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.