Clarification on the Housekeeper Situation

Since my last posting I received several emails with suggestions on how to get rid of lice and also one email from a friend who was horrified that I would consider firing our housekeeper over this. I reread my earlier posting and realized that it didn’t fully explain the situation.

First of all, I know that lice is not necessarily about being unclean. The girls and I both had lice twice in the States. What it was in fact for us is a nightmare to get rid of – daily nitpicking that took hours for a month, drowning lice in olive oil, washing sheets and vacuuming daily. Not the end of the world but pretty unpleasant. And absolutely necessary. And our housekeeper is not willing to do it. After all the times that I reiterated that this needed to be done to get rid of lice, she told me yesterday that she washed her hair and cut it abit shorter so she hopes that will get rid of them.

So this brings me to the bigger issue that perhaps I wasn’t clear about. This woman has never worked as a housekeeper before I hired her. Housekeepers here are often students who need to pay for school or single moms who don’t have any other means to learn a living. But what good housekeepers have in common in Colombia is that they all come from modest but clean homes and know how to clean, how to organize, how to help with the kids and most importantly, about hygiene. In a country with some serious diseases that are easily passed from person to person, cleanliness is of the utmost importance for the person who takes care of your house and prepares your food.

This woman was hired by our nanny’s family to do the heavy scrubbing cleaning before we moved into our house because they knew her (they used to live near her) and knew that she was trust-worthy (i.e wouldn’t steal). She didn’t seem very clean from the beginning (I kept reminding her several times a day to wash her hands.) but I thought I could train her and teach her because I felt bad for her situation. This was despite my husband being grossed out that I would allow her to touch our food. He kept saying “She is not like other housekeepers. You have no idea what she is bringing into our house.” It’s hard to explain it for people who haven’t lived here but there is a big difference between poverty and filth.

I have seen poverty up close and personal. I have traveled to over fifty countries, most of them in the developing world. I have slept on dirt floors of one room windowless homes. I have shared meals with families living eight to a room who cooked these meals on the dirt floor. I loved these experiences and never did I feel in any way concerned about taking the food or sharing the space. I let my kids eat these meals.

Yet, I was absolutely grossed out by our housekeeper’s house. It wasn’t about the poverty. It was filthy. There was trash everywhere. There was no reason that it had to be that filthy. Her kids live in a garbage dump. It looked like a breeding ground for every disease imaginable. I have been in plenty of poor Colombian homes that aren’t filthy (and plenty of poor Colombians are grossed out by lice)… and seeing our housekeeper’s house (and our friend’s horrified reaction), I finally realized what Esteban had been trying to tell me. It’s fine to try to help this woman but I am risking my family’s health by inviting her into our home. Lice is the least of it. There are so many serious diseases and parasites here. A friend of mine just had her third brain surgery here after a parasite traveled up to her brain. She had to have some kind of a metal shunt put into her brain to drain out fluid. This is serious stuff. And Saige at sixteen month of age is not even old enough to take any of the anti-parasitic medicine (or in extreme cases, you have to weigh the downsides of the drugs versus the downsides of the disease). Yes, I chose to bring my children to a developing country but that doesn’t mean that it’s prudent to hire somebody with extremely filthy habits to cook our food and clean our home. We already had worms. This seems like a reminder to be extra careful and prudent.

I realize that I might sound abit defensive. I am just trying to explain a very difficult decision. For while it finally clicked for me what my husband has been trying to tell me, it’s still not easy to fire somebody when she has four kids who are dependent on her (and who are stuck living in that filth!). I really feel traumatized by this. When I close my eyes, I picture her kids. But I also have to protect my kids. Our nanny’s mother, who has dedicated her life to working with women in need and who hired this woman to clean the house initially told me that I have to detach here. She told me that she has personally worked with this woman for years to help her get her life together (apparently this woman used to brutally beat her kids until Sara intervened) and that she actually thinks that it’s time for tough love. That this woman needs to understand that she has to clean up her life and that it starts with cleaning her home, leaving her husband, etc. I personally think that it’s all more complicated than our nanny’s mother realizes. Our housekeeper has such low self esteem after all of the abuse she has endured. She also seems depressed and perhaps even suffers from mental illness (I am in no way qualified to diagnose this but seeing her house, there is no way that there isn’t something going on here.) Anyway, as our nanny’s mother told me “If you don’t detach, you will go crazy here. There is so much poverty, need and horrendous things happening all around you. You try and help but then you let it go or it will consume you.”

I realize our nanny’s mother is right so I will talk to our housekeeper tomorrow and tell her why I need to fire her. I will give her some money and buy her a lot of groceries (non perishables that can last for awhile). My friend and I will sponsor her kids so that they always get lunch at school. And then my friend and I will get busy with our project to make sure that the children at the local school all get lunch. That project has evolved a lot but I will write more about it later. In any case, this is the best I can do. I am exhausted now and off to bed….

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