The Mommy Shift

The LA times has an interesting article on the many immigrant women who spend their days as domestic workers, and then return home for their “second shift” as mommies in the evening.

Inevitably, immigrants feel the pull between their employer’s children and their own families. Every day, they take their employer’s children to play dates and the park, often unable to do the same with their own. They pick up their employer’s children from school while theirs take buses.

“They are forced to be away from their families and yet reminded at every instance what their families are being denied,” said Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, USC professor and author of “Doméstica: Immigrant Women Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence.”

Often, the only baby-sitters they can afford are untrained or unreliable.

“The immigrants are paying each other,” said Arizona State University professor Mary Romero, author of “Maid in the U.S.A.” “Somebody has to take care of the children. It’s the nanny or the maid’s child who gets the short end of the stick.”

Domestic work is notoriously under-valued and under-paid.

Even with Stacey home, the job was exhausting. The hours were long: She worked five days a week, about 11 hours a day, making about $8 an hour. But Margoth says she got used to it. She also got attached to the family.

Stacey got attached to Margoth, too. Margoth was very comfortable with the kids, singing and reading to them, watching Disney movies endlessly at their side. She hugged them constantly.

“It’s more than just having someone change a diaper,” Stacey says. “It’s the love and devotion she has for our family.”

At the same time, it involves goods that cannot be commodified — love and caring. How do you put a price on that, or decide what pay rate is fair? Domestic work is also different from “regular” work in that it isn’t such a clear employee/employer relationship with mandated hours and breaks. Employers often want the person taking care of their kids to be “part of the family” — and while that’s all fine and good, it’s a lot easier to ask someone who’s “part of the family” to run errands or do favors that weren’t in their job description. Domestic work blurs the lines between employment and family work.

Domestic workers are also far more likely to suffer abusive work conditions. They’re overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly immigrants, and lack power, status and access to institutions which may help them. Those who are illegal immigrants are even more likely to be abused, and naturally fear going to the police.

Feminists have long had mixed views of domestic employment. The entry of more women into the work force means that in many families, there isn’t someone at home to do the work of maintaining the house and watching over young children. Some (though very few) feminists seem to take no issue with domestic work; it’s basic capitalism, paying someone for personal services. Others have a problem with the fact that domestic work is so female-dominated, and domestic workers are so often exploited. One of the biggest issues for me with domestic work is the guilt that so many feminists feel about it, which is at least partly the caused by growing up in a sexist society — hiring domestic workers is seen as getting someone else to do the “woman’s job” of cleaning the home and caring for the children. Even progressive women seem to not be able to shake the notion that hiring a nanny or a housekeeper is an expression of failure on their part.

Living in Manahttan, the most public domestic workers are the nannies who you see all around the city — they’re easily identifiable because they’re usually women of color with white children in tow. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard otherwise progressive people complain that rich (ostensibly white) Manhattan mothers “aren’t raising their own kids.” And yes, there’s room to criticize absent parents — but no one seems to mention that Dad isn’t raising his own kids, either.

And that, I guess, is the biggest sticking point for me about the conversation surrounding domestic employment: No one asks where the male partner is, or why he can’t lend a hand. It’s overwhelming to expect a single person to work full-time, and find a way to keep the house spotless and be the parent who’s at every soccer game and school play. The workload has to be divided up somehow, and many working women seem to find it easier to pay for those services than to ask their partner to split the work evenly. I’m not sure that, were all other things equitable, there’s something inherently wrong with paying for personal services like childcare and housekeeping. But when placed in the context of a sexist and racist society which systematically exploits immigrants and places mounds of undue burdens and pressures on those women who dare try and “have it all,” and when coupled with the feminization of domestic labor and the devaluation of “women’s work,” you have a dangerous recipe. The simplest solution, to me, is to encourage a household shift where men are expected to do just as much housework and child-rearing as women are — where they aren’t distinctly applauded for washing dishes or picking the kids up from school, but where it’s as simple a social expectation for them as it is for women now. Add to that a simultaneous social shift in which the work women do is valued just as much as the work men do, and I think we’ll see some improvement. But I won’t hold my breath.


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33 comments for “The Mommy Shift

  1. November 5, 2005 at 5:15 pm

    The workload has to be divided up somehow, and many working women seem to find it easier to pay for those services than to ask their partner to split the work evenly. . . . The simplest solution, to me, is to encourage a household shift where men are expected to do just as much housework and child-rearing as women are

    I think you really get to the crux of the matter with your analysis. The greater freedom and opportunity available to modern women comes at a cost. There are other women raising the career woman’s children, other women cooking the family meals, other men doing the yardwork, etc. These freedoms have been purchased on the backs of a servant class. The best place for reform and negotiation is between husband and wife, not women and society.

    I found this data in the article quite telling:

    She worked five days a week, about 11 hours a day, making about $8 an hour. . . . particularly for the $550 paycheck she receives each week

    Where are the Democrats on labor standards? What happened to the 8 hour day? Does this wage include health and retirement benefits?

    That $550 weekly paycheck translates in $28,600 per year. Let’s say her husband makes the same amount.Their family income is in the mid-50s. Consider the cost of educating their 3 kids – the Los Angeles Unified School District’s budget is $12.5 Billion dollars for 750,000 children. The per student cost amounts to $16,666. To educate all 3 children requires $50,000 per year of taxpayer funding.

    Health care for children is more frequent than it is for adults. Who pays for that? Who paid the $4,000-$20,000 maternity bill for each child that was born?

    As citizens we made a compact with each other that included a proviso that our children would be educated in public schools. There certainly are US citizens whose family income is also in the mid-$50s and they too are imposing a burden on their fellow citizens but that is a condition that we all agreed to. This same reasoning cannot be applied to people who come to our country illegally. The subjects of this story will likely be a burden to the taxpayers if they become unemployed,then later when they retire, and their healthcare will also be picked up by the taxpayers.

    Back to your point about feminist freedom being bought at the expense of a modern-day slave/servant class, the employer in the story seems to second that point:

    Having Margoth “allows me to have some freedom to do some things for myself, which in turn, I think, makes me a better parent because I come back refreshed.”

    That’s great – her self actualization is purchased at the expense of having a servant. Pretty demeaning, and especially galling, when her self-actualization comes at the taxpayer’s expense.

  2. Earl
    November 5, 2005 at 5:24 pm

    Perhaps part of the answer is, on average, men and women value and dsire children differently.

  3. November 5, 2005 at 5:58 pm

    Personally, I support the idea of shorter work hours for both men and women on the principle that both parents should be in the home part of the time for child-rearing duties.

    The main reason why women ended up as the ones who care for the children, I believe, is that women had breasts to feed the babies. When men left the home, they came back tired.

    What has happened is that this model continues to perpetuate itself. Men of this generation saw their fathers coming home to rest and think that they are entitled to it, too. There hasn’t been a shift to accomodate working women and that shift is overdue.

    We’re all overworked in this society is the problem. And until we stand up for the quality of our homelife, we will continue to experience these problems.

  4. Jason
    November 5, 2005 at 7:09 pm

    Another issue is how frequently are these working relationships reported to the INS. Who was it that Bush nominated for a Secretary position and it turned out she didn’t report her nanny. Without the employer/employee relationship the nanny doesn’t get unenployment, doesn’t get disability, as well as other benefits.

    I imagine a lot of these work arrangements aren’t reported to the INS or state because of the nanny’s immigrations status. But, just another way they get screwed (and then the employer is benefited b/c they’re not paying the 7% fica tax).

    Btw, I think it is pretty clear there is a legal employee/employer relationship. Kind of hard to say that they’re independent contractors.

  5. Jason
    November 5, 2005 at 7:27 pm

    I personally don’t hear many people question the mother for not raising her own children. And, of course, especially not the father. I just don’t hear that, probably largely due to the fact that I’m single in San Francisco and don’t hang out with too many people that talk about kids, etc. Anyway, the practice of having nannys, maids, and gardeners seems pretty accepted to me. Have other people had other experiences?

    To the extent that people would pass judgment on a woman who has a nanny, and not the father, yeah, that’s not fair and surely represents unfair stereotypes. However, I imagine most of these families do split the housework, i.e. they both work full time and hire lower class people to do everthing for them.

  6. Jason
    November 5, 2005 at 7:39 pm

    I meant report to the IRS, not INS.

  7. November 5, 2005 at 8:29 pm

    I remember an Atlantic Monthly article that caused a stir about this same subject. I don’t remember everything about it, but I remember one line, “Someone’s got to do the S**T work.”

    I definitely think that more men should be willing to do that. Like Jason, I run in a San Francisco crowd who couldn’t care less about kids, but it is also a class issue. It amazes me how many people – men and women – don’t know how to perform the simplest cleaning tasks. Shoot, at work, I’m amazed at how people leave the countertops sloppy because they know someone will clean it up later. I grew up in a home without domestic help, and by golly if you dirty it you best clean it up. I really think that some people get the domestic help by default, whether they really need it or not. So how the heck are these people going to change a diaper?

    It’s just strange. I hear about stuff like this, and it’s not a world I know anything about. And I’m kinda glad I don’t expect anyone to clean up after me or that if I had a kid with my partner we’d figure out a way to be around without dumping the childcare burdens on an immigrant’s back.

    Has anyone even suggested paying these people fairly?

  8. the15th
    November 5, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    Some of the women who do this kind of work are underpaid and undervalued, it’s true, but I see a strong antifeminist undertone in a lot of these news articles that try to explore the relationships between domestic workers and the families they work for. We seem to be able to examine the poor pay and conditions that food service employees work under without any hand-wringing about how we just feel so guilty about living in a society where we pay people to serve us food, when they could be at home cooking for their own families. Somehow logic seems to go out the window when childcare and housekeeping are involved. It’s okay to hire people to move your furniture or fix your car, but if you don’t know how or simply don’t like to perform household chores, it’s somehow a signifier that you think you’re “too good” to do such things. And I don’t think the solution is simply including men in the category of people who should feel ashamed because they hire household help.

  9. Sally
    November 6, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    The simplest solution, to me, is to encourage a household shift where men are expected to do just as much housework and child-rearing as women are

    Hmm. Doesn’t this assume that every household is comprised of a male-female couple?

    I think there’s a real difference between the anxieties people have about hiring people to clean their houses and the anxieties they have about hiring people to take care of their kids. Hiring someone to look after your kids is inherently more personal than hiring someone to do most other things, and I don’t think that hiring someone to clean your house really is.

    At any rate, there’s clearly a lot of anti-feminism and old-fashioned sexism in discussions about hiring people to do house-cleaning, but I wonder if some of the anxiety also stems from the fact that it’s an employment relationship that makes visible class relations that our culture generally obscures. Pretty much everyone who eats in America participates in similarly exploitative labor relationships, because most food is grown and processed by poor people, many of whom are undocumented immigrants and many of whom are exploited. But we can conveniently forget about that, because we never have to see the people who produce our food. Most of us do our shopping at grocery stores where the entire act of producing food is rendered totally invisible. When you hire someone to clean your house, you are forced to confront the inequality from which you are benefiting, and you are forced to meet the person who is actually doing the work. It makes liberals uneasy not because it’s worse than other labor relationships, but because it’s in your face, and you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.

    It’s weird, because rationally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hiring someone to clean your house. But I’m at the point where I really need to go ahead and do it, and I’m having a hard time getting over my instinctive aversion to paying someone to clean up after me. I think I may be living in squalor because of my liberal guilt.

  10. kim
    November 6, 2005 at 2:19 pm

    There was a great conversation between Barbara Ehrenreich, Caitlin Flanagan and Sara Mosle last year in Slate that covered this topic. My own perspective is similar to Ehrenreich’s, who had an excellent quote:

    Suppose I could have afforded a nanny and a maid when my kids were little; I still wouldn’t have hired them because I didn’t want my kids growing up with the world’s class and racial hierarchies stamped on their emerging little world views. The African-American poet Audre Lorde, for example, wrote of encountering a little white girl in the supermarket, who pointed at Lorde’s child and exclaimed, “Look, mommy, a baby maid!” I didn’t want this for my kids. I wanted them to grow up respecting every kind of work and every kind of human being.

    I adore Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s important to me that my feminism not stand alone but be connected to broader fights against classism and racism.

  11. Julie
    November 6, 2005 at 2:30 pm

    As citizens we made a compact with each other that included a proviso that our children would be educated in public schools. There certainly are US citizens whose family income is also in the mid-$50s and they too are imposing a burden on their fellow citizens

    I don’t quite know how you figure this. My husband and i don’t even make 50k, in fact I think last year we were around 43,000. Yet, our school taxes are based not on our income, but on the assessment of our house, which is of average size and value for our area. We pay just as much in school taxes as my parents who live down the road and make double what we do. So, how we, who pay our taxes and school taxes religously every year, and give up quite a bit of our income to do so, in addition to buying stuff from every freaking school fundraiser there is because I think education is important, impose a burden on our fellow citizens is a little beyond me.
    That out of the way, I know I would feel 100% guilty about hiring someone else to tale care of my daughter all the time. I do work full-time, but as soon as I am done with work, it’s mommy time. I don’t get out particularly often, but to me, that’s ok because that’s time that I am spending with my daughter. I have time to read and respomd now because she is sleeping on my chest. I don’t feel like I need to be here 24 hours a day or anything, but I don’t understand the point of having a child if you never spend any time with them. But, I also have a husband who does housework, childcare (including diapers, bath. etc…) and anything else that needs to be done. Between our schedules, Isabelle is home with one of us 4 days a week and usually spends 3 days at her grandmothers, anywhere form 4-8 hours. I also must have some of that libreal guilt, because i feel very awkward about paying someone to clean up after me, no matter how much it might help out.

  12. Julie
    November 6, 2005 at 2:32 pm

    Geez… can you tell I am typing one handed? Sorry about all the typos.

  13. Sally
    November 6, 2005 at 2:49 pm

    I was actually pretty horrified by that bit from Ehrenreich that you cited. Apparently, her children had so little contact with people of color that if she hired a person of color to clean her house, her children would have been in danger of assuming that all people of color existed to be “maids.”. I cannot imagine that happening to a child who knew people of color as friends, neigbors, classmates, teachers, etc. To me, that suggests that the Ehrenreich household had much bigger problems than could be addressed by doing their own cleaning.

  14. November 6, 2005 at 3:56 pm

    Umm, Ehrenreich was relating a story she heard from a black woman. (never thought I’d have cause to defend Miss Barbara for anything, but there you go)

  15. mythago
    November 6, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    I’m noticing that a lot of the guilt about hiring childcare and housework is coming from women.

  16. Sally
    November 6, 2005 at 4:09 pm

    Umm, Ehrenreich was relating a story she heard from a black woman.

    Right. Why does that change anything? Her point was that, if she hired household labor, her kids might end up being like the kid in the story, thinking of all black people as “maids” and of black infants as “baby maids.” I can’t see how that would be likely to happen unless Ehrenreich’s children had no other contact with black people, as must have been true of the kid who called Lorde’s child a “baby maid.”

  17. the15th
    November 6, 2005 at 4:15 pm

    And I’m sure that if she’d been told a similar story about a “baby waitress”, she would have smugly related how she never took her children out to eat. Look, Barbara Ehrenreich is a passionate labor advocate, but I’m really not sure why she is primarily described as a “feminist.”

    It just frustrates me that so many feminists, motivated by their genuine concern for mistreated workers, are buying into what is essentially yet another media-created “mommy versus mommy” war. (“Sure these yuppie women are all empowered — but they’re exploiting other women!”) Shine a spotlight on maid agencies that underpay their employees, absolutely, but when the media starts contrasting the lives of domestic workers with their (female) employers in a way that isn’t done for other kinds of workers, we’re veering into backlash territory.

  18. November 6, 2005 at 8:03 pm

    Right. Why does that change anything? Her point was that, if she hired household labor, her kids might end up being like the kid in the story, thinking of all black people as “maids” and of black infants as “baby maids.”

    Ehrenreich’s worry was that, while her kids might see minority adults out and about in the world for a minute or five at a time, they would see a minority nanny/housekeeper all day every day and take that model as their primary frame of reference for interacting with other races.

    Having said that, her fears were groundless. Kids don’t think of race as a social construct until they get to be around 9 or 10, unless someone is drilling it into their heads every day. I was in the 5th grade before I realized there weren’t any black kids on my school bus.

  19. November 6, 2005 at 8:14 pm

    ’m noticing that a lot of the guilt about hiring childcare and housework is coming from women.

    Yeah. That’s because men aren’t socialized to believe stupid things about housework and homemaking, and women are. One of the parts of feminist analysis that I do find convincing.

  20. Sally
    November 6, 2005 at 8:48 pm

    Ehrenreich’s worry was that, while her kids might see minority adults out and about in the world for a minute or five at a time, they would see a minority nanny/housekeeper all day every day and take that model as their primary frame of reference for interacting with other races.

    And I’m saying that if her kids’ only other experience of minority adults was seeing them out and about for a minute or five at a time, that seems to me to be a bigger problem. Her kids didn’t have any neighbors or teachers or parents of friends or friends of parents who were people of color?

    If that’s true of Ehrenreich’s kids, then she’s probably right that she made the right call not to hire women of color to clean her house or take care of her kids. But she’s not just talking about her own personal choices. She’s making blanket pronouncements about what other people should do. And it may be that other people have different circumstances and come to different decisions than she did. For instance, some of her readers may themselves be black or Latino, and they might not have the same worry that their children will generalize about all people who share their race based on that one interaction. Some of her readers might not have kids, and therefore might not need to worry about protecting anyone’s emerging world-view. My mom’s cousin looks after her neighbor’s kids after school: they know her both as their babysitter (they’re not of the social class that refers to babysitters as “nannies”) and neighbor. I’m not convinced that the arrangement is exploiting anyone, and I’m not convinced that it’s damaging the kids’ little psyches. Why does Ehrenreich assume that she’s talking about upscale New Yorkers, rather than my cousin and her neighbors?

  21. November 6, 2005 at 10:00 pm

    Why does Ehrenreich assume that she’s talking about upscale New Yorkers, rather than my cousin and her neighbors?

    Because the conversation in which she shared that anecdote *was* with upscale New Yorkers.

  22. Sally
    November 6, 2005 at 11:18 pm

    I think Caitlin Flanagan is from California, but fair enough. But if the point of that exchange really was just to discuss the choices of a tiny number of extremely wealthy families in New York and San Francisco, then I’m not entirely sure what it has to do with the rest of us. If I want to observe rich people obsessing about their moral dilemmas, I’ll watch The O.C. And since the very wealthy are a pretty small minority of the population, and since the people who work for them make up a tiny minority of exploited immigrant workers, I’m having a hard time believing that this conversation is not, in fact, about something else. It seems to me that it wouldn’t merit discussion, outside the cocktail parties of upscale New Yorkers, if it weren’t really about depicting feminists, who are always imagined to be welathy, as people who exploit and abuse other women.

  23. November 7, 2005 at 8:13 am

    Shine a spotlight on maid agencies that underpay their employees, absolutely, but when the media starts contrasting the lives of domestic workers with their (female) employers in a way that isn’t done for other kinds of workers, we’re veering into backlash territory.

    Right on. I have yet to read a story about how terrible well-to-do males are for having to pay others to repair their cars, pour their driveways, paint their houses, or install their ceiling fans (good thing too. I’ve been paid pretty damn well over the years for doing electrical work, and I’d rather not see some of the hazardous “installments” done by amateurs who didn’t want to admit they were in over their head). If anything, this is one more example of how work is gendered—domestic work is “female”, pink-collar work, while car-repair and the like is “male”, blue-collar work.

    I also think these articles are designed to reinforce the view that feminism is a “handmaiden” to wealthy white women. I have yet to see articles about how terrible it is for secretaries, teachers, nurses, police officers, electricians, store managers, shop clerks, waitresses, plumbers, hairdressers, etc. to put our children in daycare—because then there’d be a hell of an outcry. These articles reference the pre-existing class anger that’s out there—the “why the hell do I have to bust my ass and still end up on the skids, and they have it so easy?!” Then, just blame feminism, and that class-anger will cross-reference feminism.

    I also find it curious that in these articles, there is never any reference to how industrialization changed the nature of fatherhood, motherhood, and childhood—and the way we look at family (went from the extended family, and “the village”, to the nuclear family as the so-called foundation—a hugh change). Or the effects of consumerism—it isn’t really that difficult to clean house if you don’t have a whole lot of stuff (not to mention, a smaller house).

    I gotta second Pepper here; it’s unreal the number of people who don’t seem to think to clean up after themselves. No, House Beautiful isn’t going to be making any photo ops at my place, but it’s hardly squalor. Yeah, you’ll probably find dust on the mantel, but so effing what? The countertops are clean, there’s no mold in the fridge, the toilets/sinks are scrubbed…yknow? Like Robert said, there’s an unrealistic image of cleanliness foisted on to women that we shouldn’t buy into (and I do mean buy—it’s designed to make us buy more products). Fuck that. Our ancestors had dirt floors. If you have a limited amount of time, just clean the stuff that will end up making you sick if you don’t! It’ll be ok! ;-) Life is too short to stress over the fact that your house doesn’t resemble June Cleaver’s. Why should it? Chances are, your life doesn’t either! ;-)

  24. Sally
    November 7, 2005 at 9:54 am

    Like Robert said, there’s an unrealistic image of cleanliness foisted on to women that we shouldn’t buy into (and I do mean buy—it’s designed to make us buy more products). Fuck that. Our ancestors had dirt floors.

    I guess on the one hand I see where you’re coming from, and on the other this seems problematic. For one thing, it makes women completely responsible for the problem, and it gives their male partners an out when it comes to doing their share of the housework. If the problem is just that women have unrealistic standards of cleanliness, then why should a guy have to give in to his partner’s pathology and scrub the bath tub? It’s her fault for caring whether it’s clean. But also, while I’m sure it makes sense for you, it presumes a lot about other people’s situations. I’m sure there are people who hire cleaners to keep their McMansions spotless, but I don’t think that accounts for everyone who hires a cleaner.,

  25. Sally
    November 7, 2005 at 9:56 am

    Aaargh. The quote ends after the first paragraph.

  26. Jason
    November 7, 2005 at 12:54 pm

    I have yet to read a story about how terrible well-to-do males are for having to pay others to repair their cars, pour their driveways, paint their houses, or install their ceiling fans (good thing too. I’ve been paid pretty damn well over the years for doing electrical work, and I’d rather not see some of the hazardous “installments” done by amateurs who didn’t want to admit they were in over their head).

    I don’t presume to know whether stories of female guilt for hiring domestic help are more prevalent than stories of male guilt for hiring help for mens traditional chores. But I know there is male guilt (once agian, I simply don’t hang in the circles where we discuss children–let alone whether a mother is bad to hire a nanny). A lot of men do feel guilty for having to hire gardeners, electricians, and car repair people. And like La Luba says, it probably leads to a lot of faulty work for those that attempt those things themselves. Hey, I admit to incorrectly installing a set of brake pads on my car (I actually bought the wrong model and tried to grind them down so they fit–bad idea!).

    Anyway, I do think the guilt comes from our notion of traditional roles. The interesting aspect about this though is how it has changed. I think men and women are sharing these roles more now, and we are becoming more of a service economy, so we are now paying other people to do these jobs. And geography is probably the biggest factor in this change. New York and San Francisco and other wealthy urban areas probably see men and women more willing to share chores and they are wealthier and so they probably outsource the work more.

  27. November 7, 2005 at 1:30 pm

    A lot of those traditionally male tasks are unionized and are generally paid well (electrician, plumber, driveway repair), but not all. Lawncare is certainly one of them. I know a lot of male immigrant workers are taken advantage of and I have a lot of problems with that. I don’t think it’s a feminist activity to pay substandard wages to have work done that we feel is beneath us. It doesn’t matter whether that person is male or female.

    My boyfriend and I have been discussing paying someone to clean our home once a month and we both have problems with it. We feel like we should be able to do it ourselves, but we never seem to find the time. And neither one of us is comfortable paying someone to do it. It’s not guilt, so much as it is not wanting to feel like we’re taken advantage of someone. We don’t want to go with a service because we know the actual workers make very little and don’t have benefits, but we can’t afford to give someone health care ourselves. And while I can rest assured knowing that the man who did our plumbing was a union member and therefore paid fairly, I haven’t seen a single unionized home cleaning service anywhere.

  28. Jason
    November 7, 2005 at 1:50 pm

    I don’t think you will find many unionized cleaning services. Maybe the SEIU has some. I know they represent the hotel maids here in San Francisco. They have struck recently and I think they are still in negotiations during the cooling off period.

  29. Sally
    November 7, 2005 at 2:54 pm

    I don’t think it’s a feminist activity to pay substandard wages to have work done that we feel is beneath us

    Ok, see, this seems to me to be a totally loaded way of putting it. When you pay someone to do something for you, I don’t think it’s generally taken to be a sign that you think that thing is “beneath you.” For instance, I’ve never heard the act of getting someone to paint your living room described that way, and most people certainly could do their own interior painting. When most people take their cars to a car wash, it’s because it’s more convenient, not because they think washing their cars is “beneath them.”

    It’s true, though, that it’s a big problem that women who work in homes generally aren’t unionized. Men who work in homes, as plumbers, painters, etc., often are. I wonder if there’s a way to encourage efforts to unionize cleaning services.

  30. trishka
    November 7, 2005 at 3:38 pm

    i don’t have a great deal that’s new to add that hasn’t already been said, but this article, and others like it, made my head explode.

    first of all, the fact that margothe works taking care of “stacy’s children,”, not the children of stacy & her husband. we aren’t even told the husband’s name, so inconsequential to the story is he. this reinforces the notion that is only middle-class women who are served by domestic help, and not the men they are married to (assuming they are hetero & not single mothers).

    secondly, the main thrust of the article is how margothe must leave her children for up to 11 or 12 hours at a time in order to go to work at a job that makes money for the family. the fact that the job she is doing happens to be helping to take care of a middle-class white woman’s children makes her situation no different than if she were going to work at a job in food service, agriculture, hotel-cleaning, factory, teaching, nursing, secretarial work, or any of the myriad employments that women engage in outside the home to earn money for their family to survive financially.

    however, it seems to be that the reason this article is written is precisely because of the type of work she is doing, not that she is out working at all. and that speaks volumes about our attitudes towards what is acceptable for middle-class women. if stacy did not hire her to help her take care of her kids, what would margothe do? would she stay at home with her kids? or would she go find another job somewhere else?

    the real problem that i see, and one that is only touched upon lightly, is that she is not paid a living wage, nor apparently, health benefits,. that should be the larger concern, regardless of whether her job is as a waitress or a nanny.

  31. November 7, 2005 at 7:06 pm

    For one thing, it makes women completely responsible for the problem, and it gives their male partners an out when it comes to doing their share of the housework. If the problem is just that women have unrealistic standards of cleanliness, then why should a guy have to give in to his partner’s pathology and scrub the bath tub? It’s her fault for caring whether it’s clean.

    Point taken, Sally. But….while both men and women may look at their place and say, “yeah, it could use a good cleaning,” it doesn’t seem to get into the identity of men the way that it does to women. We tend to be socialized to have the cleanliness level of our living space be a reflection of who we are, to a level that men don’t. Men have to be damn near repulsive before being labelled as a “slob”, whereas a woman living with a little bit of clutter—no filth, just clutter—is readily labelled that. Or worse, labels herself that. And I’ve seen that all my life, growing up around women who worked outside the home for at least 40 hours a week! I can’t remember a time I’ve walked into the house of a woman who hasn’t apologized for the level of “mess” in her home—even when there’s no mess, just typical signs of being lived in (like, shoes by the front door, jacket hung over the back of a chair, stack of papers and stuff on the kitchen table—that sort of thing)! No, I don’t think the onus should be on the woman—not at all. I’m just recognizing that the double-standard does exist, and since this is a problem that disparately affects women, we would be doing ourselves a favor if we would adopt a reasonable standard for housecleaning—which probably means taking on less of a load for ourselves and demanding more out of male housemates.

    But also, while I’m sure it makes sense for you, it presumes a lot about other people’s situations.

    I’m not trying to presume everyone’s situation, just the “average” situation. Folks who work an incredible amount of hours and/or who travel a lot, or who have caretaking responsibilities for ill or disabled family members, or who are ill or disabled themselves, or who have a very large family, have a nonstandard situation. I’m just thinking that for most able-bodied folks who work forty hours a week, if they just cleaned up after themselves, they could save themselves the cost of hiring the work done.

    I wonder if there’s a way to encourage efforts to unionize cleaning services.

    Sure! If you are in the market for a cleaning service, call up SEIU, or in some areas the Teamsters, and ask if there are any in your area. If you like their work, recommend the service to friends and neighbors.

  32. EricP
    November 7, 2005 at 8:27 pm

    And neither one of us is comfortable paying someone to do it. It’s not guilt, so much as it is not wanting to feel like we’re taken advantage of someone.

    Some people have mentioned classism in this thread but no one seems to see the implications in regards to the points that have been made.

    You are not going to see rich, well educated people working as house cleaners or gardeners. However you are giving people a job. It may not be a great job but it beats the hell out of not having one. If the work cost more, less people could afford it. Those who got hired would happier but less people would have jobs. It is a job that requires little education or aquired skills so the barrier to entry is low. That means supply will always outstrip demand. That is a recipe for low wages.

    You may feel guilty about taking advantage of people but undeniably, not doing so just means that they will have less money to feed their family. It is classist, to allow your guilt to make life harder on people struggling to get by.

    If you want to make a difference, respect their work, be nice and give them a great Christmas tip.

  33. Jason
    November 8, 2005 at 1:58 pm

    I don’t feel too guilty about hiring a maid. There are lots of jobs out there that I wouldn’t want to do but is a job to someone else. As someone mentioned upthread, everyone “hires” farm workers, at least incidently. I think the progressive way to deal with any guilt is to do whatever one can to pay a fair wage and to fight politcally for the middle and lower classes. Universal health care. Immigrant amnesty. Fair wages. Health and Safety laws. That sort of thing.

    My flatmates and I hired a maid that comes once a month. We did it mostly because it was easier to have her clean our common areas than for us to try to divy the tasks up fairly. We still had to clean up after ourselves, but she did the deep cleaning. I think we pay her $75 for about two hours work. And she usually brings another person to help. So I guess I feel like it’s a decent job for two people.

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