Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Betty and the Curse of the Middle Class

Three mornings a week, our floors get mopped, our bathrooms scrubbed, the evening dishes washed and dried, the rooms picked up. And, hallelujah! I’m not the one doing it. Drum roll please . . . . We have a cleaning woman. I hear a few gasps in the audience, from friends and family who know our frugal ways, with our 25 year old Volkswagen van, our insistence on second hand everything, our preference for eating at home with friends instead of dining out. But things are different in Argentina. A woman who works in your house is not seen as a luxury; having more than one car, or a large house with a yard. . . Now THAT’S luxury. Here in Argentina, we can actually afford to have a cleaning woman, and happily, I have quite gotten over the philosophy of my American middle class upbringing that a cleaning woman is akin to slavery.

For years, I didn’t agree with having someone else clean your house. In my 20’s, I lived in Ecuador, where most of my friends, students, and acquaintances had help in their homes, and later in Argentina, where anyone who was remotely middle class had a cleaning woman. The way I figured it, to have an empleada (an employee, in this case one working in your home) was a form of classism and exploitation.

Luis, who grew up with empleadas in the house, explained that his mother worked long hours in her leather tailoring business. She was an active woman with a lot of interests, none of which were cleaning. And men could not possibly be expected to clean back in those days. “We hire people to fix our car, to work in the yard, to fix the plumbing, to take care of the kids. . . What’s the difference? It’s a paid service, like any other,” Luis frequently argued. I started to see his point.

The final, deadly blow to my middle class principles was the arrival of Lucas and Maite. The untidiness of our house multiplied by ten. The laundry was interminable, toys were everywhere, food in the carpet -- clean it up, and 20 minutes later I was back where I started. In my case, the choice came down to having a tidy house, or using the time to play with and enjoy my children. Not a hard choice: I found Lucas and Maite infinitely more interesting than housework. Of course, there are women who manage it. My mother worked double duty, with a full time job, and then home to cook a balanced meal, and clean. When I told her about Betty, my mother said “Good for you!“ . My father’s reaction to the news of our empleada was less enthusiastic. He was concerned about how much we were paying her. It sure is easy to take the high ground when you’re not the one scrubbing toilets year after year. Cursed middle class values!

But wait, it gets even better: Betty looks after Maite, too, when Lucas is at preschool. She changes her diapers, gives her milk, takes her on little walks, puts ponytails in her hair. Betty is unfalteringly sweet and patient with our youngest. Three mornings a week, my time is my own. “But what do you do with your time?” I know many of you are wondering. Well, I can tell you what I AM NOT doing. Man I love this country.