? Like Barbara Ehrenreich, I have reservations about hiring someone to clean up after me. I don’t believe that there should be a class of people who make messes and another class who cleans up after them.

L began cleaning for us when I was pregnant with Iris and on bed rest. I didn’t have any ethical quandaries back then. I was clearly unable to do the work myself. L is a US citizen who worked for herself, and dictated the conditions under which she would work. We paid her well. According to Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, L was in the top 10 % of housecleaners in the country in both wages and being able to dictate her own working conditions. When she bought a house 50 miles away, we were one of only 3 families in this area that she made the commute for.

In college, I cleaned and ran errands for a disabled woman. I told L that on her first visit to our home. That must have struck a chord with her because, when her daughter moved to the US, L brought her over to my home to introduce us. She told her daughter that I, too, used to clean other people’s houses. I moved on to better employment and now L is doing the same.

L said that housecleaning was too hard for her shoulders, allergies and asthma. I could tell that she didn’t want to break the bad news to me in her last 2 visits to my home. Finally, she had to tell me that it would be the last time she came to clean for us.

We chatted for a bit about what she will do next. I found out that she has worked 28 years—9 of them housecleaning, the rest in childcare. (That is a remarkably long work history for someone who is only in her early forties.) She told me about her job interview (in retail) and how excited she was about the training they were offering her. I am happy for her, but panicked about how I will cope without her.

Mark has no such ethical reservations; he says we must replace her. However, he has left the task of finding a suitable replacement to me. A generation ago, when my husband was raised, the cleaning and non-cleaning classes were simple to distinguish. Women did all the cleaning. But now we are supposed to live in an enlightened age where that is not taken for granted.

How far have we really gotten? Read Caitlin Flanagan’s article about How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement. I am uneasy with the full commoditization of housework model. Some would say it is more efficient to spend your time doing higher order (better paid) things and to outsource housework to someone cheaper. But that brings up a whole new can of worms. I have never been comfortable with the low wages of childcare workers and (most) housecleaners.

Once, it was taken for granted that mothers, wives, sisters and daughters would do the cleaning. In those days, mothers who worked outside the home made ad hoc arrangements to replace their household labor. In certain parts of the country, one could find workers who, due to racism, did not have other job options. Once civil rights and women’s lib took place, we started importing women from other countries.

My idealistic self wants to follow the advice of Lillian Moller Gilbreth and teach Mark and Iris how to clean. I especially liked the part about setting toddlers to work dusting furniture legs. ;-) Iris lives in a world where all her classmates also have someone outside the family clean their houses. I do not want to raise a daughter like Monica Lewinsky who, when it was her turn on the chore roster, did not even know how to clean the bathroom she shared with her roommates.

I have to run to yet another doctor’s appointment. I will follow up with some more thoughts later.

keywords: housework, sociology, modern motherhood


  1. Brent15:47

    I think it's a luxury to be able to ponder the ethical merits of hiring household help.

    I'm chef, gardener, cleaner, breadwinner, chauffeur, and entertainer in my household and I'd love to be able to hire household help.

  2. Yes, it is a luxury. But as other women have pointed out to me, there were other forms of help not currently available. Mark and I do not live a convenient distance to obtain much help from our mothers. We do not have the help of teen-aged girls who were loaned out within extended families or social circles (au-pairs). Unmarried aunts are busy using their MBAs and do not want to help out an ill cousin with young children.

    Additionally, mothers of young children did not work outside of the home and parents' jobs usually did not require them to fly 3000 miles away every other week.

  3. Brent12:19

    It sounds like you've just argued yourself out of your state of unease with respect to hiring household help.