Domestic Woes: Confessions of a Spoiled Woman (me)

I just went for a walk in town and I feel so grateful. It’s less than 2 weeks before Christmas and it’s sunny and in the high 70’s. Everybody is bustling around, getting ready for the holidays, but in a relaxed, Colombian way. The 400-year old town plaza with its huge Christmas tree was full of people strolling, shopping, sitting at outdoor cafes drinking coffee and eating pastries (good thing I don’t carry money with me on my walks or I would consume way more calories than I burn with the walks). I just can’t believe I live here. In a small town in the Andes!?!! It just feels like such a privilege. Everything is new and different and we are all excited to experience the local holiday traditions. (Although I am a little nervous that nobody will invite us to holiday festivities because they are very family oriented affairs here.)

I guess the walk really did me good because I was feeling grumpy earlier today. Running errands with an 18 month old and a six-year old was not fun. Saige is at the age when she does not want to sit in the shopping cart. She climbs out and grabs everything off the shelves. She also has the tendency to just run in the opposite direction of wherever it is that we need to go. You have all been there, so you know!

And when I get grumpy, I get pretty impatient. I get annoyed with the sales clerks who move super slowly or the checkout person at the grocery store who chats away with the bag boy instead of ringing up our purchases. Can’t she see that I am having a hard time keeping Saige out of the credit card machine that she found in the neighboring cash register? Yes, part of my lesson here in Colombia is to learn to chill. But sometimes it’s just so hard…

Plus, truth to tell, I was actually grumpy because I hate dealing with household management issues, i.e. managing my housekeeper. I am a little embarrassed as I write this because I realize what a luxury it is to have domestic help in the first place and that this is really a problem of abundance that I have on my hands. But still it’s uncomfortable to deal with because unlike somebody who might work for me in an office environment, our housekeeper is in our home. It all feels really personal.

So here is the issue, if you will indulge me for a moment: our housekeeper’s cleaning standards have been really slipping lately (to fairly low levels) and things don’t seem to be improving despite repeated conversations with her about it. She was a super fantastic worker at the beginning and so I gave her a raise (she earns significantly more than the going rate here). I also have treated her like a part of the household and made sure that the girls are very respectful towards her. I have made sure that she never stays more than eight hours even if she doesn’t finish whatever she was working on, and, on the rare occasions that I need her to work longer hours, I pay her overtime. I pay her even when we are out of town so she will get 7 or 8 weeks of paid vacation this year. I even had my parents bring her daughters gifts from the US when they came to visit. Now of course none of this is anything special in the US. “Of course you treat people fairly and respectfully”, you might be thinking. “What do you want for that, a medal?”

The issue is that this treatment is unheard of by Colombian standards (Domestic help gets paid crap. They don’t get paid vacation. They are expected to work as many hours as it takes to get the job done and nobody ever says thank you) and everybody (both Colombians and the few expats I know here) has told me that if I treat our housekeeper like this, she won’t respect me and will start taking advantage of me.

Now I don’t want to believe this. I am a huge believer in treating people like I would like to be treated. And of course, there is no way that I am going to go down to the Colombian level of doing things. It seems like something out of the middle-ages, the master-servant relationship. Somehow I was sure that if I treat our housekeeper, who was working so hard, by US standards that she would appreciate this and continue to do her job professionally and well.

Our housekeeper has indeed expressed her appreciation on several occasions. She has told me how much she enjoys working for us. How great it is to be treated nicely and respectfully. How much she loves observing our family life – that we all eat dinner together every night, that we spend a lot of time with our kids, that the kids read and do art projects and don’t watch TV. She has told me how happy she feels watching us around the dinner table imagining that we are talking about our days (since she can’t actually understand what we are saying). According to her, people never eat as a family here or spend all that much time with their kids and the kids spend all of their time watching TV. She has told me that she has been telling everybody she knows about how great our family is. I was flattered (maybe that was the point, although it seemed genuine).

In fact, I thought that all was going swimmingly until we got back from vacation to a not very clean house. Things were picked up but the kitchen and bathrooms could have used a good scrubbing. Our housekeeper was supposed to stay and clean the house the day we left for our vacation but apparently she left by 11 am (we left at 10 am) and didn’t clean much. When I talked to her about it yesterday, she claimed that she did clean. So I had to point out room by room what wasn’t clean (food scraps in the kitchen sink, grime on the counters, hair in the shower, a dirty kitchen table, etc. ) This might be normal here (I am told that you have to be on top of people all of the time) but it feels really uncomfortable to have to tell a grown-up what clean means.

Then yesterday I asked her to clean out the fridge before putting the groceries away. I open it up this morning to find that it is not very clean (there are even leaves that blew in from the outside in our freezer!) And again I have to tell her, after she told me that she did clean it, that she needs to take a sponge and some cleaning liquid and get rid of all the stuck food and also clean out the leaves. Do I really have to explain this? To a woman who was cleaning perfectly well for the past couple of months?

What is going on here? Is everybody right and she thinks I am a push-over because I treat her justly? Is there some big cultural thing here that I just don’t get? And more importantly, what do I do? I can’t sink to Colombian levels on this but I also don’t want to be checking everything she does and having endless conversations about the basics of cleaning. According to my friends here, if I don’t nip this in the bud right away, it will just get worse. But how do I nip it in the bud? Again, she is in my home and I want to have positive energy in my home rather than follow her around like a drill sergeant telling her what she needs to do all day long. Ad of course I am not going to treat her badly so she respects me. OK, I know there are bigger problems in the world and I am probably spending ay too much time on this, but if anybody has any constructive feedback, I am all ears.

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