I was initially so resistant to the idea. I knew people did it all the time, but it wasn’t something that I ever grew up seeing or experiencing in my own immigrant family. Lack of personal experience wasn’t the only deterrent, though. I personally just felt really uncomfortable with it. I remember hearing a quote years ago, “I would rather live a life that is closer to the oppressed than to the oppressor.” To give into this felt to me that I was siding more closely with the oppressor, the advantaged, the “haves” rather than the “have nots.” Plus, the overachiever in me felt somewhat ashamed at the thought of it, like it implied I was simply failing to do my own proper duties at home.
The husband had suggested hiring a cleaning lady for one or two days to do an extremely thorough cleaning of our home before the baby came. I knew there were certain things that we honestly never touched, ever since we moved in 1.5 years ago. We never dusted the blinds, never truly scrubbed the shower or the kitchen floor tiles. We did superficial cleanings at best but life always felt hectic and other tasks always took precedence. It just never mattered enough to me to tackle these nitty-gritty, time-consuming chores. It was the nesting-driven need for a clean home, and my current physical limitations despite having all this free time on maternity leave, that finally prompted me to give in.
Friends recommended her, so we had her over to first take a look at our home. She was polite, somewhat shy initially but very personable. Her English was limited but I spoke her native language, which helped put her… well, both of us, a bit more at ease. She complimented our home, and then my husband asked me to ask her about the price. She shrugged somewhat awkwardly and I couldn’t read how she wanted me to proceed. We asked how much our friends paid her, and while I felt they paid her well, I wanted to be extra generous. It is back-breaking work, typically for very little money. I calculated a price per hour that was a few dollars more per hour than what our friends were paying her. I told her a lump sum for two days’ worth, and again, her reaction was hard to read. Was she displeased? Was she trying not to be overly enthusiastic? Did she simply not understand if it was a good price or not? I tried to be confident and relaxed about our offer, but inwardly it was terribly awkward. I felt that the more obvious my discomfort, the more I would actually accentuate the socioeconomic differences, and the more I would insult her as a result.
She came to work on the first day, after taking the bus for 1.5 hours to reach our home. She amazed me with her speed, her diligence, and her level of detail. She came here years ago to give her children in her home country a better life, after their father left her for another woman. She asked for cash, not a check. I did not ask why.
I struggled to sit still in the living room as she cleaned. I felt guilty, even though it was obvious at almost 9 months pregnant that I was simply unable to do much beyond light housework. I was compulsive about trying to find ways to make myself busy. I think I might have insulted her when I tried to start vacuuming a corner that I had not asked her to clean.
It was both a rather complicated and a very simple experience.
It was complicated. There were political, social, economic, cultural, and racial issues that shaped her life, that brought her to our home for this one day. She was my employee for the day and I did not feel comfortable in my position, because she was also my hero, and she was a tremendous blessing.
It was simple. She not only did what she needed to do for herself and her family to survive, but she took pride in her work. When my husband emerged from his office in the late afternoon, she asked, “How do you like my work? I tried to do as much as I could while I was here.” It was simple. She came to do her job, to do it well, and we simply needed to pay her well, treat her respectfully, and say thank-you.
But no. It just wasn’t that simple. I keep thinking of what another immigrant friend said to me when we worked together years ago conducting research in nursing homes. He had been a Certified Nursing Assistant in long-term care facilities for many years, and he worked magic through his compassion and strength with the frail elderly. He took excellent care of them – toileting them, changing them, feeding them, helping them exercise. He commented to me once, “This society, they’ll always need people like us. People who are willing to do the dirty work for cheap. It’s ok. I know that’s just how it is.”
I feel humbled, I feel guilty, I feel both thankful and ashamed to be on the privileged side. It’s as simple as just needing and appreciating help at nine months pregnant. And it’s just not that simple at all.