Sunday, March 23, 2008

Why is it so hard to get help?

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term “household help”. As if housecleaners, gardeners, and cooks are people who just love to clean, garden and cook, and are altruistic to a fault. When in reality, the people who do these jobs are working their asses off to do shit nobody else wants to do, for as little as anyone can get away with paying for it. These jobs will never pay top dollar. For those employed by individuals, there is enormous pressure to keep the wages low. Nobody wants to spend a huge portion of their income to pay someone else to do their grunt work. But families with two working parents are crunched for time, and hiring a cleaner is like buying precious family time. Still, I feel guilty asking someone to work for next to nothing scrubbing my floor because I can’t get it together enough to do it myself. Add to that the fact that I can be a little bit picky (okay, very picky) about how the job is done, and this becomes a stick of emotional dynamite for me.

But as I get more and more invested in my thesis research, and now with two children to care for, it’s getting nearly impossible to keep up with everything and have any time for quality family time on the weekends. And while I don’t mind occasionally “working from home” to catch up, I’m feeling the urge to do it more than occasionally, right at the time when I need to be in the lab as much as possible. Somehow, I have been fooling myself that with all of us pitching in it should be getting easier. In reality, I think everyone is just getting burned out and tired of hearing me remind them how many chores and errands we have to do before we can do anything fun.

We used to have someone clean our home in [Old City]. It was hard for me to do it then, but so many of my friends and neighbors did the same that it helped me feel like it was normal. Since moving to [New City] and entering graduate school, most of the people I interact with every day are not in a place in their lives where they need or can afford any “household help” so again, it feels, well, wrong to be hiring a housecleaner. I’ve done it off and on – just to get through a rough patch. But I think I must just accept that I can’t manage over the long term without this kind of help. At least my husband has a good paying job, so we can afford it, if we choose to make that a priority.

And I’m not alone. In fact, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Nobel Laureate, and director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, started a foundation bearing her name to provide fellowships to young women scientists specifically to allow them to hire help with household chores or additional childcare. I read about this a year and a half ago in Nature (you can read an interview with her from the New York Times here), and thought it sounded like a good idea. But that’s for those other people who don’t get help from their spouses, right? Well, I have to admit that, even with a spouse doing a fair share of the work, it’s pretty hard to keep the house clean, the fridge stocked, the clothes clean, the work moving forward, and still have time and energy to play with your kids.

So I’ve done it – I held my nose and phoned a cleaning service, and they came and cleaned my house this week. Of course, I found lots of things they didn’t do perfectly, but I also found things that were cleaned that had been neglected for so long that nobody even noticed them anymore. And this morning, I woke up thinking about what fun things we could all do as a family – and we actually did some of them! And now, I’m sitting down to blog this and then do some data analysis. I feel so happy and productive! Hope it lasts.

[Comment added after original post: for a slightly different take on Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and her foundation, check out this recent post on Women in Science. Though I do think she is onto something important with the fellowships, she doesn't have quite as modern a view on why women don't pursue science careers as one might hope.]


Becky said...

Why do you feel you must pay your cleaner "next to nothing?" Why not pay her (him/them) a living wage? I live in the Midwest where the COL is lower than in NY, and I pay my cleaners (a husband and wife team) $40/hour. It means I can't have them as often as I would like, for as long as I would like, but it means that they can have a business that enables them to own their own home and set their own hours. They would not be happy if I stopped using their service because I felt guilty; they would look at it as having lost a good customer. I do think the "cleaning services" like the ones with "Maids" in their name can be exploitative, and pay their workers minimum wage while the middlemen pocket the profit. So to avoid guilt and have some peace at home, look for someone who is the business owner, and pay her a fair wage.

Drugmonkey said...

Not to go off topic too much but I recall some comments from a much more senior (than me) woman PI who was generalizing this point across both home and lab. The advice was to pay someone to do the stuff that you didn't want to do or was bogging you down if you could possibly afford it. elitist, perhaps. a "betrayal" of less-comfortable roots for those of us who have come up in the world.

but if the small stuff like house cleaning is interfering with your relationship with spouse or kids and you can afford the is a no-brainer.

the lesson should also apply to science although perhaps more to the PI level than the trainee level.

acmegirl said...

Right, and right.

Becky is right on about paying a reasonable wage and doing a little legwork to make sure most/all of it is going to the worker. But I think, as Drugmonkey says, it's really the elistism that bothers me. I just can't see myself as the kind of person who has a housekeeper. Funnily, I also can't see myself as the kind of person who has an assistant. Guess I need to recast myself a little here!

flickamawa said...

Props for giving in and getting your house cleaned. I haven't ever done this yet, but husband and I have agreed that we won't hesitate when we really think it's necessary. But I do feel like I'd want to pay them decently and try my best not to be elitist about it - I totally understand where you're coming from.

Also, if you get a chance, can you shoot me an email at Thanks!

Peggy said...

Back when I was working on my thesis I felt like I barely had time to take minimal care of myself, let alone the household chores. I think (I hope) I would have done things differently if I had had a family.

I've never seriously considered hiring help, in part because I feel like I should be able to do it myself (which is a bit silly), and in part because the idea of a stranger coming into my house and seeing all the usually private nooks and crannies makes me feel uncomfortable. I suppose I might feel differently after trying it though.