Friday, June 1, 2012

Should I Feel Guilty for Hiring a Cleaning Service?

On a recent post about negotiating the work of marriage, I--somewhat jokingly--said that the solution to all of our housecleaning woes would come when we could afford to hire a cleaning service.

I felt funny after writing it, and when I got a comment on the post I finally realized why. I was terrified that someone was going to call me out on my privilege for considering hiring a cleaning service. In short, I was feeling guilty about even considering this luxury. I hadn't put a lot of thought into why I felt this way because I didn't even know that I felt this way, but now that the guilt was sitting in front of me, it was time to unpack.

Why do I feel guilty about the possibility of hiring a cleaning service?


1. It smacks of class privilege to be able to hire someone else to take care of the tasks that I don't want to do. 

2. Am I exploiting the person (probably a woman) who will come and perform this service? I certainly don't think that I'm better than her, but is some sort of hierarchy necessarily in place when you pay for this kind of labor? What does that mean for me as a feminist?

3. Shouldn't I be able to clean my own house? What does it say about me and my abilities that I have to outsource this thing that is seen as one of the most basic of daily tasks?

Then I did some reading on the subject and found out that I'm not the only one who has these kinds of misgivings on the topic. In particular, I really related to this post from Ariel Meadow Stallings at Offbeat Home and this post from the Happiest Mom. This post also gave a great breakdown on how we look at outsourcing and why we think of housecleaning differently. 

With those perspectives in mind, I went back and looked at each of my potential problems. 

1. It smacks of class privilege. 
Yeah, it does. It's a privilege to be able to hire a maid. It's something that I can only do because I am gainfully employed, and that's a privilege afforded to me for a variety of reasons, some of them I control (hard work, networking), some of them I don't (race, gender, sheer luck), and some of them are a combination of my work and the social factors around me (educational attainment, passion). 

But a lot of other things I do are a privilege, too. It's a privilege to live in the country I live in, where I am free to have a job. It's a privilege to have been able to go to school. It's a privilege to be able to drive a car. It's a privilege to be able to afford healthy food and to have the time to cook it. 

Recognizing that I have privilege is important, especially when it makes me aware of inequities in the world around me. But I can't fight those inequities by trying to ignore opportunities around me. It is my job as a privileged person to ensure that I am working for a more equal world and that means not exploiting people with less privilege and changing my actions when I become aware of new ways to work toward that goal. (More on this with point number 2). 

In short, being able to hire a cleaning service certainly is a privileged position, but so are a lot of positions I inhabit. Why is this one nagging at me so much?

2. Am I exploiting the person I hire?
Well, I certainly could be, just as I could be exploiting someone if I choose to buy clothes that were made in sweat shops. It's my job as a consumer to be responsible for finding a service that isn't exploitative. And I think I can do that. 

The service that I'm thinking about using is a locally-owned small business that's owned by a woman who is also one of the cleaners. If I'm supporting a local business and becoming a regular and reliable customer of a place that pays and treats its employees well, am I exploiting? If so, wouldn't I be exploiting my hair dresser every time I get my hair done? Wouldn't I be exploiting the clerk at the grocery store every time I buy produce instead of growing it myself? 

Yes, I outsource things. It's my job as a consumer to make sure that I outsource as responsibly as possible, but just being a consumer doesn't have to be exploitative. 

3. Why do I have to outsource a basic task?
As I mentioned above, I outsource all kinds of things. I buy produce from the farmer's market instead of growing it myself. I buy clothes instead of sewing them myself. I buy canned spaghetti sauce instead of making it myself. I purchase books to read instead of letting my mind be my own entertainment. I buy things. I am a consumer. 

So why does buying the service of cleaning feel different?

Because I've been told over and over and over again that it is part of my job as a wife and a mother and a woman for God's sake to keep my house clean. But I can't do everything. I can't spend the time that I want to spend with my daughter and my husband and my friends while also working and reading and writing and keep my house clean. I've been trying. I am failing. Does that make me a failure? 

I don't think it does. I think it means that I need to look at this system a little differently. With my new job, I will have the ability (yes, privilege) of being able to hire someone to come clean my house a couple times a month. If that cuts down on bickering over what needs to be done when, if that gives me more time to spend with my daughter, if that gives me a clearer mind and less stress, why shouldn't I take advantage of that?

Do you/would you consider using a cleaning service? Is there any guilt associated with that choice? Is it different than other services you purchase?

Photo: Jos Dielis


  1. My mum had a hard time with this one too. As a single mom of three who worked full time, went to school, and had fibromyalgia she decided that once or twice a year she would have some one comein to clean. That is until me and my brothers were old enough to clean vigorously.
    She never saw her decision in terms of privilege though. She was trying t,o be a good Christian and not be exploitive, so she only hired cleaners when it was too much for her to handle.

  2. My parents had a cleaner when I was a kid - she's now sadly passed away due to emphysema, at only 55 - and they not only ensured that they paid her minimum wage but made sure that she had access to and took her holiday entitlement every year. This is in the UK, where there is a legal minimum paid holiday and a legal minimum wage.

    What I would say is that if you believe in not being "exploitative" then ensure that you pay a living wage to your cleaner and ensure that they get the sort of paid holiday you think that all people should be legally entitled to.

    Ultimately, most cleaning businesses are "local"; it's impossible to see inside a business and understand the working conditions, which in a lot of "local" firms are terrible, but you *can* hire someone direct and make sure that they get a good wage and a decent paid vacation.

    1. I think it's very important that workers get vacation and a fair wage. However, I feel like I have somewhat less control over this if I'm just hiring someone to come in twice a month. I have to rely on the company (or individual making his/her own schedule) to work out those details because I'm taking up such a small amount of the overall time and therefore don't have as much control over the big picture.

      You're right that I can (and will) ask these kinds of questions of the service before hiring them, though.

  3. Last night my husband and I had a humorous conversation about housework contracts prompted by your earlier post. (We are a "traditional" household where is he works outside the home in an office, and I work inside the home raising our children and doing the majority of the household duties. We are completely satisfied with this arrangement)Even with the arrangement, our house is a little cluttered, and there seem to always be dishes in the sink. While housework is a priority, it falls beneath spending time interacting with my children.
    Years ago, I would NEVER have considered having a helper when it came to cleaning the house, but I have had a change of heart.
    My oldest daughter attends a school where 80% of the households are on free lunch. At parental gatherings I have received cards from mothers there who HAVE to work to help feed their families. Cleaning house is what they can do, and it is flexible enough that they can work and take care of their own families.
    By choosing to employ a woman in this situation, (not that I do, because I can't actually afford it) she is empowered to help give her own children the best life they can afford.
    I don't see this as any different than hiring someone to mow the lawn, or cook a meal, or press a suit.

    1. I think you're right that it's the same as those other chores we're okay with outsourcing, so I wonder why people tend to react so differently to this one.

      I also think your comment about women who are able to clean houses because it brings them much-needed income with a schedule they can control is really important.

  4. Several years ago I wrote an essay in the books "Lavanderia: A Mixed Load of Women, Wash and Word" about how I couldn't hire a housecleaner with a clean conscience. This was after several experiences with cleaning companies and feeling the race and class issues you touched on above.

    I now don't have time to clean my house and have decided to hire someone again. Like some of the other commenters, I decided to find an independent person (not a company which takes a cut of the fee) and pay her a wage that feels fair to both of us.

  5. I have had many similar thoughts on this issue. There's one more thing for me though, and that is trying to reduce the affects of consumerism and its resulting alienation in my life. Having a clean(er) house is something that we are encouraged to want and strive for, just like we are always supposed to want to be richer, thinner, etc. etc. In recent times, I have tried to focus instead on the idea that I need to choose what is most important to me, and accept the consequences of my choices. In my life (which involves two young children and a dissertation), this means that my house is only ever clean one room at a time, but I spend a lot of time playing lego and rocking my baby, and some time working on my PhD. I feel that if I hired someone to do my cleaning work for me, I would be able to live "as if" I had not made those choices. And something about this bothers me, even more than the mess does......

    1. I really like that perspective, and I do think that illusion of being able to "have it all" may be damaging to the soul. We do make decisions about our priorities and you're right that those priorities should have a real impact on our life (or else are they really priorities?).

      Not to just try to justify my own perspective, but I wonder if I'd really suffer the loss of that by having someone come in twice a month (which is the frequency I'm thinking about). I'd still have to do all the de-cluttering and picking up, so I'd still be the one to deal with the physicality of all my material things, which I think is really important not only for the reason you mention, but also because seeing all of those things helps me prioritize what I should buy, give away, etc. If someone else had to deal with that mess, would I think about my consumerism differently?

  6. I have a housekeeper for the same reason I get my nails done every week: I can afford it. I couldn't afford it in America, but I can afford it in China. I am greatly blessed to be paid almost 10 times what the average Chinese person is. If I can give some of that back to my local community and economy by getting my nails done, hiring a cleaning lady, supporting local charities, and buying local produce then I will.

    1. I think that's a really good point, and it reminded me of something else I thought about after I wrote this.

      I've been reading Mike Rose's The Mind at Work, which talks about all of the mental work involved in manual labor that we culturally take for granted, and I wondered if I was doing the same thing in this post. Am I demeaning this work by suggesting that it's exploitative?

      I mean, I've worked some jobs in my life that people have looked down upon, and it's kind of insulting to have someone act as if your life's work is a "cause" rather than a job. Am I doing the same thing?

    2. I think that people looking down on you for hiring a cleaning service is just plain sexist, actually. The only reason people find it insulting is because, as you said, keeping a clean house is a *woman's* job. Do we look down on men who hire a lawncare service even though lawncare is "men's work?" No, other men look at him in jealousy for making enough money to have that most hated of chores done for him. Also, many women choose cleaning as a job because of the flexability. I have known many, many people in my church who have cleaning jobs/businesses because it is so flexable and actually pays pretty well per hour. They are glad to do it so help a cleaning service out and give them a call!

  7. This issue has bothered me for many years and I appreciate this opportunity to contribute my 2 cents: I think that it is a matter of simple human dignity to care for oneself. Unless a person is ill or a child, it is inappropriate for anyone to clean or clean up after another person. Many of my points are mentioned already in the original blog post. However, the very bottom line to me is that it is the only real privilege and responsibility that a person has: to care for oneself. I think that it subtly (or not-so-subtly) changes a person's persepctive of oneself and other people when a person assumes (even subconsciously) that in the end someone else will take care of them.

    While it is true that some people are willing to work for others as domestic servants, I think that it belies the deeply ingrained exploitation at the root of capitalism. Just because it is done doesn't mean that it should be done. Remove the necessity for money from the situation and it's obvious that performing menial tasks for others is blatant exploitation.

    It is not beneficial for anyone, including the employer, and especially for society as a whole and the natural environment, to own and use more than a person can maintain. This applies to lawn services as well. I do not find this to be a sexist issue in any respect.

    There are warnings in nearly all ethical and religious teachings against overconsumption and exploitation because of what it does to the person's spiritual maturity. The only exception that I can think of is Calvinism, which describes that material success is evidence of God's favor, and this is in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus which Calivinists claim to adhere to.

    I would like to see a time when healthy adults no longer depend on others for basic personal care and more people have the opportunity to work with creativity and dignity.

    1. I think you're making some really great points--especially about how our capitalistic structure and monetary definitions of success lead us away from our responsibilities to self and to collect too many "things" that clutter (literally and figuratively) our lives.

      At the same time, I have to wonder where we could even start to dismantle that. You say that "the only real privilege and responsibility that a person has" is "to care for oneself." I'm not arguing that isn't true (in fact, it's beautiful and insightful in its simplicity), but does that mean that we can't buy bottled shampoo? (should caring for oneself mean creating your own? Are we exploiting the people who make that product to care for ourselves?) And, while we're doing our own housecleaning, are we exploiting the people who manufactured our purchased cleaning supplies (brooms, cleaning agents)? And caring for oneself definitely includes nourishment, but does that mean we are being exploitative when we go to a restaurant? It's just too messy for me to sort out neatly. What do you think?

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I personally take each day and each decision seriously. I address the big picture with a series of daily choices. My life probably looks very different from that of many (most?) Americans. My values are most important to me - more important than maintaining a hairstyle (I have a buzz cut which I do myself) and I make and use my own soap using ingredients from ecologically and socially responsible sources. Food choices are especially important to me. We have no air conditioning and heat our home as little as possible. I wash some clothing by hand. We eat at restaurants only a few times each year. My lifestyle is highly adaptive by substituting or eschewing items or habits that do not fit my values. Not all my choices are as good as I would like them to be due to the constraints of our social system. But I am healthy and happy and I try every day to live every hour with awareness and stay true to the reverence that I believe every creature and the planet deserves, including me. I consider myself very lucky to be able to make these choices, to be able to have freedom to do for myself and to be able to connect with a greater good on a daily basis. I think that if everyone tried just a little to be more self-responsible, in whatever way possible, life would be better for all. Not just because of diminished exploitation, but because people would gain greater stature in the spiritual sense which would enrich life everywhere.

    Thank you for the discussion on this topic!

    1. Thank you. That lifestyle sounds very fulfilling and thoughtful, and it sounds like it's also given you a very healthy sense of self and responsibility to the world around you. I really appreciate your perspective and agree that the self-aware actions of each individual have an impact on our world as a whole.

  9. Hey Michelle! Wonderful article! I personally don't feel any guilt in hiring a maid

  10. No; I would not feel guilty. I have no shame in saying I need help and
    welcome it! After all we have help for the outside (yard work, etc) why
    not for the inside?

    Maycee The Maid Red Bank New Jersey

  11. Lily from It's A Dome LifeFebruary 16, 2014 at 11:17 PM

    I cleaned houses to put myself through college. It's how I got my bachelor's degree. I started my own business. I never felt exploited. If I didn't like the way a client treated me then I would excuse myself from their employment and find another client. It was very easy to find people who needed help cleaning. I cleaned for a lot of senior citizens who just couldn't do things anymore. I cleaned for a lot of people who had big job commitments and just needed some help. One couple told me I saved their marriage. I think people sometimes look down on people who do that kind of work, but, even after getting my master's degree and working in a professional job, that cleaning business was the best job I ever had. I made my own hours, the pay was good, and I never worried about anything when I went home. Plus, you take a messy house and transform it into a clean one. My work was tangible. I could see the impact I was making. Pushing papers around an office never gave me the same kind of satisfaction.

    Now I am a stay at home mom turned work at home mom and I need help so badly, but feel guilty for asking for it or getting it. That's how I ended up here! I think my problem is thinking I "should" be able to do it all and do it all perfectly. For some reason having a clean house is some kind of symbol of being a "good" woman/wife/mother. I actually caught myself worrying about what other people would think! My husband never worries about it at all. I am not sure why I put so much pressure on myself. I need help cleaning this place up. There just isn't enough hours in the day to accomplish what I want to. A man would hire someone to clean his house and nobody would think anything about it. I wish I could let go of that guilt. Your post helps. Thanks for sorting some of that out for me!