The Help: The Truth About Hiring A Cleaning Service

I can remember the first time I decided to hire cleaning help. I was largely pregnant with my fourth child, with a two-year-old at home all day as well. I was working a couple of afternoons a week outside the home and full-time from home to keep my fledgling writing career in the air. My husband was working in another state for weeks at a time, sometimes only home five or six days a month. I was managing, but I was grumpy and stressed out.

I’d taken a card advertising cleaning and errand services from the grocery store bulletin board weeks earlier, but had been putting off making the call. It felt almost ridiculous to hire somebody to come clean our rather shabby rental house, especially when our budget was tight. And indulgent, too; certainly not the kind of thing my own mother (who made ends meet on a way-below-poverty-level income) would ever have considered doing. But I thought that if I could just get somebody to come a few times, I might be able to get ahead again, enough to let things go until after the baby came without getting the house condemned by the health department.

So I called the number, and a pleasant woman, Cyndi, answered the phone. Cyndi was a mom herself, looking for flexible work she could manage around her husband’s schedule so they could avoid paying for daycare for their toddler son. I talked a mile a minute on the call, rattling off all the circumstances that had led to making the call. I justified myself for a good three minutes, wanting to make sure she understood that I wasn’t just sitting around eating bonbons all day, I wasn’t lazy, I wasn’t elitist, I wasn’t spoiled. I just…

“You just need help,” she said with empathy in her voice.

“Yes,” I breathed. “I just need help.”

Cyndi cleaned for us three hours a week, every other week, for five or six months, until after Owen was born and Jon started working close to home. While she was coming I still worked hard, but I no longer had to make choices like: “Will’s napping; should I work on that article that’s due tomorrow, or try to squeeze my swollen body behind the toilet?”

We’ve moved twice since Owen was born, and have had cleaning help here and there since, usually when things are especially busy (book contracts, another new baby). Right now we’re on our longest stint with consistent cleaning help–Lynda, our current house cleaner, has been coming twice a month, 3-4 hours at a time, for about a year (with occasional breaks of a month here or there when vacations or other events came up.)

cleaning service, maid service,

In our discussion about hiring help last week, I saw a lot of generalizations–many of which I once, myself, believed–come up about what it means to hire help and what it means to be hired help, and I’d like to take this opportunity to give another perspective on a few of them:

“People who hire help think they’re too good to scrub toilets.”

I’m sure there are people out there who fit this statement…and then there are the rest of us. Many of the people I know who have cleaning help have it twice a month or so, leaving plenty of “dirty work” to tackle in the meanwhile. We all pay for conveniences and we all choose different things in which to invest our time. I don’t think I’m “too good” to make bread just because I buy mine at the store. Likewise, I don’t think you believe you’re “too good” to make homemade play-dough just because I prefer to make mine myself. Ranking housecleaning as a demeaning job says a lot about us as a culture, namely that we don’t value it highly enough.

“If you need help to keep your house clean, your standards are too high.”

Well, “need” is relative. Now that I’m no longer eight months pregnant, I don’t NEED help in the same way I did when I could barely get my huge body to the floor to wipe up spills. But I found that I functioned better with a certain level of cleanliness, and in order to maintain that, and still have time for the other things I want to do (like work…and sleep), I do need help. I can keep the house reasonably clean without help, but certain tasks (like mopping the floor) often fall by the wayside, and on my own I won’t get to them as as often as I like.

As for cleanliness standards, I don’t really feel like it’s up to me to tell anyone else how clean “clean enough” is. If you like your house white-glove-clean that’s not a moral failing. The trick is getting it that way without killing yourself, and paid help is one way to get there. Temporarily adjusting your standards, giving up something else that isn’t as high on the priority list, or delegating to family members are other ways.

There’s also nothing wrong with not really caring if your shelves are dusted or if the bathtub gets much attention. I totally understand if, for you, a house cleaner would be a waste of money because you’d way rather eat out twice a month than have clean baseboards. Why can’t we allow for personal preference? I find it so strange that some mothers feel they have to apologize for having not-clean-enough homes, while others get questioned for wanting “too-clean” homes. Talk about a losing proposition.

“Cleaning help is a luxury, only for the privileged.”

Yes and no. To me, hiring Lynda is a business decision, and a time management decision, and a decision about the way I want my house to look and how much effort I’m able to personally put into getting it that way. Much more than a clean toilet (which I have to clean many times between her visits anyway), what Lynda gives me is time–time to write in the afternoons when Clara is napping, for example. I’m much more likely to clean while Clara’s awake, because I can involve her in that and also engage with her while I clean. It’s not so easy to involve her in answering a dozen emails or writing blog posts, so I prefer to do those things while she’s sleeping.

In a first-world country, most of us have luxuries of one sort or another, whether it’s that salon haircut or gourmet coffee. I’ve given up some of my luxuries, like the premium cable package, to make room in our budget for Lynda’s services. To me, that small sacrifice is absolutely worth it, but somebody else might have a different preference.

The fact that I am able to make decisions like this about the way I spend my time is a privilege by world standards. But if you are reading these words using your personal high-speed Internet connection, you are most likely also very privileged by world standards. A lot of people drive much nicer cars than me, and live in much nicer houses than I do. I suppose they makes them “more privileged” than me, but that doesn’t make them bad people, nor does it mean they aren’t aware of their privilege…just like we should all be.

“Hiring household help is classist and unethical.”

I’m glad the class, race, and sticky ethical issues surrounding cleaning help were raised in the comments (and there are some seriously intelligent arguments posed in the discussion–thank you so much to everyone who jumped in.) Those are important issues and ones I think we need to think about. However,  I think we also have a lot of power to change the harsher realities associated with the “household help” industry by acting with fairness, thought and integrity in our own decisions about whether and how to hire help.

One way you can act responsibly is by making sure your “help” (cleaner, lawn mower, babysitter, etc) is paid a fair wage for the area you live in. That does not necessarily directly relate to the amount of money you’re paying per hour, by the way. Many large services collect pretty large hourly rates to send out a team of “maids”, then keep most of it and pay their employees minimum wage. If I were considering using a service, I’d ask them what their employees are paid per hour plus whether or not they earn benefits. That will give you a good idea of how much the company values them, which can speak volumes about what the employees’ experiences working with that company might be like.

I personally prefer working with an individual. Lynda (who, by the way, is more educated than I am and is working her way through a Master’s program while her kids are in school) is able to set her own rates, manage her own schedule, keep all the money she earns, and use the products she prefers (natural ones that don’t give off fumes or tear up her hands.) Also, I like that she and I communicate directly rather than through an office or scheduler or supervisor. It just makes things feel simpler and frankly, less sticky. Before you work with an individual there is a lot to consider–one issue being whether you’ll be using that person’s services frequently enough, and paying him or her enough, for the IRS to consider it an employee-employer relationship. This MSN article lays out many of the factors that you’ll need to consider, and this IRS publication gives more specific details about this tax year.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a world in which class distinctions affect every purchase we make, and I see dealing with household help fairly as one way we can make a small difference in our own homes. I like what Trish had to say about this in this comment: “I think it’s just a matter of transparency. You can’t see those people who are making your food, or who work in the factory making your car, etc. While my housekeeper, is right there….in my face. In a way, I feel like this is more honest.”

“Running a household isn’t that hard. You should be able to do it yourself.”

Okay, I’ll grant you that compared to the days when clothing had to be beaten with a rock and water carried from a well, running a household today–heck, doing pretty much anything today–isn’t that hard. But so what? I take pride in being self-sufficient, but just because I can do something doesn’t mean I always have to. Particularly when there are a lot of other somethings competing for my limited time and energy. I work hard in all aspects of my life, but there are no extra points awarded for working harder than you have to. Just what are we trying to prove, and to whom?

In the discussion from the other day, one reader accused those of us in favor of hiring help of just validating one another’s choices. After some thought, you know what? I’m okay with that. Unless I get to actually live in somebody else’s shoes, I have no idea what she needs or doesn’t need. Whether she hires help or does every blessed household task herself, I am willing to give every mom reading this the benefit of the doubt that she’s doing the best she can with what she’s got, and that in reality, she’s probably already her own harshest critic.

So there you are, moms: consider yourself validated as my Mother’s Day present to you. Really, it’s the least we can do for one another, don’t you think?

Photo: Rubbermaid Products, via Flickr Creative Commons

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