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I have recently hired-and I can barely bring myself to type this-a regular babysitter and a cleaner. It’s something I feel very uneasy about, in fact I’m quite embarrassed, because doing so is an obvious mark of privilege.

Now, in many important respects, I’ve always been privileged. I grew up middle class and white in an America where both confer significant advantage. But privilege is relative. And while my family had money for college educations, we did not live in a fancy house, drive fancy cars, or eat fancy meals out. Indeed, we were part of a wide swathe of middle class Americana that allowed for social mobility under the pretense of boot-strapping.

I’m now in a position to enjoy some little indulgences. (My mom would no doubt like to interject here that I can throw money around wantonly and that I spend like a banshee.)  And yet, owing the nicer cars and nicer homes around me, I can still delude myself into thinking that I’m on the have-not side-the “us” side-of any us vs. them class divide. Who me? Rich? Naaaah…..

This general state of delusion is regularly interrupted by moments of greater awareness. Whether it’s picking up on subtle (and not so subtle) class cues of others in the doctor’s office waiting room or reading about the poor in the US and abroad, at regular intervals I am reminded of how well off I really am. Until recently, I welcomed these moments as important checks against greed and selfishness. They kept my politics in check while not making me too uncomfortable.

Lately, however, my reality checks come in a more immediate fashion that makes me uncomfortable: specifically, they come in the form of my weekly sitter and my semi-monthly cleaner. Like many Americans, I am miserably uncomfortable being on the receiving end of domestic service and work hard to act and pretend like I don’t notice what this says about me: Namely, that while I may not be exactly rich, I am certainly not poor, or even working class.

With my baby sitter, things are rarely awkward until I hand her the check. E is a master’s degree student at Bellarmine College who baby sits to earn extra cash. She just got married. Her husband has a good job. She’s white. She’s ten years younger than I am. So while she works for me now, our class is basically the same. In the not-too-distant future, E will go off to teach and I will be looking for a new sitter.

But with L, things are entirely different. She has no degree. She’s about my age. And in a part of the country where race can be everything, she’s black. To be fair, L is also married, just bought a house, and has one child, all traits we have in common. But in a few years, L will still be cleaning houses. And in just a few months, she’s set to become the ward for a relative’s baby, which will make her work life much harder and her bank account much smaller.

As L told me about the baby she would soon be rearing-and the complication of figuring out what to do when she can’t afford to quit her day job, does not have paid maternity leave, and cannot place a baby in daycare until he or she is six weeks old-I was sitting in my kitchen working, listening to NPR playing in the background, within view of my mom helping Simon splash away in his kiddie pool on the back deck.

Take a moment to parse that. I work part time at home. I make my own hours. I have grandmothers and a sitter to help me with Simon. And this woman-this peer-already works a hard full-time job and an equally hard part-time job on the side. And in case that weren’t enough, she’s about to do all of this while taking care of one teenage child and one new baby in a country that does embarrassingly little to support working families.

How must I look to her? I’ve joked with L that my house is nothing like that of the wealthy cousin who referred her to me. And it’s not. But my set up is undeniably cushy. I’m sure I look rich enough.

So how to I deal with this? Simple. E gets paid the stated agency hourly rate, slightly less than half of what I make per hour. And L? Well, I pay her about the same as what I make. Really, it’s the only thing that makes having a maid, which I think of as the “m-word”, bearable and lets me sleep at night.

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