My Cleaning Lady is not a Slave

Two months into the year and already my desktop is cluttered with papers. It happens so quickly. I scarcely notice them piled up one after the other. I cannot complain. After all I am the one who puts them there. I am the one who leaves them there each day with the thought I will file them later. But I keep putting it off.

The woman who cleans our house is away for two weeks and I am mindful that I will need to try harder to keep abreast of all the mess that builds up over time elsewhere, not just here on my writing desk.

I had intended to write the words ‘cleaning lady’, but such words speak to me of class privilege and superiority. It took years before I allowed myself the privilege of a cleaning lady. Is it a privilege, or as some of my friends and colleagues at the time suggested, merely a more sensible use of my time? Besides, I rationalise, it involves giving someone else a job.

The woman who cleans for me is my equal. She is not a servant. She is not a slave. I pay her well, but still the concept bothers me and I hesitate to write it down here, to write about it for fear that readers might consider me to be blue blooded, well heeled, a snob, all those things that smack of class privilege from over one hundred years ago.

I used to be quite a housekeeper myself. Before this woman came to help with the cleaning on Fridays, I spent the better part of each weekend cleaning out the house, the toilets, the bathroom, the dusting, the vacuum cleaning, and the changing of sheets on beds.

I took pleasure in my efforts in those days when my children were young. Not now. Now I hate housework. I do whatever is necessary on a daily basis to get dirty dishes into the dishwasher after meals, to wipe down bench tops, to wash, hang and fold away clothes, but otherwise I keep my domestic habits to a minimum.

These days I spend almost every spare minute I have beyond my paid work, and the shopping, and the occasional task I must share with one of my now essentially adult children, to the business of writing.

In between my efforts at writing I read. But it is the writing that offers me greatest pleasure. I have an ergonomically designed chair to protect my back from the ill effects of sitting for too long each day and I visit the optometrist every two years to get my glasses adjusted so that my aging eyes can cope with the glare and proximity of the computer screen.

Let’s face it. Writing is a prosaic activity. The sight of someone hunched in front of a computer screen tapping away at a key board is one that does not inspire much confidence in said person. It is not like watching someone dive into a swimming pool, smash a tennis racket against a ball or climb the slopes of a mountain. The sight of someone who taps away at a keyboard has a quality of excluding the onlooker. I know this from memory.

Many years ago before I started to take my own writing seriously, when my children were still little and I spent many more hours at housework than I do today, my husband went back to university to study for a law degree. He was a conscientious student and although he tried hard to confine his studying to the nine to five life of a university student, he still needed to bring work home and to study on weekends, especially around exam time.

I remember well the resentment I felt as I watched him tap away at the keyboard in those days on one of the first computers that then existed, while I swept the floor or chopped vegetables. In those days we had no room for a study and he worked in the central living area, which continues today as the place in this household where people gather to eat, to talk and to play. I felt left out then, as if he were engaged in deep conversation with a beloved friend and there was no room for me.

I think of this memory often these days because now it is my turn to be so deeply involved in conversation with my keyboard, and others – my husband and my children – are the ones who must suffer from this sense of exclusion.
‘That’s all you ever do,’ my children lament. ‘You tap away at your computer.’

I resist a defensive response. I know it is true. If you want to find me these days, if I am not in the kitchen preparing food or tidying up after adult children, who still sometimes neglect to return the lid to the vegemite jar or fail to put their dirty dishes into the dishwasher, you will find me here, where I am now writing down endless words, writing into the ether to an imaginary audience.

I drive my car past my old primary school often. We still live in the neighbourhood where I spent a large chunk of my childhood, from five to fourteen years of age.

Our Lady of Good Counsel, OLGC sits alongside the church of the same name on Whitehorse Road in Deepdene. It is a prestigious neighbourhood. It is now, it was then, maybe more so now, but even as a child I knew that our neighbours and the children with whom I struggled to learn every day were from well to do families who seemed not to understand the struggle that my parents endured daily.

We lived on the fringes of the zone that took in the catchment area for this school. In more ways than one. Each day we walked to school, past the mansions on Mont Albert Road and the well appointed houses of Camberwell. We wore a typical uniform, the girls in blue and white gingham dresses in summer, tunics and pale blue shirts in winter, the boys in blue shirts and grey trousers, shorts all year round while at primary school. Our school jumper was grey, our school colours blue and gold. Hair ribbons were meant to be pale blue but somehow such ribbons if they ever found their way into our house soon found their way out, and more often than not, I tied my hair together with a rubber band, which the head mistress of the school, Mother Mary John, despised.
‘You’re a disgrace to the school, without wearing the proper school uniform and that includes the regulation ribbons’.

On Sundays we walked to Mass through the same tree lined streets but this time accompanied by our mother who gazed longingly into people’s gardens day dreaming of the time when she might own a house of her own. At that time we rented and already I knew the stigma attached to renting a house in Australia, the country in which home ownership is a must.

When she was a girl my mother lived in a two-storey house on the Marnixplein in Haarlem, Holland. Her parents employed a housekeeper to help her mother with her five sons and two daughters. My mother was the oldest. She told us often of how she would spend hours on her bed with a book avoiding the work that had been allocated to her as the oldest girl, notwithstanding the housekeeper. She hated housework then, as a child. She hated it as an adult when she was in the care herself of nine children and could ill afford the help of a housekeeper. Here I am more than half a century or so later complaining of the same lot.

I am the most slovenly of my three sisters, perhaps even of my five brothers, four of whom have wives who might clean up after them. I have given up on the call to domesticity, I am ashamed to say, but proud as well. It is an act of defiance.

In one of my writing classes many years ago, our then teacher, Olga Lorenzo, talked about the need for us women writers in particular to forgo the demands of domesticity and even of paid work in other fields to make time to write.
‘What do you want to have written on your gravestone?’ she asked. ‘That she wrote that she kept a tidy house or that she wrote a good book?’

The answer is obvious.

72 thoughts on “My Cleaning Lady is not a Slave”

  1. elisabeth it was intriguing reading this. i am a full-time teacher with two teenage children. my role in this house isn't circumscribed and so i am the grocery getter, the cook, the groundskeeper, and i share the vacuuming, the dishwashing, the laundry, the toilet scrubbing, and whatever else comes up. i love to read, to write, to watch good films, to be with my children and of course to write my blog. i remember a time when my mum and dad had a housekeeper who took care of the cooking and the cleaning and i have been asked why i don't go that route myself by many friends. well, it's a part of my life that allows me to to give to my family and friends, and most especially to show my own kids how to care for themselves without relying on a woman to take it all on. oh and i love it!!! steven

  2. You brought out a couple of great points: the amount of work distribution that falls on women, and the amount of work that always falls on women. I worked full time, and still rant the household, often without much help since everyone was too busy or too tired to help. We need to plant a banner with a sign that says, Mother's work is done between —-No sooner, no later.

  3. it is utterly impossible to keep our house clean. we've got two dogs who shed and lounge on the sofas. my husband doesn't really pick up after himself and i've sort of succumbed to it all.
    and i also spend a good hunk of time on my computer, connecting with people all over the world, which i love. and i'm fortunate here; our dogs and my husband don't complain much.

  4. Thanks, Steven. Your words -'my role in this house isn't circumscribed'- say such a lot.

    I fear that my role in this house- and that of many others, men and women alike – is circumscribed. Sometimes it can be subtle.

    These roles have been socially conditioned for centuries. And it cuts both ways.

    I have clear memories as a young girl of thinking to myself I will never need to learn to drive and it doesn't matter if I don't do well at school, I will marry one day after I leave school have babies and look after them and the house. I will have no need for more. fortunately in my adolescence these ideas began to change, but the point I am making is that they were there from the onset. I have a hard time convincing my husband sometimes that he is not the only one responsible for the financial upkeep of this family. He has been hard wired through his social conditioning to believe that his role is that of bread winner. As a consequence he stresses so much more than me about making ends meet, about debt etc. I might stress more about the household routines, but he carries a terrible load, too. There's mpre to it than this, of course. Personality plays a part as well, but those familial roles are powerful and pervasive however much we might want to shift them.

    In an ideal world I think we might share all these distinctive roles more equitably but it never is an ideal world, though of course there are people along a spectrum of sharing.

    I consider my lot is not bad, even though I might grizzle about it in my blog writing sometimes.

    I grizzle here because it's uppermost in my mind. Some of my more worldly preoccupations I am less likely to blog about, they take more time and require what I consider to be more analysis and thought.

    Sorry for the long comment. I have more to say but perhaps I should keep it for another post.

    Thanks, Steven, Your world view seems well balanced.

  5. Social conditioning has a lot to answer for: my husband feels his responsibility to earn enough money to pay for everything keenly and it's caused him a lot of problems over the years. I oscillate between thinking I have more important things to do than clean the bathroom, and thinking that hygiene is paramount! Our house is a mess at the moment, especially as we both now work here all day. I look back with nostalgia at the days he worked away all week and was only home at weekends, it was so easy then. Though at the time I wanted him here more and did feel excluded. And now, yes, it's his turn to feel excluded as I sit here and type day and night with my door firmly shut.

    I guess employing someone to clean your house is both a privilege and a more sensible use of your time. The privilege being that you are in a position to make more sensible use of your time. The world would be a better place if we were all in such a position, so think of yourself as a trailblazer, setting an example to the rest of us.

  6. I have a weird form of obsessive compulsive disorder. It comes and goes in irregular blocks of time. I have a tremendous capacity to let things pile up and spill over. I almost revel in it because I know I'll be driven to madly straighten and clean everything up. And then I go wild. I straighten the fringe on my throw rugs with a wide-tooth comb, I organize my books according to subject and author. I make files and sub-files of all my bills and paper puffery. I become manic and then I can't sleep. I lie in bed thinking of how orderly everything is. I go over and over it in my mind, congratulating myself on my perfection. What do you suppose they will say on my tombstone?

  7. I HATE housework!!! But I love to have a clean and tidy house.
    I have a lot of respect for the woman who comes and helps me keeping a house neat. She was an Arabic teacher in Algeria and had to flee her country for political reasons.
    She calls me "Isabelle" ( my actual first name) and I call her "Mrs Azouz".
    Both of my grand mothers were cleaning ladies, and it took a long time to my mum to get help in the house too… I am happy to be able to afford someone who is helping me and who is giving me more time to spend my son (not quite an adult yet), my husband, and my photos.
    I don't forget where I come from though and I feel so lucky that I have an interesting "intellectual" job today. But it is really thanks to both of my grand mothers and their hard "physical" work. I look up to them and I look up to the wonderful lady who is helping me in the house.

    PS: I HATE housework as much as I LOVE cooking 😉

    PS 2: sorry about my poor English ;( and all the mistakes I am probably making.

  8. Thanks, Lake Viewer, for your comment.

    My experience today proves it. It is an exceptional day because we are expecting visitors from Germany who will stay for a couple of weeks.

    I, and I stress I, needed to clear out the spare room and make up a bed for them. All in all I've spent the best part of Saturday night preparing for them.

    It falls to me, in large part because I take it on myself and have done so for years, but that's the way it goes, someone needs to do it.

    I don't grizzle much about it at home, but I can grizzle on my blog.

    I wonder whether other people say things on their blogs that they do not emphasize in their day to day lives, whether positive or negative. It seems a reasonable outlet.

  9. Thanks, Nancy. You're right, it is impossible to keep a house clean, that is if you want to live in it.

    For us it's kids of the largely adolescent variety, our grandson, our dog, our cats etc . It's impossible to keep abreast of it all, but we try, and fail hopelessly.

    As I've said so many times before now, I'd much rather blog.

  10. Thanks, Anthony, for bearing to read through a typical woman's lament. I imagine it's different for you, too. The expectations of men are different from those directed towards women, but we need to fight them in both directions, I say however familiar and comfortable they might seem.

  11. Thanks, Eryl. Your lot sounds like mine to a degree, but my husband still goes out to work most days. This is perhaps another reason why most of the housework falls to me. I've worked from home for most of my working life and therefore it's simply easier for me to pick up the flack.

    Of course there's more to it than that. Call it social conditioning, call it learned behavior, it has a firm and fixed grip on me, but I'm working against it and I appreciate the fact that I can get help for it, that I can afford that help, that I'm not simply chained to the relentless grind of housework with no respite whatsoever, as many women were in days of old.

  12. Kass, I wouldn't call yours a condition just a volatile nature, perhaps.

    You know I'm a bit like that, too. Once I get onto a cleaning roll I can go on for hours while at other times I can only bear to sit and look around me at the mess and can scarcely lift a finger.

    I often have to sneak up on cleaning, and once I'm there I can actually find it hard to stop.

    I rarely have trouble sleeping though and I can't be bothered basking in the glory of the neatness for long, largely because it refuses to stay that way.

    I could on the other hand make a virtue of neatness were I forced to. A bit of obsessionality goes a long way. Thanks, Kass.

  13. A friend of mine employed a new cleaning lady who resigned five minutes after starting because my friend had left a teapot on the work surface. She could not possibly work in a cluttered house.

  14. Thank you Elisabelle for your lovely comment written in perfectly clear and lucid English.

    I think that is one of the points I was trying to make in my post, the importance of remembering where we have come from.

    That you and I are in the fortunate position of being able to get help with our housework does not mean we should ever forget the women who came before us, the women and the men, our ancestors who needed to work harder in different ways from us so that we and future generations could have a better life.

    I am touched by the honour and respect you pay to your grandmothers. They deserve it.

  15. I love the comments and your comments in response here. You replied twice, "It falls to me…" That has inspired a whole slew of thoughts in me. This falling – this catching – I'm off. Perhaps a new post. Thank you.

  16. I never thought for a moment that your cleaning lady was a slave. My last wife cleaned for a couple of Orientals and they always treated her very well. I’m not actually sure how she ended up with the job. She was a seamstress at the time. I expect she was just in the right place at the right time, found out they were looking and said, “I could do that,” and the next thing you know she had the job.

    Had I the money I would have no problem hiring a cleaner. In fact in my last job one of my closest friends was the cleaning lady. Luckily Carrie and I make very little mess just now (far less than the bird) and so it’s not a big issue. Besides we’ve always had a take-us-as-you-find-us kind of attitude, certainly as far as family goes. It was the same with my last wife. No one stood on ceremony; they’d wander in, kick of their shoes and find a spot and I don’t recall her being especially fastidious about the house either.

    I have known people who are house-proud but not many. If anything I looked down on them for having life’s priorities out of whack.

  17. elisabeth thanks for the long reply. i'm grateful. opening out issues, concerns, grizzles and whatever else is something i've not arrived at yet with my blog writing. i have issues elisabeth oh yes i do!!!
    my mum brought me up to know how to take care of myself. her words: "you may not get married" were once added to a rationale in reponse to my teenaged question "why?" when i was asking about one of my roles which was to prepare the family dinner each night, right through high school. i am sure you can understand i was living under heavy manners in a very strict and often repressive home. however, the silver lining is that my own family has benefitted from my knowledge of cooking and cleaning and house maintenance and have managed to make the transition from the twentieth century into this one with a sense that there are no gender based chores as such. there are chores. they can even be done with a smile if you see them as acts of kindness. having said that, my teenaged son struggles with the concept of helping but does a good job when he sets his mind to it.
    have a peaceful day free of drudgery!!!

  18. Writing what might be a prosaic activity, but reading what someone wrote can be downright poetic.

    Throughout much of my childhood, we were home renters surrounded by home owners. And inside those homes, they owned so much more than we did. And the kids, perhaps prodded, or at least influenced by, their parents, often let us know it.

  19. Hi Elisabeth,
    great post to read, with many layers i can relate to. I also hate housework, but i am lucky, my hubbie does a lot in the household, perhaps even more cleaning than i do. Hm i am a terrible housewife. But still, if if a took some time for myself by drawing or painting, writing my blog i do feel guilty for neglecting the household.
    My mother was a cleaning lady, and as a student i also cleaned houses. When i got ill, i couldn't clean the house, so a friend of mine asked her cleaning lady if she would clean my house sometime. She didn't mind. I was so stressed, before she came to my house i cleaned up a lot, feeling ashamed somehow. When she was at my house for cleaning, there was not so much to do and i realised this must feel frustrating for her. Hmm what i want to say is: i thought it was very confusing to have a cleaning lady. So i understand what you're saying quite well. 🙂

    Sweet greetz!

  20. Elisabeth, I read your post last evening and it struck so many chords in me, I had to reflect upon it before attempting to comment. When my daughter was young, I felt that housekeeping was part of nurturing – providing her a clean, comfortable, stimulating AND peaceful environment was part of loving her. Today, it's simply housework to me. Like you, I do what needs to be done to keep the health department away from the door. Like Kass, I let too much debris build up and then I light into it obsessivley. When I need help, I hire a wonderful woman who rivals me in giving off vibes that she loves her job. I have been fortunate to enjoy many of life's luxuries and sometimes that has almost embarrassed me. Hiring a housekeeper does not embarrass me.

    You're right about writing being a very solitary endeavor and that may make others in our world resentful or uncomfortable. But I'm going to bravely say something to you, Elisabeth. You reared the children, kept the home, supported the husband when he went back to school. You work in a demanding career and I imagine you do it well. You're 57 years old. You don't have half a lifetime left. You were put here to write. We all know this. Do it, Elisabeth. And don't regret any moment you spend doing it. Well behaved women (vigilant housekeepers and caretakers) seldom make history. But you can, with your writing.

  21. Thanks, Kass. Replying twice may be a sign of old age or it might be a mark of respect or any manner of in between observations.

    I have a pet horror of not responding to people's comments, only because I see it as a sort of conversation here. I know there's no actual requirement to respond but beyond being polite, when you say something it's good to have it recognized as having registered.

    Jim. It's not you who thinks my cleaning lady is a slave. Occasionally I worry that one or other of my daughters might occasionally see her that way. There's something about the officiousness of youth that can sometimes come as a shock. Otherwise I think it is just my defensiveness on getting over my guilt that someone else should do for me that which i am perfectly capable of doing myself, that which I have spent years doing for myself, etc etc.

    I agree with you that too much house pride like all excessive pride is fool hardy, perhaps a close cousin of the 'keeping up with the Joneses' mentality. Thanks, Jim.

  22. It might sound terrible, but I'm glad you're not without your issues, Steven, even if you don't raise them on your blog. I like to Know you're human.

    Of course you are. We all are, but it helps to be reminded that we're vulnerable.

    We all struggle and for our strengths we also have our difficulties.

    I'm generalising here and sound like I'm full of truisms. It's not intentional. Sometimes I get pedantic in comments. I don't mean to.

    Thanks, Kirk. Children can be so cruel to one another. Most children I suspect, especially younger ones who are sensitive to the vibes. They become class conscious quickly. They get at a measure of who it's best to vote with quickly.

    They learn it from adults of course and need help from adults to modify it.

  23. Did you know Momo, at least here in Australia, the Dutch have a reputation for being very clean and fussy about the tidiness of their houses.

    This always puzzled me as a child because my mother was not fastidious and fussy. She did not mind mess at all. She liked things to be tidy but she could not be bothered herself to make sure it happened.

    Now in her nineties she's more able to keep her room tidy, but again now she has only one person to care for, herself.

    I think we make bigger messes as soon as we have children. Thanks, Momo.

  24. Thanks, Les, for exhorting me yet again to get on with my writing against a backdrop of dissenting voices that say, you can get to the writing after the messes are tidied.

    Elizabeth Jolley, an Australian writer who died a few years ago, talked about how she could not settle down to write if there was dissension in the household. She needed to be sure that everything and everyone was settled before she could get to her writing. Consequently she tended to write late into the night.

    I prefer mornings myself, which leaves me only the weekends because on weekdays I work.

    The Pollyanna part of me says, well at least I have that much and I'm glad for it. Besides I also enjoy the tension. It seems to me it makes for better writing.

    If I had 24 hours free each day to do nothing but write, I wonder what distractions I might find in order to recreate the tension. I suspect I'm not alone in this.

  25. Thank you for stopping by my blog. I've enjoyed my visit here very much. I, too, find that the older I get that a little help is welcome with domestic life. I consider my helpers equal too and am grateful for how the make my life easier.

    I DO find your image at the keyboard, tap, tap, tapping, inspiring. It takes diligence to stay there working on ephemeral pieces. I have been spend more time there myself the last year and a half.

    As I read your opening, I looked over at my piles of paper and felt connected.

  26. as both you and Elisabelle say, i too hate housework but love a clean house. that said, roles are funny things. they get set early on and are reinforced by repetition and the passage of time. they dig in. and then, become hard to undo. my hat off to you that you have reached a point where you can think this through and yet take a conscious step toward giving writing priority. please continue to do so, it's wonderful to read (your writing) especially that you are able to employ help and can focus your energies toward writing (it's no different than employing office, help you know, it should not be agonizing at all – even though it may seem so. in the end it's good for you and also the person you've employed). keep it up, Elisabeth!!


  27. Many ideas were swarming my mind as I read this post.

    No, cleaning is not a slave activity, but that depends on employer and employee.

    Housekeeping and child-rearing are by far two of the more difficult tasks and I wish there were a basic wage that we could pay people who decide to stay behind and look after houses whilst their other halves go out to work.

    Writing is probably one of the most complicated arts there is. Note, I'm calling it art, unlik eother people who say arts and literature. To me literature is an art but the advantage is that if you're one of the lucky ones to be born in a country where illiteracy is almost non-existent, you're given the tools of your future trade (writing) very early in life. The disadvantage is that on many occasions people don't know what to do with them or misuse them.

    Great post. As usual, provocative and witty.

    Greetings from London.

  28. The sight of me tap tapping at my computer is not the most salubrious. By chance tonight post-dinner, and before I've had a chance to deal with post dinner dishes, because the dishwasher is mid cycle, I'm wearing an apron. It was a gift to one of my daughters for her latest birthday. It is in a tasteful design in black and white, but the ruffles around the edge bother me – so fifties. Why do they always hark back to the fifties as the epitome of old fashioned?

    Thanks, Ronda. I'm pleased to see you here.

  29. Thanks, Noxy. Reading your comment here, I decided you must be a woman but prior to now I've had it in my mind that you're a man. Maybe I haven;t looked at your profile closely enough. Not that it matters but I'm intrigued by the degree to which gender features in the blogoshpere and how quick I am to assume someone's identity on the basis of little information. No doubt it has to do with the stuff of the social constructionism that we talk about elsewhere. Thanks.

  30. Thanks Cuban, especially for your endorsement of writing as an art. i agree. I also agree with your wish that people are equally recognized monetarily for their input in house working and child rearing so that those who decide to stay at home and keep house and tend to children and to others in need of care are duly rewarded for their efforts. So much work goes unrecognized.

  31. To me, a clean and tidy house makes it look as though no one lives there. A house with a dynamic appearance makes it look like life is happening. Go for the book. Words are remembered. Wash cloths are often replaced.

  32. I completely agree with you. I did casual work cleaning houses last summer well taking classes. There is no reason to be ashamed of the need for a house-cleaner. Our houses are bigger and more complex then is really necessary. They are built such that maintaining them is a job, not simply picking up from time to time.

    The most stressful thing about house cleaning was how ashamed they felt when they called me to clean. They were bothered by the messiness of their houses even in front of the person meant to clean them. It was silly. I did not know how to reassure them and as an empathic person I was bothered for them. That is the bad thing about cleaning houses. It is not being a slave. It is not having to do nasty manual work because that work pays for my books and my classes! What is unpleasant is the psychological aspect. People are upset and confused. The one job I will never do is help sort through personal belongings. Bathtubs and floors and dusty are great, but things people are emotionally attached to I will not touch.

    I think it is important to be able to clean and look after myself, but as soon as I can afford it I will higher someone to do a deep clean for my house. It is simply how it works. Trading time for money, and I see no shame in freeing up as much of my life as possible. That's why I am given that money after all.

  33. I don't think you have anything to feel ashamed of. You've paid your dues. As Quintin Crisp said, after 5 years no more dust settles…

    I still do the housework and the garden. I do the first because I feel guilty about no longer working, but I garden through love. But I find the limits on my time make me make the most of it, I can be peeling potatoes and rummaging in the kitchen drawer for a scrap of paper and a pen. Writing still feels like an indulgence, and therefore time to write has to be earned. It that old Scottish work ethic thing..

  34. Your comment re the term "cleaning lady", Elizabeth, reminds me of an English friend giggling at me for using a similar term, because Australians don't distinguish between the words "woman" and "lady". The English do.

  35. over the last ten years of my recent marriage – and the twelve years prior to that – being single – and many years during my first marriage before learning how bigoted the supposition was that my wife would clean house, i've been the housekeeper – and it's a drag …
    i don't live negative energy, ill feelings, or resentments floating around – and since i'm the one that is usually home and in my studio, i've assumed the responsibilities to avoid friction … my wife is usually exhausted from her professional excursions into the business world so i become the maintenance man, gardener, house keeper, and resident chef …
    aging removes the pleasure from certain tasks – as does presumption and expectation …
    but only when i forget my rationalizations – if i paid someone for the services i would not be able to afford all my toys and paint, and if i didn't spend time on menial tasks to escape the studio pressures, i'd probably be misbehaving or seeing a therapist …

  36. Thanks Mike. I'm with you on the house that looks lived as one that has the dynamism and yes, I'll go for the book anytime and forget about the tea towels.

    You call them washcloths. Here in Australia they're tea towels. It doesn't matter. We all know what we're describing, those things that assist in the kitchen and keep mess to a minimum, but do not assist us to write other than as objects we might describe.

    I agree with you, Jesse, our house are often bigger ad more complex than can be maintained through simple means.

    I'm intrigued by your experience of the response of those whose houses you cleaned as a student. In some ways I can understand their ambivalence. The woman who cleans for us has been coming into our house for over twenty years. We know each other well. She probably knows us better than we know her. There is something very intimate about going through other people's rooms and mess.

  37. Thanks, Apprentice. The image of you in the middle of peeling potatoes and rummaging in a drawer for a scrap of paper on which to write is heartening. We should all do more of it. Thanks for visiting me here, Apprentice. What sort of apprentice? I ask. Apprentice writer, or apprentice to life?

  38. Thanks, Frances. What is the distinction between woman and lady?

    I prefer to use the term 'woman' as a rule. 'Lady' has all sorts of twee connotations, but yet it's commonplace to use the term 'cleaning lady', without those connotations.

    It must be a throwback to colonial days. A bit of a misnomer no doubt.

  39. I feel like I'm on the same page you are right now – I grew up in a fairly wealthy household that had a regular cleaning lady and the very words made me cringe. I hated the way my father treated her, as he was from the south, and I vowed never to not treat another person as an equal. So the words, the memories, the experiences…rub me the wrong way.

    When I had a home of my own with my husband, I took joy in cleaning and cooking every day, spending Sunday afternoons getting the house prepped for order so that Monday's chaos could only slide off it like water on a duck.

    Now that I'm divorced and living with a male roommate…gah, I've become such a slob. So sad. Whatever happened to that neat, orderly girl who loved her space and her home? Not gone forever, I hope…

  40. The day before our cleaner comes, the children all tidy up otherwise their possessions will be placed in strange drawers and they can't find anything. They have also been trained to bring all their washing out at this time. So, I do the washing before she comes, but still she manages to do several loads. I have a suspision that she pulls it out of the cupboards to re-wash it. She is a brilliant cleaner and a good (though unhappy) soul. She likes us as she knows how much I value her. I can't say the rest of the family like all the disruption that is called cleanliness, but I couldn't live without her. Elisabeth, it is not too late to train those children. I tell mine that we are all sharing this house, so they have to pull their weight. I am not fully successful but the 14 yr old did bring in all the washing and fold it on Sunday and I hadn't even asked him! He said that he just "saw it there." Hallelujah.

  41. I remember going to some dinner party years ago and being quite shocked when a woman said that she just couldn't get her own work done because she remembered lemons rotting in the refrigerator.
    I doubt that I told her how insane that thought was, what a profound waster, but I never forgot that moment.
    Though comparisons are odious, I'm so far below you on the housekeeping scale, that it's ludicrious. sp?
    but what the hell…I'm glad you're writing and glad I'm reading your writing again.
    thanks, thanks, thanks

  42. I fondly call the dusty manor a "blogger's house". The kids are all grown and gone. Who cares if there's a little dust here and there?

    Thanks for the great Freed quote. I do love my personal monstrosity of darkness!

  43. Hello Elisabeth,It is just one little bird came on to your open window to sing you a lovely tune about faraway land where a "little girl" lives,and she is much happier now she knows that the hugs have their own power of healing and bringing people closer to each other not only in "real" world but also in this virtual world too.Have a wonderful day and you have not a thing to be ashamed of,you have a beautiful heart,even if you have some one to help you clean,gosh,long live talented woman writers!!!!!!liefs uit Groningen, :O)

  44. What a nice entry of yours, reflecting so much of my life as well…
    With regard to "a cleaning woman", the one that comes to our house, isn't able to pay for the lessons her son receives, and therefore offered us to clean the apartment.
    Please have a nice Thursday.

  45. Thanks Paul of Harryn fame. So you've reversed the 'natural' order in your household by the sound of things. Good for you.

    You have my empathy. We all know how tedious it can be, especially when by virtue of your physical
    location – namely as the one who works from home – the bulk of the domestic load falls to you.

    I work from home, as do you. The work for us both is two fold therefore – the domestic work and the creative work, but neither of them get recognised if you ask me.

    The one thing that ever gets sufficiently recognised is the paid work.

    Although you get paid for your art and on the very very odd occasion I get paid for my writing, somehow our incomes from our creativity are not quite the same as the regular income from paid employment of the more commercial kind. I'm assuming this is the case for you, too. But it's been my observation elsewhere.

  46. It's funny how much we are influenced by our experiences, both where we come from and where we are now, Phoenix.

    We tend to see life through those particular spectacles. It helps I think to be able to identify with the one who's in the powerless position, otherwise like your father, we tend to take things for granted, become like royalty – those who believe they are born to rule – and in time we have another French revolution on our hands.

    Sorry to mix up all my historical metaphors but I trust you get my drift.

  47. Thanks, Jane. You are certainly doing the most helpful thing in training your children this way. My girls will learn, they do learn and I exaggerate their tendencies. They are all helpful in different ways even if they are a bit tardy when it comes to housework. They improve as they age, like I did. When I was a child I was a total slob, I didn't care to even clean my bedroom. I preferred to leave it to my older sister. She's still driven when it comes to a tidy house, I'm driven by the need for a tidy page.

  48. Thanks, Melissa. It's good to see you back in the blogosphere after your health hassles. I agree with you: the idea of worrying about things going rotten in the freezer is a waste of time. Reading and writing are far more worthwhile activities, even though a bit of fridge cleaning is necessary from time to time. Take care and get well soon.

  49. Thanks willow. I'm glad you liked the Freed quote, at least i hope you did. to me it points to the way we can sometimes take our frustrations out in writing in subtle ways. Writing can thereby become empowering for those who might otherwise feel voiceless.

    Thanks Aleks. I'm pleased that you're feeling better for the little bird that came in through your window and for all the healing power of hugs. Thanks my Dutch, Serbo Croatian, and English speaking friend from Groningen.

  50. Thanks, Robert. This is a wonderful thing you write about: the idea that a mother should pay for her child's lessons in exchange for helping you with cleaning your house. This is what we call 'bartering' and it is the most wonderful way to give and take – true reciprocity.

  51. I am new to your blog and just love that I stumbled upon this particular post. That it so encourages me to continue my writing without that sheepish defensiveness — well, I appreciate it. Thank you, and I look forward to reading more of your posts and being a regular visitor!

  52. My latest project is to read my way through the Russian classics. This paragraph from Chekhov's short story, 'Ariadne' helped articulate my quandary I see reflecyed in your post. It reads:

    'I was always ashamed to face our peasants when I went fishing on a working day or drove out for a picnic. And I had the same feeling of shame with the servants, coachmen and workers that I met there. I felt they were looking at me and wondering why I never did anything. I felt this sense of shame every day from morning to night.'

    Not that we don't work… but what is its value to the worker?

  53. Wow – the woman who cleans your house sure seems to be away a lot -wasn't it just 2 weeks ago she'd been away for 2 weeks!?!

  54. I must confess that I still don't know what life should amount to, and what I'd want to have written on my gravestone – but I tend to think that accomplishments in life should be measured in terms of love.

  55. Thanks Elizabeth. I'm pleased to meet you here. It's good knowing that my post has somehow encouraged you to lkeep up with your writing without that dereadful 'defensiveness' I well know the feeling and it can be disempoering. Don't listen to the voices that bring you down.

    Thanks, Christine. This is a fantastic quote from Chekhov. It sums up my feelings beautifully. I've been watching the BBC TV series of Upstairs Downstairs over the last several weeks and I notice the same inequality of labour and experience there.

    I doubt that the woman who cleans for me thinks I'm lazy. I'm usually working when she's here, either literally at my job or I'm at my desk writing. But I have noticed that if I spend time reading the newspaper or some such thing during her shift then I feel guilty in a way I don't when I'm working, too.

  56. Thanks Peg. Well spotted.

    My two last posts have been a bit misleading it seems. I wrote them at different times alluding to the same two week break as though it were on two separate occasions. So now I need to get it straight.

    The woman who cleans for me rarely misses a week. She's usually here every week of the year but this year was an exception when she took a two week break and went off overseas with her husband. The last time she did this must have been about ten years ago and before then when her last child was born. She used to bring him along while she cleaned when he was a baby and a toddler. She's been working with me for over twenty years. That's some arrangement and relationship when I think of it. Clearly something must be working.

    It's good to meet you here, Peg.

  57. Oh, I love this post. And those last lines are good ones, so striking.

    I want to be known for writing a good book, most definitely!!

    PS: Most days, with my 4 young children, I feel close to tossing in the towel regarding domesticity, too. (sigh)

  58. Thanks Terrace. It's good to meet you.

    You sound as though you might suffer from the condition of Charles Schulz's character Pig Pen from Peanuts. That's some affliction, and small wonder you need a 'cleaning lady'.

  59. Terresa, you of all people are proof of the impossibility of keeping a tidy house in view of four young children and your need to read, write and blog.

    I look forward to reading your book one day, too. Thanks.

  60. I spent half an hour yesterday reassuring my friend of her need to have a cleaner. This friend's husband works long hours and their children are aged 7, 5, 21mths and 6 mths. Only one is at school this year. She says "Oh but I don't work." Yeah, right Sal. Pull the other one. When exactly is it that you don't work? From 3-4am perhaps?
    Their 3rd child was born at 22 wks so is developmentally delayed. What is it about Australians? Are we the only mad ones with this hang up about cleaning staff? I feel guilty if I am not working when mine is here, so I just go out! I have heaps to do but I just know that I can't use that time as relaxation time at home because I feel bad. Sometimes it is good to clean along with her because she has good ideas for rearrangement of furniture, linen etc. She has a knack for ordering the house. I don't. Jane

  61. Well Jane, you've convinced me. Here is a perfect example of someone who needs a cleaning lady and yet there she is typically suggesting that she does not work.

    Motherhood and all its attendant domestic responsibilities and chores gets underrated especially by mothers themselves, and maybe we Australians with our so-called love of equality are worst of all in accepting the need for help.

    Thanks for your most thoughtful comment. We need to have more reminders like this.

  62. Hi Elisabeth! In my country a cleaning lady is sometimes called an interior caretaker. And at the time I had to teach I had a lady helping me at my home. She was also my equal. She always waited till I came back from school and made me a cup of tea. Very nice!

  63. Thanks for your good wishes here, Kass. I've posted about the wedding in my next entry.

    Thanks Reader will, for your comment. I like the idea of an 'interior caretaker'. It speaks of a certain level of care and responsibility, rather than mere drudgery.

    And finally in this comment, thanks Merisi, I look forward to hearing more from you.

  64. Wow Elisabeth – this article should be in the A2 section of the Age!

    I used to have a cleaner when I worked full time (60+ hours per week) but after having a complete and utter burn out and breakdown, am now earning a pittance as a lowly freelance writer (putting the FREE into freelance) and spend Fridays as the house slave.

    I thought I'd hate having to do it, but it feels almost like a medidation where I'm 'in the moment' of cleaning up the clutter, hanging out washing, packing away the shopping and scrubbing out the bath/shower whilst having a shower myself. This feeling may go (it's only been a year and a half after all) but it's my small way of contributing to our house when my money doesn't any more.

    Your description of writing at the computer being an exclusive activity is very true. My ten year old daughter often says, "Aw you're not on the computer AGAIN, are you?" and I remember my mother doing her matriculation as a 36 year old in 1976, banging away on her typewriter when us kids got home from school.

    We'd whinge, "Aw Mum you're not on the TYPEWRITER again are you?" and only years later I realised that she came second in the state (SA) for three out of four of the subjects she studied.

    I can't claim any successes like that, but being able to meet my child at the school gate and walk home with her holding my hand and chattering seems pretty bloody good to me.

  65. Thanks Kath. I don't know about the A2, but 'wouldn't it be loverly'.

    I too can find housework soothing. I certainly have in the past and I find during holidays when I get a run up to it I can become quite obsessional, too much so, I think but then it fades away.

    It's the competing interests that make it difficult for me to enjoy one or the other and so I dabble at the edges of all things except my work and perhaps my family, though I think they often times feel a bit dabbled into, but then again, it's always the mother's fault. I do my best.

  66. In Singapore, domestic workers come from Indonesia, Philipines, Sri lanka and so on come to work for a living. But some employers treat them like slaves.

    I lived there for 16 years, and my husband refused to employ a live in employee commonly known as a maid. I had a part time cleaner. now in New Zealand, I am the slave. LOL

    Thanks for visiting via Barry. My late Baby would be 21 this year. I have moved on, and I write about my bereavement to encourage others.

    I was on the Gold Coast in January. Nice place. Except it is too hot for me.



  67. Thanks Ann, it's good to meet you here. It's tragic when any person is treated like a slave, however much they might rely on another for their livelihood or survival.

    Times change and inequalities move around but unfortunately they continue to exist everywhere. The best we can do is be aware of them and rise above them or help others to do likewise when we can.

    Thanks again, Ann.

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