Some long and dirty months ago, we fired our housekeeper.
No more of those twice-weekly visits by a strong-willed cleaner who hated floor polish and Windex, but loved the soaps.
No more reminders that we were messy and couldn't do without her.
No more encounter-style role reversals -- employer scrubs floor while employe washes dishes -- as proof of the dignity of all labor.
No more costly vacation subsidies.
No more sacrifices of employer's meager (and taxable) part-time income for employe's tax-free earnings. It wasn't much for her to earn but it was a lot for us to pay.
It was time, we decided, to stand on our own. Bring the family together. Build camarderie and character. Teach the kids the value of manual labor -- so they won't grow up looking down on it -- and always expect someone else to bail them out.
Our kids weren't going to call some lady upstairs "my maid" while scattering things around so she would have something to pick up.
Keeping the maid was like a Band-Aid on bad family habits. Without her, we would "improve," and save money besides.
The decision was not merely practical.
It was grounded in philosophy.
Recent social changes, we felt, had done little to promote individual independence. Despite technological improvements (the vacuum cleaner over the straw broom, the frozen pizza over the butter churn) and the growth of outside work opportunities for the housewife, the daily operation of the American home did to enhance a sense of self-reliance for its individuals.
The pioneers in the American forests or the Australian outback might have been isolated by miles of forests and lonely nights. But, by day, they could exert a direct influence on their practical destinies: chopping wood, clearing forests, building wagons, harvesting dinner.
But we, imprisoned by time, space and commitments, felt impotent in the small matters of everyday.
Overly scheduled, overly committed and at loose ends, we handed over the running of our daily lives to a paid outsider -- someone whose personal interest lay in nuturing her life, not ours. And if she didn't come, we were lost.
We wept. We broke appointments. We were dirty and irritable, and our friends, of course, understood. Their housekeeper didn't show today either.
And so we vowed to take charge of our lives once again.
With some apprehension, we said goodbye to that sometimes hostile cleaner, but frequent friend and counselor (who, in time, had seen and cleaned our dirty laundry, along with our dirty linen).
The first problem then facing us: getting together to do the job.
My husband wanted each person to do his share when it was convenient.
That didn't work. The person cleaning the kitchen in the morning was stymied by the dish washer's decision to do the breakfast cleanup at 2 p.m. And how could you vacuum the living room, when the dirt kept blowing in from the front hall (that person preferring to do his job on Friday).
No, we would have to get together and do most of the work on Saturday.
That wasn't so hard in summer, when days stretched on one like another and weekends remained free of society's institutional demands.
Fall and winter were another matter. Ballet, soccer, tumbling, overflow office work and shopping all cried for attention.
Some Saturdays we'd rise early. (Or rather, I would, screaming the family through breakfast so we could finish Stage One before ballet.) Afternoon snacks were a precursor to Stage Two, which ended after soccer and before dinner. Going out for a drink or the theater at 8 p.m. (clean and smiling) was often impossible.
But we held on for months. And gradually, through piles of dirty laundry, through the din of my outbursts, we could sense a change -- a basic alternation in family functioning.
We discovered that:
You can't do the whole job at once (as we had expected the housekeeper to do). We learned to divide the tasks into achievable segments, performing them ahead when possible (such as laundry or emptying wastebaskets). p
People's preferences often dovetail nicely; they should be honored. My husband refused to load dishes in the dishwasher, but his oven-cleaning provided the first glimpse in 10 years of the stove beneath. My daughter adored mopping, and my son preferred to vacuum, so long as he wasn't photographed on the job.
With nobody else to do the picking up of socks, sneakers, coats, airplane wings, high heels and PTA notices, they were no longer left in the wrong places around the house.
We all grew proud of our newly-discovered talents, and our ability to work together. "Isn't it great, Mom," gushed one ebullient child one bleary Saturday at 7 p.m., after hours of struggle, "we did it ourselves!"
Of course, there were shocks and problems.
Any single change of behavior is bound to upset the tenuous web of responses among family members that psychiatrists call "relationships.""
My son, coming home from school one day and finding me (oddly) behind a vacuum cleaner suddenly recalled some deep-seated vestigial memory.
He let loose a torrent of inner thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams, long withheld. Apparently -- Betty Friedan or no -- he thought of a mother as a lady who cleaned. And now he had one of his own.
The other changes were less favorable to the female houseperson: If everyone can do the job, then nobody is boss.
The ego that cleaned the stove felt called upon to deliver lectures on its upkeep and care, particularly when the wife dripped bits of egg on it while trying to scramble breakfast.
The offspring in charge of the hall told its mother to wipe her feet. The mopping child lectured all guests and deliveryment to remove their shoes.
And nobody listened anymore then mother claimed she couldn't do such and such because of all the housework. That particular power game had been killed, and the rest of the family was delighted.
When then, if things progressed so nicely, did we, two months ago, hire a new housekeeper?
Because, frankly, Saturdays over the mop bucket seemed a sorry replacement for togetherness. And the time required to run the whole show ourselves just about killed any other outside activity.
So we compromised. Our new housekeeper comes only once a week and she doesn't do laundry.
We no longer expect her to make up in one day for a week's inattention.
We admit it: Help is nice to have, so long as it doesn't totally smother a family's sense of competence. The maid may run the vacuum on Mondays, but we run the house -- and our lives -- all week.