Domestics: A Blessing?

I had no idea. Despite limited activity on Saturday and Sunday. Despite eating every weekend dinner with my aunt. Despite extra trips to the grocery store. Despite added stress and limited sleep, it wasn’t until I was much older, did I finally have an idea that my mom was a domestic worker.

Starting when I was five years old, my mom started working every Saturday and Sunday evening cooking for an elderly couple. From 5:00pm until 8:30pm she’d stay at their home, preparing, cooking and serving dinner and dessert. She helped occasionally for several months, until the weekend cook left and she agreed to take her position and started working Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. She says she considered the job, “a blessing. I received good pay for what I did. They were good if I wanted to take time off. I could always switch things around with someone else that cooked. Also, they were in good health and I could prepare things for them before I left and they still had a nice meal the night I wasn’t there”.

When the wife passed away, my mom started working more evenings and by the time I went to college she was working five, sometimes even six nights a week. Then, “Everything was a different story. He took advantage of me and the other people helping him. I observed how he treated the woman that helps him during the day. He refused to buy her health insurance and he expanded her hours, but didn’t pay her for the extra time”, my mom said.

Often, the line between her personal space when she is or isn’t at his house is blurry. “Last week he called my office because he said he didn’t know where I was. He called simply because he thought he had a right to”, she says. “Sometimes he asks me to go early to spend extra time with him, but he never pays me the extra hours,” she says.

“Other times he’ll call me when he is in town and I’ll help him out with rides to where he needs to go. I feel like I’m doing him a favor because I’m fond of him, but then I realized he’d ask for help because he knew he didn’t have to pay us,” she explains.

Despite the fact they had a friendly relationship, when I asked her why she didn’t ask him for compensation for the additional work, she said, “I needed the job and I felt lucky to have it”.

He also makes her feel extremely guilty. “Sometimes he’ll make snotty comments. That’s stressful,” she explains. If she does something he doesn’t like he’ll “be quiet with me for weeks on end. I know he’s mad and not happy. It’s his way of staying in control. He’ll do anything to stay in control no matter what the impact is on our schedule, time or personal lives”, she explains.

Last Christmas my mom was with him on both Christmas Eve and Christmas night. “He’ll be thrilled I’ll be there Christmas Eve and he doesn’t care that I won’t be with my family”, she said. Although two of his grandchildren want to cook for him on Christmas Eve, his children decided my mom had to cook the holiday meal because they said she is a better cook.  “Just because I’d be better, I can’t be with my family,” my mom says.

My mom’s employer is ninety-four. Contemplating the day he’s gone leaves my mom with many mixed emotions. “As frustrated as I’ve gotten, I think about him being gone and it makes me sad”, she says. She knows she’s going to miss him.  “He’s the person I’ve had dinner with five days a week the past three years and for the past seventeen years we’ve eaten dinner together at least two nights a week” she says.  On the other hand, “I’ll be relieved when he’s gone. I feel guilty about that”, she says as she begins to cry. “Knowing no one will yell at me or put demands on me will be nice,” she says.

When I asked her to express her general sentiments of being a domestic care worker. She says she never considered herself domestic help.

I just never thought about it. In my mind, I think of domestic help as taking place in a different time. I know I’m a caregiver, but I never put myself in the context of domestic care worker. I was always so quiet about the job and I just did what I did. I just felt like I was there to cook dinner and do odds and end things around the house. He needed so little care, that he was just looking for company. I think falling into the job and not considering it a profession made me never think of it that way. It was just an extra job, extra money.

Maybe I couldn’t identify my mother as a domestic care worker because she doesn’t identify as a domestic care worker. The work of care workers is defined as the relationships and activities involved in maintaining people on a daily basis and intergenerationally. It often involves emotional, physical and “community care”. Just as my mother and I didn’t know, I assume there are many other domestic care workers throughout the world unaware of the position they serve. In order to ensure all domestic care workers receive fair and just working conditions it is imperative that they accurately recognize the work they do.

(Image Credit: National Domestic Workers Alliance)