May 10, 2011  •  In Baby, Claire, Motherhood, Parenting, Personal, Relationships

Household Help

I have a confession to make.

Before I became a mother, I used to look down on SAHMs with housekeepers and/or nannies. “You stay at home all day,” I thought to myself. “Can’t you clean when the baby’s sleeping? And why would you need help raising a kid?”

This, like many other pre-conceived notions of motherhood, was thrown out the window as soon as I became a mother myself. Because being a SAHM is the hardest job I’ve ever had. Because I really don’t know how moms with 2+ young kids do it (single moms have my utmost respect).

Because, when you think about it, the nuclear family living separately in a household by itself is a fairly new concept, and for most of human history women always had others around to help raise the children, cook, do household chores, etc.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this as I read an article titled “Never Mention the Housekeeper” in NYTimes’ Motherlode. The column actually opens with the mention of one of my favorite literary families — the Marches of Little Women fame — and notes how they, despite the fact that they were so poor that they could not afford Christmas gifts, still managed to employ Hannah, their live-in servant.

The article goes on to quote Meagan Francis of The Happiest Mom, who wrote:

The Marches weren’t unique. Going by the extensive reading of free and/or inexpensive classic novels I’ve had 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?

Second confession: soonafter we discovered that I was pregnant again, when the morning sickness and fatigue seemed neverending, we went ahead and hired a cleaning service to come in once a week so that I would be relieved of at least one duty.

And it has been one of the best decisions I have made as a mother.

I no longer stress over the state of our bathrooms. I no longer spend Claire’s naps — time that I could and probably should be resting — tidying up the house. I enjoy my time with my daughter more now that I am not thinking about the next item on my “to clean” list.

The thing is, I have not been feeling much better in the second trimester. The nausea has subsided somewhat, but it has been replaced with migraines and insomnia. It’s difficult enough taking care of an infant when you are pregnant, but it’s doubly difficult when your head is painfully throbbing with every beat of your pulse.

So we’ve decided to get a part-time nanny instead, and as soon as we find one we will discontinue the cleaning service.

I still feel a bit of shame saying (writing?) this. Like Ms. Francis says, shouldn’t I be able to do this all by myself if I tried a bit harder? Am I failing my family as a SAHM?

And that’s when my own mother steps in to remind me that she — the greatest mom ever in my eyes — had full-time help in the form of my grandmother who lived with us until she passed away.


Claire gives the camera a stink-eye while her grandmother (my mother) holds her

Even J’s mother had help — J’s aunt and his grandmother who lived with the family — when the children were young.

And both mothers continually remind me that I will need even more help as I get bigger, and eventually give birth to BebeDeux.

What is it about household help that touches such a nerve? Is it envy that others can afford more, or outrage that domestic workers are being exploited, or a belief that one’s own mess is one’s own responsibility, that makes critics jump? Is it guilt at not being able to handle it all, or fear of being the exploiter, or sensitivity about looking “entitled,” that makes so many employers defensive?

In other words, when did it go from being something Marmee assumed was part of managing her life, to something Ms. Francis feels the need to apologize for?

Does the modern nuclear family have it wrong? Were we better off when extended families lived under one roof, when it literally took the village to raise a child?

21 Responses to “Household Help”

  1. Tek:

    I’m glad that when I have children my mom will be around to help out. My mom was a SAHM and when I (as the eldest child) got older helped out where I could with my four siblings. I definitely agree that it takes a village to raise a child. I have may friends that use their family and friends as a ‘village’ that helps them raise their children. Single or child-less couples don’t mind babysitting or accommodating children during a party. The kids are more social and work well with adults and other children. My sisters and I are always letting mothers know if they need a few hours to themselves we are available to babysit.

  2. LHR:

    This definitely strikes a chord with me since I struggle with the decision of hiring a cleaning service. We can afford one, and it does make logical sense, but a big part of me still sees it as an extravagance.

    Your post is getting me to rethink. You’re right — the “nuclear” family had a lot more help back in the day. My mom worked from home, had my grandmother around to help, and also had a nanny. I guess it didn’t sound as overkill since my grandmother was a family member who would have lived with us anyway, and the nanny was probably a college student not getting paid much.

    When we moved to the U.S. my mom became a fulltime SAHM at 28 in a foreign country and still managed to keep things under control. She told me that it was difficult, but I never got the sense that she struggled. Homecooked meals every night and day. All the chores were done efficiently. Hiring an outsider to fix anything inside the house was almost unheard of. Maybe it gets easier once the kids get older, but she still did so much.

    My parents moved away last year, leaving my little family completely on our own. I work, and have never hired a babysitter (another daunting task). 2nd one on the way. If we can managed to dig ourselves out of the disaster that is our apartment any time soon, then I think it’s time to hire professional help.

  3. Jan:

    I am one of those people who look down on SAHMs hiring help. Hope I am not forced to eat my words when I have a baby!!

  4. My mom recently re-injured her back and has been going to weekly physical therapy appointments. It’s hard for her to sit at her desk all day, much less clean the bathroom. She told me she hired a cleaning service last week to clean in preparation for guests they were having this week, and I thought “What a great idea!!” She used to clean houses when we were kids, mostly for people at church. Now that the kids are all out of the house and she’s working more, she can afford having someone come over and clean once a month, maybe twice a month, without it breaking their budget. I’m just happy that she is able to relax, not hurt her back, and have more time to herself. Neither my mother nor myself “like” cleaning – we aren’t the type of people that tackle a messy bathroom with gusto, feeling accomplished. We dread it, drag our heels throughout the entire thing, and make it into a time-wasting and half-assed job (at least I do). I have told my husband on multiple occasions that I’d like to hire someone to come and clean our bathroom and kitchen once a month, do a really good job, because I HATE doing it, and my husband apparently doesn’t notice until it’s disgustingly messy.

    And we don’t have kids.

    So I don’t think you should feel bad AT ALL. I know when we have kids, we won’t have family nearby, so I can totally see myself doing something similar, especially with cleaning, since I plan on being a working mom. I have a feeling I won’t feel like cleaning after a long day of work, away from my kid. If I can work our budget to allow for someone to help, that’s friggin’ awesome.

  5. Courtney:

    If people have the extra money to hire help, that’s their prerogative- they can spend it however they want. I think what people object to/take exception to is when people make it sound like the help is a necessity. I think it’s pretty rarely a necessity for a SAHM to require a nanny/housekeeper.

    I had a C-section and had help the first couple of days I was home. Then my mom went home and my husband went back to work and I made it work home alone. Was it hard? Yes. Was it ideal? No. But you do what you have to do. I’m not sure I can even imagine hiring a baby nurse/nanny to mind a baby when I’m actually at home.

    As for chores, when I was home on maternity leave after the first 6 weeks when I recovered from my C-section I went back to helping with the housework. Before that my husband would do it all- or if friends/family came to visit, they would help out. When I went back to work, hubby and I shared the chores pretty equally.

    Now I work full time and my husband is the SAH parent. Now that he stays home full time I expect him to carry more of the housework load- since he’s home all day- and he feels that’s equitable. However, I still do my fair share considering I’m out of the home 9 to 10 hours a day. Does it suck to spend weekends doing chores together? Yup. But oh well.

    Even if we had the money to hire help, I’m not sure I could justify parting with the money since hubby is home all day- and I know that when I was staying at home, I made it work.

    So I think what people take exception to is the attitude of those who say they can’t possibly do it all, just must have help, etc. when they’re are muddling through making it work without the hired help.

  6. Jen:

    Living in Asia, household help is very common. But I still do hate to admit that I have a helper to my friends. We don’t have kids, but I can’t imagine not having our helper in our current stage of our lives. My fiancée and I are both working full-time jobs and doing an executive MBA program. Housework is one less thing to worry about and it allows us to spend more quality time together.

    The expat families I have met highly advocate hiring full-time help/nannies. Many also plan to stay here till their children reach grade school so that they will not have to pay for the expensive daycares and nannies back in the US.

  7. Rock on. It sounds like a brilliant idea, and you know your body and your needs best.

    I will have my mother to help me in my first year of being a parent and I am dammmnnn well looking forward to it. She is an amazing woman, a great help, and I am so thankful to have her guide my way when I struggle.

    and if I’m ever in a position to hire a cleaner, consider it done {evil laughter inserted}. I hate cleaning.

  8. Christine:

    I work full time, but my job often involves me travelling for several days at a time. I have a full time nanny that cooks and cleans. When I’m not travelling, I’m a WAHM (for the most part) and I’m at home with my baby and nanny and I feel no guilt whatsoever. My nanny is a God-send that helps me with my life. I spend so much of my day working that when I’m not working, I want to spend time with my baby – NOT doing household chores.

    That being said, before I had a baby, I was the only person in my house who did everything. I cooked all three meals, cleaned the house, and had the bills paid. When I travelled, I pre-cooked meals and portioned them in labeled containers. I did my fair share of the hard work for years and now is my time to get the help I need.

    Do what is best for you and don’t feel any guilt. There is too much in this world people feel guilty about. Being a great mother to your child should not make you feel guilty (even if it means your house might be a little messy if you can’t afford any help).

  9. I do think it is a necessity and is a priority in our budget. Even before having kids (our kid is still in my belly!) we had someone help us clean. I used to be “against” it – I took after my mother and thought I was failing if I had help. But then my husband said to me that we have such little time together, that he wants to spend our time enjoying each other and not doing chores. Pre-baby, we had someone come once per month and we maintained. He also insists someone come the day of or day-before my mother comes or we host a party (he is right – this makes hosting enjoyable instead of stressful). When the baby comes and I’m a SAHM, we are thinking of having someone twice per month. After I return to work, we’d like someone weekly. This is written into our budget and we’d eliminate other things before eliminating help cleaning. I was hesitant at first, but my husband was right, and I’m glad we have someone help us clean. I think that some ppl who are against having someone help them clean thinks that it costs more than it actually does. A friend, who’d never had someone come clean before, decided to treat herself one wkd to a cleaning person. However, she was so embarrassed about it, she didn’t ask any of us for referrals. She hired from a company and spent like $250!! My friends and I all spend around $75 per cleaning. The per cleaning cost also typically goes down if you have someone come more frequently. I also am similar to my mother (who is now a convert) and I typically clean while they clean. The cleaners do the usual (bathrooms, floors) while I do the things that don’t need to be done regularly (vacuum curtains, organize a closet, etc.)

    Being in your home after it has been professionally cleaned is one of the most relaxing feelings in the world. It is better than a massage (which frequently costs more) and it is incredible to have everything clean at the same time. Wow; I can talk about this a lot! I highly recommend having someone help you clean – especially if you have kids – regardless if you are a SAHM or not.

    • You said it’s about $75 a cleaning – what does that entail exactly? How much gets cleaned, or how long do they clean for, exactly? Do you tip? Just curious!

      • Vacuums, sweeps, mops all floors, along with dusting the baseboards (I hate mopping). Vacuums all upholstered seating. Dusts everything. Wipes down shelves in refrigerator; makes kitchen sink and counters sparkle. Cleans the top of the stove. Cleans all bathrooms (floors, counters, toilets, shower/tub). Empty all trash (though I usually do that before they come). We have never used a cleaning business, just independent ppl. We just moved to a new city, but in our last city, we paid $70, which was raised to $75 at some point in the several years we were using them, for our 2BR 2 BA condo (1000sqft) condo to be cleaned. We paid the owner who came with three other people and stayed 60-90 minutes.

        Before, we’d always had just one person, so having a team of 4 was new for us. But I liked that I only had to be out of the house for 60-90 minutes. We are looking for someone now in our new city. I think $12/hour is a good rule.

      • We pay $65 (plus tip) for everything Erin describes, plus the dishes, changing the sheets, and changing out the towels in the bathrooms. We also have a 2 bd, 2 bth condo that’s 1,067 sqft. The cleaning service we use is locally owned and run by a husband-and-wife team and they send two people to clean our place and it usually takes them about 2 hours. We also know that they don’t underpay their employees, that they’re fully insured, and that they use organic cleaning products. Well worth the money, and a pretty good deal in my opinion!

      • Oh, and I’m almost always in the house when they’re here cleaning. They’re very unobtrusive but friendly enough to say hi to the baby, etc. And the first thing they ask whenever they come is to ask whether they should clean Claire’s room first or last, because it changes depending on what time she woke up from her last nap.

  10. i’m all for getting any help you need if you can afford it and you want it–no guilt necessary. of course i say that, and i still feel a bit guilty about having a housekeeper once a week, and we don’t even have children. and i was about to explain our justification for having a housekeeper, but i’m going to refrain in order to follow my own advice about not feeling guilty.

  11. Mary:

    I’m not a SAHM and probably could never be one. I am so THANKFUL that the husband’s aunt lives with us to take care of L. If not for her, my marriage would be spiraling downhill fast.

  12. What a good topic! I have a housekeeper come once every 2 weeks and it has saved the husband and I from fighting over cleaning and thus TOTALLY WORTH IT! No reason to feel guilty, it’s your money and your life, do with it as you please!

  13. I have had the same thoughts about having help! I am at home now with my 9 week old and I’m not finding that too hard to manage but I have been thinking a lot lately about trying to manage all this with a toddler and an infant. Right now if we have a bad night I can catch a nap in the afternoon but what happens if my toddler’s nap schedule doesn’t match up with my infant’s nap schedule. And I can’t even imagine what those first 6 weeks are like with two little ones in the house! I definitely think our modern living arrangements are to the detriment of mothers.

  14. Cyndi:

    I have had a cleaning service /person since i was single and owned my first home at the age of 24…I lived alone, worked full time and took call some nights and weekend..I had little free time to socialize and i wasn’t about to spend that time cleaning!

    We let the cleaning person go when i stopped working full time and went down to part time..I was home w/o kids so i had no excuse NOT to clean..When i was close to my due date my husband asked what type of gift i would want for having the baby and i knew immediately i wanted someone to clean while i was in the hospital! We decided to keep her on after that initial cleaning and she still cleans for us now every two weeks..I would much rather spend time doing things with my daughter then clean! Now when the baby naps i can either relax or prep for dinner!!! (and clean up breakfast /lunch dishes)

    My Mom used to get upset when i had a cleaning person while single but i told her if she wants to pay my bills then she can tell me how to spend the money i make! I personally wouldn’t have someone come to watch my daughter while i was home b/c i personally don’t see a reason for it..BUT if i didn’t have a cleaning person then i may have a need for someone to watch her while i cleaned..For me personally, i would rather have someone clean so i can spend the free time with my child..

  15. Jenny, I feel your pain. (Of course, without the second pregnancy.) Taking care of Grayson is a full-time job on its’ own, and I pretty much do ALL the housework unless I ask my husband to help (which he does usually without complaint). That also includes preparing dinner each night (something I never did until right around Grayson was born). My husband also works Saturdays, so the only day I really get him to myself is Sundays, and I usually put him to work in the yard or give him Grayson while I run errands or get as much housework done as I can. It’s exhausting. I feel like I don’t ever get full days off – merely hours at a time when he naps. Our house is huge (about 2,700 sq feet), and it’s a monster task to keep it clean. And there’s only three of us! (Well, and a dog and cat that shed like mad).

    After I finish school and I do finally start working again, you’d better believe we’ll figure in a housecleaning service. I had my house professionally cleaned once right before Grayson was born and then a few times when he was a newborn, and I agree with Erin above – there’s NOTHING better to me than having a completely clean house.

  16. Great post. I think you accurately analyze the modern family and its isolation and using surrogates to replace the help that would be given by extended family. When I was on maternity leave, we still continued with our cleaning service despite the fact that I was home all day. I think anyone with a child knows that it is incredibly challenging to care for a baby and do anything beyond eat (if that), much less clean and take care of the house. AND my mother came to help babysit. There’s no shame in it, Jenny!

    You get help whenever, however you can, I say. So now that we live with my mom while we’re building our house, she has taken on the added duty of cooking for us as well as caring for Baby full-time while I’m at work. She strongly believes that it is her duty a my mother to help in this way. Because family SHOULD always help. And it’s all the more convenient because we’re all under the same roof.

    Anyhoo, you look great! So exciting that you have BebeDeux in the oven!

  17. Without reading other comments to see what else has been discussed, I can say one thing, your NOT failing your family or at being a mom by hiring help. You have more time to spend with your kids if there’s help and even if youre not with your kiddos, remaining sane and going out for awhile by yourself is also very good. A happy mom is a good mom and that’s what matters.

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