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What My Earliest Jobs Taught Me About Life

Being a housecleaner was the best lesson of all.

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Orange Gloves Scrub Floors
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I’ve had my share of menial jobs since my first one in high school as a waitress at a chili café, and each gig taught me something different. Waitressing taught me patience and great people skills, especially with cranky customers.

After finishing college with a degree in Creative Writing, I had a night job as a telephone operator on an old-fashioned switchboard (think Lily Tomlin from Laugh-In). I discovered something new about myself — that I worked best under pressure and could juggle 13 plug-in call lines at once, faster than any of my coworkers.

I'd all but given up on a career in writing since my field of expertise was poetry, and no one was eager to hire an aspiring poet. So, I took a job at a dental office as a receptionist/assistant. There I discovered I had exceptional organizational skills. But I also realized that handling people suffering from terrible tooth pain and frightened about dental work was emotionally draining. It did, however, teach me compassion and patience for people with severe phobias about dentists, which is a lot of people! I got married, had four children and my decision to be a stay-at-home mom meant that we struggled financially.

Since I couldn't afford day care, I worked several in-home jobs: cosmetic catalog sales; cooking and delivering dinners to busy families; and briefly running a baking business out of my kitchen. After managing dozens of phone lines at once as an operator, I was definitely prepared for the task of balancing cooking and childrearing.

When my sister needed a house cleaner, I offered to do the job for the extra cash. From there, I found more clients, and I became a full-time maid before I knew it. I loved the flexible schedule, but with the job came the stigma of doing something many people considered a low-status occupation.

Despite the negative perception surrounding the job, in May 2021, 723,430 people in the United States were employed as domestic housecleaners, more than 85 percent of them female. Being a maid opened my eyes to the gritty reality of menial labor jobs. Housecleaning was, for the most part, a thankless occupation that earned little respect and a woefully low salary for the hard work it entailed. When I told people I cleaned houses for a living, I noticed an immediate shift in their demeanor and even noticeable disdain.

I cleaned for 12 years but have zero regrets since it gave me the tough skin I needed, and the realization that it didn’t matter what others thought of me. There was nothing more humbling than being on my knees and scrubbing someone else’s dirty toilet.

I worked hard and was proud of it. When I finished cleaning, I felt accomplished, knowing I left a spotless house for my client to come home to. The job also gave me a sense of empowerment for being able to contribute financially to our household. It wasn’t a glamorous occupation, but my husband and children appreciated my work ethic.

I also had an unvarnished view of how others lived when I was a maid. From empty liquor bottles hidden under sinks, to stacks of bill collection notices on a greasy kitchen counter, to furry handcuffs hanging from a bed’s headboard, I was privy to it all. But my clients trusted me to keep their secrets, and I did — even in homes where I saw unspeakable filth.

Some of my older clients lived alone and simply wanted company. They’d follow me around, chatting as I cleaned. One wealthy client I worked for lived behind a gated mansion on the water. One the first day, she handed me a small linen cloth and three sheets of paper towels that she painstakingly tore from the roll and told me that was all she could spare. When I stepped into her luxurious mirrored bathroom that was larger than the whole first floor of my house, I felt the anger bubble up in my throat.

Another time, she had me organize dozens of used and mangled gift bows. When I questioned the purpose of saving disposable bows, she explained that she’d been raised poor and often went without food. Although she was now in her seventies, the concept of saving things was an ingrained habit. Hearing this, I realized how wrong it was to assume things about people with wealth. Everyone has a backstory and has faced — or faces — some sort of struggle. It took a long time to get here, but I'm finally following the career path I could only dream of when I was young. Writing full time is the most rewarding work I've done, but I’m very appreciative of the variety of jobs that came before it. Cleaning up after other people during my maid days was especially an eye-opener that gave me tremendous respect for those who do this physically challenging job every day.

I also learned that nothing is more valuable than having a solid work ethic and giving your best to others. Menial jobs may not pay a fortune, but the character traits I've gained are priceless: resilience, independence and deep gratitude for the simple gifts of my family and health that bring me joy every day.

As for my own house, it is rarely as tidy as the ones where I worked as a maid.

What was your very first job? Let us know in the comments below.

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