Two times in my life I hired a maid and two times in my life, I had to let them go. The first time was when I lived in the states. I was working two jobs and my obsessive house cleaning routine got the best of me. A friend recommended a professional domestic housekeeper that cleaned for her. She wasn’t cheap and she was bonded, which made me feel better about hiring a housekeeper. She also told me to leave a list of the things I wanted done on a weekly basis.
I followed her advise and included in the list, “Clean the baseboards and the ceiling fans.” The next day the new housekeeper unloaded on my friend, showed her my list, and said that I was a slave driver and she was not a servant. I had to let her go.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I felt extremely uncomfortable hiring a domestic housekeeper. It stemmed from the collective uneasiness many women have in the U.S. of the idea of hired household help. We think it sounds nice, but maybe a little indulgent. I wondered if I would seem snobby, entitled, and spoiled. After all, I was a middle-class woman with all the modern and time-saving devices that made multi-tasking a breeze.
But, most of all, I felt guilty. I read the book The Help, I saw the sexy maid costumes at Halloween, and Downton Abbey sure didn’t help to change my perceptions of servants.
In my mind a servant, a maid, and a domestic housekeeper were all the same. The terms all had a derogatory feel to them. They brought up the same bad connotations, regardless of which word I used to describe them. And letting go of the housekeeper I had for one day confirmed my perceptions.
However, the perceptions of a maid, domestic housekeeper, and servant vary throughout the world. In Nicaragua, it is very common to have a housekeeper for expats and locals. Here is an excellent article about hiring Domestic Help in Nicaragua.
My perceptions still did not change, no matter how common it was to have a housekeeper. I was going to clean my house, my way. But then, the first swarm of chayules infested every crack and crevice of my house, the dust in the dry season blanketed every solid surface, the termites ate my paperback books and left encrusted trails all over the walls, and the chicken poop on the bottom of my flip-flops left impossible to remove tracks all over my tile floors. I had to have help to save my sanity. ( I think my next post will be about helpful time-saving cleaning tips in the tropics.)
My closest neighbor wanted work, and I hired her to clean our house three mornings a week. I knew her well and I trusted her completely. We had been friends for at least four years and we shared our lives as women living in Nicaragua.
I had never really had a housekeeper before and I was not sure how this housekeeper thing worked in Nicaragua. All I knew was that she was my friend, I needed help, and she needed work. I was sure that we could make it work with respect, kindness, and an understanding of cultural differences.
The first day she came to work for us, she told me that she had cleaned houses for foreigners in Costa Rica. As she flapped her rag all over the house to remove the dust, she said, “I didn’t like working for gringas. They were bossy.” Then, she disgustedly wiped her finger across the newly flapped surface of the table to show me how the gringas checked every spot she cleaned.
That was my first mistake. I understood that she was a proud woman, but I didn’t understand how pride ruled her life. She had little in the way of material possessions, but she was very proud of her appearance, her life as a mother, a friend, and her work. As a teacher, I always knew who needed a little extra pat on the back.
Here is my second mistake. Because I understood that she was a proud woman, I never told her what to do and how to do it. She was a friend that came to work at my house and I paid her a good salary for doing just that. Besides, she had plenty of experience in cleaning houses for foreigners in Costa Rica.
Not everything was perfect in the house cleaning world. We had our problems. She was kind of bossy and stubborn, but I could avoid that by going outside to work in the garden and let her have the house to herself. When she was finished, she never failed to show me how dirty the mop was and her filthy dust-flapping rag. She was a very proud woman.
Pride takes a turn for the worst. I should have seen it coming…
We have house sitters several times a year, and I usually had problems with my housekeeper when the sitters arrived. They would tell me that she stomped off in a rage and they couldn’t understand what they had said or done. I was puzzled, too. I asked her what happened and she would always respond, “They don’t respect me. They don’t treat me the same way you treat me.”
Last October, a friend that lives on the island house sat for me. She told my housekeeper that she was using too much Clorox. My friend said, “You are the employee and Debbie is your boss. You can be sure that I will tell her about this.” Once again, my housekeeper stomped off in a rage and refused to return.
Pride and Revenge…
Pride can be a wonderful feeling. We all want to take pride in what we do and can accomplish. My housekeeper was proud of her ability to clean houses. I recognized her efforts all the time…said I couldn’t do this without her. I complimented her because I understood her pride.
The first day she returned to clean after our vacation, she was slapping her dust rag around our house like a woman gone wild. I knew something was bothering her, but she wouldn’t tell me.
The passion for revenge is strong, yet sometimes our intuitive logic about revenge is twisted, conflicted, and dangerous. It is a misguided attempt to transform shame and humiliation into pride. My housekeeper was a very proud woman and she was humiliated by my house sitter. In turn, she took revenge on us because we were friends with our house sitter.
I had to let her go…
I wish I could say that we patched up our differences and discussed this logically, but we haven’t talked in 6 months.
I wanted to tell you this story, not because I want answers about how to fix this problem with my former housekeeper, but to tell you the lessons I have learned from it for I am partly to blame.
1. Always create respectful boundaries when hiring help. Sometimes being a caring friend in an employment situation makes it difficult to set boundaries, especially when they come to your house daily to talk, eat, and have fun as a friend. It is hard to hire friends.
2. Try to understand and respect the cultural differences. This is a hard one because I have lived in Nicaragua for 12 years and some of the cultural aspects are still a mystery to me. I am an infant in a strange, strange world sometimes.
3. Accept that you are a foreigner and you will never be a Nicaraguan. I will never fit in completely.
4. Understand pride and the consequences of shame and humiliation. I never intended to shame or humiliate my housekeeper. Yet, now I understand that her pride was deeply hurt and pride is what we value the most.
I bought a wet/dry shop vac. I can whiz through my house sucking up all the chayules, dust and bugs. I love my shop vac now that I am back to cleaning my house.
Will I ever hire a maid, or servant, or housekeeper again? Probably not. I haven’t had much luck in that area. Instead, I will learn to let go…let go of my obsessive routine of cleaning all the time because it is useless in the tropical climate…let go of revengeful consequences of damaged pride…and let go of the hurt and the pain I may have unintentionally given to others.
Let’s talk: Do you use, are you considering using, or have you used paid help? What kind of help? When and why did you decide to hire them? How did you go about it? Did you hit any bumps in the road?