There are many ways to divide the world into two parts. Rich and poor. Haves and have-nots. Employed and unemployed. Uneducated and overeducated (I often describe myself as belonging to the latter group). And so many more.
Other qualities such as race, gender, and political preference have become more difficult to define, and I will leave those to others.
But what I was thinking about today was a more subtle (or blatant, perhaps) division, and defined by your answer to this:
Do you clean your own house, or does somebody else do it for you?
We could narrow this down a bit and ask, Do you clean your own kitchen and bathroom(s)? And who does the laundry?
Examining these questions even further, I would ask: If you have a partner with whom you share your living space, who does what? In other words, how do you determine the divisions of labor? And who is making the decisions?
I’m fully aware that questions such as these bring to mind elements of elitism, accidents of birth, upward (or downward) mobility, marrying for economic purposes, money & wealth, and opportunities or opportunism, whichever you may choose.
Regardless of all of this, at some point the dishes need to be washed and the trash needs to be taken out. Or you’ve run out of clean underwear. Perhaps your mother (or mother-in-law) is coming to visit. Maybe your boss, special love interest, or Donald Trump (or Taylor Swift) is coming over for dinner, and you really need the house cleaned.
Let’s say you’re a single mother with two teenage boys at home, you’re in your second year of law school, you feel swamped with papers and exams, and mock trials and torts are swimming around in your brain. The house has to be cleaned and you can afford to pay somebody to do it.
It was in this very situation that my wife, Sharon, found herself years ago when she hired Lucille. Little did she know at the time that this decision would eventually benefit me, although we had not yet met.
I grew up in a household where my mother was a stay-at-home housewife. Although I often saw her running the carpet sweeper and knew there was a washer and dryer in our basement that provided us with clean clothes, she did all (or most of) the housework while I was at school. Difficult-to-remove stains on carpets, clothing, or other surfaces were television-produced issues that never impacted on my personal thoughts. My mom washed our clothes with Tide, and 65 years later, so do I.
I remember a “Momma” cartoon where the daughter calls her mother on the phone asking, “Momma, tell me again how you boil water?” I clearly remember asking my mother a few laundry-related questions before I went away to college the first time, and she walked me through the process. (I’ve been doing my own laundry pretty much my entire life.)
When I moved from the college dorm into my own apartment a couple of years later, Mom gave me simple instructions on how to prepare basic meals. These directions were straightforward and I’ve survived quite well ever since.
My mother’s advice was based on the what may now be called the Traditional American Plate—protein (meat, chicken, or fish), carb (potato, rice, or pasta), and vegetable (peas, carrots, frozen spinach, etc.), and maybe something else, like a salad. Salads at that time featured iceberg lettuce and perhaps a tomato wedge or two. I don’t remember eating broccoli or asparagus until many years later. (Although I’ve been known to sample cauliflower, I generally avoid it. I’ve thought for years about dipping it in chocolate.) This diet proved successful for my parents, both of whom lived into their nineties. (It was probably the iceberg lettuce.)
Through the vicissitudes of life, I have successfully prepared meals for myself, my two children, guests (not Donald or Taylor), and as fortune would have it, Sharon—after decades of her being the primary meal preparer, we now find ourselves in a situation where I’m in charge of virtually every dinner, which routinely includes asparagus, broccoli, farro, hummus, and other exotic offerings. “Spring mix” has replaced iceberg lettuce. Nothing has replaced no cauliflower.
But I stopped cleaning bathrooms after Sharon and I became a couple and I moved into her house. (Thank you, Lucille.)
I’m the first to admit that having someone else clean your house is a luxury. When Sharon and I moved to California in 1983, we were DINKs—a phrase used to describe a Double Income, No Kids household (we each had kids, but they did not live with us). We’d moved to a high cost of living area, and much of our incomes was earmarked for home repair and maintenance, child and spousal support, and other such basics. But we did agree that housecleaning service was a priority, and for the last forty years, we’ve employed others to provide that service.
Many of our friends, even if they have higher incomes than ours, choose to clean their own houses. In fact, many of our closest friends as well as my sister and brother-in-law (who live in a gated community in Southern California) fall into that category. God bless ‘em!
This past week our long-time Brazilian housekeeper, accompanied by her Latina assistant, visited us for two or three hours. I was aware of Portuguese, Spanish, and English comments and witticisms passing between them as they vacuumed, dusted, washed, and scoured our three-bedroom/two bath apartment. We know these people, have occasionally met their spouses and children, and trust them. We give them meaningful gifts at Christmas and often offer them household items we’ve replaced or no longer need (think: a TV; a barbecue grill; a piece of furniture; an extra baritone ukulele). They work hard and—dare I say—are fairly compensated.
Those of you who follow my writings are aware that Sharon and I have compadres who live in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. When we first visited Miguel and Guadalupe I became aware of a woman present in their home who was constantly cleaning, dusting, straightening up. When I asked who she was, Guadalupe looked around as if just becoming aware of the woman’s presence.
“La muchacha de casa,” she said, without emotion. It was the first time I’d heard that term.
When we were alone, Sharon and I discussed not the woman herself, but the concept. Muchacha de casa. This woman was certainly no muchacha. She had to be at least 40 years old. I can picture her now, a broom in her hands.
If we came by their home at 9 AM, she was there. If we said good-night at 9 PM, she was still there. If she had an actual job description, I would describe it like this: Always be present, do not make eye contact, appear to always be doing something, but otherwise be as invisible as possible.
On a subsequent visit to Mexico, when we had become closer to our compadres (who are considered family), I broached the subject, asking Miguel in my best but ever-inadequate Spanish, what it was like having a muchacha de casa.
Miguel is an optometrist—it’s how we met. He looked puzzled by my question, and in response asked me, en español, “¿No tienen una muchacha de casa?”
He was honestly surprised when I responded that no, we did not have a muchacha de casa.
Or to put it another way, he was asking, “How could you rich gringos, who can afford to travel to Mexico, South America, Europe, and China, NOT have a muchacha de casa?”
I closed my eyes, sighed, and pondered what answer would possibly satisfy his incredulity. Why, indeed? I decided to smother him with the truth—en español. (Sharon inevitably rolls her eyes when I attempt to offer complicated explanations in Spanish. This has never deterred me. See Freud at the Quinceañera.)
Here is a loose translation of what I told him, after taking a deep breath.
Mi compadre, in the United States, we have strict labor laws. Sharon is not just an attorney, she is a labor attorney. We are both licensed professionals and do not take risks in situations where we could be found guilty of breaking the law.
I further explained that in California, where we live, there is a minimum hourly wage (and mentioned the dollar amount at that time), and if a person is employed by you not only must you pay that wage, but you also have an obligation to contribute to the social security system for their retirement fund as well as other miscellaneous taxes and fees. In addition to this, you probably need special insurance in the event a person is injured while working at your home. One way to avoid some of these costs is to hire a person who works for an agency. But if you do, the agency will be charging you a higher fee so that they can afford these charges, taxes, and fees as well as the employee’s salary.
I summed up my explanation by telling him that we do indeed have household help several hours a month, and told him how much it cost us. Fortunately, he was sitting down at the time because (judging from his reaction) while the figure I mentioned was not an unreasonable estimate, it was much more than what it would cost to have similar help in Mexico. I also guessed that he would find it either amusing, incredible, or both to discover that I share in the meal clean-up and laundry duties, and you can probably guess why.
I want to add that Miguel, Guadalupe and their three children are hard-working people. Besides their own professional and commercial responsibilities (Guadalupe operates a small bodega), they have also created opportunities for the employment of various family members. I have never done any of those things. So far be it from me to cast aspersions. Yet, I do not have a full-time muchacha de casa.
We and our compadres live in different societies and cultures. When my father developed Alzheimers he was able to afford to stay in a retirement community and have 24/7 care provided through an agency. His primary caregiver was a devoted Filipina who was probably in this country without a work visa. If we were in Mexico my father would probably have lived with us for the last three years of his life with a caregiver who worked at a rate similar to that of a muchacha de casa.
I’ve cleaned the bathroom before, and I’m sure I could do it again. (Hey, in a situation of reverse irony, I cleaned the litter box for Graciela, our late Mexican cat, for many years. Did she ever give me a peso? Or even a meow of gratitude? No.)
I’ve never asked our housekeepers what alternative work they might do, or whether they are happy or unhappy. Perhaps I might. But would it change anything? It’s an interesting question.