The Politics of Cleaning

When your housekeeper shows up in really nice clothes, is it okay to question her commitment to cleaning?

I’ve done my own cleaning for years, or at least my version of it, the version where the inside of the oven doesn’t exist and the thought of washing windows is quickly replaced with, “Well, it might rain tomorrow.” Eventually, that caught up with me.

The first day Veronica arrived, she came to impress. She scrubbed the floors, the inside of the oven sparkled, she vanquished the dust, and I wondered how I’d lived so long amongst so much dirt.

But now, as we enter month five, she arrives in a skirt and dress sandals, cell phone pressed to her ear immersed in conversation as she waves a feather duster like a disinterested conductor. She’s hardly getting rich off me, but at $65 for three hours work, she’s not doing too badly either, and I feel as if she’s taking me for a ride.

I’ve thought about ending our relationship, handing her a final check and asking for my keys back. She’ll look at me through eyes empty of understanding, and I won’t find the courage to be honest. In the break-up equivalent of “It’s not you, it’s me,” I’ll tell her, “I just can’t afford you right now.”

She deserves to hear the truth, that the love between us is gone, that I’ve expected her to enter my home like a crazed commando desperate to find every last morsel of dirt and leave me in jaw-dropping awe with each of her visits, and that she has disappointed me in her contentment with rearranging my piles, that hiding cooking utensils in any available cupboard so that I must crawl through my kitchen searching for the strainer or the measuring cup after each of her departures is not the same as cleaning.

But as in all relationships that go sour, where one loses love for the other, no one really wants to hear the painful causes. We always say that we do, but that’s because we don’t anticipate how brutal honest rejection can be.

When I was a child, my mom always raced around cleaning before the housekeeper arrived. It was the most annoying behavior a child could witness, the first glimpse of parental insanity. From then on, any words from the parent were met with suspicion. It’s hard to trust a crazy person.

“Veronica’s coming today, so clean your room,” I bellow before clapping a hand over my mouth to prevent the words from emerging. Too late. I’ve crossed over, engaged parental psychosis, and I anticipate my son’s rolling eyes. But oddly, since I birthed a Virgo, he scurries to tidy his room, hiding valuable items from the potential death claw of a-stranger-who-dusts and who may inadvertently adjust the perfectly positioned arms on the collectible Gorillaz statues.

I can’t shake the guilty feeling of having a cleaning woman. I hate the elitism it suggests, regardless of how pervasive the employment has become, and I always feel the need to join her in tasks as if sitting at my computer likens me to a plantation owner. Short of cowering in my room, the only alternative is fleeing my home entirely during her bi-monthly visit, which is what I’ve resorted to lately. But then I resent her even more for my forced exile.

This relationship clearly isn’t working.

Subconsciously, I may want Veronica to fail so that I have a reason to let her go. I really can’t afford her right now. Only I don’t want to let her go. I want her to figure out how to take the screens off my third story windows so that she can clean off the grimy streaks and the trail one bird left behind that no rain seems to be able to wash away. I want to make peace with the class system of this country and to believe that I’m helping her by employing her rather than imagining her scorn for my home and my lifestyle. I want to believe that America is like Egypt where the well off are expected to employ those less so, that doing your own driving, cooking, and cleaning is considered stingy rather than noble.

But when Veronica enters my home, I don’t think I’m doing her a favor, not when my son is off at camp and her daughter, not as privileged, must on occasion come and watch her mother clean. I hate the inequity of it all, but I also hate that Veronica shows up not taking the job seriously, never getting dirty or sweating or moving a piece of furniture to clean what lurks behind or below.

And I don’t know how to reconcile these feelings. Or the silence that surrounds this subject. I’m baffled that so many can employ others in their homes without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. This may be just a sliver of the complexity of life these days, but it feels so much bigger than simple housecleaning.

For now, I am keeping Veronica. I can’t lie to her and I can’t tell her the truth. Maybe with gentle nudges, I can get her to clean better, and maybe with her continued presence, I can learn to feel less guilty for my privileged status.

Such is the complexity of the politics of cleaning.


Anonymous said...

I think you’ve really hit your stride in the last couple of pieces you’ve posted. You seem ever more at ease with your own writing style -- it flows smoothly and lightly, and (as usual) you find wonderful little nuggets of wisdom hidden even amongst the most common activities & concerns of daily living.

Emily said...

Great title! It works so well. You really get to the heart of this and the complication of it all. Well said.

genevieve said...

Hi, what a great post. Appreciate your honesty on this, I've seen at least eight cleaners come and go in my 23 years at home.
I have a handicapped son and have had no compunction over the years getting a cleaner in from time to time.
It is your money - and if you know someone can clean really well when she wants to, then you're entitled to ask some questions about her commitment.
On the point of tidying up first, some cleaners do find it harder to get things done if there is a lot to move while they are there. I've always been a firm believer in getting things out of their way so as to maximise the value for dollar -they are not there to tidy.

You might try tidying up one week before she comes, and see if that makes a difference (it may not, but it's worth a try.) It is not as insane as it sounds - it will make her feel you are supporting her, that she's not just working at the tip of an iceberg. She may even feel her first week's efforts were unnoticed - did you thank her and praise her up? even cleaners like their work to be noticed, believe it or not. It's one way of assuaging the guilt, too. (But of course at this point you want something to praise, don't you.)

And for God's sake, don't work with her. Find a good library or a music shop to hang in for an hour or two, or join a gym or a walking club. Or go get the shopping, visit a friend.
Even get outside and rake leaves or kill a few snails... If you absolutely must feel guilty, I'm sure you've got plenty of jobs she won't get to that you can do when she's not there. I know I have - my oven is crawling with goo. (Must do that sometime! sure, it's tidy but it's pretty damn dirty.)
Sorry to ramble on... Good Luck!