Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Merry Maids?

I love summer because I get to read what I want. I get into this groove and read like 3 books a week. Sometimes I think I learn more useful knowledge in the summer that in a quarter at college! I dont read romancy girly crap novels. I read books that make my sister and friends cringe. They are case studies of urban issues, sociological meanderings on race and class, social structural dissertations and other non fiction but riveting material (with a Paulo Coeltho fiction thrown in perhaps). Can i sound more boring and weird? Not if I tried. But I love it. My eyes are bigger than my watch and brain capacity as I go to the library and get out 10 books at a time, knowing full well not only will these books never ever be back on time but they will not all be fully read. I stalk the used section at and spend a few hours a summer laying in the social science section of the bookstores. I like books. I like reading. I like learning.

Right now, I am reading Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Enhrenreich. Its ok. I am familiar with low wage labor and the problems that can cause so this was not extremely eye opening experience but I enjoyed the premise and her gumption to give up her life and assume the role of a low wage worker across America to see how it is done.
I babysit (nanny) for some rather wealthy families in the all too notorious North Shore area. I have spent the last few days at work daydreaming of these women caring and being so interested in the low wage labor that frequents their communities and houses that they undertake an experiment like this. Its all fun to me to think of this as I smile at the cleaning ladies as I usher the kids outside and clear of the monster vaccuums. Or as I offer a cold drink of water to the army of landscaping guys, I think of the situations being switched and these tired, sweaty men languishing about in enormous mansions where they "work from home" in air conditioned home offices for an hour a day then jet off to the country club for some "much needed" relaxation.

Excuse my bitterness. My job is pretty easy, and for the most part I love the kids.

The one thing I will be taking away from this book and amazing experiment Barbara undertook is when she says that she never had a cleaning lady. As she herself assumes the role of a merry maid, she comiserates on why she never in all her comfortablility and upper middle class existence, never hired a maid or maidS. SHe says that is not the kind of relationship she ever wanted to have with another human. That sentence was just revolutionary for me. TO employ someone else, to monitor someone else whose sole responsibility was to clean up after you was not the relationship Barbara wanted to have with another human. Thats all she said on that. But it was the most powerful sentence in the book to me. My gma has a cleaning lady because she insists on keeping her house even in her tiny, stooped, brittle old age. Kasia only comes once every two weeks and just vaccuums the carpets and cleans the bathroom and kitchen. And had lunch and chats with gran. She doesnt do laundry, or change sheets, or clean the basement or my upstairs. I offered to do this for Gran now that I am here, but my cleaning skills are not known to be transcendiary or prized. And Kasia has been around for 7 years or so, they spend as much time talking and eating and petting the dog as she does cleaning. But I am off the subject....
I hate cleaning and sometimes dreamed about one day getting a cleaning lady to come to my home. But after that sentence by Barbara and reading the book and really thinking... NO, because thats not the relationship I want to have with another human being either.

That statement seemed to have Christian written all over it, but alas, Barbara is a declared atheist. But to not want to have a shallow, purely demeaning relationship with another human that involves them just cleaning up after you and establishes a hierarchy of power the way that most cleaning situations do, thats good stuff. Thats really looking at things and setting up a heaven on earth. Most cleaning ladies get paid meager wages. Perhaps you are reading this and thinking what is the big deal? But my experiences in these BEYOND wealthy homes as hired help and then witnessing first hand the cleaning ladies and their experiences, compounded with reading this book with an insider view of low wage labor in America and getting further input of the demeaning nature...I am going to say that NO, thats not the relationship I ever want to have with another human. I just feel that is right. I want to buy multiple copies of this book and leave in the homes in which I work. Think they will read it?
You should.


jenn said...

Hi Sarah,

So this is my first post to you. I'm going to try to do it a lot and almost always be devil's advocate. Can someone be devil's advocate if they're atheist? Hell yes!

Anyway, although Barbara's opinion is valuable, I disagree with it. It's all in how you treat the house cleaner (or landscape person, or painter, etc.). If you think it's demeaning, that will come across and that person may feel demeaned. Respect begets respect.

I cleaned a friend's house for many years. It was in exchange for a car payment in college, and when I had more time than money. I am an awesome cleaner and I found NO shame in doing it! I had a service to offer in exchange for something I wanted. And I was good at it. Sure, I didn't need it to survive and put food on my table, but I would do it again if that's all I could do.

I've employed 3 house cleaners in the past 2 years. Two were American women, and I paid them a respectable wage and respected and valued what they did. They retired (it IS physically demanding work and they were older). One of the women did it her whole life and in her prime was making $40K a year. Not too shabby. I currently employ a Mongolian immigrant. I pay her the same amount as the American women, which isn't cheap and I don't have a lot of extra money. It's all she can get here right now, with no legal status and not speaking the language well. I think she's glad of the work, and thanked my neighbor for referrring her to me. Again, I thank her each time and treat her with respect. Am I exploiting her? Should I be ashamed of the "relationship" I have with either her or the other women? I am not ashamed, and I don't think they're debased as well. I am paying for these services, just as people pay me for my services. Maybe Barbara should stop feeling guilty and see people as equals. I think she's subconsiously projecting shame on them, and it's her loss.

Just wanted to put another perspective out there. Keep up the reading, though.
xoxo jenn

Sarah said...

I guess the picture I have lately of cleaning ladies is different. What I witness is women shopping online while foreign women clean around them. Yes, i am sure they need the money but I did see a check made out and it was paltry and shocking how little they were being paid.

I believe that any job is valuable. I agree that there is no shame in any work. I am not arrogant or have lofty ideas about what work I am too good for, I am a nanny !

I think that some examples of low wage work are exploitative, and that is what I am against. Being a college student or young person performing this type of low wage labor is accepted and different than those low wage jobs being your career and only example of paid work. How would you live and carve out a life with that backbreaking labor at this age? Or in ten more years? And what do you do when you are sick? These types of jobs do not often provide assistance in that area. Also, as Barbara pointed out in this book, low wages come with low respect both by comsumers of the labor and the employers. These people are not often valued by the companies that randomly hire them, and treated as such.

I am happy for many things:
YOu are commenting and being devil's advocate, you pay your cleaning ladies well and that you are my cousin.