The cleaner: a modern dilemma

domestic help in uniforms

‘Uh, no, I don’t want to clean your damn house despite the smile on my face.’

I’m not entirely sure when getting a cleaner became as common as traffic jams in Los Angeles. Somewhere between the 1990s and today, cleaners have gone from being the preserve of the rich to being the affordable ‘luxury’ of anyone who has spare bit of change kicking around the house.

Let me be clear: I am not rich and have never had a cleaner in my life, not even when I was eight months pregnant with my second child, and I was squatting on my hands and knees to clean the bathtub. Scrubbing the toilets is as second nature to me as designing chic Chanel jackets are to Karl Lagerfeld.

The dilemma

For the first time since having these children, however, I find myself working full time. This has perpetuated my modern, 1st world dilemma – do I get a cleaner with the tiny bit of spare cash I now have or do I continue to clean the house every Saturday, cursing everyone who steps in my path, wielding my cleaning products like weapons and shouting at the English Husband for putting me in this predicament in the first place? Cleaning during my ‘spare time’ has put my marriage in jeopardy.

The first thing that has stopped me from getting a cleaner is having the awkward conversation. You know what I mean. It would go something like this:

‘So I would like you to change the sheets on the beds, do the bathrooms, dust, vacuum and mop the floors. And, yes, I think you should manage it all in three hours maximum.’ In my head, this cleaner is always a frail 60-year-old Columbian woman who limps and nods at me timidly.

Sulky teenager syndrome

Then there’s the issue of trust. While I would love to trust everyone on the planet, part of me is suspicious of nearly everyone on the planet. I don’t think they’d try to do something as ordinary as steal – I have nothing to steal anyway – but I can imagine they might take shortcuts. The arrangement starts off well until month two, when suddenly I find that the flat looks like it has been cleaned by a couple of sulky teenagers.

I know I’d never be able to speak up and demand that things ‘get ship-shape or else’. I’ve never had the knack of being threatening or managerial.

This human weakness has been exploited a bit in the past. When my mother in California finally caved in and got a pair of cleaners a few months ago, she asked me to tell them what she wanted while she went off to work. I honestly could barely look them in the face. I’d mumble a few requests and then retreat to my bedroom or, better yet, leave the house altogether.

That’ll be $90

When the cleaners would ask me, three hours later, whether I approved of their efforts, I’d always nod ‘yes’ and tip them $10 each on top of their $90 charge and smile at them graciously. I almost had to restrain myself from treating them like guests and walking them out to their sport-utility vehicle in the driveway (better than our car, might I add).

My mother and I would then spend the next few days dissecting their domestic failings and finding things they hadn’t done. Yet we would employ them again out of guilt and the apathy that comes with finding someone to replace them.

In London, cleaners don’t cost quite as much as they do in California. In fact, they are positively cheap by comparison – it’s about the only thing I can think of that is cheaper here.

Columbian connection

But first I need to get over my hang-ups about what it means to have a cleaner. Then I’d have to get over my urge to clean the house before the cleaner even arrives, to spare myself the humiliation of having this person appraise my mess. And then I’d have to reconcile myself to employing someone who is effectively doing something horribly mundane and, yes, horrible.

Why can’t I shake this feeling that exchanging money for this service is a bit like giving a drug dealer some cash for class-A drugs? (The fact that I keep imagining my cleaner is Columbian doesn’t help.) There is something deeply uncomfortable about paying a cleaner – how far removed is it from a servant? – when you’ve grown up without titles and trust funds. But everyone is doing it these days, dahling. I think people used to say the same about cocaine in the 1980s among certain circles.

Do you have a cleaner? Would you ever go back to the dark days of cleaning the floor on your hands and knees? I’d appreciate some advice, please.



Filed under British life, motherhood, Uncategorized

6 responses to “The cleaner: a modern dilemma

  1. You know, honey, I don’t have one, and the reason why it is because I don’t think I could deal with the frustration of checking their work and realize they’ve taken shortcuts, like you said.
    It takes cold blood to turn the blind eye to things you care about. Doesn’t it? 😉

  2. Chavel

    The best investment that you will make in your lifetime will be that of a cleaner. You will be happier and the English husband will be also. Instead of cleaning the house on Saturdays you can go out or have friends over without worrying about the toilet or the shower being dirty. The cleaner can even change sheets on all the beds. How much can they leave dirty!! You can have them do some laundry, etc. all the stuff that you hate doing….
    If you are a working woman your time is valuable and the free time that you have, you want to be happy to enjoy your family.
    Enjoy the Columbian help!! Have some coffee while she cleans.

  3. Vivian

    I thought of you & this post last night as I wiped away some weeks old tomato sauce splatters in my kitchen that our cleaning person has somehow missed on her last few visits. Sometimes I am mildly annoyed by things that she does or doesn’t do but I never have the nerve to say anything to her. I think she has a really hard job and I am grateful to have the help every week. I have to add though that this morning she showed me a photo of her new renovated kitchen in her house in Guatemala that looked nicer than even my wealthiest friends’ kitchens. Did we get into the wrong line of business?

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