I grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s, and every housewife I knew had a once-a-week “cleaning lady,” the title itself an oxymoron that revealed perfectly the ambivalence the employers had about hiring help. The cleaning ladies were black; most wore uniforms, and all were the tolerant beneficiaries of an exaggerated white liberal guilt that lent itself to diatribes about the importance of integrating the schools, but not to relaxed standards concerning the proper way to wax and buff a hardwood floor.
Beyond that, my experience with hired help came from books and the movies, until I spent several years of my early adult life under the sway of a woman who had always had servants and who had been raised in a house full of them in the Deep South. She taught me how to treat the weekly cleaning person who came to my New Orleans shotgun house once a week: I was always to pay her, even if I was out of town and didn’t need her services (“Just because you don’t need her doesn’t mean she doesn’t need her check”); I was to be unconcerned and gracious about broken dishes or chipped candlesticks (“Whoever does the cleaning is going to do the breaking”); and I was to understand that it was the way of domestic workers to fall short of money, and the obligation of householders to get them out of scrapes. I came to appreciate that the various trials of the employee’s life were very much my business, that ours was inherently an association of unequals, and that decency demanded that I keep that uppermost in my mind and behave accordingly.
Then, eight years ago—no longer in New Orleans—I received the exciting and terrifying news that I was pregnant with twins. It was highly recommended by everyone I knew—including the nurse at the pediatrician’s office—that I get some “help” for the first year of their lives, at least. At the time, I was living in a cramped duplex apartment beside a construction site, here in Los Angeles, lacking many of the accoutrements—dishwasher, dining room, off-street parking—that normally signify middle-class life. Until fairly recently in America, this would not have been considered an ideal time to begin employing servants. But the vast and apparently untrammeled arrival of immigrants to this country—combined with our yawning need for child care and the stubborn human tendency toward laziness—has allowed a massive new servant culture to spring up in less than two decades. It is a culture in which people with no experience of having staff in their homes are becoming the employers of small retinues of servants—the nanny, the once-a-week housecleaner, the cheap “mow, blow, and go” gardener with his truckload of day workers. It is also a culture in which the servants oftentimes have no previous experience of a life in service (many were factory or agricultural workers in their native countries; many are educated). They are, moreover, cowed not only by their employer’s power over them but also by the fact that they are quite often in this country illegally and thus loath to make waves. It is a system that lends itself to extraordinary acts of generosity: I have known women who have immediately taken a deep interest in the lives and families of their nannies, finding jobs for husbands, straightening out bewildering immigration problems, sending children to their own pediatricians—and paying the bill—when a troubling symptom turns up. And, too, it is a system rife with the possibility of exploitation and virtual human bondage: all over this city there are upper-middle-class households in which a back bedroom is occupied by a female illegal immigrant who is terrified of being deported, who is paid almost nothing, and who is on duty twenty-four hours a day.
So there I was with my twins and my efficiency kitchen and my full-time nanny, and immediately the relationship entered territory I had never known before. I spent more time talking with her—a woman who had up to then been a stranger, a woman whom I was paying to spend time with me—than I did with my husband or any of my friends. Many of our most casual conversations caused me to feel extreme guilt. Among all the poor women I’d known, she was the first in whose miseries I was directly implicated. Certainly she would have had fewer difficulties if I doubled her wages—and fewer still if I quadrupled them. But I was paying her exactly what she’d asked for, and had happily thrown in the money for a bus pass when she asked for that, too. Confusion and guilt ruled the day. With little forethought, I had entered, with my nanny, the brand-new population of servants, masters, and mistresses, and discovered that the age-old problem of the rich—how to treat the help?—had become the brand-new problem of middle-class types like me. (The problem itself falls into two parts: legal and emotional. Both are fraught with complexity, ambiguity, contradictions—not least that many employers are so conflicted about having a servant that they try not to think about the fact too much, a dodge that helps no one.) What was my right relationship to my domestic staff? As much as I had admired my former mentor, the servant culture of the Deep South—even at its most decent—was hardly the moral template I wanted to shape my behavior around. More was required of me, and I knew it.
As Cheryl Mendelson notes in Home Comforts, her superb compendium of household management, “Few laws protect domestic employees on the job, but those few deserve our scrupulous observance.” Mendelson points out that most domestic workers take on jobs with “no health benefits, no pension plans, no vacation pay, no job security, no hope of advancement, and no redress for grievances and injustices except to leave a job they may desperately need.” The first way to do right by these people, to make their service less indentured, is to pay their Social Security set-asides—a legal requirement, although you’d hardly know it judging from the number of people who dodge it. It is not, of course, a benefit without cost to the employee. She will have to declare her income, and—above a certain level—she’ll be taxed on it. Fair enough: like anyone else, nannies use public services—schools and parks and police protection—and these things aren’t paid for by the king. They’re paid for by all of us.
Far thornier is the fact that this is a commercial transaction from which parents desperately, if selectively, want emotional results. In hiring a nanny, they’re asking—if you’ll forgive the pun—a relative stranger to love (and tolerate, and indulge, and tend to) their children as the children’s own mother or father would, for money. In short, they’re trying to purchase what ultimately can’t be bought. Furthermore, this love train is expected to travel only select routes. For instance, how many parents—while asking an employee to love them and their children like family—can promise the employee that they will be there for her in her old age, just as they would be for actual family members? Or—less dramatic, but perhaps more pressing—how many parents ask the employee to eat dinner with the family? Having the help dine apart from the family is the natural inclination of many householders, and it was certainly not a harsh requirement a century ago, when well-staffed houses had several servants, who kept company and ate dinner together in the kitchen. But if a nanny works long hours, and if there is no one to eat dinner with—if she is left alone in the kitchen with her plate night after night—she will not grow ever fonder of you, or the situation you have put her in. You can’t expect a mother’s love from a woman you occasionally treat like a scullery maid. Indeed, she will spend a lot of time thinking about how unwelcome and awkward she feels, and—while you are blithely going about your life, never expecting to be broadsided by a nanny crisis—she will begin quietly and purposefully looking for another job. One Monday morning, when you’re half out the door to work, waiting for her to arrive, the phone will ring, and she will tell you that her mother is sick in El Salvador or that her brother has been in an accident in Guatemala and that she is leaving the country for a while—an indeterminate amount of time—and that she will call you when she returns. But she won’t return; at least not to your home. What a lot she’ll have to talk about.