I stumbled into it. A friend’s mother needed someone to clean her house once a week and I was willing if I could bring my two children along. A third child was on the way, but we’d cross that bridge later. As long as I worked while Sesame Street and Mr. Dressup entertained my kids, it was a great arrangement and a little extra income. But when the lady of the house came home one day to see how huge I’d grown and observed me lumbering around her house, she insisted it was time for mat leave.
Several weeks after the baby came, I returned with all three kids in tow and somehow we made it work. By the time the older two went off to school, word of mouth had worked its magic. I began taking on more cleaning jobs and by the time the youngest started school, it was my career. I was cleaning up to eight houses a week plus a couple of businesses on the weekends. It allowed me to finish my workday in time to pick kids up from school and stay home with them during school breaks, and for that I was grateful. I spent the next ten years scrubbing floors and bathrooms. I once calculated that I cleaned 600 toilets a year, counting our own.
Many clients came and went from my roster during those years, but I found they tended to fall into one of two camps: housekeeping-challenged families who expressed deep gratitude for anything I could do to lessen their chaos; and working empty nesters with more money than time. Some of the people in the former group would be the first to label themselves “slobs” and the disgusting messes I found could fill a book if I wanted to tattle. But they appreciated me!
The second group proved less satisfying to work for because sometimes when I arrived, I could still see my vacuum tracks from two weeks before in an unused room. This group tended to be pickier, each client having their own pet peeve they let me hear about if overlooked. One wanted their bathroom fixtures polished to a mirror finish; another insisted the door frames be dusted every time I came. As a result, I started addressing all the pet peeves in every house, including my own, and making myself a little nuts in the process.
The best part of this job was imagining my clients coming home from work to a clean house after a tiring work day.
The worst part was going home exhausted to my own dirty one.
My body began wearing out. Though I gave myself pep talks about doing honorable work with nothing to feel ashamed of, I feared cleaning was all I would ever be able to do. While I’d been sweeping and dusting, the world around me had become not only computer literate but computer dependent. I prayed about it a lot, because even though I did not regret this choice that allowed me to be there for my kids, I felt trapped.
One day I was stopped for a red light at Saskatchewan Avenue and Royal Road. Having finished my morning job, I was devouring a sandwich on my way to my afternoon job—already tired and feeling ugly in my worn jeans and tee-shirt. And perhaps a bit lonely. As I waited for the light to turn green, four nicely dressed women emerged from City Hall and crossed the street together—city staff going out for lunch. I watched them with a little envy.
I think I’d like to work there some day, and not as the janitor, I thought, certain it would never come to pass. The office world where I’d once fit now felt out of reach and there was neither time nor money to go back to school. God would have to surprise me if he was going to pull me out of my cleaning lady attire and, more importantly, my cleaning lady mindset.
But that’s a story for another day.