A Day in the Life of a South African Maid

“I wake up at 4:30am because Catherine and Stuart (not their real names) like me to serve them their tea in bed in the morning, and it takes a long time to get from Khayelitsha to Camps Bay. The first thing I do when I wake up is take a bath and get dressed. Then, I get my older children up, make them oats for breakfast and get them dressed. My son, who is 11, takes the baby, who is one-and-a-half to crèche by taxi in the morning. My other daughter helps me feed and dress her before she walks to school with her friend. I have to leave my house at 5:30am to make sure I am at work by 7:30am when they wake up. Sometimes there is traffic or strikes or the trains aren’t running properly, and I get late. I have been late twice already, and if I’m late a third time Catherine is going to give me a written warning.

When I get to work I change out of my clothes and into my uniform. The first thing I do is wash my hands, put the kettle on and get the tea tray ready. Once they have their tea and rusks in bed, I go and wake the boy. I look after two kids, a boy of three and girl who is six months. The baby will be with the night nurse. Then the night nurse goes home. I get the boy up and make him breakfast. He likes French toast and rooibos tea in the morning. He is a good boy. I give the baby porridge and dress her. Stuart goes to work and Catherine goes to the gym. While she is gone I make her bed, pick up her clothes and shoes from the floor (she is messy, that one) and put everything away. I put the baby on my back when I clean the house. Sometimes it’s hard because the boy wants me to play with him, but if the house isn’t tidy when Catherine comes home she gets cross. I am not allowed to put TV on for him because she wants me to only play with him. So that is difficult.

In the morning we go to the park. Catherine likes us to get out so that she can have some peace and quiet. I pack some food for the kids. There is a park close by, and we play there. I have a friend who goes to the same park, so we meet each other. Sometimes I worry about my girl. She doesn’t like the crèche, she misses me. She cries in the night and wants me. It’s a long day for her to be without her mother. I took her there when she was one month old because I had to go back to work. I couldn’t breastfeed her anymore. She was always sick and I think it is because I couldn’t breastfeed her. It is a long time for a baby to be without her mother, but I must work. My husband earns R3500 a month. It is not enough for us to live.

When we get home Catherine likes me to make her a salad. She won’t eat bread because she’s on a diet. Only fish and chicken every day, but she is too, too thin. Then I make lunch for the kids and we sit together in the garden and eat. In the afternoon when I put the boy down for his sleep I put the baby on my back so she can sleep and I do the ironing. Then I start with supper. I used to work in a restaurant so I know how to cook. Stuart wants to eat meat every night. I make steak or a stew or I cook chicken and vegetables. I bath the kids at 5pm. At 5:30pm I must leave to catch my bus, but sometimes Catherine asks me to iron the dress she wants to wear if she is going out. Then I get home very late. It takes me two hours to get home. My kids are already home. I leave the key with the neighbour and they let themselves into the house and do their homework. My son fetches the baby at crèche after he finishes school. I cook supper and I am very tired.

My husband comes home at 7 o clock. At the end of the month the money is finished. Then we only eat pap and vegetables. Together we earn R7000, but most of that is for school fees and food and transport. Transport is very expensive, I must give my son R20 a day and my bus costs R150 per week. My husband works on a Saturday too, so Sundays we are all together. We go to church in the morning and then we eat meat for lunch. We only eat meat on a Sunday. I am lucky for my job, and my husband is lucky. There are lots of people who are not working. Then I try to do everything right. I tidy the cupboards and I wash the curtains. Catherine gives me old toys and clothes. We are also lucky that we have our own house, but in the winter the roof leaks and the kids get sick because it is always wet. There is water on the floor and our shoes and clothes are wet. It is very cold in our house in the winter. I am looking for an old washing machine because it is difficult washing all the clothes by hand. When I get home from work I wash. It is difficult to make the clothes get dry in the winter.

I have good kids, but my girl struggles at school. Her teacher wants her to have extra lessons, but it costs money and we don’t have money. If my kids are sick it is a problem because if I don’t go to work Catherine gets very cross. If the baby has a fever she is not allowed to go to crèche. Then my son must stay home from school and take care of her. I am worried then because he is only a boy of 11. It is not so easy, no. I have a good job. They give me paid leave at Christmas, two weeks. My family is in the Eastern Cape. It is very expensive to take the whole family so every three years we take the bus to see my parents for Christmas. They are old now. I don’t know if I will see my parents again before they die.”

As told to me by Florence, 36.

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On Feeling Utterly Lost for No Particular Reason

So, I’ve been racking my brain to come up with a blog idea for today, but nothing wants to ‘stick’ because all I can think of is how utterly lost and miserable I feel for no particular reason. Then late last night I got a message from my friend in Sweden saying how much she loves the ‘real’ pieces, and how they resonate for her, so maybe this blog needs to be about that. I’ll run with it see where it takes me. If nowhere, at least I’ll get a good cry out of trying.

The thing is, in this linear, scientific, cause-and-effect world we’ve created for ourselves, things need to have reasons, and that’s why times like these – when you want to crawl in a ball and have everything go away but you can’t say why, exactly – are so bewildering. You can’t ‘just’ feel stuff. You must be able to explain it. And I guess there are reasons – there are usually lots of them, but they’re not always as obvious as we’d like them to be. For me, one is definitely about not having a place to go to in the morning for the first time in quite a few years. And while I have no doubt in my mind that I needed to leave where I was and spread my wings and do something new, the reality of an empty day alone at home scares the living daylights out of me.

It’s fun to stay home when you’re supposed to be at work, but we under-emphasize how reassuring the structure of a day in the office is. I like people, and the nonsense (and sometimes serious) talk you have with colleagues – those individuals you find yourself spending many hours a day with and get to know and love. I liked making them laugh and being used as an agony aunt, and the little office rituals related to birthdays, new babies and resignations. It’s not really me to spend this amount of time alone. And, while I am working harder probably than I ever have, I’m not getting paid for much of it, which totally confuses my brain. Does it still qualify as work? By what rights do I get to sit here and talk about libraries when I should only be doing stuff that pays?

So, it’s that plus coming down from the high of starting the blog and having people read it and like it and the unmitigated affirmation that gave me, but then realizing that the gazillions of work opportunities I’d hoped would magically open up, didn’t, and then even more of a sense of what the hell am I doing? What is my next career move? Surely I need to have some sort of plan for myself; some ‘direction’ if I’m to be allowed to exist on this planet. We human beings have a really hard time just being. So, I need to try and change the focus from what the blog will do for me to the real reason I started it – for the simple, unabashed love of stringing words together.

Yesterday one of my closest girlfriends sat next to me on my couch and held my hand while I blubbered and said to me, ‘you are doing this for you. And yes, you are reaching people and making them think, but you are doing this for YOU.’ And she is right, of course. It’s a solitary pursuit and it can be lonely as hell but there is nothing else I really want to do. So, I’m going to try to remove (or at least acknowledge) the pressure I’m placing on myself, and let this process take its course.

And, maybe hardest of all, is giving myself permission to feel lost and lonely and scared without a ‘good’ reason. No, nobody in my life has died; yes, I have people who love me; no, I am not homeless; yes, I have everything I need. But I still feel fucking horrible and I can’t explain why. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow, and maybe I won’t. Maybe this funk will take a while to lift, and maybe that’s okay, too. Perhaps we don’t have to feel happy and together all the time and put up a façade that everything in our lives is fabulous when actually we feel seven years old and want our moms. My name is Susan and I feel sad, and there’s no ‘because.’ That’s all.