Tomorrow is my best friend’s birthday and I’ve decided to give her an unusual present: I’m paying to have her house cleaned. I admit I love having my own house cleaned, despite the political and ethical issues it raises. According to Mason and Goulden’s study, academic women with children spend an average of 14 hours a week on housework (compared to the 11.6 hours a week men with children spend) in addition to 26.7 hours a week “care giving.” Taken together, that’s a second job.
That first time I had my house cleaned I felt intensely self-conscious. I chose a local, family-owned cleaning service that pays a decent hourly wage, offers health insurance and vacations. Still, the women who clean my house look tired, poor, and bedraggled. They carried buckets of rags and cleaning supplies up my front stairs as I drove to work. As I sat in my office, I was aware that they were cleaning my toilets, scrubbing the grime off my floors, dusting corners and ceilings that had been neglected for months, and even scraping the muck off my toddler's wooden highchair. When I got back, I walked quietly into my house. The kitchen looked serene: the floor clean, the sink sparkling, every canister wiped down. Sun poured into the dining room, but there were no dust particles hanging in the light. I walked around the house in a state of wonder, marveling at every clean corner. The house looked like it did the day we moved in. I could feel their hands moving over the surfaces of my house, and each movement felt like the sweep of a gentle hand on my brow: loving and capable. It was amazing that someone would do this for me, would take it off my hands. Later, I pointed out every detail to my husband, "the corners of the window sills are clean!" He smiled but didn't share my wonder.
I grew up thinking that people who had cleaning ladies (or maids) were incompetent and indulged. After all, you should clean up your own mess. I was raised by two poor, working, single parents (divorced, joint custody) and while my father's apartments were always depressingly dirty, my mother's system of chores was fiercely efficient. My mother taught me to be competent and to see the world as a battle that could be won by unflagging hard work and vigilance. I learned that mothers were always tired and always nagging about chores.
So now I trade my money (such as it is) for more time to write. And a woman who probably has fewer resources than I gives up her time. Why does hiring a cleaning service seem so indulgent? After all, I rely on poorly-paid labor every time I eat out, travel in a foreign country, or buy something at Target. Probably because women have been trained for generations to take care of their homes, to see their houses as a reflection of themselves. And maybe because it brings the inequities of class into our own homes, uncomfortably close.