Downton Abbey and motherhood

Like many mothers these days, I have a bit of a “Downton Abbey” addiction. In case you aren’t familiar with it, “Downton Abbey” is a British period show about the Granthams, an aristocratic family who live on their country estate (Downton Abbey) in 20th-century England shortly after World War I during a time when the British social hierarchy is changing.

I enjoy the show partly for the acting and storyline, partly for the gorgeous scenery and clothing, but mostly because I like to fantasize about what it would be like to have servants. The Grantham family has a full staff of servants who live downstairs and do all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, food service (breakfast in bed for the married women!) and driving. They even have personal servants who dress them for the various activities of the day, like the nightly formal dinner. It’s dreamy.

The morning after I watched the third season’s grand finale, my oldest daughter was running late for school and came running downstairs in her towel looking for clean underwear. In the same breath I told her, “Underwear is in the dryer, breakfast is on the counter, and we’ll leave for school at 8 a.m.” With the Crawley family still on my mind, I couldn’t help but add, “Kate! You’re like one of the Grantham daughters, and I’m your one-woman staff of servants!”

We both had a good laugh over that, but it really is true, isn’t it? Especially when our children are very young and unable to realistically do their share, we pretty much do everything for them: cook, feed, clean, launder, bathe, dress, drive, you name it. And even when they are older (like my teenage daughter running late for school), they still need quite a bit of help as they navigate their world and prepare to navigate the world of adults.

We are, quite literally, our children’s servants.

One definition of a servant is “a person who is privately employed to perform domestic services.” That would be a fairly accurate description of what a mother does (in part), except for that bit about being employed, i.e. getting paid for domestic work. And it is for this reason that some people consider the domestic work of a mother demeaning at worst, and a waste of time and talent at best.

And maybe it is. I mean, if a mother can afford it, why not hire out all that dirty work to nannies and maids, and eat out/order in for dinner every night? It would certainly free up a lot of time to do other worthwhile things. (Like maybe play with those children!) But very few mothers have the luxury of even making such decisions.

Still, I think it’s an interesting question to ask: If you could afford it, how much of your “domestic service” would you hire out? Or would you at all? Why or why not?

Before you start dreaming about a servant bringing you breakfast in bed while another one tends to your crying baby, I have one more question to ask: What do you think you and your children would miss out on by hiring “servants” to do the domestic work of your family?

Personally, I can think of three big things:

  1. The advantage of working together as a family and bonding in the process. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my children are the ones that have happened over a sink full of dirty dishes or while driving around in the car. Just tonight as I drove Kate to and from her harp lesson, we had the most interesting discussion about sexism in various cultures. We probably never would have had that talk if I hadn’t been “chauffeuring” her around in the car.
  2. The opportunity to teach our children the value of work. Even if you have the money to hire out al the domestic work of your home, there’s a good chance your children won’t when they grow up. Showing them how to care for a home, that you’re not afraid to do “dirty” work, and how ennobling and satisfying it can be to run a household is very difficult to do if all you ever do is play together. (Darn it.)
  3. The chance to show love through domestic service. Kate could have gotten her own breakfast that morning. Most days she does. Even though I eventually want to train all my children to be self-sufficient, there are times when I choose to do things for them simply out of love. It’s a beautiful thing to do for others what they can’t do for themselves (thinking of babies and young children), but it can be equally beautiful to do for others what they can do for themselves. (And without pay, nonetheless!) This kind of selfless service changes our relationship with our children and binds our hearts together.

The funny thing about the narrow and stereotypical view of domestic work in the home is that every job — paid and unpaid — has it’s fair share of annoying, dirty, and mundane. But the difference between every other type of job and the job of a mother is that it isn’t just a job, it’s the careful development a human being. And in this sense, domestic work becomes quite elevated.

Almost as elevated as working at Downton Abbey.

QUESTION: If you had the money, would you hire out the domestic work of the home? Why or why not? (I’m not talking about the occasional cleaning service. I wish that for every mother of every social class!)

CHALLENGE: Try to remember that even the most annoying, dirty, and mundane parts of domestic service provide some of the best opportunities to bond with your children and teach them how to care for their own families when they grow up.

4 comments

  1. Martin

    Amen! Last week, while helping my daughter carry a man’s body from her bedroom in the middle of the night, I was like, “Hey! This is just like Downton Abbey!” And it was, except the “body” was just Uncle Larry, who had stumbled home drunk and mistakenly passed out on the floor in Maggie’s room. Do you suppose Mr. Carson has ever cleaned urine off the carpet? Because I sure did that night. And I hummed the Downton Abbey theme to myself the whole time!

  2. Emily

    My husband and I currently live in Qatar with our five children. Having live-in or regular help is not only common, but the expected norm. Our choice to live maid-less, nanny-less, and houseboy-free causes no end of confusion and distress to our neighbors. They simply don’t understand the value of the three opportunities you summarized so well. It is not uncommon for someone to come to my home and declare I simply must replace “my help” because my home is so…well, lived in. My pregnancies caused physical limitations that made caring for my children and home almost impossible some days. My perspective, especially now that I have regained my strength, is that it is a privilege to keep my home and raise my children myself. I have complete ownership over my sphere and that is not only empowering, but also something I wouldn’t give away, let alone pay to be rid of.

  3. kinderly

    I have also dreamed about having the means to have to make this decision–to employ servants or not. I generally decide that I would resent the loss of privacy.
    However, I think the modern day equivalent is to buy prepared food and eat in restaurants and send your children to daycare every day. Many, many people do this, even if they aren’t super rich. There are still other chores to do but there’s a dishwasher, a clothes washer and dryer and so many other conveniences, so it really isn’t at all the same as it was 100 years ago.

  4. Florence Sadler

    You forgot one other advantage to living without servants–privacy. I’m glad that most of our conversations, messes, and quirks can stay within the family.

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