On housework, and paying other people to do it for me

Cross posted

In a column on what New Zealand’s public priorities ought to be, economist Brian Easton give a brief summary of the latent functions of work, as articulated by social psychologist Marie Jahoda.

That is because work is a socially valuable experience. It does not just pay us, but it has some latent social functions:

– Employment imposes a time structure on the working day:

– It involves regularly shared experiences and contacts with people outside the nuclear family:

– It links an individual to goals and purposes which transcend her or his own:

– It enforces activity.

….A quick summary is that we because we are social animals we are happy to work, for it gives us more than just income.

That all seems plausible to me, and it certainly explains at least some of the disconnection I experienced when we lived in Adelaide, where my work was irregular and not integrated into a particular workplace community. Easton uses the analysis to show why we need to do better with respect to managing unemployment, and why we need to change our attitudes towards the unemployed. If you are at all interested in New Zealand’s economic priorities, or in social justice, then Easton’s column is very much worth reading.

It’s the next thing that Easton says in his column that has had me thinking.

You will observe that housework is not quite as successful at covering the latent functions – as well as it is not paid – which may explain why it is unpopular.

Why, YES!

– Housework has no time structure, for it is always there, always waiting to be done, always able to be done. One cannot resolve to finish housework for the day, turn off the computer, leave the office and go home to relax, because home is the very site where housework occurs.
– Housework occurs within the nuclear family.
– Perhaps housework does link one to goals and purposes outside one’s own goals and purposes, in the sense that it helps to create an environment in which other people can thrive, but that seems to stretch the idea of transcendence a little far.
– But it does enforce activity. It’s just hard for me to see it as particularly enjoyable activity, ‘though I know that others differ in this regard.

I find it very, very hard to motivate myself to do housework, ‘though oddly enough, i find it easier to do so when I have to fit it in around my paid work. A quick 15 minutes here or there is not too difficult to manage. But 15 minutes here or there isn’t really enough to keep it all under control, especially when we are both in paid employment. So… we have outsourced the horrid work, and hired a cleaner.

And there’s the rub. I know that all of us have work preferences, that just as the thought of academic work might send you running for the hills, the thought of say, accounts work makes we want to crawl under my desk in despair. But it seems that most people loathe housework, and really, I don’t see why my cleaner would enjoy it any more than I do. Of course, he can lock the door and go home… to more housework. And he gets paid for the work, which must help. However he works on his own – no social structure around work for him. Just in and out of different houses, cleaning, with no one to share the work, no one to chat to, to sit down for a coffee break with.

I tend to try to be out of the house when our cleaner comes in, partly so that he doesn’t have to work around me, partly because even though academic work is flexible, I prefer to work in my office on campus, and partly because our current cleaner insists on chatting to me, so that I can’t get on with my own work, and partly because I always find it hard having tradies in my space (that would be my native curmudgeonliness and introversion coming out ). But I’ve just started to think that making an effort to be absent is unfair, and that if I am going to provide a decent work environment, then as well as making sure that he is fairly paid (we hire and pay for cleaners through a local company, which means that we can be sure that the workers are getting the going rate, and holiday pay and sick pay and so on), I ought to be open to making sure that some of those latent functions of work are served as well. I don’t think I need to make a special effort to stay home, but scuttling out as quickly as I can seems to be at least a little churlish.

Or maybe this is all just too middle-class-angst-ridden for words, and I should just get over it.


Previous writing on housework (as you can see this has been a bit of a touchstone issue for me over the years):
Dinosaurs thundering by again
Simone de Beauvoir on housework
We need a wife
Sharing the load


11 comments on “On housework, and paying other people to do it for me

  1. Jackie Clark says:

    I think that you should ask him what he prefers. It sounds like he enjoys a chat before he starts work. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

    • Deborah says:

      Except that his 5 minute chat is my 5 minutes of my own work time and / or frantically trying to get out the door time, and it’s never just one 5 minute chat. OTOH, surely I can take 5 or 10 minutes to help to make a better work place. Hence all the thoroughly middle class angst.

    • Jackie Clark says:

      I understand that angst. Maybe you could just play it by ear – not rush out immediately but explain you have work to do after a quick chat?

  2. Tamara says:

    Deborah, I have a vague memory that we discussed this once upon a time at The Hand Mirror. I outsource my housecleaning and I think it’s great for us. We only get the cleaners in every fortnight so there’s enough to do around it that the kids get to see us clean! As for our cleaners, they come as a married couple and we do prefer to get out of their way as it slows them down if they have to work around us. They own a franchise so are small business owners technically speaking. For those reasons I think they have some control over their work environment, even if it is my house.

    One thing I do feel a bit bad about is that they had a baby a few months ago and the mother only took 2 months off. I know that would not be acceptable for me as a mother so I have feelings about that. But of course people do what they have to do and there is a granny looking after the baby.

  3. dave says:

    But I enjoy doing housework. I do the cooking and the cleaning and the clotheswashing, the supermarket and food shopping, lawnmowing and the taking out of rubbish and everything else you might consider.

    I am also in a full-time senior professional job.

    I would not consider for a moment having some outsider do any of this , let alone pay someone to do it , though I could afford to do that.

    I’ve done all this all my adult life including through the raising of three children whose nappies I changed, who I bathed, who I took to and from kindy and school and all the other things one does with children.

    I am also a man in a loving relationship with the hottest woman on the planet (who is also in a very senior academic job so doesn’t mind me at all helping out round the house).

    I loved your writings from Adelaide. You seem not to like it back here much.

    • Deborah says:

      I loved your writings from Adelaide. You seem not to like it back here much.

      Ouch! That’s made me think, dave. Actually, I love being home in NZ. I get a huge rush from seeing the beautiful green bush in Taranaki, and the arch of green and recently gold and now bare branches as I drive along Victoria Avenue here in Greenhills, and the ever changing skies, and the sense of belonging that I have. I was starting to get more involved in community in Adelaide, but now that I’m back in NZ, I’m really involved. I feel much more of a sense of commitment to NZ, and a sense of wanting to make this a better place. I guess that’s why I’m writing more about more political issues. I think that over time, I would have developed that commitment and voice in Adelaide, but here it feels much more natural to me.

      And, instead of pottering about with bits and pieces of work, I’m much busier with a permanent job, so I have less time for blogging the little things of everyday life. I’ve got half a dozen domestic things I want to write about, but I don’t seem to have much time for it. But I would like to find time… and I might try harder to get the pieces written, because I like writing life and living and cooking and gardening posts too. And I think they’re important to write, alongside the more political posts, because it’s all part of a rounded life, and thinking about how we ought to live.

      Many thanks for making that particular comment. It has prompted a whole lot of reflection.

  4. dave says:

    Aaargh all I wrote there looks so self-centred. What I was getting at, is I would find it demeaning (for them) to have some less-well off people doing my domestic chores.

    I have a good friend in Singapore who when she first visited my house in NZ in the 1990s was amazed that we didn’t have any servants. She has a Filipina maid who “lives in the broom cupboard and gets $100 a week” which I was saddened by, but everyone in Singapore has such a maid (this friend was Singaporean, not an expat).

    And then you only have to shudder at what Cactus Kate says about her servants. Yet expats like her probably treat their servants (also from the Philippines) better than HK locals do.

    I just think use of servants/cleaners etc is is total exploitation. Hey, you will say, it gives them a job. But where is the dignity?

    On the other hand we have good (Indian) friends in Mumbai who have a house-servant, but they treat him really well and he is part of their family and he has plenty of days off and holidays and the like. A lot of people in India are employed this way by the middle classes and are not treated the way foreign maids are treated in Singapore and Hong Kong.

    I hope this makes sense. I would never want anyone to clean up for me. Paid or not.

    • Tamara says:

      I just can’t see why household chores are any different to the myriad other services people provide to me in urban life. They collect rubbish, clean public spaces, cook and wash up in restaurants etc. Why are domestic chores any different?

      And I am not sure I agree with your perspective on the work being demeaning or lacking in dignity. Doing personal things for other people is not necessarily demeaning, surely it depends in the circumstances, how people are treated.

  5. dave says:

    I just can’t see why household chores are any different to the myriad other services people provide to me in urban life. They collect rubbish, clean public spaces, cook and wash up in restaurants etc. Why are domestic chores any different?

    They are in my house, they are private. I wouldn’t pay someone to change my baby’s nappies, just as I would not want someone to clean my bathroom.

    • Deborah says:

      I think that’s part of what I struggle with. I feel that as an adult, I *ought* to be looking after myself. On the other hand, I do have paid employment that takes a fair amount of my time and energy. I’m also driven a little by the thought that Mr Bee and I have well paid jobs, and although like most families we watch our spending, and budget, we nevertheless have enough to come and go on, but there are tradies and workers who are looking for employment. It seems a bit odd to me to struggle on with my housework, when there are people who would be happy to do it for me. With the proviso, of course, that I pay a proper wage.

  6. Tamara says:

    There’s lots of different way of looking after yourself. If I had to do every single thing for myself there would be no self left!

    Fair enough Dave, I definitely see that people have different views on what is private and how private matters should be dealt with. I don’t have very strong feelings about privacy. For me, I don’t see changing my children’s nappies as a private matter. My daughters went to creche as toddlers and the teachers also had to change their nappies from time to time. It would have been a pity for my children to have missed out on creche for that reason.

    It’s an interesting issue if you extend it. My father is in care at a private hospital. He has to be fed and changed etc. We can’t care for him in our home for various reasons, so carers in the hospital are paid to do that. I believe my father prefers it to me doing it. He feels ashamed that he cannot care for himself and having a stranger do it rather than his daughter makes it not as awful. This way he can maintain some dignity with me.

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