Cleaning Lady Ethics

cleaningHow many of us had a housekeeper growing up? Of course, it was your mother who hired her, but she washed our clothes, vacuumed up our pencil shavings and scrubbed our shmutz rings from the bathtub. Do you know if she got fair wages or felt exploited? Do you know if your mother felt awkward having someone else to do the family’s dirty work?

Alice Alexiou’s piece for Lilith (available through JTA) reveals the dirt on Jewish families and how they treat the help. While some remain unaware of their own inherent classism and snobbery, some are beginning to champion domestic workers’ rights. It’s a really good read; take the time and see if it piques any guilt, or maybe just a memory of the woman who always put your brother’s socks in your underwear drawer.

My mother worked full-time and my father even more, so obviously, hiring someone to keep a watch on bathroom scum and the dust was a necessity, not a luxury. Even so, I remember being mortified when friends came over after school and there was a middle-aged woman (over the years some were white, some were Latino, and I do recall sweet Native American Rosalee) bustling around with the broom. We were already the only Jewish family in the only two-story house in the neighborhood, and this only added to my embarrassment and played a large part in the declaration of my Socialist ideals at age 10.

When my son was born and I was so overwhelmed, my bubbie kindly sent me a check with the admonishment to “Hire some help!” I found a lovely woman named Bernadita to clean my rented 1-bedroom, 600 square foot cave once every two weeks. She did a wonderful job, but it only stayed clean for an afternoon, and when I found out she had a baby not much older than mine, I couldn’t handle the guilt. Here she was cleaning out my disgusting fridge while her baby was in daycare while I went for walks and met friends for lunch. I decided I would rather clean up my own mess than feel like a bourgeois schmuck. I found a friend with more money, more children and less guilt to hire Bernadette away for twice as much money.

When I hired a babysitter a couple of mornings a week to care for my daughter, I avoided the guilt by treating her how I would want to be treated: I paid her whether I needed her or not, I gave her bonuses, I let her know how much her services were valued by our family. Because I was working during those hours, she felt less like “the help” than my right arm. She and I cried for hours together as she helped me pack up our things to move.

Now that we’re in Savannah, the ethics are a little disturbing. The lunch yentas regularly to their “shvartzes” and wonder out loud if they’re stealing. I took a tour of a home for sale by the Jewish man who grew up there — we had a big laugh about the “maid’s bathroom” that was a toilet in a tiny closet in the garage, but I don’t think we were laughing for the same reasons. (“Portnoy’s Complaint,” anyone?)

The kicker is that the house we’re staying in comes with a monthly housekeeper. My in-laws have been having her come to freshen things up for their occasional visits to the beach for years, but now that the Yenta family has moved in full-time it’s more than a carton of old mild to throw away and a set of sheets to change. Before she comes I spend the day dusting, washing towels and wiping down counters not only because I don’t want her to know what pigs we are, but because I feel guilty for creating more work for her. Of course, I could ask that she not come at all, but then she’d lose income, which would make feel worse.

So please, tell me put a cap on my inner turmoil and enjoy the sparkling linoleum. It only lasts an afternoon anyway, right?

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