What I am about to say will make you hate me. At the very least, you will think me spoilt, extravagant and – perhaps worst of all – very, very rich. For all these reasons, people like me seldom come out of our (suspiciously pristine) closets. But in the spirit of fearless journalism, here goes: I have a cleaner three times a week.
"Anyone who manages a job, a family and a household and makes it look easy is lying about something."
Yes, three. Twice for cleaning, once for ironing. I also have a part-time nanny, and my husband has a part-time PA. Between us, we makeDownton Abbey look under-staffed.
In my defence, there are mitigating circumstances. As well as being a working mother with three small children, I am married to Britain’s messiest man. This is not hyperbole. His messiness has a super-natural, almost poltergeist quality to it. When he moves through a room, objects seem to leap off the shelves and dash themselves at his feet; dirty linen baskets overturn; sock drawers open and pour out their contents. Behind him stretches a dense trail of rubble: pen lids, onion skins, muddy trainers, muesli-encrusted bowls, spare electrical parts, wet towels, lumps of chewing gum and empty packets of cheese.
If it weren’t for the cleaner, our house would be the subject of a Channel 5 documentary within a week. I would have to tunnel my way out of the squalor in order to file for divorce.
So that’s my excuse. What’s yours? Because I’m not the only one keeping this (un)dirty secret. Roughly six million Britons pay someone to help with the housework, but the vast majority won’t admit it. According to a new survey, 67 per cent of people who have a cleaner keep schtum about it.
Rune Sovndahl – founder of the cleaning company Fantastic Services, which commissioned the survey – believes this reflects a peculiarly British unease. “In the US,” he says, “people positively go out of their way to flaunt their wealth… But in Britain, people still don’t want to be seen to be getting above themselves.”
"I once went to a dinner party thrown by a cookery writer. It was the strangest thing: she had hired a chef to cook her recipes for us. We could all hear and occasionally glimpse him, clattering about in the kitchen. Yet we all conspired in pretending our host had made it. “Delicious!” we cried."
It’s true that class and money are delicate subjects in this country, perhaps because they matter so much. Hence, the long-standing taboo against discussing one’s income. But there’s another reason we keep our cleaners under wraps: female perfectionism.
Deep down, an awful lot of women still feel that the real proof of our worth lies in our domestic abilities. If our house is tidy and elegant, if our children have nice manners and always remember their thank-you letters, if our towels are fluffy and our cakes are moist – if everything is perfect, then it must mean that we are, too.
For women, mess – like fat – comes loaded with judgment. But now that most of us work, we have no time for dusting or ironing. So we quietly pay someone else to do it. We don’t talk about our cleaners because that would undermine the whole point of the exercise: to maintain the illusion of perfection.
I once went to a dinner party thrown by a cookery writer. It was the strangest thing: she had hired a chef to cook her recipes for us. We could all hear and occasionally glimpse him, clattering about in the kitchen. Yet we all conspired in pretending our host had made it. “Delicious!” we cried. “How did you get it so creamy/crunchy/moist?”
We colluded in this pretence partly from embarrassment and partly from sympathy. Anyone who manages a job, a family and a household and makes it look easy is lying about something. Shouldn’t we at least admit that to ourselves?