Q. When our son was born, my mother-in-law gave us as a present the services, for a year, of the daughter of her long-time housekeeper, now dead. I admit I was resentful at the idea, which seemed to indicate that my mother-in-law didn't think I could handle the baby and was putting in someone she could trust.
Also, I am not used to having help, which is what my family used to call it--is that the wrong term? My husband's family always calls them servants.
Anyway, Nora turned out to be a cheerful and helpful person, with a lot of experience with babies from having had lots of younger brothers and sisters. We get along quite well, and she is crazy about the baby. She also does things like errands and picking up around the house--she likes a very tidy house, but doesn't mind keeping it that way herself--and is especially nice to me when I am sick.
The year is almost up, but my husband says we can keep her on if I want. He travels a lot in his work, and doesn't want to leave me alone in the house with the baby unless we get a dog, but dogs make me nervous. We are thinking of having another baby next year, but I also might get a part-time job. Either way, it would be nice to have Nora, and if we let her go for the time in between, we might not be able to get her again. And even if nothing happens, it is still wonderful to be able to go out and know that the baby is with someone we trust. My friends all tell me how lucky I am, and I know it's true.
Now let me tell you my problem. Nora was very strictly brought up, as I know from my husband's stories about her mother. She has a boyfriend who is in the Army, but when he comes here on leave, she is always ordering him around, and once I came in the kitchen and saw her slap him. They both blushed and nobody said anything, but I'm sure he tried to get what she considered fresh, and she let him have it.
You probably think I'm afraid she'll be too strict with the baby. No, her mother didn't hurt my husband any, and I know she's too kind-hearted to do anything mean. My fear is that she disapproves of me!
Not that I've ever done anything wrong. But naturally, our life style is a bit more sophisticated than hers. For instance, we have a concert series, and when my husband is out of town, I go with a male friend, and usually give him dinner here before. Sometimes my uncle, who is younger than I, spends the night, and once he brought friends when my husband was away. He is my uncle, after all, but Nora was looking at me funny, even though she didn't say anything.
My husband brushes it off--he doesn't think these things are wrong--and I'm afraid I am betraying my origins to care what Nora thinks. But after all, she is almost like a friend to me. And even if she weren't, don't you think she might gossip about me if she left us? Should I talk it all out with her and explain how I feel and behave?
A. Certainly she will gossip about you. Do you know anyone, in any occupation whatsoever, who doesn't gossip about his or her boss? Besides, it seems to Miss Manners that you have been gossiping to her about Nora's personal life. That is no reason, however, for you to supply her with the details of yours. By ignoring your accidental intrusion and perhaps obvious curiosity, Nora has set you an excellent example.
Your incidental question, about what to call domestic employes, is a key to your problem. The term "help" is an early American one, based on a democratic aversion to the idea of one person serving another. Thus the euphemistic concept is that everyone does his or her own work, but obliging people sometimes appear, out of the goodness of their hearts, to help.
Miss Manners finds the objection to "servants" odd in a society where the most distinguished officials are proud to call themselves public servants. Besides, when the term help was invented, Americans also prided themselves on their disdain for the servile institution of tipping. Whatever happened to that?
Miss Manners' point here is to remind you that however much you and Nora like and appreicate each other, you are employer and employe, and the relationship should be given its full dignity. When you call her almost a friend, are you sure that you want a live-in friend, who would naturally offer her advice and opinions on the way you live? If you do, it would still seem that Nora doesn't.
Servants are entitled to privacy, and so are their employers (which is not to say that they can't speculate privately on one another's lives). Traditionally, the violations were more on the employers' sides, with the ladies of households always making rules intended to keep the servants to certain moral standards, and the gentlemen of the household attempting to subvert this goal.
Nowadays, the courteous person will allow her employer or her employe to enjoy the freedom of maintaining separate personal standards and habits, free from comment.