Modern dilemmas: household management
My cleaner has just handed me a tub of tomato soup, prepared last night for Babster. What am I to make of this? Is she implying the Babster is malnourished? Is she commenting on my admitted lack of expertise in the kitchen? Or is she, as one mother to another, showing me kindness?
It is the latest gift from her. All have, with the exception of a fluffy bear, been of food: from croissants to chocolates to salty Polish snacks. Each time I have said: ‘You really should not do this’ I shake my head and attempt to hand them back. Each time she has refused, smiling sweetly making me feel a heel for refusing her gift. I have even told her unequivocally not to bring presents. But the gifts keep coming.
What should I do? Neither of us speak the same language, so complex communication is difficult. I do not wish to offend her with apparent ingratitude, but these gifts make me feel uncomfortable: it’s bad enough I don’t clean my house thoroughly every week, she thinks I can’t even feed my child. It highlights a dilemma many women I know face: how to manage someone doing a job we were brought up to believe was our responsibility?
Cleaners have more power than the old hard Left think. Often women, they enable other women, burdened by their own work, childcare and household management. It is a huge relief to feel stressed about one less thing. For those working as cleaners, at least those I know working locally, the job enables them to earn well above the minimum wage in jobs with a degree of flexibility.
Despite that virtuous circle, I know few women who feel comfortable with this relationship. It’s awkward. Not just because of the old feminist view that regards having a cleaner as subjugation of poor women by rich ones (as with all these things, it is WAY more complex than that). No, it’s because deep inside there remains a sense that this is something we should be doing ourselves. Or ‘would ‘ be doing if we were ‘proper women’ and not failed jugglers. Well, thanks a lot Shirley Conran, I’d love to see you wield a J Cloth.
I know I am not the only woman who has spent a fortune on a new vacuum cleaner or iron because the one you had – which seemed fine before – was deemed ‘not good enough’ by the cleaner. We appease those who work for us because the removal of this one burden from our aching shoulders makes a huge difference and, once one finds a cleaner who does a great job, one lives in fear of losing her – or him.
We want them to work for us, yet, and here is the fatal flaw, we want them to like us because we carry the double burden of thinking it important be be regarded as ‘nice’. (Ask any man, it is not, but still it’s hard to shift the nagging doubt).
I wonder too if, for those of us who have risen upstairs rather than descended below, the embarrassment felt at ‘managing staff’ is cultural. We have no template for managing people around the home, so either come down too soft or too hard. We lack the sense of entitlement inbred into the upper classes that makes them so much less awkward in these situations. or at least guilt free.
We need to manage these relationships professionally. If we do not problems arise and resentments breed beneath the surface on both sides. My cleaner is not my friend. I am pretty sure she feels the same and doubt she’d ask me to join her mates over a bottle of wine – she’s seen the state of my house, after all. I like her enormously and appreciate her work, but, as in all employment, that is not the primary purpose of our relationship.
Right now that matters little: I am stuck with a tub of soup wondering how to stop the gifts that keep on giving. If I accept them I encourage a familiarity that makes it harder to manage problems should they arise, and, if I refuse them, I risk offending a woman about an act of generosity. Either way I am damned. What would you do?
© Danuta Kean 2012