Almost five years ago, a petite, long-haired Brazilian woman named Arianna walked into my home, ready to turn it into something that both smelled and looked good. Before she could get to the work of cleaning my floors and scrubbing my countertops, for which I’d be paying her $120, we chatted.
Our conversation flowed easily as if we were courting one another, and maybe we were, in some bizarre way. I wanted to know who I was letting into my house, this stranger who I would grow to depend on. I discovered in that first conversation that she was a mom, just like me. She was going through a rough patch in her relationship (as I had), and that cleaning other people’s houses was her full-time job. Arianna was one of nearly 1 million people who worked as housekeepers and maids making $11/hour, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. She’d been referred to us by our friends, and now, she was moments away from getting on her hands and knees to make my floors so shiny that I’d be able to see my reflection in them.
I felt guilty. I didn’t grow up with a cleaning lady or housekeeper, or not one who got paid. My grandmother cleaned our house (she raised me) and I was required to clean my room on the daily. This is what I teach my kids, to keep their space tidy, but when we bought our house, I felt overwhelmed by the vastness of it (even though 1,000 square feet ain’t big at all).
The reason we hired a cleaning person in the first place was a stipulation of my wife’s: if we were going to buy a home, she didn’t want to have to clean it. Between my work schedule and our son’s growing needs, I needed the relief and constantly fell behind in keeping our home clean. When we bought our home in 2014, I was happy to check cleaning my house off of my to-do list. I actually find it therapeutic to clean my own surroundings, but I just didn’t have the time.
Exactly one year after my very first conversation with Arianna, I had twins. Not long after our daughters were born, we decided to trim our budget and cut costs. We informed Arianna that we could only hire her for a few months longer before we’d need to pause our monthly cleaning schedule to save money in mid-2016. She also surprised us with a story — she was pregnant with her third child. What I anticipated to be a few months of no Arianna turned into two long years.
My wife and I adjusted to being parents of three. Adjusted to the mounds of laundry, the stains on our couches not coming out, and battling the dust which collected in the crevices of spaces I didn’t know could collect dust. I could not take it any longer. I wanted Arianna back.
We hired her every few months to come in and spruce up our home — before holidays or at times when I was too exhausted to even put dishes into the dishwasher. Her presence picked up our spirits. When she came back on a more consistent basis in 2018, she confided in me that she was separating from her husband. Our relationship had grown into a friendship over the years, and we swapped text messages of our growing kids and sent timely holiday texts like “Merry Christmas.” And now, she was sharing with me the pain of separating from the person she loved.
When the pandemic hit, so did the big emotions: anxiety, the exhaustion of homeschooling my kids, and the uncertainty of it all. Our messy house didn’t help, so I called Arianna. I wanted her back, but not only for the benefit of a cleaner home. Her presence was familiar, dependable, and nurturing. I needed all of those things in my life, especially with the pandemic. I also knew she would need work, and as an immigrant, I knew it would be hard for her to come by given the political and societal unrest we were going through as a country, sure to stall her work prospects. After all, 70% of domestic workers had lost their jobs.
I texted her to see how she was holding up and if she had the time to clean our house. She said yes and we scheduled her visit. She had three kids at home to protect and keep safe, so her first question was “Is everyone healthy in your house?” My response, of course, was yes. We were both focused on the safety and health of our families. But though our approach had changed a bit, I was as glad to see Arianna as ever.
If my $120 could help her put food on the table for her kids, I wanted to have a hand in helping her. She faithfully took care of our home when we needed it the most — and perhaps now, amid this bonkers pandemic, she needed us too.