This evening I was cruising Facebook, as I often do, and a post popped onto my timeline suggesting that I would be a whole lot happier if I hired a maid. And I am sure that is true. Actually, I know that is true. I just walked by my powder room and noted that it really needed a cleaning. And so I write a blog post about cleaning rather than actually cleaning the bathroom. Can you tell I hate housework and only do it when absolutely necessary?
Most caregivers are overextended – the result of a deluge of daily activities that monopolize every waking hour, and often the sleeping ones as well. Days are an out-of-control hamster wheel of changing diapers, managing g-tube feeds, organizing appointments, giving medications, stretching tight muscles, advocating for services and funding, and so on. Throw in the stuff you cannot avoid like grocery shopping, meal preparation, laundry, paying bills, and earning money to pay those bills, and most caregivers are walking around in a permanently frazzled state. A maid is a pretty darn good idea. Right?
Statistically speaking we know women are almost always caregivers. Those same statistics tell us that women usually do the heavy lifting when it comes to housework and child care. These days there is also talk of the mental load carried by women – the fact that they, alone, are responsible for getting things done even if they can delegate work. The idea being that the emotional toll of being responsible for everything is daunting.
But here’s where the social justice part of me gets concerned. When we women hire others to help us we risk passing the workload off onto more vulnerable women. While not universally true, women who clean houses and do similar service work, tend to work long hours for lower wages with limited benefits, primarily to ease the burden of more affluent, well-educated women. In other words the housework problem remains a woman’s problem. It is simply that we “more privileged” women have passed along our long list of chores to another “less privileged” woman. Author Mona Harrington in Care and Equality unpacks this complex issue well. As she bluntly puts it, one of the important tasks facing our society today is how we address this caregiving challenge. Harrington reminds us that simply creating a new class of caregivers and service workers who risk living vulnerable and exploited lives is not a satisfactory or sustainable answer. And in the end, I like to think that both our children and the people who love and care for them (who are usually women) deserve more.
On a personal note I have had to think about this particular issue a fair bit. Almost ten years ago we hired a full-time, live-in caregiver to assist with Matthew’s care. Carol came to Canada via the live-in caregivers program from the Philippines – a program that has a history of placing women in situations where they risk being exploited. And it would be no understatement to say that Carol saved my life and my sanity. I cannot express my gratitude for her excellent and loving care of my son. But I am also aware that it is not okay if my life and sanity happen at the expense of hers. As a result my husband and I have worked very hard to make sure she is well-paid, has benefits such as dental, prescriptions, and eye-care, and that she has liberal access to holiday time, return trips home, self-care opportunities, and continuing education if she chooses. But still I worry. I have tried hard to create an egalitarian relationship comprised of two women working together for a common goal – the care of my son – but at times that is easier said than done. In the end I cannot change the fact that I am her employer.
So returning to the matter of the maid. There is no doubt that exhausted caregivers would benefit from someone who will clean their homes weekly among other supports. But I think the better response to the reality of exhausted caregivers is not maids, but a more comprehensive approach to caregiving that ensures that caregivers receive adequate supports and sufficient respite. The challenge, of course, is that a maid is a whole lot cheaper than a nurse.
I have no ready answers. I only know we have a lot of work ahead of us. And I worry that while a maid is the easy answer and the one that provides a nice Facebook soundbite, it isn’t the right one when it comes to the addressing the inordinate burden of caregiving.