After a long and hard day opening the front door, I pause to enjoy the unique aroma of pine-scented disinfectant spray. A known sign that my sweet cleaning lady – let’s call her Sheila – has been inside.
Is there a greater pleasure for the working woman (or man) under time pressure than returning to a clean and tidy home?
Indeed, Sheila’s hallmarks are everywhere: cushions placed with military precision; the crumb-covered counter free from that morning’s hasty breakfast.
Unfortunately, as I have come to discover, such appearances are very deceiving. Sure, the place looks pleasantly tidy. But look a little closer and it is clear that the house has not been cleaned at all. The kitchen bin has not been emptied and there is a thin layer of grease on the cupboard handles.
The outside of the microwave may have been sprinkled to its glossiest Sunday best. But when you open the door, you see a crusty pool of milk from an overnight hot chocolate spill.
When you lift the mat in the hall, you see a perfect rectangle of fabric reminiscent of a crime scene on TV. Obviously the mop only skimmed the margins and the corners are repositories of everyday grime.
Meanwhile, in the bathroom, instead of removing tubes of toothpaste and bottles of moisturizer to clean the sink, these are simply slid into a soap-stained corner to allow a quick flick of a Flash antibacterial wipe.
Angela Epstein discusses why middle-class women can’t fire their cleaners (stock photo)
And don’t get me started on the glassware. Apparently diving under the net curtains for a quick cleaning of the windows is not in the job description. Oh, and I could write my name on the dusty ledges.
It is clear that Sheila is not a follower of cleaning lady Mrs Hinch.
I take off my coat to empty forgotten bins and wipe the ring off a coffee cup, boiling with frustration. Why am I picking this up? After all, under other circumstances, I would never let such substandard work – paid for out of my hard-earned money – pass without censorship.
In fact, I’m one of those toe-curling diners who send food back to the kitchen when it’s slightly below boiling. (My friends cringe at my eloquent sentence, ‘This coffee is undrinkable.’)
But as I scrub away clumps of burnt oil on the granite back wall, I realize there’s no chance I’ll get Sheila off the payroll—even if she’s a repeat offender. And despite frequent, but gentle, reminders of what needs to be done.
You see, in the housekeeper/employer dynamic, Sheila plays the leading role. That’s because, like many of the working women I know, there’s a palpable panic when we don’t have domestic help – even if it’s just for a few hours a week. Sheila is as much an emotional crutch as she is a pragmatic one.
Our cleaners reassure us that we won’t have to deal with the depressing prospect of returning to a dingy house at the end of a long day. Even if the shine is only superficial.
dr. Sandi Mann, a therapist and senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, tells me that there is also an element of trust that could keep me in such an unsatisfactory relationship.
“Employing someone to clean your house is a personal and intimate form of work. They witness how you live up close,” she says. “Maybe it’s a matter of better know the devil you know. . .’
The fact is I trust Sheila. She is honest, reliable and punctual. She’s just bad at her job.
Perhaps one of the reasons I don’t take my complaints seriously with her is that there’s a twinge of middle-class unease about having another woman cleaning up after me in the first place.
Somewhere, buried under pragmatism, there is an old commotion that leads semaphores to suspect that this should be my work.
All of this makes it much harder to dwell on the starkly personal side of my complaints about her job — like the fact that there’s still scum in the tub or hair in the sewer.
It’s all so embarrassing because it mirrors the state of my house – my castle! – and reflects it back on a stranger’s judgment. Not that I’m the only one who employs a cleaner who doesn’t really clean.
I hear it regularly from friends and colleagues. A friend is afraid that her cleaner will come because she knows that of the four hours she is in the house, she will spend a lot of time chatting.
She gets everyone talking and time passes as dust particles settle on the bookshelves.
She says there are concerns about another woman cleaning up at all (stock photo)
Another says her cleaner “does nothing more than shove some Domestos down the toilet.” But since my girlfriend spends all day starting a startup and balancing her business with the needs of her three children, she feels “a little less hysterical” knowing someone else made the bed. and a semblance of order.
Sheila certainly isn’t the first cleaning lady I’ve had to clean up after that. There was ‘Debbie’, who managed to clean just two bedrooms in three hours (without moving a bed). And then ‘Mary’, a lovely lady who seemed to think there was no need to dust anything.
All lovely women. But then, like now, I would eventually try to find time to put in extra hours to do the job they were paid for.
There are, of course, some brilliant cleaners – hardworking and diligent with forensic attention to detail. But the fantastic ones are as rare as chicken teeth.
And those lucky enough to find a really thorough cleaner are hesitant to share. (I vividly remember an argument in a schoolyard between two old friends when it turned out that one had tarnished the other’s house.)
So why don’t I stop whining and just do it myself? Trust me, it’s not because I’m some dowager widow too big to roll up my sleeves. Like many people, I simply don’t have the time.
As a freelance writer and presenter I work long hours, which inevitably pays more than the average rate for a cleaner (currently £9.43 an hour – although I pay £11).
When I’m not working, I don’t earn anything, so it makes fiscal sense to outsource the cleaning. Indeed, my last cleaner left just before the lockdown, and during the bleak months of early 2021 I had no choice but to deal with the dirt and dust myself.
The satisfaction of getting into the corners neglected by my last cleaner was taken away by the fact that I had to sacrifice precious work time to get it all done.
Of course, I’ve had twinges of cleaner guilt. Apparently we all say we just don’t have the time: a survey of 2,000 British adults found that the majority of people claim they are ‘too busy’ to clean their homes.
And of course leftists will inevitably tell me that it is immoral and humiliating to hire a cleaner. That I would scrub my own floors. I’m not buying it. Does that make it humiliating to pay the window cleaner or the gardener too?
Do people in offices object when the cleaners show up at the end of the work day and start dusting their desktop trash?
It’s like any contractual arrangement in a market economy. I will give you money. You give me a kitchen floor from which you could eat your dinner.
Except, in my case, not Sheila. I could of course let her go, another ad in the window of the local newsagent (that’s how I found her) and see what the response gets.
But then I see Sheila, laughing heartily, offering to make me a cup of tea and snapping her marigolds to rearrange ornaments as she misses the dirt. And I know I’d miss her too much if she ever decided to leave.