When Reality Hits in. The (Dis)comfort of having Househelp

· Living Abroad,Househelp,Family,Employment,Au pair

My first encounter with househelps/maids was in my childhood years during summervacations in Morocoo with my father, Moroccan stepmother and siblings. Having househelps is not very common in Norway, but as I write this, I recall that my mother had some extra hours of work to increase the family income during tight times. I must have been around 11 years old and went with her at least twice as I loved to spend time with her, and to do whatever she did. I remember that exciting but weird feeling of entering empty homes of strangers, sensing other smells, observing other things, traces of other family’s lives. And the pretty weird feeling of cleaning their mess. They were normal houses, not enormous villas with fancy furnishments and expensive cars. I would guess that those homes belonged to middle class families, in need of some extra hands to keep the house in check during busy weeks with employment and small children. And my mother, she can cleaaan. No one does it with more perfection, more love and dedication. Maybe cleaning is a type of therapy for her, as she goes into a type of trance, disappears from this world, into herself, maybe into her past, or into her dream future. No one makes a home more comfortable and enjoyable to be in than my mother. Everything she touches becomes super-cozy. The way she decorates, serves and also get herself representable to make everyone feel as honored guests when entering her home. This is so in line with the fitrah, sobhanAllah. May Allah give her hidaya.

From time to time in our trivial conversations she touches into her time as a young Au pair in Oslo West, a story I would gladly share if she wants to tell me her experience in more detail. The topic of Au pairs has been debated the last years ahead of the Norwegian Government's final decision to shut the Au pair scheme down, effective from this month (March 2024). The main concerns have been the wellbeing of the Au pairs, and that the Au Pair scheme meant for cultural exchange is being misused for cheap labour in Norwegian homes. No doubt that the sad reality for some of these Au pairs, as househelps in general worldwide, risk going through hell in the homes they should be treated with respect and justice. Is the right way to handle its risks to shut it down completely? Or how complete is the shut down? We can read that the desicion taken by the Norwegian Government is 'in line with the principle that the need for unskilled labour as a main rule shall be covered from the EEA (the European Economic Area). The shut down means that third-country citizens can not be granted residence in Norway as Au pairs." (My translation) Well, something that for me just sounds like another way of whitewashing access to Norway. Like the heavily discussed fact that Drammen only wants to recieve refugees from Ukraina. The Au pair discussion makes us aware about the actuality of the topic domestic work through employment, also in Norway.

As a teenager on vacation in Morocco, as well as a young Bachelor student on a one-year-break as a volunteer in a Blind School for youth in that same country, I spent time in different households where maids either lived fulltime, or came daily from morning to evening. They had both Moroccan and Asian background, and as far as I experienced, they were well taken care of, and enjoyed good working conditions. We also had a housemaid during our vacations who made the most delicious food and who cleaned the house, until she got married. She was adorable, like a part of us, and we had a lot of fun with her. At the same time I remember the discomfort around being served, having someone who cleaned around me, and after me, pfoh, and how I tried to make sure that I was faster. I think the discomfort came from mainly two sources: The wish to feel on equal terms with the people around me, and to be independent, like, responsible for my own mess and fullfillment of my own needs. It didn't really help to hear that 'they are happy for having an income,' or 'she is part of the family,' or.. 'she enjoys her work.' Of course that could be true, but still. I'm not sure if my mentality stems from the 'egalitarian Norwegian ideal', or a personal need for a huge private space, or a mix of them. Or maybe as Oyunga Pala explains, here quoted by some Kenyan scholars:  

The housemaid is a very recent phenomenon. It's one of the stubborn traces of colonialism and a curious phenomenon because it is the quintessence of the irony of female liberation. Housemaids arose as a result of the emancipation of the housewife. When the housewife gained economic empowerment and moved to the office, the maid took her place in the home. With the empowerment of one group of women, came the oppression of the other. What makes it a classical example of the oppressed becoming the oppressor is that the housemaid's biggest obstacle to progress is the female employer.


I find this quote somehow clarifying for sensing discomfort around having househelp, but at the same time, I don't see the arrangement as doomed to become oppression. As a fulltime student with a baby in Morocco, I had to find a househelp so I could manage all my responsibilities as a mother and wife. I had heard many scaaaryyyyy stories about househelps, but also without thinking of them, I wanted to be careful who I took into my home. The home is like your own little oasis, the place you are yourself completely, where you relax and enjoy privacy. A househelp for me was like an intruder. I had to feel safe and relaxed with a woman working with me, and who would take care of my baby. Having a househelp meant I could have my baby close. I was recommended the lady who stayed with me over a year, and Alhamdulillah, it was an overall success. Not perfect, but absolutely going well. The first weeks I used a lot of energy to clean before she came, but with time I got used to having her around and uses the hours I had to work with my thesis. It never left my mind that I had to make sure in every way that there were absolutely NO CHANCE that I was falling into the category 'oppressive female employer.'

I think we both came out of it well, and now as I am not an employee, but nesting and preparing our home and family for a newcomer in sha Allah, I find it extremely comforting to make myself independent again, in control of my home, my things, my children and our meals. How I missed my own food hh, and suddenly found new pleasure in making food. I experienced an increasing discomfort around having a continously clean and fresh home, the dinner finished on time, the groceries bought, and my baby taken care of, by another person. Over observing my children becoming lazier about their house chores, since 'the househelp is here.' I felt I was getting disconnected with my own home, my own children, my own life. Like Pala wrote, another person took my place in the home.

I went from discomfort to relief over that immense help in my house and with my baby, a relief that slowly transformed into sorrow for what I was loosing. Now as I am two months into a phase of handling everything on my own, I embrace the response that Rasoolullah sallallahu alayhi wasallam gave his daughter Fatima when she struggled with a lot of hard work:

حَدَّثَنَا الْحُمَيْدِيُّ، حَدَّثَنَا سُفْيَانُ، حَدَّثَنَا عُبَيْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ أَبِي يَزِيدَ، سَمِعَ مُجَاهِدًا، سَمِعْتُ عَبْدَ الرَّحْمَنِ بْنَ أَبِي لَيْلَى، يُحَدِّثُ عَنْ عَلِيِّ بْنِ أَبِي طَالِبٍ، أَنَّ فَاطِمَةَ ـ عَلَيْهَا السَّلاَمُ ـ أَتَتِ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم تَسْأَلُهُ خَادِمًا فَقَالَ ‏ "‏ أَلاَ أُخْبِرُكِ مَا هُوَ خَيْرٌ لَكِ مِنْهُ، تُسَبِّحِينَ اللَّهَ عِنْدَ مَنَامِكِ ثَلاَثًا وَثَلاَثِينَ، وَتَحْمَدِينَ اللَّهَ ثَلاَثًا وَثَلاَثِينَ، وَتُكَبِّرِينَ اللَّهَ أَرْبَعًا وَثَلاَثِينَ ‏"‏‏.‏ ـ ثُمَّ قَالَ سُفْيَانُ إِحْدَاهُنَّ أَرْبَعٌ وَثَلاَثُونَ ـ فَمَا تَرَكْتُهَا بَعْدُ، قِيلَ وَلاَ لَيْلَةَ صِفِّينَ قَالَ وَلاَ لَيْلَةَ صِفِّينَ‏.‏

Narrated `Ali bin Abi Talib: Fatima came to the Prophet (ﷺ) asking for a servant. He said, "May I inform you of something better than that? When you go to bed, recite "Subhan Allah' thirty three times, 'Al hamduli l-lah' thirty three times, and 'Allahu Akbar' thirty four times. `Ali added, 'I have never failed to recite it ever since." Somebody asked, "Even on the night of the battle of Siffin?" He said, "Even on the night of the battle of Siffin." Sahih al-Bukhari 536

SobhanAllah. How Allah knows, and we do not. At the same time, we are not machines, and we can have circumstances that makes a househelp-solution perfect. It is absolutely not haram, and two women can find this relation as a two-way benefical transaction. I am not a scholar in Islam, but just want to share how I suddenly could relate to this hadith in another way than before. Now I can see myself going for a solution where I have househelp twice a month for deep cleaning, especially since I'm getting closer and closer to having a newborn bi idhnillah. I will choose the timing wisely. The children will be home so everyone can be involved, taking responsibility for their own bedrooms, and to help out with the two-year-old who would find great pleasure in letting the whole cleaning session go to waste the same hour.

Domestic work. A neverending story I've decided to see as a love storyyy. It helped to buy scientific and/or humorous housework books though, and apps. I have encyclopedias for close to everything in this dunya, bringing me motivation, knowledge and genious life hacks. Maybe that can be helpful for others too, for both preparation and execution, to put in place sustainable routines that also engage the children. As mine are reminded about weekly, like I was when I was young, by my mother: Do NOOOOT think you live in a Hotel! Time to put on gloves and attack the toilet bowl with gratitude and discipline.