Day 8: Paying

We’ve got this truly bizarre housekeeper situation around here. We have two different women, plus a crew of three, that clean our house, rotating depending on the day and week. Its bespeaks such privilege and emotional porousness that I mostly try to hide the mess from the outside world.

Here’s how it happened. When the financial crisis hit, in 2008, my husband was closing up his private medical practice and moving to a group situation. We were so broke we thought we might lose the house. Two of the things we did let go of at the time were our part time nanny and our weekly housekeeper.

A year later, when things had settled down, we’d gotten tired of the yelling matches as we tried to wrangle our three children into toilet cleaning and floor sweeping. Our former nanny offered to come back every other week as our housekeeper. We all missed each other very much, and it seemed like a good arrangement.

But she wasn’t very thorough. Many dust bunnies in many corners. A neighbor told me about a crew of three ladies who came into her house once a month and scrubbed it clean. We hired them, but didn’t tell our former nanny, so we wouldn’t hurt her feelings. They came one of the weeks she didn’t. We call them The Storm, because that’s how they plow through our house, overturning furniture, shoving beds aside, pursuing grime wherever it lurks.

Then our former nanny had a nervous breakdown (a pile up of many things, including the trauma of immigrating from Guatemala years before and spending many years as an undocumented immigrant before Ronald Reagan gave her amnesty). She couldn’t get out of bed, much less clean our house. I told her her job would be here when she recovered. In the meantime, we replaced her with a mom whose daughter went to our neighborhood school.

A year went by. Then another six months. We got close to School Mom. She was so sweet and kind and efficient. President Trump got elected. School Mom and all three members of The Storm turned out to be illegal immigrants. I found myself printing out information on free legal aid for School Mom, and slipping extra cash to the main lady of The Storm, as she kept running to the ER with physical ailments triggered by her extreme stress under this new administration.

Meanwhile, our former nanny called to say she’d recovered. But her grown daughter warned me she was not quite her old self — more fragile now, more spacey. I wasn’t sure she was up to the task of her old job. Plus, we would miss School Mom too much.

I was making more money freelancing. Instead of putting all of it into savings or a vacation fund, we hired our former nanny back to work the every-other-weeks that School Mom wasn’t coming. This meant that once a month she came the day after The Storm. That turned out to be fine. We have lots of laundry to fold, and she moves slowly now, so she stays busy for five or six hours, no matter.

Then the coronavirus struck.

School Mom had already taken a temporary leave of absence to go do some nanny work for another family, and her cousin had started coming in her place. Then her cousin stopped coming out of fear of the virus. I just let that one go.

But what about our former nanny? What about The Storm? I know for certain that all of those women live on the knife’s edge of insolvency in the best of times.

Yesterday, I sent our former nanny’s daughter money via Zelle, to give to her mom. Our former nanny calls every week to see how we are — not because she does or doesn’t want to work, but because she worries about us. I haven’t told her I was sick. It would make her crazy. She’s already praying for my husband every day.

Today I left a check under the mat for The Storm. The main lady, the one who picked it up, didn’t say thank you. That’s not her way. This is her way: she cleans my son’s filthy room, even when I tell her she doesn’t have to go in there. Also, last Christmastime, she dropped off a mountain of delicious, homemade tamales at our front door.

Aside from the absurdity of our housekeeping situation, we don’t lead a complex or fancy life. We could use the money we’ve been giving away. But we haven’t seen a reduction in income yet, so it seems only fair to keep paying.

But what if your own income is down? If you can barely make ends meet, what do you owe your housekeeper who can’t feed her family without your money? If she says she won’t come, out of fear of contagion, does that absolve you of monetary responsibility?

And it’s not just housekeepers, right? There’s the gym membership. There’s the places where your kids do activities after school. There’s any person or service that you pay on a regular basis. What are we supposed to do about them now?

If you’d like to comment, I’d love to hear how other people are handling this, how you’ve thought it through, what corners you are cutting (for instance, I have not reached out to School Mom and offered to pay at her former rate and frequency, though that would be a decent thing to do).

Amid this pandemic, unexpected dilemmas blossom, and it’s hard to look away.