October 28, 2016 | Rome, Italy | Clear 16°C

A two-way street

People who wouldn't otherwise have met are united in uniquely intimate family circumstances.
By Madeleine Johnson
Published: 2016-09-29

've noticed that shamers come out in droves whenever a woman who writes about balancing work and household demands is found to have help at home. She's attacked for hiring someone to do what women have traditionally done — wash, scrub, change diapers, and so on. She's accused of being a cop-out, a half-woman or an exploiter of labor.

Once upon a time, I might have joined this chorus. But that was before I found myself alone with a new baby in a foreign country. My American mother had gone home. Suddenly, I was a self-sufficient Midwesterner feeling overwhelmed and ashamed. I had doubts about asking another human being to fulfill tasks that weren't pleasant.

But my Italian husband saw it differently. He recognized we lacked the extended family necessary to handle raising children in an Italian city. So when our regular cleaner, a widow with a middle-school education and two children, explained she needed money, my husband set aside my scruples and hired her full time.

It did us both good.

I got the nonna and zia — grandmother and aunt —we sorely lacked. Her childrearing experience relaxed me. Speaking to her allowed my children to enter nursery school fully bilingual. Her cooking and Italian way of weaning — with homemade vegetable purées — established healthy eating habits that my American friends envied.

For her part, she learned that boys could be taught chores, and once taught would do them. She also learned that not wearing undershirts (beware chills!) wasn't lethal and that her own sons could live without ironed socks and survive without a daily three-course dinner.

In Italy, cancer remains a whispered disease. But when it struck her, she was able to confide in me. Shame receded.

The governess was a mainstay of 19th-century Anglo-Saxon social life

The diligent Filipino women who followed in her footsteps taught lessons in cultural confluence. People who wouldn't otherwise have met were united in uniquely intimate family circumstances. Everyone learned something.

These women ensured I never had scramble for a baby sitter. I could pursue a career. My house was cleaner than it had ever been before or ever will be. It was an enormous luxury.

At the same time, I learned about power and racism. I helped those who worked for me legalize their positions, giving them support they hadn't known before. In helping them recoup back wages, I watched Italians who had no problem cheating "foreigners" squirm when confronted with an irate American acting as an advocate. Before then, I had no idea that my financial and social safety net could provide both confidence and leverage in negotiations over rent or pay. I never knew how many people saw nothing wrong in preying on the vulnerable. These events showed me just how much I'd taken my relative invulnerability for granted. They made me more compassionate and tolerant.

I gave back in lessons about a different kind of power — power these women never knew they had. I wised them up to the siren song of Western consumer culture, inspiring them to question TV advertising and over-priced brands. Like many citizens of developing countries, they were unaware of environmental issues or didn't see them as important. I showed them how to buy carefully and recycle. My family could afford the symbols of "success" these women craved: Play Stations and fancy athletic shoes. But they watched as my own family's resources went to books, education or travel.

Domestic help can be the gainful work available to unqualified women or recent immigrants with poor language skills and a limited education (or with credentials valid only in their home countries).

In fact, domestic work has traditionally been the only honest employment available to women (especially unmarried ones), whether as well-educated but impoverished governesses to as farm girls who preferred family work over factory toil. Not everyone can give excellent care to a child or the elderly. Or be a good housekeeper. It's not a given. Sometimes, though, the only qualification is being a daughter, wife or mother.

Hiring someone to work isn't a charitable fallback. The job you give can also confer dignity, autonomy and a set of skills that can later be parlayed into better, more skilled work. What you pay your nanny or maid may provide health care or schooling for children and parents. Women who have money tend to use it to better their children, spreading education and social improvement. Domestic workers often transfer much of what they earn back home, which can help can raise overall standards of living. Socio-economic intermingling helps give domestic workers intimate knowledge of codes, values and habits that can move a person, family — or even a village — up the socio-economic ladder.

Domestic work can also be degrading and exploitative, largely because what pushes many — mostly women — into doing it is also what makes them easy to abuse: their illegal status, poor language skills, and sexual vulnerability (made far worse by scanty government regulation).

But don't blame these stains on domestic workers. They're broader social issues and it's everyone's duty —whether we employ people to help at home or not — to solve them.

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Madeleine Johnson

Mother of two, Madeleine Johnson has lived in Milan for 20 years.

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