I was raised in a household where self-sufficiency was prized, and help rarely hired. My father (a surgeon) seemed to know how to do everything, and would take apart a broken toilet, pour concrete, or tune up a small tractor without missing a beat. He is 70, and still mows his own lawn.
My mother cleaned her own house no matter how busy she got. I always had the feeling that this was a morally superior thing to do.
Here in Chile, having help is morally superior. People need the work, and though the economy here is stong, it ultimately rests on these menial, service jobs. I wish there weren't so many people in the world working for such low wages, but by hiring someone legally and treating them fairly and kindly, I can at least make a difference for the one.
Having a maid here is very affordable. I can have a maid (we call them nanas here -- doesn't that sound nicer?) come for a whole day, cook, clean, tend kids, and help with anything I can figure out how to ask her for in Spanish, for the price of about two hours of cleaning in the U.S.
Of course, I could choose to be the only person in my neighborhood with no nana (many households have two), but it would mean hours of cleaning every week -- more than in the U.S. because almost every room in a Chilean house has a hard floor, which takes longer to clean than wall-to-wall carpeting, and we have no window screens which means more bugs and more dust. Also, because everyone has a nana, there isn't a lot of sharing of childcare. (I could ask a neighbor to watch one of my kids while I get a haircut, but she wouldn't be likely to ask me to do the same, because she has a nana.) And if I turn up at school for a program with a toddler (which sometimes still happens, since I don't have a nana every day) I am often the only one, which frankly is a little embarrassing, especially if the child is disruptive.
Besides, having a nana is helping all of us learn Spanish (she speaks NO English). We get to experience her delicious Peruvian food. She irons beautifully (I almost never iron, but now I'm going to have to start because I love having crisp clothes to wear). When I go to the grocery store, I can leave kids home with her and when I get home, she brings everything in from the car for me -- I've never asked her to do this, it's just the way things are done here. The whole thing is kind of dreamy, all in all.
So we're living this fun, vacation-y life and not cleaning our own house. Am I just here to gloat about it? No, I'd never gloat! And it does have a few downsides. There are days when I just don't feel like having someone in my house -- it's always a huge relief when she's finished for the day and it's just us again. Having a maid is making me and my kids a tiny bit lazy about cleaning up for ourselves, which I think in the long term would not be good -- we try to still be responsible for putting our own things away, but teaching my kids to clean toilets and mop floors will probably wait until we're back home in a couple of years. Further, it can be difficult to find a good maid, and I can tell you from the horror stories I've heard that, kind of like with husbands, a bad one is much worse than none at all.
But we're lucky and have one of the good ones. Let me tell you what I love about it. I almost never apologize to someone who comes to my door about the state of my house (which I did regularly before). Likewise, I can have someone over without much notice, because my house is pretty clean almost all the time.
I have more time, and (this is the really important part) can focus on things that matter. I'm more present with my kids, I get the basics (exercise, scripture reading, etc.) done way more often, and I can sit and visit with a friend or write on my blog without feeling guilty about the housework that is waiting for me.
My (American) neighbor friend says simply, "I'm a lot calmer." For a mother of young children, could there be anything better than that?
So here's what I'm wondering. Could you use a little help? Few people in the U.S. can afford the kind of help I have here, and I know for many people having any help at all isn't financially realistic, but give it some thought -- it might be worth saving up a few dollars each week by cutting back in another area.
There are people in the U.S. who are desperate for work, too. Do you know a teenager whose family is going to struggle to send them to college? My sister-in-law Jill likes to pick one out, train them in the ways of her household, then use them regularly for both childcare and cleaning. She pays well enough that the job is in demand, but not as much as you'd have to pay an adult or a cleaning service. It's always a sad day when the favorite goes off to college and she has to find a new one.
There might be a girl as young as 12 in your neighborhood who would love a regularly scheduled job that might incorporate both childcare and light cleaning.
You can hire a service, or a private individual, to clean once or twice a month for around $20 an hour in many areas. I know that sounds like tons of money, but having someone come "catch you up" once in awhile feels amazing -- it's better than a pedicure, and costs only a little more!
I've learned a lesson -- lots of lessons actually -- from having sweet Carmen in my home, and the biggest one is this: I don't have to do everything myself. It is ok to have help. In fact, in some ways, having help has made me a better mother, and a better person. Don't be afraid to give it a try.
I'm sure some of you already have this figured out. Please feel free to share your experience -- how have you made having a little help affordable? What does your help help with? Any suggestions for finding good help?
(PS On a marginally-related note, have you read the book The Help? Highly recommend. Imagine the irony of reading it, as I did, while your maid is cleaning your house.)