I got over my liberal guilt and got a housekeeper

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Fancy Tricks

Cleaning makes me angry. Organizing I love, but cleaning makes me angry in a uniquely unpleasant way: I turn into a seething, resentful bitch. No one is exempt from my hatred while cleaning…

“Fucking Andreas,” I mutter in my head. “Always putting the sponge on the wrong side of the sink. Always leaving his dirty wine glasses in the living room. Never cleaning the toilet. Fucking stupid husband.” Then I move onto the baby. “Stupid Tavi,” I mutter to myself. “Scattering toys and kitchen utensiles and shoes and clothes everywhere. Stupid, stupid baby.” Even the dog is not excempt. “God damn Sassafras,” I growl. “She’s practically hairless, and yet somehow she manages to shed on the couch. How is it even possible?”

When I run out of cohabitants to resent, then things get really ugly. “GODDAMN ME AND MY FUCKING CLUTTER!” I curse myself. “I hate it how I always leave my shoes in the middle of the floor. And these pink stains in the bath tub! I HATE THAT MY HAIR COLOR BLEEDS ALL OVER EVERYTHING! Stupid, Ariel. I HATE ME.”

In other words, I suck at cleaning. It makes me hate everyone, myself included. I am desperately, unabashedly jealous of the people who get a therapeutic hit from cleaning. I get that from tidying and organizing, but not from cleaning. I hate scrubbing. I hate mopping. I hate cleaning the windows and deep cleaning the sink and getting under the couch with the broom.

In an effort to reduce the amount of rage in my life, I started thinking about having a housekeeper come help us clean twice a month. But, how could I justify it to myself?

I AGONIZED over the decision. What does it say about me as a person that I outsource my dirty work? What’s wrong with me that I can’t clean up my own fucking mess, and instead I pay someone to do it for me? I’ve read Nickel and Dimed — I know how poorly most housekeepers are paid, and I agree with many of author Barbara Ehrenreich’s perspectives about poverty and class. I’m a good liberal for godsake! How could I possibly justify hiring someone to clean my house?

I thought I’d lucked out when I learned that a friend of a friend was a housekeeper. An aging raver, she was totally a member of my extended community. She worked independently, so I knew the money went straight toward supporting her and her teenaged daughter — not to an agency. That made me feel a little bit better about the decision to have a housekeeper. I hired the friend of a friend, and felt my cleaning rage diminish … even as my liberal guilt continued to fester.

“…At least I’m not hiring an undocumented immigrant or something,” I said to a friend, still wringing my hands over the idea.

“Oh, I see how it is,” he joked. “You feel ok about having a housekeeper because your housekeeper is white?”

He was kidding (and of course his logic was joke-logic: undocumented immigrants can be white, my very American housekeeper could have been non-white), but I was sent into a whole new wave of negative navel-gazing. In my attempt to “eat local” and keep my money within my community, was I denying a segment of the population access to that potential income? Thanks to language and cultural barriers, an immigrant (legal or not) might have greater difficulty finding a job than my born-in-America housekeeper. In my efforts to support my extended community, was I being a xenophobic classist? My guilt found new crevices to burrow into.

I tried to compensate for my angst by paying my housekeeper more than she asked, until she finally told me to stop it: when I gave her an extra $20, she felt like she had to clean for an extra hour. I slapped my forehead. FUCK! Liberal guilt is so stupid and insulting to everyone. I’m such an asshole!

Ultimately, I realized that all my ill-informed agonizing over economics and culture and race and immigration were misguided. Like any consumer, I needed to focus on my priorities and stop agonizing over the decision. After some soul searching, I decided my priorities were A) having a cleaner house so I can stop hating on my family and myself and B) developing a sense of trust and support with a member of my extended community. I’m not saying these will be anyone else’s set of priorities — those are mine, and so that’s how I made my decision.

When our first housekeeper changed careers, she referred us to another friend of a friend — a woman who divides her time between cleaning houses, nannying, and teaching kids yoga classes. Twice a month, she lets herself in and makes the home sparkle. I stopped agonizing over my guilt, and started just enjoying the fact that the $100 a month saves me hours of self-loathing and family rage.

This reduction in house cleaning rage has become so important to me that it’s become a financial priority. When Dre was laid off from his corporate job in 2008, we kept our housekeeper. When I was then laid off from my corporate job in 2009, we made all sorts of shifts in our budget — but we STILL kept the housekeeper. I consider housekeeping my highest priority “splurge” — more important than eating out, shopping, travel. I work at home, meaning I spend a LOT of time in the space, so shifting my budget to ensure that space felt good became a priority. I not only gotten over the guilt … I got over it so much that I’d give up cocktails with friends to keep the housekeeper.

I’ve written in the past about being an intentional consumer, and how it all depends on your priorities. All I’m saying is that I realized $100 a month for vastly less rage, less resentment, and a way to support a member of my extended community is important enough that I overcame massive amounts of guilt and reconfigured my entire budget to make it happen.

Evidently, that’s how much I hate cleaning.

Comments on I got over my liberal guilt and got a housekeeper

  1. I am possibly the WORST housekeeper in the world. Combine a total hate of cleaning with expert procrastination skills, and you have me. Right now I there are about 7 or 8 loads of washing that need doing, a sink full of dishes and a layer of dust over the whole house. The only thing I can say for myself is that the lounge room is relatively tidy. My husband does 60-70% of the housework, and gets very frustrated that I don’t automatically think to clean. I just see other things as more important. Like, say, reading offbeat home. Oh dear! I might have to investigate a house cleaner.

  2. Thanks for this post! I totally have “liberal guilt” over having a cleaning service as well. I generally don’t even talk about it unless I know the person hires out their cleaning as well. I soothed my guilt by going with a small locally-owned company with a handful of employees. They take care of all the taxes and insurance AND they use home made and environmentally friendly cleaners (mostly vinegar solution).

  3. We dont have a lot of money, in fact I am disabled and Alex works as a custodian for the schools and we just got married so my own income is going to drop seriously (a couple of $100 a month) because of it.
    we have discussed where we can cut back and we agreed that the one thing we CAN NOT cut back on is paying his younger sister $30 a month to do our laundry. She is a neat freak and does her schooling on line and they have a washing machine, she also has no other income and that covers her cigs and a coffee or two. She enjoys doing laundry for some odd reason and even folds everything up just right, something I can never seem to do.
    We did the math and if we used the laundry mat and I did the work which is hard for me since I have horrible knees and a hard time standing for long, it would cost us a minimum of $20 to $25. On top of the money we give her we supply the soap/softener and I give her rides places and help her run errands.
    We wish we could pay her more but she basically does 2 to 3 loads a week which she herself points out is about 20 mins a load and she says $30 is enough so I will take her word for it. She also finds it funny to tell people she is our laundry lady.

  4. This is such a cultural thing. In some places, it’s actually considered really selfish if you DON’T have a housekeeper sort of person but could afford one.

    By hiring a housekeeper, you’re providing an income to someone, and there is absolutely no shame in that. My mother worked as a housekeeper through college. When I was in high school, we had one ourselves. It’s a job like any other job (better than a lot of jobs. Fast food industry, anyone?). Some people genuinely enjoy it, and you can actually make a good living doing it. Also, it’s pretty much impossible to work full time and keep a house clean, so why not provide someone else with an income and have a clean house? Spread the money!

    It’s funny, I don’t think many men would feel guilty about having a housekeeper, because they’re not expected in this culture to clean house anyway. I think a lot of the guilt comes from the fact that women are “supposed” to keep the house all sparkly and since a lot of women work, they’re not able to, and therefore feel guilty about not living up to cultural expectations. Even if those cultural expectations are bull.

    • I feel super intensely guilty about hiring a maid because my grandmother worked as one, and her mother worked as one, and her mother worked as one – back when nice black ladies didn’t have other options and weren’t treated very well. It makes me worry I subconsciously think I’m better than or above my Nana (“I’m too good to clean a toilet, but she wasn’t”) even though I don’t think I think that way; I don’t like that feeling. And so I keep resisting manfriend’s constant begging for a maid. But fuck if our house isn’t filthy.

  5. My grandfather moved next door when I was four, and he hired a cleaning lady. I would always go down to visit when Bonnie was there, often with my best friend, and she would always talk with us and laugh and never seemed annoyed to have kids around when she was working. I have such fond memories of her. When my grandfather died, my mother called her and offered to let her clean our house for a while until she found other work. It turned out someone had seen the obituary in the paper and already hired her! Good cleaners are worth their weight in gold.

  6. I found this article really interesting. Although, it makes me feel like I definitely do not clean enough. I pick up messes, vacuum , and do dishes. I wasn’t aware there were more things to do. Seriously! My home must be filthy. I guess I’m lucky that me and my husband are okay with that : )

  7. My mom ‘owns her own housecleaning business’ (the line I grew up saying) with a staff of herself, but it’s served her well for many years. She has a handful of clients that she’s worked with for 15-20 years, and several of them give her vacation pay, which I’ve always thought was awesome. Being a house cleaner is one of those jobs where if you don’t work you don’t get paid, so that little extra means a lot to her!

    • If you work fast, charge by the job/house, and charge just enough to make the client pause briefly before accepting, you can make a LOT of money (I was making $35/hr) cleaning houses, after the first visit (it takes longer, gotta learn where things are, and how the equipment works, etc). It’s a workout that left me breathing hard on the way out.

  8. I’ve been a housekeeper, hired a housekeeper, and many shades of in-between in my colorful work-history. Most recently my partner and I were living in southeast asia and hired a local woman who we knew would be in financial difficulty without working for us. We looked out for her, and she was professional and took pride in her work, but I still never got over the liberal guilt. In the end, I just decided to be grateful to the universe for letting me have a time when I could hire someone to clean — now we’re housekeeper free and I miss her intensely! But I don’t think its bad to have a housekeeper for times in your life, as long as you retain the mindfulness of how lucky you are…

  9. More thanks for this article!

    I’ve been trying to talk myself into getting a housekeeper for years. I always talk myself out of it. My husband and I both work from home, and what this means is:

    [a] We feel like we should be able to keep the house clean on our own because we’re HERE all the time…

    [b] …but we’re here all the time because we’re always busy working. Which means we never have much time for cleaning.

    My husband is an AMAZING organizer, but his talents are mostly wasted, because he spends all that time cleaning instead. Meanwhile I am naturally kind of a big fat SLOB and the only part I like in the cleaning process is decorating and prettifying.

    This article has definitely helped encourage me to take the plunge.

    Also–on the subject of “at least I’m not employing an illegal immigrant”…I just wanted to comment that my dad, as well as several members of my extended family, have employed the same woman to clean their homes for years. We are 99.9% sure that she and her family are illegals, but we figure it’s none of our business. My family pays her a decent wage, and she does AMAZING work for it.

    The interesting thing is that my family are mostly dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, and until she came into their lives, they had a lot of contempt for illegal immigrants…but I feel like that has softened a lot since they’ve had an opportunity to get to know her and see how their relationship with her has improved her life AND theirs.

  10. I lived in a big shared house until a year ago, and we had a cleaner who was a saint and would sing as she worked and was so smiley and lovely and even showed my housemate her nipple once (to show off her tan).

    Anyway, now it’s just me and the boyfriend and our flat is TINY so I sort of feel like we should be able to handle it or we’ve failed a little bit.

    But recently I’ve thought about it more frequently it’s a time vs money thing. Time is precious to us – I don’t want to spend it cleaning! It’s not that the cleaner’s time isn’t precious – but it’s paid work so it’s different.
    That’s how I’ve got over my guilt. I totally could clean our flat. I just would rather give up some of my money to do it than some of my time.

    • This is the formula on which I base my life.

      Time it takes to hang laundry out to dry vs. money it costs to tumble dry it. I would rather have the time, my partner would rather have the money.

      Time it takes to make your own cushion covers vs. money it costs to buy them. I’d rather have the money, my partner would rather have the time.

      Everything’s a trade off, unless you’re a bazillionaire.

  11. When I moved out of my folks house I didn’t have the luxury of a housekeeper (being in South Africa, growing up in a house with a housekeeper is a normal thing for any middle-income family).

    When I bought my own place a friend of mine moved in with me. I’m super tidy and she is…not. This caused some strife as I found myself doing all the housework.

    One day one of the cleaners at my work, Lindiwe, came to me and asked me she knew anybody who needed a housekeeper, as she was looking to get some extra income. I jumped at the opportunity!

    Lindi has changed my life (she’s like my second mom) and saved my friendship with my flatmate. I’m glad that I am helping her and her family with the extra cash.

  12. I am EXACTLY the same as you! I love to organise, tidying doesnt faze me, but omg having to clean turns me into the biggest bitch ever. I HATE cleaning with the utmost passion.

    I’m embarrassed to admit that our house doesnt get a proper cleans unless we’re throwing a party, so our toilet/bathroom could potentially go 3-4 months between a scrub.

    Our decision not to get a cleaner in the past has less to do with liberal guilt and more to do with financial guilt. We dont make tonnes of money so couldnt really justify spending money on a cleaner instead of all the “good” things like putting on the mortgage or saving for rainy day. And really, its not like we couldnt find the time to clean if we gave up a few of our tv shows or playing games or surfing the net.

    But now we’re having our first baby. Due any day now, we made the decision that it is worth getting a fortnightly cleaner for the first 6 months of our bub’s life. Just to do the deep cleaning that makes us both angry when having to do.

    I’m sure the hardest part is when that 6 months is over! We might end up like you and decide having a cleaner is worth not getting a few takeaways or even working a couple extra hours per week.

  13. I am with you on the cleaning rage.

    I have actually thrown (and broken) plates at my significant other because I was in the midst if a cleaning rage and he had the appallingly bad taste to make a “get in the kitchen” joke.

    It doesn’t help that he’s a pig and has the genetic male-dirt-blindness affliction.

    Not that all the mess is his – I adopted 3 cats, and they probably make just as much of a mess as he does – and THEY don’t pick up when I start to bitch.

    Unfortunately, I can’t justify spending the money on a housekeeper. I just graduated from school and I am dirt poor due to a low income and student loans. Hopefully I will be able to afford something after I pay down some of my debt…but for now it’s a lovely dream.

    (I totally love travel more than I hate cleaning. And when I get all ragey the significant other has adopted defense mechanisms that tend to make things magically get clean while I am asleep.)

    • >>It doesn’t help that he’s a pig and has the genetic male-dirt-blindness affliction.>>

      Trust me, that one’s not carried on the Y chromosome.

      • My female housemate is by FAR the scummiest of the lot of us (2 girls, 2 boys). To the point where I actually want to retch just THINKING about the level of dirt she is comfortable living with. Both boys are lazy but nowhere near as insanely dirty as she is… Girls can be grotty too.

  14. Whew. Glad I’m not the only one! I mostly grew up with housekeepers, but I also grew up in fairly large homes. So it was hard for me to feel like it was justifiable to hire someone to clean our tiny (1,100 square feet, tops) house. But it has made me a much happier–and nicer–person.

  15. Here here! I totally hattttte cleaning (which makes my relationship with the mom in law just great since she’s a neat freak from outerspace) and one day when I am no longer a starving artist I will encounter the same liberal guilt issue about hiring help….I know this since I am filled with liberal guilt about one thing or another every freaking day of my life.
    Anyway, when that particular day when the desire to hire and the ability to hire meet and make the baby that is my clean house, I’ll think back on this article and feel empowered. word.

    • Ha! I get criticism from my partners Mother when a) she didn’t bring him up to clean and b) she has a cleaner, a gardener AND her mother does her ironing.

  16. house cleaning is an AMAZING job. i have a ton of friends who do it. they can make their own hours, usually, the houses (& offices) aren’t that dirty. you usually do it while they are gone so you don’t have to deal w/ annoying co-workers. you can blast your own music. i have a friend who has her entire rent (including utilities & cable) paid by doing this ONCE A WEEK for about an hour. seriously. don’t feel bad about giving someone a job. just b/c you don’t wanna do it, doesn’t mean they don’t. many find it relaxing.

    • HA! Yes, once we have more moneys, the boy wants to get a Roomba. We have all hardwood/linoleum floors on the main level of our house.

      We also do not have an automatic dishwasher (can’t afford one, have no room for one, and live in a rental, so couldn’t get one anyway), but the boy does dishes (in exchange for me doing all the cooking). But sometimes I feel like he doesn’t clean the dishes as well as I do. *sigh* Although he is much better at floors and putting away clean clothing than I am and I am much better about cleaning the bathroom (even though I detest it) and putting away dirty laundry than he is. Lol.

  17. I wanted to touch on your point about many people who are unable to get other jobs and work as a housekeeper. My parents have employed a wonderful woman and her family for over 20 years. She and my mom chat for almost as long as she cleans. We just love her!

    As she’s, um, undocumented, she is limited in what she can do, but has put three kids through college on this work. However, the horror stories she tells about other clients would bring you to tears. They don’t pay her her full wage, they’ll have her stay late to clean up after parties and then refuse to pay her, they call her names and slurs. It breaks your heart. But since this is one of the few jobs that can support her family, she keeps showing up every day.

    So I can understand the liberal guilt, and I’m not sure if this is an entire justification, but if you can be polite, honest, and treat your housekeeper with respect, you’re one more person providing much needed income without the horridness.

  18. Wow, such a great article! it puts things in perspective and I feel less alone…. I love organizing, hate cleaning (and worst ironing!). Comes probably from a very conflictual relationship with my mother and the fact that I had to clean, ironing etc whereas my brother didn’t have to, amongst others things…
    With my first husband housekeeping was one of the hottest subject of fights. The deal was that I worked for paying my study and our living, he had to clean, but didn’t so we fought. I propose to pay for a housekeeper, he didn’t want to. Things went worse when I got a full time job after graduating and he was still a student. Didn’t do the chores but still didn’t want to hire a housekeeper, a total enigma for me…
    Of course I have liberal guilt, so much… And most of the time I tidy the house before the housekeeper come. Because yes, now I have one. How ?
    When I got my divorce I moved in a little flat but afterwards I got a bigger place, worked 80 hours a week and did not want to spend what remained of the week-end to clean. So I contacted an association helping immigrants to integrate by cleaning (I helped my housekeeper with the paper for the nationality of her children and she recently sent my a note saying a daughter got it!). I payed quite correctly (and more than I earned when I was working at the supermarket) and we had a great contact.
    Moving back to France with my second husband, we spoke together: he works full time, I work once a week abroad and at home the rest of the time. THose who works at home know how hard it is to structure their time: there’s always something else to do than work…. So we hired someone. And it is great. And yes we are liberal guilty but do not fight over the cleaning. Everything is organized with the insurances and taxes so she is fully covered. I think it is a win-win situation for everybody in your case….

  19. OHMY I want a housekeeper so bad! Just a couple times a month. (Since my ocd mother-in-law can’t visit that often..darn!)

  20. My mom is a house cleaner, she just barely speaks English, and is totally legal. She’s been doing it for 25 years now. When I was growing up, she’d take me along in the summertime (and when I was older, while I was laid off) to help her clean. It was humbling cleaning someone else’s mess…and also helped me realize that when my husband and I can afford it, we’ll probably get a house cleaner too.

    From my personal experience, I think that #1 priority after hiring your housekeeper is to be respectful! Not just in words, but also in actions, and how you keep your house for when the cleaner comes in. My mom does dishes and laundry, but she can’t always wash everything. Your cleaner may have a second house to clean, then a child to pick up from day care, so don’t expect her to do 3 loads of laundry, 2 loads of dishes, and get out of there on time. At the very least, try to get your dirty clothes in one central location (and watch your non-washables!) If my mom finds clothes lying on the ground, she’s going to wash them…even if it’s the $300 wool pants that absolutely cannot go in the machine.

    One of the most disrespectful things that’s ever happened to my mom was when one of her boss’s son’s pooped on the ground. He was almost 3 years old, ripped off his diaper, and pooped right in the middle of the kitchen. His mom left a note asking my mom to clean it up because she didn’t have time to before she left the house…Yep, the client had time to write a note explaining what happened, but didn’t pick up the poop. How awful!

    Anyway… don’t feel bad about hiring a house cleaner. Just make sure you do a reference check and remember that you’re helping give someone income. You don’t feel bad about the dishwasher or busboy at your favorite restaurant, right? Or the custodian at your kid’s school? Your housekeeper is doing the same thing, just at your house!

  21. Many have already pointed out how important it is to pay well (presumably a wage that, if paid for 40 hours a week, would enable a healthy life, health insurance, etc.) In addition, I would add that we should think carefully about the conditions of work: can we provide our cleaners with less toxic chemicals and cleaners (the effect on the person doing the cleaning is likely much more intense than on the person living in the space)? Do we make sure that the environment is as pleasant as possible for such work? (Whatever that might mean for the housecleaner: music, quiet, access to water and beverages, etc).

  22. I’ve struggled with paying a good friend of my fiancee’s to clean our house. He doesn’t have a problem – she needs the money and has offered before, and we’ve come up with what we feel is a generous offer to clean our overly large living space – $75 for the kitchen, living room, dining room, den, master bed/bath/dressing area, guest bath, small hall, laundry room and vacuuming the stairs. My “guilt” (for lack of a better word) is stemming from the fact that I don’t want to treat our friend like domestic help, and I certainly don’t want to damage our friendship by this, but she does need the money and we are able to help her without giving charity…..does anyone have opinions about this????

  23. I live in a two-bedroom apartment, and I finally realized that I can clean any room to my standards in 20 minutes or less. So, if I actually do it, I can clean one room a day, and have a clean-enough-for-me house. Once I knew that, I let go of my desire to hire a housekeeper – but I still use a drop-off/pick-up service for my laundry. They wash, dry, fold, and put the clothes on hangers for $1 per pound. They even wash my stuff in no-perfume-or-dyes detergent, because everything else makes me itch. It costs me about $30-40 ever two or three weeks, and is COMPLETELY worth it. I sacrifice other things in my budget before I give that up.

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