Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hiring Domestic Help – Or Violating Every Single One of My Midwestern Sensibilities

Listening to: Still the One - Orleans  (Oh shut up. It’s a good song and came up on ipod shuffle.)

Mood: Upbeat

I grew up in a variety of places, from both coasts of the US to the stuffy Midwestern town that I was trapped in for most of my childhood. Understandably, this shaped my views on work ethics and indulgences.  I’m sure being from a Dutch family didn’t help either. The Dutch are a bit, well, crazy for lack of a better word, about their work ethic. I grew up with the attitudes that you have work to do, you will do it, and you will do it to the best of your ability or you are a failure. Unfortunately, this is not my usual hyperbole, it’s actually how my family looked at work. Accordingly, India’s culture of cheap human labor to do tasks that people don’t want to do has always baffled me. In the US, you can’t hire cleaning personnel, or really anyone unless you have a lot of money to throw around, which I have never had. Even living in New York with Daddy G making plenty of money to keep us comfortable, I never, ever would have considered hiring someone to clean for me. All kinds of sirens and red flashing lights would go off in my head about how incredibly lazy it would be to hire someone for something I could very well do myself. I’m not judging anyone who does have help, I just figured that since I was a stay at home mom/wife, I had the time and ability (Hello sturdy Dutch genes) to do whatever needed done.  

When we visited India for the first time 6 years ago, the maid baffled me. She was obviously not well off and worked very, very hard in my inlaws house for her money. It was incredibly awkward for me and I never knew how to sit gracefully in a room with her there or talk about her in front of her, even though she didn’t understand 2 words of English (or so she acted, I have since learned that is generally an exaggeration). I swore that I would never hire a maid if we moved to India, which at that point I had no idea I would actually do.

Fast-forward to living in our own apartment in India. Daddy G, in no uncertain terms, told me that we would be hiring a maid. He didn’t want his family to think that he had dragged me halfway across the world just to make me do housework all day. Apparently, it’s a status thing, especially with his family, whom were terrified that I would hate it here if I had too much work to do. This left me with two main thoughts. The first was terror. How was I going to manage another person that I couldn’t trust in my own home? I’m not trying to sound negative or alarmist here, but it is very, very difficult to find trustworthy people here. Loyalty has a different meaning here and everyone is looking out for themselves first. It’s a product of the competition with so many people in a limited space. The second was what am I going to do with all of my time now? Keeping the house used to take up a lot of my time, and even still I didn’t do too much at any one time.

We put off hiring someone for a few weeks as we got stuff under control. I didn’t want things generally sitting around the house without reason. Small things sitting out tend to disappear if you hire someone who has no compunction about not stealing things from you. As it is almost impossible to know the character of the person you hire when hiring them, it’s always a risk at first.  I had heard many, many stories.

We had a woman come to the door and ask if we needed a maid. Please note that maid doesn’t have the same negative connotation that it does in the US. Maid is just a job description, like driver, manager, etc.  When we had decided the chaos was under control, we asked her to come and negotiate a salary. Negotiation is a huge part of hiring a maid and you have to be at your best or you will be taken for a ride. Daddy G managed the negotiations as our maid only speaks in Telugu, which fortunately is his mother tongue.

At first it was difficult and awkward. There isn’t a written contract about what she is going to/won’t do for the money you pay her. A few things are mentioned/glossed over in the initial negotiation, but not much is specifically spelled out. Much of the standard is set the first few weeks. A few tasks will be extra (such as making chapattis, which are like whole wheat tortillas) and some things are just assumed (cleaning under the beds and behind furniture every other week).

After the initial discomfort of managing a woman on my own without the benefit of a common language, things have evened out. I really do think we got lucky with our maid. She’s rather spotty about coming on time, which I consider to be a result of her overbooking herself and just not getting done with her other houses on time (which I really don’t fault her for, she needs the money), but this is a minor irritation. I have found her to be hard working and for the most part trustworthy. She washes dishes (because I don’t have a dishwasher and I hate washing dishes yo), dries them, puts them away, sweeps, mops, folds dry laundry, hangs up wet laundry (we don’t have  drier, nor space for one), makes chapattis, and cleans the bathrooms ever 2 – 3 days.

At first it was super uncomfortable for me mentally. I felt like I should be helping her, not just sitting on the couch doing something else.  One thing I will say though is that I LOVE having a clean house every day. I’ve definitely been freed up to do other things that I want to get done, like working, sewing, and blogging. Another benefit that I’ve noticed is that I am forced to clean up the house every single day. The maid doesn’t clean up after us if we leave a mess, or make the beds. So every day I get up and make the beds and go around and pick up any little things sitting around. I want the floor swept and mopped properly, so why leave things around and make it hard for her to do a great job?  It’s brought a level of discipline for me that I’ve never had. Our house is actually clean clean every day. The kids have to pick up after themselves because they know she’s coming. A very positive thing if you ask me.

I’ve gotten used to the idea of the maid doing work for us because I feel like we’re paying someone who needs a job. And from what I hear from her, she really is supporting her husband and four kids on her own.  We pay her fairly too, we didn’t try to be too cheap, just fair. There’s still a bit of awkwardness between her and I which is mostly due to the ingrained class differences that exist here. I’ve always treated her kindly (which unfortunately isn’t always the case here; some maids are treated downright awfully!) and try to talk to her and make her as comfortable as possible. The one thing I will say about dealing with a maid is that you can’t feel guilty for having her do the work she is paid to do. That’s when people start being taken advantage of.

So yes, my Midwestern principals about this have had to be put on a backburner while we’re in India. There’s no way I could do the same amount of work as her every day and have time for the other things in my day and taking care of the kids. There’s always extra work for me to do too. I’ve mentioned the things she does. If I want my mirrors or fans cleaned, closets organized, desks cleaned off, knives sharpened, etc, that’s all stuff that I have to do on my own.  I try not to do them while she’s here, as she always volunteers to do them, but I feel this would be taking advantage.  I also turned down her offer to do cooking for us (which would equal a maid’s salary and a cook’s for us to pay) simply for the reason that I like cooking my own food and being in control of how things are cooked and what goes in them. For example, my sister in law has a cook and has a daily battle with him about whether he will use a ton of oil when he cooks. I just don’t want to worry about that stuff. I enjoy it, so why not do it myself?

So that’s the deal with our maid. It’s been quite an adjustment, but I readily admit that I’m getting spoiled by it. I’m rather afraid of going back to the US now. I know I’ll miss her.


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