July 19 2024

Domestic Help: The Unmentionable

by Isobel Johnston, Arizona State University

Painting, attributed to Spanish school of the 17th century, of a kitchen maidservant working

This past year a man colleague told me his key to time management in graduate school: “The first thing you need to do is marry a woman.”

Having someone else to ensure basic daily needs is a distinguishing factor between many professional men and women. Yet the domestic demands of cooking, laundry, cleaning, and shopping are absent in Guide for the Guild's call for a list of tasks demanding professional women’s time. This absence reflects at least two issues:

  1. These tasks are beneath value and hence off the radar of important nonprofessional parts of our lives.
  2. For a variety of reasons, most people simply cannot begin to imagine how domestic help can changes our lives.

A woman professor recently told me that the two nations with the highest rates of women earning higher degrees were located in the Middle East. When I suggested that these cultures still have extended family networks intact as well as widespread use of domestic staff, she looked at me like I was daft and speaking beside the point.

However, my position is upheld by my conversations with professional women from India, where hiring a minimum of two staff is seen as a social obligation of the privileged members of society. It does make a real difference for professional women, “You can think only about your work.” It also frees us to focus on the emotional, relational qualities of being with our loved ones, defining our relationships beyond the terms of what we do for them. In this respect, domestic help can greatly improve our quality of life.

Moreover, I know Hasidic Jewish mothers with large families hire domestic help because housework is seen as something that anyone can do; but women’s community involvement and parenting are valued as greater uses of her time.

Yet among the various sources of academic funding out there, I have seen only one professional women’s organization which accepts domestic services as a legitimate use of academic funding. I interpret this in two directions. Either overworking is an accepted price women have to pay if they want to work and “have it all”; or, the conditions of our private homes is so undervalued that it is treated like a non-factor.

Here, we accept that we wear our best clothes when the laundry pile reaches critical mass. Anything beyond minimal tidying up is left for semester breaks. Piled up dishes are a constant—or better—we plate up from the dishwasher—or worse—we eat fast food regularly. If we choose to maintain these areas, time is taken from our professional and personal obligations. All this affects our overall sense of wellbeing. When our homes become one more source of pressure in our maxed-out schedules or something we mentally close ourselves off from, home life depletes instead of restoring our energies.

Yes, quality care takes time and effort to arrange. Care provider websites feature articles explaining strategies for hiring a “good fit” and they offer a sense of your local market rates. Colleagues or other professional acquaintances may be able to recommend people they have had good experience with. It may surprise you to discover how many people do employ some degree of help already. For graduate students, this may be the most compelling argument for living with roommates. The rent saved can support some degree of shared cleaning services.

I personally prefer independent small companies whose entire business depends on their good reputations. A positive consequence of the recession is that many enterprising individuals have set themselves up as independent cleaning businesses or personal assistants, who run errands including groceries, meal preparation and transporting loved ones to appointments. Rates have become competitive, about $15 per hour for house cleaning in the two states I have lived in. Independent businesses can be found through internet searches and word of mouth, many are cross listed with the Better Business Bureau.

If someone else could relieve you of two hours of your work each month—$30, maybe—what could they do for you?

Note: The author worked in India for 15 months where she employed a dobi for laundry services and a sweeper to clean floors and bathrooms weekly. She ordered groceries by phone for home delivery.

Image: Kitchen Maid, Unknown artist, attributed to the Spanish school of the 17th century. via Wikimedia Commons