Barbara Ehrenreich wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine about Ai-jen Poo, whom she called “The Nannies’ Norma Rae,” and I can’t stop thinking about it.
Poo is organizing domestic workers: nannies, housekeepers, babysitters. Ehrenreich begins her article by calling this relationship “the most intimate class divide in human civilization”—the relationship between professionals and their domestic workers.
It’s interesting the way so many people who lack opinions on other domestic issues have opinions on this one.
“I hate to clean,” you might say, and so you have someone help you.
Or, “I hate to clean,” and your house is messy, because you don’t have someone help you.
Or, “I love to have a clean house and I don’t have any time,” you say, so you have someone help you.
Or, “I wish I could pick the kids up, but I can’t,” you say, so you have someone help you.
Or, “I can’t afford not to work,” you say, so you have someone help you with the kids so you can work.
Then, there are those who can afford and need this help but don’t have it on principle.
What is this principle?
The only job I was ever dismissed from was a job as a housecleaner. This was in college and I was not very good at it. The woman of the house had told me she wanted the baseboards really clean, so I focused all my energy on the baseboards and they were really clean, but it was very mesmerizing, so I lost a lot of time there. There and polishing the wood furniture. So I never really got to the toilet but I did manage to eat too many of the brownies she left out for me, on a plate, from which I think I was supposed to know to eat one or at the most two.
“It’s not that easy to organize domestic workers,” Ehrenreich writes. In general, it is hard to understand why our country does not provide such a service for us. Where is the government organization that supports the domestic worker, who may or may not be an American citizen, but is definitely100% human?
It is scary and uncomfortable to think about these things. In many schools these days there are advocacy groups for human rights, for children who are trafficked and traded around the globe and at home.
But what about their moms?
I know Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and that she has helped a lot of people. But if you read the blog responding to the article, there is still a pervasive climate that maintains that the work is enviable, and that from where the other working woman in the house sits, the domestic worker has it made.
This is discomforting, even if it can be true at times. The fact that we do not have a support system in place for people who work without medical insurance or contracts in a country where it costs so much money to go to the emergency room does not feel cozy or enviable.
The new hipsters on my block, like the old homeschoolers on my block, have toyed with the idea of picking up immigrant laborers from the corner down the hill to do their landscaping.
Hipsters and homeschoolers—they all care about each other and care about doing the right thing and they are all politically correct and loving and they bake.
Isn’t it the right thing to do to give work to landscapers who won’t have it, who need it, and who sleep on the floor in small shared apartments in communities where they are unwelcome?
It feels like the right thing to do.
Maybe there are different levels, though, of the “right thing,” and some of these levels include the federal government. I really wish that these decisions were not up to the individual—it would be a lot better, it seems, if the government adopted a more paternalistic/maternalistic attitude here—these are family matters after all.
Last week in President Obama’s daughters’ school there was a big fuss over a kindergartener who was sad because her mom had an affair with the school’s therapist, in part transpiring during snow days when school was closed.
Why are these things related? Maybe because the President knows, this week, with all the fuss at the Sidwell Friends parents’ association and all the Quaker meetings, maybe he knows this week at the dinner table that there can be stress in the home and that the home matters. I’m sure he knows the home matters, all the time. He seems like he has a very nice family.
Maybe he could turn his attention, now that his popularity is high enough to feature his accomplishments on Saturday Night Live, maybe he could turn his attention to the couch we are sitting on and the carpet under the couch and how clean they are. And the way any sippy cups that were stuck in them were put away and washed. And anyone who needed a sippy cup was lovingly handed one.
And that those hands, wiping the spills, filling the cups, patting the backs that drink from the cups—those hands need a hand, too. One that holds a medical insurance card, a contract for safety and security, and maybe even the hope of a mortgage someday, now that rates are so low.
For a home with a couch and a sippy cup between the cushions.
For her own child.