Why Is Meagan Francis’s Housekeeper Controversial?

Over at The Happiest Mom lately, Meagan Francis has been starting a Mother’s Day related conversation on the fiction of doing it all. As long-time readers of this blog know, I think it’s quite possible for parents to “do it all” if you define doing it all as having a challenging career and a happy home life centered on nurturing your family. Plus running marathons if you want! However, if you want to throw keeping a spotless home that you have personally cleaned in there as well, something’s going to have to go. Because home maintenance is one of those Tasks That Can Fill All Available Space (much like organizing email) if you want to do it to a professional standard.

One obvious solution on housekeeping is to lower your standards to the bare minimum. If you prefer something more tidy, then another obvious solution is to outsource some of it. This is what Meagan talked about doing, hiring cleaning help for a few hours at a time here and there. Interestingly, the discussion in the comments has now been going strong for quite a while as people talk about outsourcing housekeeping. Apparently, this is so controversial that Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog picked it up, in a piece called “Never Mention the Housekeeper.” As a long-time writer about motherhood, work and other topics, she’s learned that mentioning a cleaning service brings in oodles of people quoting Barbara Ehrenreich or making what I started referring to as the BNECAACS remark during interviews I did on 168 Hours (“But not everyone can afford a cleaning service…”)

To me, none of this should be controversial. Outsourcing cleaning is no different than outsourcing anything else. I could drive the letter I’m about to mail to Darien, CT up there myself, but I’m not going to, because the post office can handle it much more efficiently. I bought a pair of jeans and two shirts yesterday and, given enough time, I probably could have sewed reasonable facsimiles myself. I elected not to do that, because time has an opportunity cost, and I do other things better. The clothing manufacturer can produce these garments more efficiently than I do. Likewise with outsourcing household chores.

But to many folks, this is controversial. The first part of what I call the Barbara Ehrenreich argument is that housekeepers are often exploited. This may be true in some cases, though as Meagan makes clear in her posts, not in hers. Running a housekeeping business can be very profitable work if done right. But the second part of the Ehrenreich argument is more about the value of such work. As one commenter posted (possibly quoting her, it’s not clear), a home “is the place where your children are raised, and what they learn pretty quickly is that some people are less worthy than others. Even better wages and working conditions won’t erase the hierarchy between an employer and his or her domestic help, because the help is usually there only because the employer has ‘something better’ to do with her time…”

Again, though, do we look down on the farmer for growing the food we don’t grow ourselves? Do we teach our children to do that? Do we look down on the bus driver for taking our kids to school when we could drive them? Doubtful. These people are providing a service of convenience and making a living doing so. If you think housework is less worthy, that says more about you than anything else. Because the reality is that the Ehrenreich argument stems from a belief that housekeeping is inherently low worth. Why? Because women are supposed to do it. And women’s time has no value. Hence, outsourcing it is pure luxury — something only for spoiled rich people — while outsourcing other things in our modern, connected world is just life.

I am glad this conversation is going on, because I think it’s important that we all acknowledge outsourcing in all its forms. One of the stranger questions I’d get during 168 Hours interviews was how I found time to write the book with two little kids. Um, writing is my job. We are a two-income family and so have childcare while we are working. There’s no big secret to it, really.

12 thoughts on “Why Is Meagan Francis’s Housekeeper Controversial?

  1. Oh goodness, can I get an Amen? I always thought the phrase was that women could “have it all” not have to “do it all.” Even the perfect Proverbs 31 woman (ideal) refers to directing servants. (And please don’t anyone start nagging me about that word. I’m not calling my housekeeper a servant. Just using the wording from the Bible.)

    The point is, she DELEGATED. Some things she did herself, and some she did not. And her children and her husband called her blessed. Would they have called her blessed if she was run down, worn out, frazzled, and stressed beyond belief? I doubt it. They called her blessed because I believe she created a warm, inviting, loving, productive home. That’s what’s most important. How you get there is really up to you.

    And as for children? I teach my children that ALL WORK, when done well and with a good spirit, is honorable. No I don’t want to be the garbageman, but aren’t you thankful that someone steps up and does that job for all of us? When my housekeeper comes by, my girls know that she’s there to “help Mommy” and that Mommy is so greatful for her help. And I am. I’m greatful that she comes in and makes my home sparkle, and that I’m in a position where I can help a fellow woman financially support her family. We all do what we have to do when it comes to supporting our families. I want to teach my children to respect the concept of good hard work, and that delegation is not a dirty word! We discuss delegation of work as being a part of our family team. We all have to pitch in. Or pull in a designated hitter occasionally. Whatever makes your family work better.

    Having lived overseas, I have personally seen “class systems” firsthand, and I have seen how “the help” is terribly mistreated, taken advantage of, and exploited. All of that is completely true. And since I put myself through college being a nanny, I will even admit to experienced it myself right here in the US. Doesn’t mean that just because I have a housekeeper I am doing that as well.

    I do believe that some women feel called to do all the housework in their home. I understand and accept that. I however, am not. I rather free up that time, which is more important frankly, to be spending with my children while they’re young.

  2. I agree that people keep their housekeepers a secret, especially SAH Moms. They don’t want to admit they have their house cleaned so they can go to the gym, (horrors, taking care of yourself instead of your house), or take their kids to the park.
    It is a shame that we feel we have to do it all ourselves. It has taken me many years to let that go, as my working 6-days-a-week single mom did it all; sewed me special occasion dresses, never bought a pre-made cookie, never ordered take-out, and more.

    I have chosen to reduce clutter to only what I love, rotate a few beloved seasonal items, have my family do their share (3 males) and have my kids/husband be responsible for their areas of the house to minimize cleaning for all of us. We purge on a regular basis too.
    I am having the groceries delivered so I can spend my time in the garden instead of the supermarket. The way I talk about grocery deliveries, my kids think it is a great job to have b/c it makes Mom so happy when the food gets here.
    Though my family spent 2 hours powerwashing the backyard patio, we all did it together in the sunshine and had fun laughing and getting wet while we worked. We saw a big difference and were proud of it.
    We cook together too.
    You have made me a big fan of aligning tasks.

    1. Excellent points. In 168 Hours, I talk about a stay-at-home mom outsourcing the laundry because she preferred to spend that time hanging out with her kids. Perhaps people react strongly to that because we consider housework part of a full-time parent’s job, but that’s not inevitable. I’ve long outsourced some of my research, even though this is part of reporting/writing. I don’t think anyone would make a value judgment that I’m lazy because of it. At least I hope not!

      1. Funny how it’s more commonly accepted that you can hire someone to take care of your children, but not as OK to have someone take care of the place you live in, so you can spend more time with your children.

  3. I strongly believe that individuals, not just corporations, should be able to deduct salaries paid (where social security and unemployment taxes, etc. are paid properly) from their incomes. This would reduce unemployment by giving jobs to people who need them and allow people (like me) with high marginal tax rates to afford childcare/housekeeping to work for pay.

    1. @Twin Mom — that would seem to be a win all around for the economy. You’d work, plus other people would work. I don’t see it happening for all the reasons listed in my post (namely, that many people believe “women’s work” should be done for free) but it’s nice to think about! I think this would be more helpful to the economy than the ability to deduct mortgage interest.

  4. The most interesting I read here is this idea that b/c a woman does it or a mom does it it shouldn’t be outsourced b/c it isn’t valuable or whatever. Grocery delivery is a good example … it is amazing! and it costs what $5, $10 when gas is $4 a gallon?
    My husband will go to the grocery store with me and pick out a nic nac that is $4 that we don’t need, or I will go with my toddler and cave in and let her have $x in chocolate so I can make it through an excursion … but yet still grocery delivery my husband is a bit uncomfortable with it… you can’t outsource everythign like I’d love to outsource my drive to daycare but some days I do it b/c I want to check in with teachers etc. and also I do love that extra time in the car with my kid but I know eventually I am going to have to outsource some of it or have more help in my business b/c you can’t do it all… It is not that easy to hire folks period for anything and if you can do it and find something that keeps you on track in terms of the main goals it seems well worth it but I do think this idea of why some things are ok to pay for and others are not or why we attack women for not having perfect houses should be looked at – I think the stay at home mom often feels threatened by the idea that all of her job can be outsourced and some of these discussions make it sound so easy when in fact doing the three jobs of work outside home for pay, childraising and running a home (shopping, cleaning, repairs everything not child direct) is a LOT of work ! and really 3 jobs at least and if you have a big job outside the home or are responsible for at least half of the family’s living wage in addition it is still quite the juggling act and we are all looking for tips and tricks to do it better and more efficiently.

  5. Another thing: MOST articles even in working mother magazine do not mention child care. Big problem. Why is the nanny a dirty secret. Is the male executives car service a dirty secret? Why?
    Tax law does not honor child care — people think it is this big credit — it is not..the entire conversation of working parenthood and specifically working motherhood is out of date and designed to set up moms to fail… if you pay $10,000 or $20,000 a year for quality child care and your tax credit is a few hundred dollars — do the math people… I really resent the “conversation” about how easy it is that is not based on facts. We can subsidize Osama Bin Laden by giving the Pakistanis billions in aid but we can’t have an honest conversation about work and specifically a woman’s work and a parent’s work in our society. We can’t offer paid maternity leave for three months but we can subsidize bin laden in pakistan. Think about it folks. The conversation has got to change. And it isn’t going to change as long as Hillary Clinton is getting erased out of photos of important meetings b/c a xx year old clinton in a pant suit is deemed “too sexual” — I mean look that up ladies and gentleman. It is the feminist question, women have the right to self actualize and work is part of that and we make it difficult b/c it is about women. a woman also has the right to decide how many children she wants and to have sex with her husband and most insurance plans cover a papsm. but not birth control. Look it up and tell me how we can be talking about a reformed health care system that does not meet women’s needs and thus family’s needs. You can be anti abortion an dbelieve a woman does not need to have six kids.
    the conversation needs to change so women can work and until women are more honest about what is required or sacrificed to go to work it isn’t going to change.

    1. @Cara- these are all good points. We can have debates about level of public spending, but why is giving Pakistan billions our choice, vs. what that money could pay for in terms of policies that might be more supportive of working parents. I liked Twin Mom’s idea of anyone being able to deduct a business expense. I mean, I can deduct what I pay researchers or publicists but not what I pay for childcare — even though the latter is probably the most important aspect of any professional success I achieve.

      1. Laura, you’ve probably already done this but make sure your business is set up, tax-wise, so that it can do as much as possible toward childcare for its employees. Google subsidizes excellent childcare for its employees. 🙂

  6. Do you make more than your housekeeper per hour? Then you can afford the housekeeper. That is all.

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