NEW YORK CITY: As a child growing up in rural Indiana, I did plenty of service work — paid and unpaid. Every kid I knew had daily chores and most had part-time jobs. I started mine at age 12, shelving books at the local library.
As a teenager, I nabbed the weekend hostess position at the Jim Dandy family restaurant, where I greeted post-church brunch goers who piled in for the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. I refilled endless coffee cups, bussed tables and cut pies.
All of this must have deeply imprinted my Midwestern soul, because when I am anxious or upset, there is nothing that calms me faster than doing some small, productive manual task, like reorganising a closet or loading a dishwasher.
WHAT LOCKDOWN LEFT BEHIND
Still, I never had the time, or quite frankly, the inclination, to clean the entire house by myself — at least not for the past 20 years or so that I’ve been able to afford a professional. But since lockdown began a month-and-a-half ago, my family and I have been left without our wonderful cleaning lady, Lilly.
The first week we let the dust and dirt build. The second week we silently longed for fresh sheets, changed by someone else.
The third week we reverted to our natural equilibrium states — meaning, my husband and the two kids made peace with the filth, and I made a plan of action.
I called a family meeting, and announced that going forward, until lockdown was over, we’d have to clean the three floors of our Brooklyn brownstone, each week, by ourselves.
Given that this took Lilly roughly eight hours a week, I estimated that it should take the four of us only two hours apiece to do the same. As a show of leadership and largesse, I even volunteered to handle the largest bathroom.
Twelve hours later, as the four of us recuperated with Netflix and takeout from a job still only half done, I pondered how much of a raise to give Lilly when she returned.
MORE CREDIT TO HOUSEKEEPERS
Like so much during this strange pandemic era, my adventures in cleaning have forced me to ponder deeper things — like what it really means to do hard physical labour for a living.
It’s one thing to moonlight as a night waitress to bolster freelance writing income, as I did in my twenties. It’s another to work for decades on your feet, without healthcare, formal pension, or any real chance for upward mobility.
Now more than ever, I think that the type of work people do should factor into our thinking about entitlement reform and retirement policies.
States like California have created universal public pension programmes so that people who clean houses for a living do not end up literally working themselves to death. We ought to consider making that a national standard.
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Our pandemic housekeeping has also made me regret that I have never firmly or consistently forced my kids do regular weekly chores around the house as my mother did with me. That is not their fault, but mine.
My mom was a first-grade teacher, in the days when teachers could actually stop working at 3pm, and she had more time than money.
Helicopter parenting and “enrichment” activities did not exist back then, at least not where we lived. My extracurricular activities included mowing grass, shovelling snow, and looking after my younger brother when she couldn’t.
As a working mother, my paradigm was just the opposite — I had enough cash, but was lucky to make it home by 7pm. I wanted my evenings with the children to be pleasurable, or at least educational — we might read or go to a play or a movie together, maybe even make a nice dinner if the nanny didn’t have time — but clean the house? I never even considered it.
Now that we are doing just that, I realise we have all missed an opportunity, not only to come together and share responsibility in the household, but also to really understand our class privilege.
The upshot? I’ve decided to give Lilly the same money for fewer hours when she returns and our family will pick up the slack for a few hours each week.
Everyone is more appreciative of each other when we have to share chores. I can’t tell you how pleasant it is to watch my husband change sheets or to see my kids fold laundry crisply.
Housecleaning has become my new way to burn off the free-floating anxiety of quarantine. There is really nothing like scrubbing a kitchen floor for an hour to make you appreciate how good things are for so many of us, even in times like these.