It’s summer now, and as often happens with a change of seasons, our family is swept up in a new flurry of activity. That means the physical living space of our home hovers on the verge of neglect. No matter how many tip sheets I read or gadgets I buy, one of the perennial enigmas of modern living for me, and probably most women, is how to keep up with the housework.
In her recent memoir, Women’s Work: A Reckoning with Work and Home, former Los Angeles Times international reporter Megan Stack wrestles with her own expectations of what it means to keep house. Both Stack and her husband, Tom Lasseter, were working in Beijing when they became pregnant with their first child. Stack had planned to quit her work with the Times and write from home once the baby was born while Lasseter continued his career as a foreign correspondent. The only problem was that she hadn’t anticipated the exponentially larger volume of work it would take to run a household with a child. The obvious solution was to get more help, so they hired a full-time ayi who cooked, cleaned, and took care of baby Max.
Stack and Lasseter spent years in China and later India and during those stints abroad always had a least one domestic employee. For Stack, these years were about more than just getting the help she needed for her (eventually two) kids. It was about turning her home into a workplace and “enmesh[ing] myself in a web of women’s work—as worker, employer, and beneficiary, all at the same time. My own work rested on the cornerstone of another woman’s labor,” she writes.
But it wasn’t just trading one woman’s labor for another. The women Stack hired lived in deep poverty, working for pennies on the dollar compared to the incomes of their foreign employers. The women were nearly all mothers, too, leaving behind their own children so Stack could stay home with hers. It was a reality Stack took advantage of but never with a clear conscience.
“I was in good company. The most brilliant and socially conscious female professionals I met around the world—the human rights workers, entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, diplomats, and wonks—enabled their careers by hiring impoverished women to care for their children. That was the underbelly. That was the trade-off.”
For Stack, like the rest of us, the problem is hard to untangle: “Cooking and cleaning and childcare … underpin and enable everything we do,” she writes. “The perpetual allocation of this most crucial and inevitable work along gender lines sets up women for failure and men for success. It saps the energy and burdens the brains of half the population. And yet honest discussion of housework is still treated as taboo.”
In my own family, honest discussions of housework do happen from time to time, especially because both my husband and I spent a few years as single adults doing it all on our own. In preparation for our married life together, Steve and I agreed that he would do the laundry, wash the dishes after supper, and take the garbage out while the shopping, cooking, and cleaning generally fell to me. As for the children—his three boys, to whom I enthusiastically became a stepmom—the bulk of the responsibility initially fell to him.
Though this delineation of chores continues, over time my role in our home has dramatically increased, especially when it comes to caring for the boys or attending to the extraneous tasks of domestic life that don’t fit into our neatly devised categories (like calling the plumber, buying underwear, or inviting grandparents for dinner). Like Stack, I’m a writer who works at home. In addition to my job and my domestic duties, I’m also a caregiver to my elderly mother, who lives in a nursing facility nearby. All total, I work close to 15 hours a day, including weekends. In other words: I have little margin for things to go wrong in our lives.
Last fall, however, I fell and broke both my wrist and my foot. Naturally enough, I had trouble keeping up with everything, so we hired a woman to clean the house weekly for the six weeks I was stuck in an arm cast and an orthotic shoe. When our time of hired housekeeping was about to come to an end, my husband and I both realized that even without my broken appendages, our lives were too unwieldy to manage. So after reviewing our budget and our consciences, we asked the housekeeper to stay on indefinitely.
These months later, “Laura” (as I’ll call her) still comes every other week to vacuum, dust, mop, and clean the bathrooms. I’ve been a hired housekeeper in the past, so I’m empathetic to her work, and on the weeks when she doesn’t come, I still do most of the chores myself, albeit less thoroughly. But nonetheless, having house help still smacks of privilege, and I struggle with the social stigma around it. I’m faced with the same questions that Stack confronted: Is “enmeshing myself in a web of women’s work” really the way to advance the cause of women in my community? And if I outsource, how do I do it while still being attentive to justice issues?
Over time, I’ve come to realize that, if it’s done well, hiring a housekeeper can be a meaningful extension of my faith and a way to model Christ in my home and community.
First, hiring a housekeeper engages me more fully in a variety of social issues, including workers’ rights, immigration, and gender inequality. When we hire people to work in our homes, we have the opportunity to “welcome the stranger” (Matt. 25:38) by helping to support them and their families through the money we pay and the work conditions we offer. It’s one thing to claim that I care about the fight for living wages among service workers, but it’s another to choose to pay my housekeeper more than she asks because her rate seems unfairly low. I can criticize repressive employers who threaten to fire women simply for taking off work to care for their children, but what do I do when my own housekeeper needs to skip a week to help her son move home from college?
Although the larger systemic issues in play need to be rigorously addressed—like the United Church of Christ is doing through their advocacy for worker justice—the solutions start one work environment at a time, which means I’m responsible to be a just employer. But what exactly does that mean? According to Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), it starts with education.
“Most employers want to do the right thing, but we need to make it clear for them what that is,” Poo said in an interview with Anna Blackshaw for The Sun. “Having guidelines and minimum standards is beneficial for both sides. It provides a baseline from which they can negotiate.”
NDWA has partnered with other organizations, like the Hand in Hand Domestic Employers Network, to come up with the Fair Care Pledge for those whose “home is someone’s workplace.” Among its tenets, the pledge calls domestic employers to be “fair and respectful” and to promise equitable pay, clear expectations, and paid time off. While neither NDWA or Hand in Hand are Christian organizations, their calls for integrity seem like an important starting place as I seek to practice justice in my home.
Second, hiring a housekeeper allows me to prioritize homemaking while admitting that I have limitations. Both my professional work and my caregiving work are necessary for our family, and for the past couple of years, I’ve struggled to do it all alone. But as the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “Two [laborers] are better than one” (Eccles. 4:9). While I initially thought that hiring a housekeeper would mean shirking my responsibilities at home, I now see it as a way to elevate our living environment when it was otherwise the first thing to go. According to Jen Pollock Michel, author of Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, the reason is simple: Housekeeping is about more than just the mechanics.
“The cleaning of the showers, the washing of the floors, even if you hire that out, chances are you still have daily housekeeping,” says Michel. “I don't think you can outsource housekeeping entirely, because the physical aspects of our home engage us emotionally and attune us emotionally to the people that live there and to the ministries we exercise out of our homes.”
Third, hiring a housekeeper has enabled me to have a ministry of hospitality and “to be generous and willing to share” (1 Tim. 6:18) even during this hectic season of life. I like to have a friend over for tea or a couple over for dinner, but when the house is a wreck and the fridge and pantry are empty, even a casual visit feels awkward. Since the house is deep cleaned every two weeks, it’s easier to keep up with the other “in between” work, and that in turn puts me at liberty to invite people into our home.
Christian hospitality is one reason Michel, too, has hired a housekeeper for her home. “I say if you can afford help in order to extend hospitality,” she told me, “then you really should, because it's such a blessing to our families—and to the neighbors who live around us—to have people in our home and to show them love in these ways.”
Finally, hiring help has increased my appreciation of housekeeping. As Stack suggests, “cooking and cleaning and childcare are everything,” and if we neglect them or do them poorly, we jeopardize our health and livelihood.
The Bible may not offer explicit instructions on how to keep house, but it does show us God’s heart for homemaking. In her book, Michel makes a case for God as homemaker and the gospel as good news that “begins and ends with homecoming.” When we see the tasks of caring for our homes as ignoble work, even optional work, we miss the opportunities to live out the gospel inside the walls of our homes. Without ignoring the ways housework has been used to limit or suppress women—especially migrants and minority women—we can still recognize the ways in which housekeeping, as Michel puts it, “points us toward the thin places of daily life: where work, however monotonous and menial, becomes worship, witnessing to God’s kingdom coming and his will being done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
On the rare occasion that I have a little time at the end of the day to read or watch TV, I wonder if having a housekeeper is a luxury we don’t really need. I imagine if I just tried harder, got up earlier, worked longer hours, I could do it all: the family, the job, the house. But then I think of God, our cosmic homemaker, attending to the needs of the world, and his son Jesus, who even now is preparing a place for us, and I rest in my decision to get the help I need to prioritize the housekeeping. Then I go to sleep hopeful that tomorrow I can do it all again—not simply as drudgery, but as an act of worship, a faithful witness to God’s kingdom already at hand.
Charity Singleton Craig is the author of The Art of the Essay: From Ordinary Life to Extraordinary Words (T.S. Poetry Press, 2019), and her work is regularly featured at Edible Indy and In Touch Magazine. She lives with her husband and three stepsons in central Indiana. Find her online at charitysingletoncraig.com.
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