The Wall Street Journal reports today about the business of online micro-service clearinghouses, where customers put out requests for household and other takss (hat tip Rosalynde Welch‘s Facebook wall). The article mentions jobs like taming an out of control muck of a compost pile, purchasing and delivering various items, and fishing a dropped set of keys from a sewer. The conversation on Facebook turned to debating whether or not there is something distasteful, or even morally wrong, about hiring help to perform domestic work (for the purposes of this conversation, let’s consider gardening, housecleaning, housekeeping, personal shopping, meal preparation, and the like. We’ll leave nannies/childcare for another day). My first reaction was an emphatic “No!” there is nothing wrong with it, but in trying to articulate the reasons why, I realized I am much more ambivalent than that.
A formative experience for my thoughts on the issue happened on my first trip to Girl’s Camp as a leader. I overheard one girl tell another about their chore assignment, “I’m not going to clean bathrooms! My name isn’t Juanita!” To which her friend laughed and replied, “Yeah, my last name isn’t Gonzales!” (The rest of the group was swiftly excused to free time, while those two fulfilled the entire group’s bathroom cleaning assignment on their own. Also, this was many years ago and both have gone on to be thoughtful, responsible members of society who I am certain are mortified by their past attitudes.) While there are doubtless many, even an overwhelming majority, of children growing up in homes with domestic help who nonetheless come out of it without such appalling attitudes, and many growing up without domestic help who nonetheless absorb racist attitudes about who does the difficult work of tending to public bathrooms and landscapes, there is absolutely something to be said for children learning the value of work by doing it themselves and seeing their parents do it. Work is so important to child-rearing in Mormon culture that it even merits a mention in the Proclamation on the Family. Surely, even if children end up being able to afford help as adults, it can only help them to have the general discipline and specific skills to complete these tasks on their own. How much does hired help interfere with that? I don’t know, but I’m not convinced that there isn’t more than enough work in the typical household for children to have plenty to themselves, even with domestic help.
Moving to the topic of yardwork, it was a bit of a horrifying culture shock to me to move from a northern California neighborhood where all but the extremely wealthy or the infirm did their own yardwork, to a southern California neighborhood, where, middling income notwithstanding, hardly anyone does. I find gardening to be a very deep spiritual kind of thing, and the idea of everybody just hiring immigrant labor to do it offended me on that account, as well as on account of the uncomfortable class, race, and immigrant issues exposed by that dynamic. But now, with two kids, working many hours teaching, it just seems like an obvious necessity. There are only so many hours in the day and while I’ll still tend my own veggies, thankyouverymuch, please, please, somebody mow that lawn! It’s simply a matter of having to triage and be very careful where my time goes. (And no, I’m not teaching right now, so I have time to burn on blogs, and no, I am not currently employing a landscaper!)
Which brings us to many questions that are unresolved in my mind: Are there particular tasks shouldn’t ever be done by other people? Where are those lines– landscape maintenance? snow shoveling? dog walking? heavy duty floors and bathroom cleaning? basic picking up of carelessly strewn miscellaneous clutter? personal chef services (are they different from a restaurant)? Or is the real concern about what activities replace the time that would have gone to domestic tasks? I can see it being objectionable that someone would eat bon-bons while a housekeeper cleans the bathroom, but what of somebody who works very hard at a job while a housekeeper cleans the bathroom? Does the presence of kids in the family make a difference? For whatever reason, I have a much harder time seeing any problem whatsoever with a busy professional couple with no kids hiring out various tasks. What about economic considerations–is domestic help a great example of the invisible hand making everyone’s lives better? Finally, what about concerns about race and class that cannot be disentangled from domestic help? The exact contours of the race and class dynamics vary from region to region in America and throughout the world, but they are always present in some form.