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Cleaning up: the truth about living with nannies and cleaners


The first time I paid another woman to clean my apartment, it felt like an experiment. I was 24, and I’d recently started a job as a national correspondent for a big newspaper. The assignment came with professional trappings and freedoms I’d never had before: a stylish office in a downtown skyscraper, a full-time research assistant, a travel budget that never seemed to run dry.

It was a man who put me up to calling a house cleaner. I’d made the mistake of mentioning that I had to clean my house. He laughed. “Why are you doing your own cleaning? Hire somebody.”

“I don’t do that,” I said. His next words stuck in my brain forever. “Your time is worth money, you know. It’s worth more money than you’re going to pay somebody to clean your house.” Your time is worth money. This is a common platitude, but nobody had ever applied it to me and, hearing it, I was electrified. The jobs I’d worked since adolescence – barista, grocery clerk, farm worker – had taught the opposite lesson: that my time was only worth what I could earn with physical labour. I badly wanted to believe it was true, that my journalistic efforts had been enough to carry me across that invisible borderline separating the hirees from the hirers. And so I called a housekeeping agency and booked a cleaner.

The experience was demoralising. Her car shuddered to the curb. Her skinny shoulders slumped. She hardly looked at me. Everything about the sullen, middle-aged woman who lugged her bucket and scrubbing brushes into my living room seemed to speak – no, scream – of a downtrodden existence. She cleaned the house meticulously and then I paid her and she went away, leaving me to pace my shining floors in muddled shame and confusion. That night I went to a party and explained my funk to a writer who was a kind of mentor. Her response was immediate and visceral: I should not feel guilty. It was imperative that I not feel guilty. “I don’t know how your family came to this country, but mine came here and cleaned houses to survive,” she said. “It’s decent work and there’s no reason to feel bad about it.”

That was all I needed to hear. From that moment, the two pillars of justification were firmly fixed in my mind: my time was valuable enough that I should spend money to protect it, and there was no stigma around housework – and therefore no harm in getting someone else to do it. I leaned on these two ideas all through my single life and on into marriage, as I moved around the world and hired various people to clean my house while I roamed around writing news stories. I didn’t feel guilty and everything worked fine – right up until the babies came.

My husband and I were living in China when, pregnant with my first child, I quit my job to write a book at home. This sounded easy – even idyllic – until I was slapped with the messy, sleep-deprived reality of life with a newborn. The baby was colicky. My husband’s job kept him on the road more often than not. I needed help, but there were no relatives down the road or lifelong friends within reach. There were no day care centres or teenage babysitters. Instead, there were migrant female workers whose full-time salaries were less expensive than day care back in the US. It was a no-brainer.

Determined that motherhood wouldn’t put a stop to my work, I hired a young woman called Xiao Li to clean and cook and babysit. What did I know about Xiao Li when she first walked through the door? Practically nothing, and that was fine with me. I knew she had a husband and an apartment somewhere. I knew her daughter had been entrusted to the care of grandparents. In the beginning, I didn’t ask many questions. As an exhausted and overwhelmed new mother, I had problems of my own. Every day I wondered two things: whether I was about to have a nervous breakdown, and whether I had permanently undone my life as a writer. I saw Xiao Li as my best hope for salvation, and so naturally I wanted to believe that she had no problems of her own.

Xiao Li took the bus across the city every day, carrying lunch in plastic boxes and hot water in a thermos. At noon she scarfed her food on a straight-backed wooden chair we’d shoved between the counter and the inlaid microwave in our tiny kitchen. Then she’d bend her neck into an improbable twist, rest her cheek on the countertop and fall asleep. The first time, I woke her up and tried to convince her to lie down on the couch or the guest bed. She blinked and blushed, but stayed put. In those early weeks, I didn’t dwell on the unsettling knowledge that a small girl had been left in a village because Xiao Li couldn’t afford childcare. I made no effort to discover whether Xiao Li’s lifestyle – the migration to Beijing, the job in my house – was a grand adventure or a heartbreaking drudgery, or some combination. I had the vague idea that my silence was magnanimous. I told myself that, by not prying, I was sparing her embarrassment. But I think I always knew, on some sublimated level, that I was really sparing myself.

As months went by my fondness for Xiao Li grew into a dependence. I trusted her. The baby loved her. Her presence in the house made me feel steady.

But her circumstances were always fragile. Her daughter was hospitalised with heart problems and Xiao Li got pregnant, missing countless days of work. Even when she came, she was sick and exhausted. I was forced to stop writing and accept that my circumstances were tangled up with Xiao Li’s life – when she couldn’t work, nor could I.

Xiao Li stopped working in deference to her advancing pregnancy. Another woman took her place. Then I got pregnant again. We left China and moved to India. I drafted one book and started another. Life moved, children grew. The women were there, too, not part of our family but participating nonetheless in the rise and fall of domestic life in private rooms. Solving problems and causing them; affecting and being affected.

There was Mary, who was younger than me but had survived several lifetimes – an orphan raised by nuns; a widowed mother who’d never had the chance to live with her children; a migrant from the Himalayas who couldn’t trace her exact origins and seemed to know everyone in Delhi. Pooja, one of the best cooks I’ve ever known, who taught us about Hindu mythology and Bollywood cinema and how to treat eye ailments by staring at the colour green.

These women brought cleanliness, order and home-cooked meals. They had superstitions and home remedies and nursery rhymes in languages I couldn’t speak. They were marked by a gritty optimism that I hoped would rub off on our kids. Mostly they brought love, which they lavished on our children – love dammed and redirected; love they might have spent on their own babies. Love we rented away.

They brought sinister burdens, too: typhoid and alcoholism and con artists. “Husbands” turned out to be boyfriends and later revealed wives stashed elsewhere. There were men who raged and beat and exploited; who disappeared without a word. Our house was an enclosed landscape of working mothers. The women working for us had traded time with their children in exchange for the money needed to keep them out of poverty. As for my husband and me, we were buying back our time.

This was a universal story, and I started to write about the complex lacings that bound us together. That meant reporting on my own household and documenting the truths I’d once tried not to think about. I’d turned my house into a job site where we all arranged and rearranged our time and money to protect ourselves and our children. We failed all the time, but kept fumbling along – a strange choreography repeated in households all over the world, unexamined and poorly understood. It’s relegated to invisibility, therefore ripe for exploitation. It seems to me that wilful ignorance is a defining feature of our time. But when you employ a domestic worker, you bring a slice of inequality into your kitchen.

I uncovered hard realities: poverty and shame more extreme than I’d realised; the unsolvable heartache of leaving children; secrets of mistreatment. There was dignity and joy, and all the other layers of complication and contradiction that weave their way through every biography. I didn’t come up with an indictment against or a justification for hiring domestic workers, nor was I seeking a neat political conclusion. It was the full, messy truth I was after. I wanted to know the stories of my house; the outcome of the money I’d paid; the nature of the work that made my own possible. To stop and collect the stories – this seemed the very least we could do.

Women’s Work: a Personal Reckoning with Labour, Motherhood and Privilege by Megan K Stack (Scribe, £14.99) is out now. Buy it for £13.19 from

Source: TheGuardian