Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I heart my cleaning lady. And I'm not sorry.

Last week, a blog post by mother of five Meaghan Francis created enough buzz to rate a mention in The New York Times. Ms. Francis wrote about the volume of commentary generated by her recent admission that she employs an eight-hour-a-month cleaning lady.

Her piece started a robust discussion about whether and when it's "justified" to hire help. People, mostly women, wrote in with gems like, "I have a weekly cleaning lady, but I work full time!" Or, "I have a cleaning service come every other week, but my kids both have special needs." As Lisa Belkin asked, Why are otherwise thoroughly modern women squeamish about hiring household help?

Why, indeed? I hate housework. Sure, I could find time to do it, but I'd rather employ someone else to do the major cleaning. (With two cats, one of whom sheds like it's her job, a largish dog and a toddler, I haul the vacuum around at least every other day.)

I've had a biweekly cleaning person for most of the time since I cashed my first paycheck as an associate in a law firm, many moons ago, when I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with a single geriatric cat. My current cleaning lady, D., is one of the last things I'd cut in any family austerity program. (Sorry, R., the cable TV would go well before my beloved D. As would the second car.) I get a lot more joy from coming home to a gleaming apartment twice a month than I do from the offerings of our 300 channels.

While some teeny minority of humans might enjoy scrubbing bathrooms, dusting knick knacks they hate but can't toss because they came from Great Aunt So-and-So, and vacuuming upholstery, most of us aren't hard pressed to devise more fulfilling uses for our time.

In a way it's a pity the piece ran in a parenting column. Plenty of women who aren't mothers hire cleaning help. Why should they be deemed self-indulgent snobs?

Nobody looks askance at a bachelor who hires a cleaning lady to do everything from mop the floors to fold his underwear. Why are women (single, partnered, mothers, or otherwise) expected to do all their own chores while men get a pass?

Consider, for a moment, if Ms. Francis were instead Mr. Francis, stay-at-home father of five, writing about his use of eight hours of housekeeping help every month. I would bet the annual cost of a professional cleaning service that the comments would have questioned why he didn't hire more help, and they would have congratulated him on getting by with so little assistance.

Do the same women who "can't justify" household help feel the same unease when they hire someone to paint their walls, shovel snow, mow their lawns or change the oil in their cars? Do they feel self-hatred when they send shirts to the cleaners?

(Aside: My late grandmother, who ran a spotless house and who couldn't afford help in her prime parenting years, advised me NEVER to learn to iron men's shirts. I took her words to heart. To this day, I own no iron. If that makes me a self-indulged twit, I'm fine with that. More likely it makes me an occasionally wrinkled woman.)

But I digress. None of those commonly outsourced home maintenance projects require a great deal of expertise or specialized equipment. If you pay someone to mow the lawn, what on earth is wrong with paying someone else to clean the bathroom? So long as you pay a fair wage, in both cases you're doing a good deed by providing work to someone in a lousy economy.

Had I seen the discussion earlier, my only comment would have been, if Ms. Francis dislikes cleaning and can afford it, why not outsource more housekeeping? Because, as I've said many times before, there is no prize at the end of motherhood for having the least help.

Here's the link to the piece by Meaghan Francis:


  1. I have had the same cleaning person for 16 years. She cleaned my house when I was a single career woman, when I had a live-in boyfriend, when I married him, had my son, went back to work and now stay at home (I have had her come weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly, whichever fit the bill). I have the means and want a clean home but have umpteen better (and more satisfying) ways to spend my time than with my hands in the toilet, or scrubbing the shower, or deep cleaning the fridge (even though I do a bang up job at all). It is a luxury and I gladly and gratefully enjoy every minute of time that it frees up. It is a choice.

    Funny, no one really balks at having a gardener. Oh, right, because that's a stereotypical mans job and why of course they can outsource it without fear of it degrading their manhood.

  2. Exactly.
    It goes back to that oldie but goodie, the politics of housework. If you've never seen it, it's an essay well worth a read and should come up with a simple google search.

  3. What's the best maid service name you can think of?