An Outsourced Life

Back in the early years of this blog, when we were living on a shoe-string budget as we recovered from the economic devastation that was grad school, I did a lot of soul searching about paying for staff that would free up time to work full time.

I did have some childcare, though never full time, and I had a bi-monthly housecleaner for a few years. I always felt a lot of guilt for paying someone to do work that I thought that I should be able to do myself. I ended up working a lot of very low wage jobs over the years that gave me the flexibility to do it all.

Of course, I wasn’t really doing it all. Those low wages jobs – freelance writing and adjunct/temporary professor jobs – aren’t exactly the fast track to proper careers and healthy paychecks.

But just in the past few months, we’ve outsourced a great deal of our household and kiddo chores. I just wrote a fat check to Ed the Landscaper to clean up our weed-covered yard, so Steve doesn’t have to arrange his entire weekend around dealing with our corner lot. I hired a housecleaner who came last week to de-gross our showers. (Oh, the humiliation.) I hired a math tutor for Ian whose math is too tough for us, so he can go beyond the classwork in school. I hired a reading tutor, because his special ed English class is seriously flawed, and I’m too burned out to be patient with his reading disability. With a small subsidy from the state, I’m hiring respite care for Ian on Saturday nights.

I’m writing checks left and right. And it’s all new. And it stresses me out, because even as we’re beyond the grad school years, we’ve never stopped thinking like grad students. Also, Steve and I grew up in families without helpers. My dad in his early 80s still mows his own lawn and shovels the snow from the driveway.

Ideally, I would like to simplify our lives, so we don’t need so much help, but we’re not there yet. In fact, things seem to get busier and messier. Our standards for tidiness have increased. I’m not going to stop feeling guilty about all this help. I’ve traded the green mold in the shower for a thin layer of self-hatred.

24 thoughts on “An Outsourced Life

  1. Laura, I really love your writing. It always gives me a boost when you’ve written something new. 2 posts today!

    To the extent that I ever say anything interesting in a comment that you want to use in other venues, feel free to absolutely steal with no credit. I’ll never post a comment or tweet that says “I thought of that first”.

    The thought comes to me because I tried to post a comment at the NY Times comment that ended up as one of their editorials (not making a connection between my comment and the editorial, because I don’t know if I succeeded, and certainly don’t think the editorial staff must have read one of the 3000 posts that appeared in the thread, or that others hadn’t said the same thing). But, it was funny to me.


    1. Wow. That’s not cool. I do get surprised sometimes that how ideas are used by reporters and aren’t credited to the original thinker. That’s so UNCOOL in academic circles, but it’s really common in journalism. I’ve stopped pitching certain editors, because they’ve said no to me and then had their staff writer write that article. I can’t believe how many major newspapers quoted my Booker article, while never calling me to get the back story (they got facts wrong) and never citing my name. At least, they linked to the article. Eye roll.

      And thanks for the nice note!

      I’ve learned so much from all my commenters over the years. When I write my book, you’ll all be in my acknowledgments.


      1. Oh, I really think the NY Times came up with the same idea independently, so I don’t think it’s uncool at all. Texas also came up with their 10% of high schools rule on its own, even though I had been telling all my friends and family about the plan years before they implemented it :-).

        It’s certainly not the same as accepting pitches and then having someone else write them. I’ve heard of people who officially state that they read nothing sent to them (a TV writers?) because then they can be sure they didn’t use anyone else’s idea.


  2. I never feel bad for the help. As long as I pay well (and I do) work is good.

    I have a friend whose restaurant check I glanced at and realized that she tips like 50% (noticed, because I thought I’d done the math wrong on my 20%). Since then, I think my tips are going to be higher, though I am concerned that they don’t go to the worker.


  3. So, we’re entering the period of life in which the older generation is passing away. A relative recently died, and my husband and I agreed that he should have spent more of his money having fun. Which sounds frivolous, but really, until the end he was doing things he should have outsourced, like cleaning gutters. It would have been better for his health. Time is the ultimate resource. We have a limited, predictable supply, which will run out at some unknown point.

    The people you hire are glad for the work. They also have specialized equipment which makes the work easier for them. Work like tutoring, cleaning, yard work and such are ideal for people to use as the things Dave Ramsey calls “side hustles.” You are gaining a more flexible schedule, and they’re building a business.

    Such local businesses allow some people to live and work in the same town.

    Also, pay someone to clean your shower so you can do stuff for Ian that otherwise you’d have to pay a lawyer to do. It also sounds as if Steve often spends time on the weekend working; his per-hour cost is probably much more than you’re paying the landscaper.


  4. I have SO much to say about this subject, but no time to do so right now.

    One quick thing–part of how you demonstrate that work is valuable is by paying somebody to do it. A lot of “women’s” work is undervalued because people expect it to be free and for it to just magically happen, in whatever quantity they happen to desire. When it’s something you pay for, you start having a more realistic idea of what the value is, and an understanding that it requires an expenditure of resources, whether it’s done by a paid employee or in-house.


  5. “I just wrote a fat check to Ed the Landscaper to clean up our weed-covered yard, so Steve doesn’t have to arrange his entire weekend around dealing with our corner lot. I hired a housecleaner who came last week to de-gross our showers.”

    One of our housecleaners told me about being called in to a home that hadn’t been cleaned in 13 years (by the homeowner’s own confession), so she’s seen a lot worse.

    “My dad in his early 80s still mows his own lawn and shovels the snow from the driveway.”

    My grandpa finally got a ride-on mower in his 90s before outsourcing it.

    The thing is, though, that professional yard guys have MUCH better equipment and are MUCH faster. You also don’t have to have a “discussion” with them about whether it’s time to mow the lawn. When we rented a house, my husband would do the lawn every month or so (when I could talk him into it) and it would kill a Saturday. When we bought our house, we didn’t even buy a mower. I talked to my neighbor’s lawn guy and hired him and it’s one of the nicest things I’ve done for my husband. Instead of most of a precious Saturday getting wasted, a yard crew can knock out our yard in half an hour or less.

    “I’ve traded the green mold in the shower for a thin layer of self-hatred.”

    If that continues, write some checks to a therapist!

    We hired our first help almost 17 years ago, when our oldest was born. To be honest, we couldn’t actually afford it at the time, but the $80 for a monthly cleaning that we were paying then was some of the best money that I’ve ever spent. Instead of looking at grime and thinking, I AM A BAD PERSON, I either sweep or wipe it up or wait until the next cleaning, which is coming soon. Based on years of observation, I can see that grime returns almost instantly (we are a household of five), so it’s nice to just not think about it. Not thinking about it is a big part of what I’m paying for. (I have to note here that even with twice monthly cleaning, there’s a fair amount of spot cleaning, decluttering and organization work that we need to do.)

    I’ve been that much-hated creature, the housewife with help, for quite a few years. And you know what? It’s really nice. We also had a lot of babysitting help when husband was faculty in residence in DC and we had little kids. A couple years ago, our youngest started pre-K (so we had three kids in private school) and our budget started seizing. Suddenly, we had to start weighing our priorities. I could do some editing work at home and keep the cleaners, or I could drop the cleaners and not do the editing work. (The hourly rate for the cleaning service is A LOT more than I was making per hour.) Ultimately, I wound up keeping the cleaners and doing the work. It’s the right choice in terms of quality of life, even though purely economically, it might not pencil out.

    Some more thoughts:

    –Having outside can take the edge off the zero-sum game aspect of dividing chores with one’s spouse.
    –At our house, having yard work frees my husband up for other family business on Saturdays, either kid stuff or other home maintenance activities. Husband does a fair amount of simple plumbing and electric stuff himself, which a lot of people would outsource.
    –We’ve also lived nearly our entire married lives with 0-1 cars. There was a brief period a few years ago when we had two cars, but it was kind of a pain. Our outsourcing costs are probably equal to or less than what a similar family spends on a second car. (There were 5 years when we lived in MD/DC where we had cleaning help but no car.)


  6. I grew up with the of-course-we-should-do-everything-ourselves philosophy, and it stuck to me for a long time, even when we’d had help for a while.

    Some more thoughts:

    –As I said previously, the belief that you should do everything at home yourself often goes hand-in-hand with undervaluing women’s work.
    –Some of the people who adhere to that philosophy don’t do the work, either. So they don’t hire it out (even if they could) because they ought to be doing it, but then they don’t do it…
    –Having scheduled help can provide accountability. For example, at our house, we do a decluttering sweep twice a month the night before cleaners come. Having people in the house helps me notice things that are unsightly or out of place.
    –It also means that there’s more time to think about non-routine tasks.
    –I also have in-house help. Our oldest is saving for her big senior trip to Europe, and I pay her $1 per room tidied up (which is a total steal for the youngest’s play room). Some chores are supposed to be freebies, but I’ll pay the middle kid $2 to vacuum and wipe down the inside of the van (the youngest generates amazing quantities of cracker crumbs).
    –Time and energy are limited, and if you use a certain amount of your time and energy for A, you won’t have it for B. All things being equal, if you hire stuff out, you’ll be able to get more done.


  7. I have friends with the same guilt, but I straight up don’t get it. When I was a little kid, cleaning lady days were the highlight of my month – all that lovely, fresh-smelling, shiny spareness before my mom’s clutter reclaimed it!

    Why would *anyone* want to live without the unsurpassed joy of cleaning lady day?


    1. Nora said,

      “Why would *anyone* want to live without the unsurpassed joy of cleaning lady day?”

      Getting ready for cleaning lady day can be rough…

      I have at least one set of relatives whose home would turn into Shelob’s lair if they didn’t have cleaning help. There are people who simply cannot keep safe, hygienic homes if left to their own devices.


      1. “Getting ready for cleaning lady day can be rough…”

        This is why we do not have a cleaning person. We are incapable of straightening up enough for someone to come in. My house isn;’t awful, but there is a lot of clutter. Having 2 ADHD people and an absent-minded professor with a bad genealogy habit will do that.


      2. Wendy said,

        “We are incapable of straightening up enough for someone to come in.”

        That was triggering!


    2. There are many things we buy that just become ho hum. Do you still *see* the new curtains and think about how nice they are? Probably not. What never gets old? Coming home to a freshly cleaned house that I didn’t clean.

      Let go of the guilt. Enjoy spending time in your cleaned up yard with your husband. If you feel guilty, remind yourself that if you had to clean the bathrooms and he had to clean the yard, you both might be too tired to enjoy each others company.


  8. We started a once-a-month cleaning service when I increased my hours at work. I love it. Three really nice women come every third Friday of the month and for a few hours, our entire house is clean.

    I tip insanely and write them many notes about how much I appreciate their work. They also give me great advice on dealing with pets and teenagers. (We had a cat with a long-suffering cancer death and they were so kind and sweet to that poor kitty. Almost like visiting therapeutic vets)

    When the kids are gone, I will totally bump up to twice-a-month. But I want my kids to have to do some chores too. Don’t want them to grow up in a house where everything is done for them.

    I live in a neighborhood where just about everyone has a cleaner. I did get a chuckle one day, years ago, when I was at the park with my then-toddler kids. (pre-cleaner days for us.) All the moms were complaining, “I just can’t lose these last 5 pounds!” followed by “my cleaners just didn’t get the floors clean enough this morning”. It took everything in my power not to tell them that perhaps if they spent some energy vacuuming and scrubbing floors it might help with those last 5 pounds…. 🙂

    We haven’t done yard service yet, because we have two teenagers (and don’t really care about fancy landscaping.) The kids do the mowing and help with weed pulling. All the yard people we’ve found also use pesticides and that’s one line I won’t cross.

    I think the trick is to value ALL work. The work of a person who mows or scrubs is just as worthy as the person who teaches or writes. (and somehow work to make it so people who don’t make huge salaries can live a decent life in our country….that part I haven’t figured out.)


    1. “I think the trick is to value ALL work. The work of a person who mows or scrubs is just as worthy as the person who teaches or writes.”

      Yes, yes, yes. Part of valuing the work is to compensate the work sufficiently that all jobs pay a wage that allow people to live a decent life.

      And, unfortunately, I’m living in a world where teaching and writing is also undervalued, not the least because it is not paid highly enough. So kids use their computer skills to develop blockchain companies, instead.


    2. Valuing all the work is so key – because so many people don’t. I hear lots of stories from our cleaning lady about how horribly some of her customers treat her. Like not just not picking up for her – more like not picking up dog shits in the house because she’ll get to it. People also frequently cancel on her for vacations – or just because without even the courtesy to call and let her know, just shutting the door in her face. It’s appalling.

      I don’t ever cancel because I need my house to be clean (Ii’s a hang up for me), but also because I feel like we have an obligation to her. This is her livelihood, so we owe it to her to pay her when she’s supposed to come. For example, I have a Fulbright in Japan right now, and we have someone else living in our house, but we’re still paying her to come clean on her regular schedule. I need her to continue to clean for us when we get back, and it didn’t feel right to me to ask her to not get paid for 6 months and hold our slot.

      Not that this is your focus Laura, but I bet there are some good articles that would sell about how upper middle class (many of them liberal, like me) mistreat the off the books household help.


      1. One particular kind of mistreatment is cash payment off the books – the cleaner is kind of okay with it because s/he gets more money, and then at the end of it all there is no social security. In our area, there’s a kind of a constant nagging drumbeat of stories about cleaners who come to the end of twenty years for a family and, they give her maybe two weeks pay and … she reports them to Social Security and the family has to make it good!
        So, not only is it virtuous to pay the nanny tax, it’s prudent!


  9. kristennel said,

    “our entire house is clean.”

    Yeah, that’s important. With a family-sized household and one person cleaning room by room, it’s never all going to be clean at the same time.

    “They also give me great advice on dealing with pets and teenagers.”

    I talk to our older cleaning lady about special needs stuff and teen stuff. (She has 30 grandchildren.)

    “I think the trick is to value ALL work. The work of a person who mows or scrubs is just as worthy as the person who teaches or writes. (and somehow work to make it so people who don’t make huge salaries can live a decent life in our country….that part I haven’t figured out.)”



  10. I just remembered a story on the perils of in-sourcing.

    Some years ago, I decided to weed the borders around the house with our helpful middle child, who was probably 8 at the time. I have no idea how this happened, but middle child (who was an ER frequent flier at the time) managed to upset the yard waste container on himself–I think it might have somehow flipped over and wound up on top of him. He got a huge goose egg on his forehead (that seemed to be growing as we watched) and my husband rushed him to ER. They checked him out completely (as was no doubt proper) and we eventually got a $700 bill.

    I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how much weed-pulling I could have paid for with $700.


  11. My neighbor needs a new retaining wall because a guy who kidnapped his ex, threatened to kill her, and burned down her house drove into the wall and then shot himself. I think the moral of the story is that you need to always part attention for the names of good contractors.


    1. There’s a graveyard across the street that’s very old and has tours every October around Halloween. I haven’t taken the tour, but in a few decades they could add this guy’s ghost to it.

      “He was white, so he had to shoot himself even though he was followed by seven police cars,” they could say. “This was before President Ocasio-Cortez fixed the justice department civil rights division,” they could add for kids that look confused.


    2. If things keep getting worse, they could explain that he had to shoot himself because back before consumer protection acts were destroyed, crashing into a wall at 25 mph was hardly ever fatal.


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