Published On: November 26, 2013

Brazil Family Life Changes

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Adriana de Rezende Fereira accepts that her husband will never separate light clothes and dark clothes when he does the laundry. He turns on the washing machine, and that’s more than most Brazilian women can expect. She accepts that he will never iron because he cleans the bathroom sometimes.

However, the thing that drives her crazy is the way she must praise him when he washes the dishes without her asking. “I have to say things like, ‘Nice job! You hung up your towel!’ Because it’s just like with kids: You have to say ‘good job’ so that they keep doing it,” said Adriana, 33, about her husband Roberto, 34.

Their marriage may sound troubled, but in fact this Rio family is doing better than many others in facing a crisis that is erupting in the middle class: More women are working outside the home than ever before in Brazil, and the result is strenuous negotiations in thousands of marriages. 

While the standard of living is rising rapidly with the growing middle class in Brazil, the education system still lags behind, thus the Brazilian school day is still only half a day. Children attend school in the morning or afternoon and then generally, are home for half the day. This half-day schedule starts with kindergarten and grammar school and continues all the way through high school graduation. An additional burden on parents in Brazil is the lack of home-based daycare or public childcare, and what exists of private daycare is very expensive.

Most significantly, in the past, the responsibility of caring for children at home for half the day was left in the hands of maids who functioned as nannies, even among mothers who were housewives and not working. However, now the government has passed new legislation capping the hours maids and nannies can work and mandating overtime pay after eight hours, which has left many in the Brazilian middle class unable to afford the help they typically had to cook, clean, and watch the kids.

It’s one of many ways that daily life in Brazil is being rapidly remade. The economy has grown at dizzying rates over the past decade, creating millions of new jobs. The Brazilian government has harnessed some of that new wealth to fund an array of social welfare schemes, trying to narrow the gulf between rich and poor. Brazil’s rich are still resplendently rich, but its poor are less poor, and those in the middle class are finding that the lifestyle they had been accustomed to is changing faster than they can cope. 

The revolution in Brazilian society is occurring not only with a middle class who can no longer afford full-time maids and nannies. The growth of the lower middle class is altering the social dynamics of the country as well. As if this fundamental reorganization of society weren’t enough, the advent of women working outside the home is affecting gender relations. Women’s roles are changing inside and outside the home, and Brazilian men are desperate for answers.

The domestic worker legislation came into force last March although Congress has yet to agree on many of the specifics, such as what pension, if any, a domestic worker should receive. But even in its embryonic form, this new law has helped precipitate a seismic upheaval. The popular perception is that if a maid or nanny must be paid minimum wage (802 reais/month or U$350 in Rio) plus about another $100 in pension and health insurance, this is going to be too expensive. “We can’t afford that,” says Adriana, who was paying 600 reais before the law. 

In fact, economist João Pinho de Mello notes that Brazil’s rates for domestic work are still low compared to most other OECD countries. But because people are used to paying so little for full-time service, they perceive the new rates as unbearable. “You hear middle-class people talking about this constantly now,” he said.

As a consequence of the higher wages, many Brazilian couples have cut back on their domestic help and are struggling to cope. “I work all day, I come home, I cook, I clean, I put the kids to bed, and maybe once a week my husband orders pizza, so that’s his share,” said Tania Alvares, 38, a corporate lawyer. “He knows there’s no maid any more. But he’s a Brazilian man, so hell will freeze before he mops something.”

Natalia Fontoura, who co-ordinates research on gender equality at the Institute for Research in Applied Economics, said the data show that Brazilian women do 27 hours of housework for each 10 done by their husbands. “We’ve been collecting data for a dozen years, and in that time we have seen very little change. There has been a very small reduction in the amount of hours women dedicate to their homes over the past decade, but no increase in the time men are contributing to domestic duties.”

The Brazilian consumer market is adapting swiftly to meet this new demand. There are more labor-saving household devices for sale, for example dishwashers and clothes dryers are a new trend. In the supermarkets, there are more prepared foods available. The government says it wants to provide more daycare, and to extend the school day, but most schools do two shifts a day, morning and afternoon. Therefore, to keep children in school all day would require doubling the number of schools and teachers, which would mean an enormous investment by state and federal governments.

Private daycare centers, once rare in Brazil, are popping up everywhere in response to the trend in working mothers and higher wages for maids. At the Lagoa Education Centre in the Jardim Botanico neighborhood of Rio, enrollment for toddlers doubled when the new school year started and now there is a waiting list. Elizabeth João Soto, the director, said mothers arriving to enroll new children always “make a little speech” about how they think the daycare environment will be more stimulating than leaving the kids at home with “a stranger”, but she suspects the real reason is the new professionalization of domestic work.

The Brazilian middle class got used to what economist Mr. de Mello calls a distorted domestic configuration: A middle-class couple where only the husband worked often had a full-time, live-in maid plus a full-time nanny. Upper middle-class couples would also have another helper on weekends, a driver, and a membership at a posh private sports club.

“When my brothers and I grew up, we never ironed our own clothes, or made our own cup of coffee. We could have done it when we were grownups, but we just would never think of it,” Adriana said. Brazilian families have for decades taken for granted the services of maids and nannies and gardeners.

In 2008 Adriana’s husband, Roberto, a musician, landed a job with Cirque de Soleil and the couple, with their one-year-old son João, moved to Montreal without their maid. Soon they were observing other Canadian families, with Adriana whispering to her husband, “Look! He’s clearing the table!”

Roberto admits his wife does more in the house than he does, but he believes he’s carrying a fair share of the domestic workload. “I definitely do more than I used to; I got used to doing more in Canada,” he said. Back living in Brazil, he observes his Brazilian friends are doing more than their fathers did. And, intriguingly, he says his male friends don’t talk about the extra work they are doing, while Adriana says her female friends constantly complain about all the housework.

Adriana insists they will raise their two children, João and baby Alice, to be self-sufficient, and she expects this next generation will be different. But her own? “It’s hopeless.” Her husband stands out among their friends for his willingness to clean, she says. Then she adds with a smile, “We had only been back in Brazil for two weeks, and I found him on the phone trying to hire a maid.”

[This article was written by Stephanie Nolen for the Canadian website, The Globe and Mail. It has been edited and supplemented by CIE.]

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  1. I am moving to Brasil next year … looks like I will be popular with professional women ! I am not a “mama’s boy” ; I chop wood and cook, clean dishes, toilets, and windows.

    I’ve come to understand the maid thing : historically part of a family, a team with well defined roles. But whenever I visited friends in Brasil, I noticed myself getting lazy and maybe a little crazy ; here in the US our chores are almost therapeutic diversions.

    Change happens and domestic chores should be shared, but I hope Brasil continues to acknowledge a woman’s innate gift to raise children, raise a family … maybe the reason why maids in Brasil have traditionally been women.

    Ordem e Progresso

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