$orry For Your Lo$$: Is It Okay to Be Sad About No Longer Having a Housekeeper?
Written by Laura Oviedo-Guzmán
This past summer, I took a “Loss, Grief, and Bereavement” class with much-loved professor Jason Solowoniuk. I learned so much about grief, how we stifle it in our society, the awareness it can provide when approached with respect and curiosity, and, most importantly, anyone can feel grief over any loss. I used to think that grief was only supposed to be felt when someone became ill or passed away, pets included. Although I’ve felt grief over losing something, I didn’t think it was “allowed,” and therefore, I never allowed myself to participate in mourning. I repressed it because I felt like I had no right to feel sad over, for example, missing life the way it was in my home country, Colombia, where my parents’ jobs allowed them to hire domestic support for some tasks, including childcare and laundry. Although I felt icky about longing for a life bolstered by precarious labour, I found some solace and humour on TikTok, where in early 2022, a particular trend took root. The trend consists of people who I will refer to as FPP (which stands for “formerly privileged people”) for brevity. The FPP makes videos with text that reads something like “when you grow up in [home country] with maids, drivers and then you moved to [developed part of the world] and now you have to do everything yourself” to an edited version of Disney’s Sofia the First theme song. My first introduction to this trend was a video created by TikTok user kevinjozapata. Essentially, these creators lament the loss of the comforts of the life they left behind when they migrated.
It seems like soon after the initial movement took root, a counter-trend emerged. Creators with opposing views were making videos under this sound–the aforementioned edited theme song–criticizing the trend and the creators by voicing sentiments along the lines of “it’s hard to feel sorry for people who participated in the exploitation of others” or “finally the bourgeoisie gets a taste of the daily tasks the proletariat have to complete on a daily basis.” Comments left on the trend-aligned videos, the ones created by FPP, ranged from a shaming “why would you ever admit to this” or “this is not the serve you thought it would be.” Some responses were as succinct as a creator flipping their middle finger behind a brick of text. The sense of injustice and disdain for exploitation expressed by these creators in response to the original videos is perfectly understandable. But, I asked myself, am I supposed to feel sorry that a “poor little rich person” can no longer have servants? Personally, no. I recognize that nobody will be life-threateningly worse off if their undergarments are not iron-pressed. Nevertheless, there persisted a tension in me, a point of friction between my experience as a relatively-privileged person in my home country, my current reality as an immigrant in Canada, and what these participants of the counter-trend were saying.
My discomfort does not arise from a place of disagreement with the objective truth that domestic support is an exploitative practice, especially in “developing” countries like my own. People who work in these positions give up their time and well-being to raise other people’s kids instead of their own or beautify a space that isn’t their home. They are disproportionately prone to musculoskeletal injuries due to the nature of their jobs, according to the UCLA Labour Occupational Safety & Health Program. They work through these injuries out of financial obligation since there is no safety net for their employment. Although these findings were specific to domestic workers in California, it is not inappropriate to extrapolate them to the domestic worker populations in other countries, given the precarious and vulnerable position in which these workers are worldwide.
I’m not here to launch an apologist campaign for the FPP or the kafala system, which inadvertently offers many sponsors in countries like Qatar the opportunity to abuse their domestic workers by withholding payment or passports with little legal repercussions. My aim with these words is not to guide you to a particular opinion–I respect your judgement too much, dear reader. I want to help you foster what the Loss, Grief, and Bereavement class helped me: curiosity about uncomfortable topics, such as mourning the loss of domestic workers following migration. Together, we can dig deeper and consider what this specific loss signifies. We can also learn that grief is not exclusive to death, nor should we believe and behave in a way that reflects the wrongful idea that sadness needs to be reserved solely for the loss of good or benign things. I’m here to invite you to get a little uncomfortable for the sake of growing wiser and, maybe even less reactive.
Why Should I Care That Formerly Privileged People Can’t Afford Domestic Support?
Short answer: you don’t. I don’t, either. On a material (I’m talking about the labour domestic workers provide; I’m not equating the worker, a person, to material goods) level, I don’t have empathy that some people who have migrated no longer have people who clean their houses or nanny their children. However, on an emotional level, I do care because I conceptualize their sadness about no longer having domestic support in the larger context of the longing they have for their old life in their home country. In grief and loss studies, there are many distinctions where grief and loss are concerned. One of the distinctions is between primary and secondary loss. Primary loss is the core loss, like moving from one’s home country. Secondary loss is the changes that result from that primary loss, from moving countries. A secondary loss can manifest as a loss of income, loss of property, loss of hopes and dreams, loss of financial security, and loss of lifestyle. The idea of secondary loss stems from the fact that a loss doesn’t just create a single hole in one’s life, writes blog What’s Your Grief, and that a single loss can impact many other areas of one’s life. Although their explanation focuses on the loss as death, I believe losing something–like the life you lived and the labour of others who made it possible for you to live that way–is different but equally valid to grief.
Sometimes life isn’t better, or even on par, with life in one’s home country once one has migrated to the country where one is seeking a better life. I’ve borne witness to the post-migration stressors. I can’t say I’ve experienced them outside of being upset that Canadians tend to be less straightforward than what I’m used to. Still, I’ve seen how it affected my older relatives and family friends who moved to Canada, Spain, and the US. A few of the main points of contention are related to employment. Why is it so difficult to find a job in my field? They wonder if I have the accreditation and experience desired for this job. Often, as is the case for my father, they’re overqualified. Rhetorically speaking, why did it take so long for someone with a Ph.D. from one of the best schools in the world nearly half a decade to secure a job in their field? If my father had been born in Canada and had the same accreditations, he would have had a job that matched his qualifications and experience long ago. There’s great sadness with the realization that your education and experience are not valued in your new country as they were in your home country. And this differential appraisal of qualifications is often also reflected in people’s earnings.
You see, when one migrates, especially when migrating from a “developing” country to a “developed” one, one loses status in many ways. Since one’s value in the workplace often decreases under these circumstances, one’s earnings and financial security are also negatively impacted, affecting what kinds of commodities one has access to. It is tough to go from being nominated Dean of a faculty in whatever university you worked at pre-migration to dealing with bigoted higher-ups who believe you to be stupid because your English is accented in a way that signals that it’s not your mother tongue. I think many people who mourn the lack of domestic support they have in their new countries are not bummed about being able to exploit people, as many TikTok comments read. Rather, people are sad about losing the life they once led. Going from a position of greater financial security that could afford you more freedom (thanks to the ability to outsource domestic labour) to one where you have to negotiate between rest and having a house up to the standards that followed you to your new country is challenging. Again, I’m not trying to garner sympathy. Still, I ask you to understand that it is psychologically strenuous to uproot yourself and your family from a life you lived for decades to transplant yourself to a place where it is nearly impossible, at least, in the early years post-migration, to live a life that even remotely resembles the one you lived in your home country.
Our society stigmatises privileged people, understandably so. Society also scrutinizes grief as it dictates what and who we’re allowed to grieve, for how long, and how. Taking these two ideas in conjunction, it’s no surprise that some would reproach those who lament no longer having specific markers of wealth, like the ability to afford domestic support. Given the dual stigma this topic accrues, I think my request to understand how “psychologically strenous” transplanting oneself to a place where one is less privileged might be understood as very charitable, as in I might be met with a “why should I care that formerly privileged people can’t afford domestic support” on a good day. In light of this, I’m going to break it down to the most basic idea to see if I can help you reframe this topic. The statement is: that being sad about not having domestic support is rarely about not having domestic support, and it is specially not about being sad that someone can no longer exploit others; instead, this sorrow is about a more profound loss, and that is the loss of a way of life, social standing, and of financial security, and employability someone had in their home country. When people grieve that they no longer have someone who drives them, cleans for them, and cares for their children, they lament about leaving behind a life they knew for years. This dismay is a next-door neighbor to the grief felt about no longer living in the home you might have grown up in or raised children in when you still lived in your home country and might live across the hall from the sorrow you feel about leaving your family and old job behind. None of us are in a place to dictate when, what, who, or how someone should grieve, especially when it comes to topics related to migratory stress and migratory grief.
As I’ve learned, anyone can feel grief over any loss; as with any feeling, it does not abide by the same logic as cognitions. One can never effectively argue with someone about how they feel about something; trying to is useless, insensitive, and shaming. Even if the person is grieving what can be considered as a problematic loss rationally understand the arguments for why the structures that made it possible for them to have domestic support are unethical and dehumanizing, it doesn’t mean that they feel any different. Grief needs to be met with respect, acceptance, and curiosity. It won’t leave because you filter it through a social justice lens.
As I stated before, I’m not launching an apologist campaign for the formerly privileged. My aim with this text is not to dampen your critical thinking but rather expand it by urging you to remain curious about uncomfortable topics. I know our society looks down on sadness felt over stigmatised losses, like the loss of financial freedom and the domestic support it can afford. We’re not supposed to be unhappy that we no longer have housekeepers, but the truth is that some people will be sad that they can no longer outsource that labour to someone else. Whether these mourners and their voyeurs realize it or not, this grief is representative of so much more. Grieving the inability to have domestic support is a symptom of the more significant issue of having to move countries and renegotiate your place in the world, of leaving everything you knew behind to come to a country where you are likely not making as much money or working in a field or job that matches your education or abilities.
I may be being too generous about the Zoomers I observed making these kinds of videos on TikTok. Maybe they want to rub it in other people’s faces that they came from a life of privilege. I know people my parents’ age would never go on social media to ask for sympathy about not having someone to iron their drawls or drive them around. Still, I know that they sometimes voice their sorrows about this topic at home, privately, and in a less permanent way than a TikTok. With my background in counseling studies and being a migrant woman who came to Canada with her parents, even if these Zoomers are trying to flaunt their former privilege on TikTok, this does not bar them from grieving their former life. I believe that putting this content out there is a way for them to cope with the change that came with migrating elsewhere. I imagine that, like me, they’ve observed their parents’ tireless efforts to build a life that resembles the privileged life their families enjoyed in their home countries. These kids have probably seen their parents work jobs in their new country that in no way match the academic and professional achievements they attained in their homeland. Maybe they’ve seen their parents worry about things they never had to worry about before. Maybe these migrant kids have had to take on roles (domestic and in an active marketplace) that are out of line with their home culture’s expectations, which stay with you even after you’ve been in your new country for a long time. There is grief in that, and navigating grief is hard at any age, especially when you’re a child.
To finish off, I will echo two somethings mentioned many times before. Number one, I believe we need to work on being slower to anger, especially in the age of social media saturation. We are getting but a snippet of someone’s life, and with the meta and post-ironic streak found in today’s content, it’s best to offer the benefit of the doubt when coming across inflammatory content. Honestly, I don’t even advocate for the benefit of the doubt for the Zoomer creator who may be larping as a formerly privileged person. I advocate for the benefit of the doubt for you, dear reader, and your stomach lining because did you know that stress can increase your chances of getting stomach ulcers? If dampening our knee-jerk reactions can save our gut health, I think we should work on it.
Number two, this topic is a classic example of “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” I think it’s important to understand that in many “developing” countries (at least historically in Colombia), the ability to have domestic support isn’t a tip-off to being super well-off as it is here in Canada or the United States. Many working-class families hire domestic workers. One of the domestic workers my family hired had a domestic worker themselves. Understanding that domestic workers are not a signal of supreme privilege as it is here, it follows that people who do employ domestic workers are not in a position where they can abolish the system that perpetuates this kind of precarious labour. According to my observations, the leading reason people employ domestic workers in countries like mine is because they are busy working their jobs all day (sometimes upwards of 10 hours) and spend literal hours in traffic, leaving them little time or energy to look after their living space. Earnings in Colombia are not on par with what they should be, so people, whether working class or middle class (and the brief overlapping demographic), have to work very long hours to usually just break even. At least, that’s the way I observed it to be during my teen years in my home country.
Even if you still staunchly stand by your unempathetic approach to this topic, I would hope that you at least take away the idea that it’s essential to remain curious about grief, sorrow, sadness, and longing, even if it’s around a topic or person who society deems unworthy of these feelings. If nothing else, be curious about topics you might not know much about, and save your stomach lining.