Generations of servitude

Once, my grandmother worked as a domestic servant. Today, I need to hire help -- but I can't take the guilt.

Published April 3, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Two generations before me, after my grandfather deserted my grandmother and mother during the Depression, my grandmother resorted to cleaning houses to pay rent on the boarding-house room they came to call home.

From my mother's descriptions, I have developed a black-and-white photograph in my mind of that time in their lives: I can see my mother's 4-year-old face as she watches her mother walk down the Pontiac, Mich., street, small piles of dirty snow on either side, to catch a crosstown bus to clean a wealthy woman's house.

As the Depression deepened, my grandmother had to take a job as a live-in domestic servant with a family who would not allow her to bring her 6-year-old child. And so for two years, until my grandmother remarried, my mother was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in a harsh, chaotic household where her brash and unruly cousin reminded her often that she was the poor relation. My grandmother visited every other week on her day off. According to my mother, their reunions were full of grief and my mother's anger at being left behind.

A half-century later, my grandmother, who outlived and outlaughed three husbands, was dressed in a simple violet dress and laid out in a shiny wooden casket. As my mother and I gazed down at her, our long, still beautiful fingers resting on the edge of the satin-lined coffin, my mother said little -- except to note my grandmother's hardworking hands.

Although my own middle-class childhood had no such hardship, I witnessed a scenario similar to that of my grandmother's unfold with our next-door neighbor, Mrs. O'Brian. One day after junior high school, after hearing Mrs. O'Brian call out to us through our back screen door, my mother and I rushed over to find her standing in her floral housedress, trying hard not to cry. Her 35-year-old husband, the father of her four children, had lung cancer. The pain he had been feeling in his back wasn't a strained muscle after all, but the result of smoking the Camels he kept rolled up in the sleeve of his work shirt. Weeping into her pressed handkerchief, Mrs. O'Brian asked, "What am I going to do?"

After her husband's death, Mrs. O'Brian, who had never been employed, came to our back door again to ask my mother for a job cleaning our house. While I don't remember their words, what they didn't say made a lasting impression: Mrs. O'Brian's embarrassment about having slipped out of middle-class respectability, and the fear that overwhelmed her pride; and my mother's resistance to hiring her, to being on the other side of the class divide from her own mother and from Mrs. O'Brian, who, after all, lived in a house identical to our own. But my mother, who had just returned to work, finally hired her -- combining charity with a thin belief in necessity.

The week she began working for us, Mrs. O'Brian passed down many of her own domestic responsibilities to her 13-year-old daughter, my good friend Mary. Unlike her older brother, whose after-school sports activities continued as before, Mary now had to clean up after her family and cook dinner instead of playing with me and listening to the top 10 on WKAR. As time went on, Mary and I grew apart. But out of the corner of my wide adolescent eye, I watched as she was undermined by the absence of her father and the weight she was assigned because of it. When Mary graduated from high school, she moved far away from her mother -- a distance her mother tried to bridge by weaving dark strands of guilt through love.

The change in Mrs. O'Brian's position from being our middle-class neighbor to the person who also cleaned up my family's messes made me dread the days she worked in our house. While Mrs. O'Brian was there, I felt a mixture of guilt that it was she and not I cleaning our house, pity as I watched her struggle to keep her family afloat without any support that I could see and embarrassment that, based on what I knew of the world, her status had been diminished. Rather than face her, I would often pretend to be ill or busy with homework and stay in my bedroom until she left.

My mother avoided her too. And when they did see each other, their encounters were stiff and cool. For my mother, there was always something done not quite right -- the ironing that had arrived too late, the residue of Ajax in the bathtub, the green and gold shag carpeting underneath the sofa left unvacuumed. As time went on, my mother claimed that she missed doing her own housework, that it was good exercise, and besides, she told me, it was wrong to have someone clean up after you, especially when they left their own children at home, unattended, to do it. Neither charity nor necessity could, as it turned out, trump this belief.

To my relief, the arrangement came to an end after a year or so. Although she continued to work full time for the remainder of my childhood, my mother never hired another housekeeper. Twenty-five years later, I reluctantly made a different choice.

By the time my second child was born, it was clear to everyone who knew me well that I needed help. I was exhausted from the pain of a fractured tailbone that occurred during the birth of my first child, and from working at my consulting practice while caring for our two young children and trying to keep household chaos from getting the upper hand.

Before my husband and I had children, housework was rarely an issue between us. Now there was an unspoken assumption, perhaps on both our parts, that the trail of chaos created by our children was somehow more mine than his, sort of a continuation of being in labor.

"Sweet," I would hiss at him on a typical Saturday, "after you play with the kids, would you please clean up your mess rather than just moving to another room?"

Later in the day, perhaps after walking into our kitchen, hours after an "experiment" that involved dropping large marbles into a pile of flour and coffee to demonstrate how asteroids make craters in the moon's surface, the yelling would start: "Isn't it nice for you to be able to have fun with the kids and then assume that I will clean up after you like your servant!"

"What's the big deal?" he would say. "Relax."

During our inevitable late-night kitchen table powwows, I came armed with managerial chore charts and my late 20th century pitch for fairness; he came armed with 10,000 years of entitlement. When I insisted he take more responsibility for household tasks, he resisted: He was tired (true), overwhelmed (true), made most of the money (true), did more around the house than any man he knew (sad, but true). By the end of our summit, he would grudgingly agree to my requests. Days later, I still had to ask, remind, manipulate.

Most of my affluent friends, who had long ago lost the sock war with their husbands, had made the decision to hire household help. But I resisted. It seemed to me that, rather than working out a more equitable arrangement with their husbands, they had hired housekeepers, in part, as an escape hatch, a way of contracting out the conflict in their marriage about the "second shift." I viewed this as one more instance of "trickle-down" feminism -- in this case, slowing the movement down by alleviating the pressure on men to make changes in the division of domestic labor.

Although my life included more than one pair of Ferragamo shoes I kept wrapped in their boxes like jewels, I was certain that I was but two steps and one husband away from having to clean someone's house to survive. And exhausted though I was, I resisted the idea that someone else should clean up after me and my family. As it turned out, this exhaustion gradually eroded both my political and my personal ideals, and I reluctantly decided to attempt my friends' more pragmatic perspective.

Maria forgot to show up for her first interview, then showed up two hours early for her second interview. I hired her anyway. She had a buoyant charm that, during the interview and for months afterward, lulled me into ignoring the red flags that waved softly between us. When I asked about her housekeeping experience, she told me she was educated and had worked as a teacher in Nicaragua, but that two years after she married her husband, an underling to a powerful politician, the political winds shifted and they were forced to leave their country. After she arrived in the United States, she quickly discovered that her professional experience had no market value and so resigned herself to becoming a housekeeper. She never got around to telling me much about her housekeeping experience that afternoon. Charmed and desperate, I let it pass.

Predictably, once Maria started working for me I avoided being in my house. I was glad when she arrived late and asked to leave early. I couldn't stand the guilt I felt when I saw her taking care of the messes my family made, after having dropped her kids off at a day-care facility where I would not have been comfortable sending my own children. When I issued instructions, I was unable to meet her eyes or to be specific about how or when I wanted things done.

I would often arrive home to a sink full of dirty dishes to discover that she had spent her time doing something like organizing my underwear drawer or reorganizing my husband's wardrobe: Suits and shirts were lined up by color, underwear and socks rolled into complicated balls, and his favorite ratty sweat pants thrown on the heap of giveaway clothes in the basement. With each new discovery of chaos or mismanagement festering in our house, she would shake her head, cluck her tongue and say: "Pamela, how can you live like this?" If it involved a mess my children had made, she would add a deep sigh and murmur, "The children, the children ..." -- as though they were guests who had overstayed their welcome.

With each "discussion" we had about my need to have her follow through on the things I asked her to do, she shared another sad piece of her life with me. After she ruined a cherished hook rug in the washing machine, I learned that her husband had abruptly left her and their two young children for another woman. The morning she spent hours on the phone making it impossible for me to give her an important message, she explained that she was upset because her husband had recently returned to Nicaragua with his mistress, to live in the house that she had been given by her parents. The afternoon I discovered her sleeping, she confided that her husband had begun divorce proceedings and was attempting to cash in and take the whole of his small, but to her, significant, pension fund.

The longer Maria worked for me, and the more she told, the more her life story became tangled up in my mind with those of my grandmother and Mrs. O'Brian, along with the feelings their experiences had evoked in me. My desire to rescue her, and my tendency to ask less of her, grew stronger with each sad tale.

One morning, about six months after she began working for me, she announced she had to go back to Nicaragua to care for her sick mother for eight weeks. She assured me it was no big deal, that eight weeks was not a very long time. When she saw the sharp look of skepticism on my face, she looked at me, woman to woman, through her tears and asked, "You would do the same thing for your mother, wouldn't you?"

After she left for her trip, my home and work life quickly returned to a chaotic juggling act, requiring reserves of energy I just didn't have. Realizing that I needed to replace her, I called Maria in Nicaragua, offered her a month's severance pay and said goodbye.

One afternoon, a few weeks before Maria left, I walked into the bedroom of my then 6-year-old daughter, where I found the devastation of Hurricane Barbie. Strewed across the floor were at least 10 dolls, clothes and accessories for every occasion and a crashed Barbie car with the one-legged Ken at the wheel. Anticipating resistance, I took a deep breath and told my daughter and her friend that it was time to clean up. "But Mom ... why can't Maria do it?" my daughter protested. Her friend Susan, the one with the trampoline in her backyard, wholeheartedly backed her up.

I try to visualize my daughter 20 years from now: bright and educated, with a career, a husband, children, a house. As she confronts the inevitable issues of child care and housework I wonder what she will see: a labor market full of women with broken dreams, a sad but useful tool for feminist progress? Will her husband, part of a more enlightened generation of men, "get it," or will the war over the second shift rage on? My hope is that she will understand and appreciate the circumstances that differentiate her life from lives of the long line of women on whose shoulders she stands.

By Pamela Toutant

Pamela Toutant is a freelance writer. She lives in Maryland.

MORE FROM Pamela Toutant

Related Topics ------------------------------------------