Notes on Failure

Fail again. Fail Better. --S. Beckett

Padma Viswanathan

Padma Viswanathan
Padma Viswanathan is a fiction writer, playwright and journalist. Her first novel, The Toss of a Lemon, was published in 2008. Originally Canadian, she now lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.


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JANUARY 10, 2010 9:35AM

Cleaning House

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Two years ago, seven months pregnant with a second child, I decided to hire house cleaners. I had some problems with the idea, as do many guilt-prone liberals, but I also had problems with a huge belly, a house left filthy by renters, a toddler to care for, and proofs to proof before a rapidly approaching birth I didn’t want to further hasten with hard labor. My husband was working long hours, and asking my parents, who live with us during the academic year and help enormously with childcare, cooking and dishes, was out of the question.

I Googled. The first was a woman who came with her pre-adolescent daughter, in ankle-grazing homemade dresses and little caps (perhaps housecleaning was their version of homeschooling?). They left the floor as dirty as they found it. Next, I tried Merry Maids, a franchise owned by a well-spoken, assertive-seeming woman whose employees spent more time on cigarette breaks than in the house. I timorously requested the owner to come and have a look at the crumb-laden floor her employees had left under the island and coffee tables, at the scum-dulled shower tiles. She wore the same uniform as her employees and cleaned all the missed spots herself, but tattling nauseated me and afterwards her sullen, all-white crews gave me the stink-eye and never improved. Finally, I was referred to "Clara" (not her real name), a middle-aged Guatemalan woman who cleans with and supervises her younger employees.

At first, I asked them to come twice a month. Clara charges a little over $20 per person per hour, close to the starting salary I would receive if I got off the freelance roller coaster and onto the academic gravy train. I don’t know how much of that her employees receive, though I imagine it’s close to minimum wage. I increased her quote by $5 for gas; I give them juice or coffee; I tip at Christmas. Clara herself is smart, professional, and frank. When she began, seeing our battered old stove, she mentioned, several times, that her church had a nice one to give away. When we finally replaced it, she exclaimed at our new stainless steel finish oven with the central grill: “I have exactly the same one—I love it!” and coached me on how to clean it. 

The preceding paragraph makes it sound as though Clara and I are, for all practical purposes, equals, and as though such details handily assuage my guilt over not cleaning my own house. I consider us equals and, of course, I do clean my own house: with two kids and four adults, we clean all the time. I also tidy the house and swab down the toilets before the cleaners come; I don’t want to make their work harder and would be mortified if they had to deal with our waste. But the arrangement is still problematic, and I frequently think of Barbara Ehrenreich. In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich’s screedy exposé of the lives of the American working poor, she famously offers a scatological breakdown of the toilets she encountered as an undercover housecleaner, and goes on to say that she never had and never would let someone else clean her home “because this is just not the kind of relationship I want to have with another human being.”

I understand and respect this attitude, not just from my own two years of employing house cleaners but also because I come from a class of people who have always had servants. It is a given, in India, that if you are middle class, someone else cleans your home and you have, toward such a person, just the “kind of relationship”—superior, distant, paranoid—that Ehrenreich describes from encounters with homeowners, which seemed most often to happen while she was crawling around cleaning their floors.

Virginia Woolf thought she would never escape the Victorian age till she severed the unhealthy mutual dependence between her and her servants; similarly intricate and pernicious patronage systems ruled my grandparents’ day, remaining in force until their feudalistic way of life gave way to industry and urbanization. Now, the Indian middle classes use more automated and capital-driven streams of casual labour, fodder for several Indian-diasporic novelists, including Aravind Adiga, who created a murderous Delhi chauffeur and Kiran Desai, who wrote of the immigrant underclass in New York.

Reviewing Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, Pankaj Mishra recalled Orhan Pamuk’s comments, post-9/11, regarding Western ignorance of the “...overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population.” Ehrenreich’s book reveals that humiliation is widespread, too, within the working poor of America, which now integrates members of the rest of the world’s population—not people with much leisure to read these novelists, or even reviews of them in the Sunday Times.

I had a friend, long ago, a co-worker in a subsidized day-care where I was casual labour, who said something similar to Ehrenreich: people should clean up their own messes. The implication, I think, was mostly that it was bad for your soul not to do so. Part of me agrees, but what happens when we extend this precept to cover our other needs? I buy food grown and packaged and often even cooked by others; my clothes, too, are made by others; when my parents are unavailable, I employ others to look after my kids and someday others will teach them things I cannot. I’m quite capable of cleaning my house, though my mother argues that professional cleaners do a better job. I’m probably, in a pinch, also capable of teaching physics or making tofu wieners but I choose to spend as little time as possible on activities in which I have little expertise or interest.

As an result of this choice, I outsource many needs and chores to permit me to use my time more profitably. Literally: I spent the guilty hours of Clara’s first day writing a grant proposal. Also, while my time is spent on work that I love and that occasionally even earns me recognition in the world, housecleaners’ time is spent on work that is neither.

Because so many of us in the western world have worked some array of minimum-wage jobs at some point in our lives, it’s easy to let ourselves think that we have this in common with the many stuck in that echelon. In my case, I hovered contentedly on or below the poverty line through my mid-thirties, because anything that earned more compromised my time for my art. Clearly, though, the things I was doing left me time and energy for my art: not the case for most minimum-wage workers. Then, seemingly against all odds, I began earning comfortably from my art. I’m shocked to be bringing in a middle-class income primarily from writing, but I’m not shocked at re-entering the middle class itself. The fact is that I was born into the bourgeois and to the bourgeois I always, if unconsciously, figured I’d return. I’m not looking around at my beautiful house wondering, “How did I get here?” In all my years of low-earning, I still had many of the advantages of middle-classness: rotating loans from my parents; skills in time- and money-management; self-confidence and a big vocabulary—safety nets of all sorts. Not to mention I lived in Canada, so health care was never a worry.

I don’t know which specific privations bear down on the women Clara employs; they don’t have a lot of time to chat. Most of those Barbara Ehrenreich worked with in her year of pink collar slumming were preyed on by slumlords, demeaned by bosses and customers, and plagued by health problems caused or exacerbated by work that paid too little to treat them and didn’t come with insurance. Few expect or even imagine anything much better.

At one point in Ehrenreich’s book, a personal trainer whose house Ehrenreich is cleaning, says to her, “I tell all my clients, ‘If you want to be fit, just fire your cleaning lady and do it yourself.” Ehrenreich has no response, “since we’re not chatting in the gym together and I can’t explain that this form of exercise is totally asymmetrical, brutally repetitive and as likely to destroy the musculoskeletal structure as to strengthen it.” But when I, last summer, decided to reduce my contract with Clara to one cleaning a month and do the other one myself (not for reasons of personal fitness, though it’s not a bad workout if you don’t have to do it eight hours a day), Clara was not happy. I had by that time referred her to half a dozen friends and relatives whom she now has as clients, and told her one or two more were considering calling her. “I hope so,” she said, “I need it.”

So now I have guilt both for using my cleaners and for not using them. Great. Some might say that I’m participating more wholly than I will admit in exploitation, and eliding my guilt by dealing only with Clara, who is, effectively, the managerial class. (She still has no health insurance, though.) But one of my friends tells me that Clara is a matriarchal figure, employing other Guatemalan arrivals and helping them to get on their feet. Perhaps, through her, I’m part of that informal ladder of support. In any case, it’s pretty to think so.

Ehrenreich devotes a fair amount of her considerable analytic and descriptive power to the ways in which the corporate world—just a modern day version of class systems that have flourished in various mutations in any “civilization” heterogeneous enough to reproduce them—operates to keep the poor believing that that is their rightful stature, as they take pathetic pride in their work and their contributions to the well-being of the rapacious companies and slimy middle-managers they work for. I can testify that the boot has a similar footprint elsewhere in the world today. Despite this, Ehrenreich predicts that the workers of America ”…are bound to tire of getting so little in return and to demand to be paid what they are worth.” I don’t know. I’ve been waiting and watching for that my whole adult life and I still can’t hear the rising rumble.

Nickel and Dimed has deservedly been elevated, in the nearly twenty years since it was published, to the status of a classic of twentieth century American journalism. I will always be grateful for her description of the ‘flow state’ she enters in response to the dehumanization of retail, , and the piercing psychological insights that ensue. She may have been the first to reveal the nuances of Wal-Mart’s now infamous labor violations from the inside. And she provided all needed proofs for minimum-wage math—there is no way to live decently and avoid debt in that hidden 51st state where she is, as she knows, a tourist. Channel-surfing into Survivor one night in her motel room, she thinks, “Who are these nutcases who would volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive? Then I remember where I am and why I am here.”

For all her many nuanced caveats, though, there is one she omits:  that in using airports, hotels, gyms, restaurants, and, presumably, public bathrooms, she, ipso facto, already has that kind of relationship with other human beings, though she may never see them. At least if these human beings come into our own homes, they are visible to us. We have the chance to know their names, histories,  and opinions, and, potentially, to have a different kind of relationship with them from the sort Ehrenreich describes.





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Remind me to tell you some time about conversations with our friend Tatu from Kenya about this exact topic. On a road trip with her, I tried to articulate what it was that bothered me so much about the idea of hiring someone to clean our house (which we haven't yet done, but plan to if/when we have a second baby.) It came down to what you expressed in this essay; that inequal relationship with another adult makes me squirm. (Among other reasons, it's why I have no intention of becoming a principal rather then a 2nd grade teacher. I don't mind being in charge of humans who are much shorter than I am.)

When I think of my students' parents who clean houses, including a woman who has her Masters in Literature from a Mexican university, the issue seems simple: Would they rather have the work or not have it? Denying my student's highly overqualified mom the cleaning work would not pave the way for her to pursue a career in Literature.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made a parallel
point about the movement to shut down sweatshops that employ children. He pointed out that while those working conditions are inhumane, the alternative has sometimes proved even worse. In many countries where sweatshops were shut down due to international pressure, the boys went into back-breaking construction work instead, while the girls ended up in child prostitution rings.

In the view of our friend Tatu, my qualms are absurd. Her mother in Kenya always hires young women for a year or two to cook and clean, then supports them in pursuing higher education when that time ends.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
Hi Padma --

I personally have no trouble about hiring help but was surprised to find that women scientists in the US (at premier institutes) were ambivalent about this issue. I found out during the course of writing this article:

And the sequel if you care:
Well written piece, but to me this is more middle-class malady than liberal guilt (and you're not alone here). While working conditions and demeaning bosses are all well and truly tragic, as somebody who pays your cleaner $5 over what she demanded, cleans up before she arrives and offers her coffee and OJ, you have no reason to feel guilty on a personal level. If you do, it's because you're unable to consider cleaning as a profession that deserves your respect, because you consider it beneath one's dignity to clean somebody else's house for a living.

And as you rightly pointed out, assuming Clara did not have your safety net of loans from parents and a big vocab, she's simply chosen a profession that gives her the best returns on her skills. Or maybe she just didn't do very well at school, or maybe she actually likes cleaning. She's clearly an entrepreneur if she's supervising younger workers, running a business. You're doing your bit to make things easier for her and that's commendable; it could be misconstrued as being patronizing to feel guilty on behalf of the rest of the world.