by Paul Segal on January 30, 2023

I was 28 when I first got a maid. She wasn’t even my maid. My partner and I spent a year renting a flat in Mexico City from friends-of-friends, a well-to-do family who were abroad, and who paid their maid to keep coming while we stayed at their place. So she was taking care of their home as much as she was taking care of us. Young, childless, unbothered by moderate levels of messiness, I wasn’t that comfortable with someone so intimately handling my stuff.

My partner, being from an elegant part of Buenos Aires (I’m from an ugly part of London), found my attitude to our maid baffling, even bothersome, my naivety, my lack of understanding that one person dedicating their work hours to cleaning up after another person was really quite normal. There is a saying in Mexico that the maid is la felicidad de la casa, the happiness of the house. A professor we met there told us that she had wanted to dedicate her PhD to her two (two!) nannies, without whom her distinguished academic career would not have been possible.

Youth is wasted on the young; in my case, domestic service too. Now, 17 years later, drowning daily in childcare, cooking, washing, shopping, driving back and forth to ballet, art, swimming, I can say the taste for it is well and truly acquired.

But here in the UK, the economics just don’t add up. Another academic Mexican friend (in a private university) told me his salary and that of his maid a few years ago; paying her full time cost about 20 percent of his take-home pay. (Remarkably, while his income didn’t quite get him to the top 1 percent, this small fraction he paid her still meant she was better paid than nearly 90 percent of Mexican workers. That’s what high inequality looks like.) For me in the UK, with a comparable job to him, I would have had to pay double the share, a little over 40 percent of my salary. La felicidad in the UK would cost me a lot more. Poor me, and my wife, and our children who have to put up with overwrought and distracted parents.

That felicidad, of course, is pretty one-sided. It doesn’t take much digging to find out how domestic workers themselves view all of this.

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