The myth of doing it all: modern moms and hiring help

Betcha SHE didn't feel bad about hiring help.

Last fall I read Little Women for the first time in at least ten years, and had quite a revelation. You may remember how the book opens: the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, are in the middle of an epic complain-fest about poverty. Papa lost the family fortune when the oldest girls were small, he’s now far away from their “plain, but comfortable” New England home serving as a pastor for Union soldiers in the Civil War. The older girls work to help support the family, there is much talk of the drudgery of housework and chores, and worse, Christmas is coming and their mother “Marmee” has suggested they will be getting no gifts.

Just after you’ve really gotten picture that this family is not doing so hot financially and has a whole lotta work on their hands, another character enters the scene: Hannah, the family’s live-in servant.

Whaaaa?

The Marches weren’t unique. Going by the extensive reading of free and/or inexpensive classic novels I’ve on my Kindle over the past year, many–perhaps most–“ordinary” families had some kind of hired help back then, even those who weren’t very well off: whether it was a teen girl helping out in the kitchen, a boy to work on the farm or a local woman “taking in” the wash or even live-in cooks, nannies and other servants, having “help” was just an accepted fact of life among the middle classes.

Things have changed pretty dramatically in the American home over the last century or so–economically, socially and technologically. And while families in the highest income brackets may still matter-of-factly employ full-time household staff, for the rest of us hiring outside help has become more…complicated. We wonder if we seem snobby, entitled, spoiled? Are we exploiting the person we’re hiring? And…hey, with all these modern advances, shouldn’t we really be able to do it all, all by ourselves, if we maybe just tried a little harder?

But while our jobs are probably less physically demanding than our great-great-grandmothers’ were, that doesn’t necessarily mean our lives are simpler. With more choice comes complication and busy-ness, and I think, less of a feeling of knowing when we’ve done “enough.” Plus, we’ve got so many roles to grapple with, we fear shortchanging one area will compromise our identities: can I really call myself a ‘homemaker’ if I don’t do all the work myself?

Right now, I have part-time household help–3-4 hours at a time, twice a month. For the majority of my life as a mom and homemaker I did not have outside help, and it was pretty manageable when I lived in a small home with two preschool-aged kids. Another kid or three, a larger house, a book contract or two, pregnancies, infants, a traveling spouse…all of those things created a new brew of circumstances that led to there being more and more gaps between the things that were important to me and the things that actually got done. Something was always getting overlooked, whether getting dinner on the table, meeting my deadlines, remembering to check the kids’ homework, or cleaning the floors. Eventually that reality led me to the decision to hire help. Sometimes that’s meant child care and no cleaning service, sometimes it’s meant a cleaning service and no child care, and sometimes, when things have been really hectic, I’ve had both. (On the other hand, there have also been stretches of time in there where our budget has allowed for neither!)

In my post about putting off, delegating, or skipping household tasks, when I mentioned that I currently have a cleaning person, it led to an interesting discussion in the comments section. One reader felt that I had not been up-front enough in the past about the fact that I have household help (I have mentioned it once or twice, but she’s right; it hasn’t been front-and-center in my homemaking posts recently.) And while the reader says she doesn’t judge my decision to hire help, she admitted that she no longer felt able to identify with me as much as a homemaker, and that it materially changed the way she viewed my perspective and advice on cleaning, organizing, and managing a home.

I do see her point. While 7 or 8 hours of help each month doesn’t give me a “get out of housework free” card, it definitely does lighten my load, freeing up time I would be mopping the floor or scrubbing the tub for other things. And for a few minutes, I felt defensive. My life isn’t easy! I wanted to respond. I only have help because I really NEED it!

But what is “easy”, what is “need” and why would somebody hiring help make us think less–or even differently–about their skill or advice as a home manager? Whether we recognize it or not, I think my initial defensive reaction to my reader’s comment–and likely, her opinion as well–stem from our collective modern American uneasiness with the idea of hired household help. We think it sounds nice, but maybe a little…indulgent. Something that makes us a little soft and spoiled. On the other hand, I’m guessing housewives from the 1800’s just saw hiring help as a really efficient way of delegating the tasks that fell to them in the overall job of running a household. Sure, they could probably manage without it, but why just “manage” if they didn’t have to?

We all have factors that make our lives more or less difficult, relatively speaking, but they are a complicated and ever-changing set of factors. And they’re irrelevant, really:  no matter whether it’s just you and one baby and a regular cleaning service, or you have four kids, two puppies, three birds, a home-based business and no help, I’m going to give you the same advice: to figure out what’s really important to you and your family, prioritize, delegate, break large tasks down into smaller ones, tackle messes right away when you can, use small bits of time to your advantage, and try to keep a positive attitude about it all. Hiring help isn’t a magic bullet–but it’s definitely one tool of many that can help you manage it all.

This week I’m hoping we can talk frankly about the way we feel about hired help and the way we use it–both to demystify the process, and also to de-stigmatize the idea of paying for help. Let’s talk: do you use, are you considering using, or have you used paid help? What kind of help (child care, meal service, grocery delivery, cleaning service, errand-runner, lookalike to attend PTA meetings instead of you)? When and why did you decide to hire them? How did you go about it? Did you hit any bumps in the road? Encounter any resistance from your spouse or judgment from your neighbors? Feel free to get into any details you’d like about cost, how you justify it in your budget, how many hours of help you get and how big the difference really is in your life. I’ll follow up this week with more posts about modern homemaking and how hired help can fit into the equation. Can’t wait to see the discussion unfold!

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