Sunday, January 25, 2009

Who Cleans the Cleaner's House? מי מנקה את הבית של המנקה

I was gratified to encounter a discussion of hiring domestic help on Jewesses With Attitude. Interestingly, I was the only commentator who weighed in against hiring house cleaners. Let’s start with some background: I don’t live in a 3,000 sq ft house in suburbia, the house size that Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickeled and Dimed in America) cites as when homeowners (hell, let’s call a spade a spade: women) start hiring domestic help. I live in an 80 sq meter (that’s 860 sq feet for you Imperial measurement fans) attached, single-story dwelling with terrazo tile floors (that means no w2w carpeting), but lotsa dust. No dishwasher, no garbage disposal. My husband and I work full time six days a week, and have three kids. And let’s not forget our 44 kg black Lab, who sheds like…like a black Lab in the desert, which he is. I tell you this by way of explaining that my situation is in some ways easier and in some ways harder than that of a suburban homeowner.

I grew up in a (3,000 sq ft) household wherein we had a once-a-week cleaning woman. Both my parents worked full time. I’m one of four able-bodied sibs. Would it not have made sense for the four of us to share the dusting, vacuming, and ironing? Yet the subject never arose; we were never asked to lift a finger. I just reread the JWA comments on the issue. Everyone who responded except myself discussed fair employment practices, the employer <> employee relationship, etc. Yet it seemed to me that everyone skirted the issue of what it means that a person of lower economic stature cleans your house. What message are you sending to your children? It seems to me that the message is, “That’s just the way things are. Some of us grow up to be professionals, and others clean the professionals’ houses.”

Well, I’m not willing to accept this “world order”. I worked for my house; I decorated it with love, and it reflects who I am. Part of owning a home is caring for it, and part of caring for it is cleaning it. I actually get satisfaction out of cleaning it, both the act and the result.

During Rosh Hashanah, I cleaned out the window tracks of my daughter’s soon-to-be apartment, and showed her how to de-gunk the countertops. I was proud that I was able to do this and to show her how, thereby adding to her self-sufficiency and her knowledge of how to get along on her own. It’s what a mom is supposed to do.

Our homes, in a sense, are extensions of our bodies. Anyone who’s ever been robbed knows what I mean when I say that it feels downright violating. Home ownership is part of being an adult. Adulthood means taking responsibility for, and caring for, our possessions―the things we’ve worked hard to acquire. Therefore, I see caring for one’s home as akin to caring for one’s body. Excuse the crudeness, but would I hire someone to wipe my behind? Yes, if I were completely helpless. Otherwise, I’m on my own.

Going back to the title of this post, I hear over and over, “I work full time. What’s wrong with my hiring someone and paying them a fair wage to clean my house?” I’m reminded of a heart-rending documentary I once saw about black women in South Africa who care for whites’ children while their own are neglected back in the village or the township. It’s not about social justice: Any (legal) labor agreement entered into between consenting adults is presumably “just”; it’s deeper than that. I don’t know what to call it; all I can do is ask, “In what world should poor mothers leave their kids to care for someone else’s?” In the same vein, I leave you with this question: Who cleans your cleaning woman’s house? She does, after all, work full time…

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