I have a cleaner. As soon as I write that, I feel compelled to make my excuses. I know I’m lucky to have her. I treat her well and pay her more than I need to. She tells me she gains satisfaction from a job well done and, having seen her in action, I believe her.
I never contemplated paying someone to clean the house until I returned to work after maternity leave. I took her on partly because I was exhausted, and partly to save my relationship from corrosive bickering about whose turn it was to vacuum the stairs. Her hard work allows me time to do my job, be with my family and volunteer for a local charity.
So why do I feel the need to justify myself? If a single man working long hours were to hire a cleaner, most people would regard it as a pragmatic decision. They might even applaud him for caring about the state of his house. If I engaged a handyman to put up shelves, nobody would express a view. But a woman who employs a cleaner attracts criticism.
In my case, the snarky comments have come mainly from other women. (When it comes to berating women for their choices, sisters are doing it for themselves.) Some of my friends seem to regard it as a badge of honour that they occasionally wield a mop. One woman, who doesn’t go out to work, earnestly suggested that it was bad for my sons to grow up thinking that someone else would clean up their mess.
Well, yes – but it’s not as if the cleaner’s fortnightly visits absolve my children from wiping up their spillages or tidying their room. You might re-frame it this way: isn’t it good for them to see that cleaning is real work with an economic value, just as valid as their father’s office job, rather than something their mother fits in at the end of the day when she’s tired?
But cleaning is women’s work. That’s why a depressing number of men refuse to do it. That’s why it generally attracts low pay. That’s why the cleaner’s wages come from my salary, not my male partner’s. And that’s why I’m regarded as contracting out my duties and abdicating my household responsibilities. Absurd.