Since we bought our apartment last year, my husband has been broaching the subject I have been dreading since I agreed to move to Brazil: having a maid.
It is difficult for a Brazilian, who has been brought up in a culture where it is perfectly normal for many families to employ a maid (empregada in portuguese), to empathise with my feelings on this. My husband grew up knowing that you could discard your clothes all over the house and miraculously find them cleaned and folded back in your drawer. Interestingly, this didn’t happen so much when he moved in with me… 😉
Personally, I hate cleaning, and every kind of housework. I would rather poke my eyes out than iron a man’s shirt – not because I am a raging feminist, but because it is so mind-numbingly boring and time-consuming, and the shirt will most certainly look worse after I have finished with it. However, I am willing to do my fair share of housework, IF the work is shared. I don’t work full-time, so there is time for me to do some household chores. My husband on the other hand has a very demanding job, and it would be unfair of me to expect him to come home late in the evenings and clean the loo! So for the sake of our relationship, we agreed that we needed some help.
Which leads me onto my next point. Have you ever read the book called The Help? (fabulous book!). I read it last year and straight away it struck a nerve. This is a book about house maids and racism in the 1960’s in the US, and yet to me it still resonates with life here in Brazil in 2013. Apartments are built with an area de serviço (maid’s quarters if you will) off the kitchen, which consists of a bedroom so tiny you couldn’t fit a normal single bed in it, often without windows, a tiny bathroom and the washing machine. There is also a separate lift in most buildings for workers as opposed to residents.
It’s true that not all apartment buildings are built this way anymore, but most are. Our apartment building has this area de serviço, yet it is only two years old. The culture of employing an empregada to handle the cleaning and cooking is ingrained in many people’s lives. Yet what does it say about equality if certain people are expected to use the back door? Why can’t they use the same bathroom as any other guests would?
Soon after we moved into our apartment, a lady that used to work for my husband’s family came to work for us one day per week. I had met her years earlier and remembered how smiley and friendly she was. The day she arrived at our apartment, she went to change into her old clothes and came and stood before me, asking me shyly where she should start, and my heart just broke. I can’t tell you why exactly. Partly, I feel sorry for her having to do this job, and guilt that I don’t have to. I also don’t want to tell her what to do – that doesn’t sit well with me, especially if I could be doing it myself.
There is also the really selfish reason of not wanting someone in my house all the time, invading my space. I hope that as my portuguese improves, I can get to know whoever works for us and treat them with kindness and respect. That doesn’t change the fact that they are not family or friend, not really. They will still prefer to eat alone and use their own bathroom.
Maybe part of the issue is with my use of the English word ‘maid’. Perhaps ‘housekeeper’ is better, but you can dress it up however you like, the job is still the same.
Then I came across this great article by a fellow blogger, entitled The Maid Culture in Brazil. Here he explains that on the other side of the argument is the fact that many empregadas didn’t have the opportunity for a good education when they were young. They are using the skills they have in order to make enough money to look after their families and send their own children to school. Maybe they feel none of this akwardness about the situation that I feel consumed by. And I am truly grateful for their hard work too. I would be lying if I said I didn’t come home last week to a lovely clean bathroom with that glorious bleach smell and smile at how nice it was. There is nothing better than a clean, tidy house.
I had hoped that by writing this, I might have some kind of revelation and no longer feel guilty and lazy for employing an empregada. Unfortunately, I don’t think my feelings about this, or the maid culture in general, are going to change any time soon.