Mental Health Informed Housecleaning: a Q&A with Self Care Housekeeping Owner Shanon Williams

We have used housecleaning services since 2006 or so, finding that having someone to do the ‘big jobs’ on a regular basis (for a fair wage) was very helpful for our relationship and lives. It was worth the financial sacrifice in our budget. We’ve worked with professional firms, under-the-table cleaners, friends, friends of friends, green cleaners, and more with mixed results.

When Ledcat and I decided to find a new housecleaning service this winter, I was referred by several people to Self Care Housekeeping. I wanted a company that was LGBTQ competent, reliable, and respectful of clients’ mental and physical health needs, including accommodations. I had worked with Shanon on a community project in the past, but we had never met face-to-face. We had an initial consultation online via Facebook Messenger and I scheduled her. She’s been to our home twice so far and both encounters have been positive.

I was deeply affected by the way she moved through my home. She asked questions and listened to me. She didn’t pop in earbuds or carry on a stream of conversation. She noted my sensitive areas and made a point to reassure me – I didn’t have to clean or organize for the cleaner, she said. We had an interesting conversation, but I felt like she was professional and set good boundaries around our many shared community interests.

Shanon has made me radically rethink my understanding of housekeeping (including cleaning) as a tool for social change and community building. It was more than simply being respectful of my preferences and constraints; she actively focused on how my space should reflect how I move through the world, not how others believe I should move.

I asked Shanon to do a Q&A with me to offer you insight into her business and business values. You’ll notice my questions are wordy, even for me, because this topic is so important to me.

Read to the bottom to access a special referral code!

Your Name: Shanon Williams

Your Pronouns: She/Her/Hers/They

Your Company Name and Role: Self Care Housekeeping; Founder/CEO

How do you describe your identity? The static parts are Black, female, woman, neuro-atypical, artistic, logical.  The fluid or malleable parts I’d say are disabled, oppressed, marginalized, invisible, traumatized.  I say these are fluid because they are wholly dependent on societal factors, which change all the time.  Some much slower than others, but changing, none-the-less.

How does housekeeping connect with self-care principles? Space plays such a huge role in our lives.  Like, a huge role. There are buildings, places, experiences many of us cannot engage in because of the physicality of the space.  It differs for everyone but it’s so real. When it comes to our space, it’s an extension of us. When our external space is in disarray to our liking, it causes stress.  Likewise, when we are in crisis internally, it makes it difficult to maintain our routines to keep up with our space. It’s cyclical and can be very difficult to come out of.  The state and function of my home is the litmus test for whether I am doing well or not.

When it comes to how we keep our homes, there are a lot of “shoulds” and social expectations. Two that come to mind are 1) our houses must be tidy and clear or we are failing somehow and 2) if we welcome people in spite of clutter or disorder, we are still accepting that standard and just choosing to turn a blind eye. Why do these expectations have such a hold on us? We are taught to clean and keep from very young ages and in our society, we are taught that a home is not clean unless it’s cleaned a certain way.  I think because we are all taught these rigid things and so early on and since space is something that anyone can spectate, the expectations drilled into us become a basis for judgment for others and a source of shame and anxiety for us when we aren’t able to or don’t feel good adhering to those rules.  What we are not taught is that everyone’s brains, bodies, and minds process differently and need/want differently. We are not taught how to spot when someone might be in crisis by the state of their homes. We’re taught to judge and put down. That’s not ok. I’m hoping to help change that narrative.

I would suggest all housekeepers and professionals who work directly with people for that matter, to complete a trauma-informed care course and mental health first aid.  I think that would give enough foundation for empathy and consideration that isn’t always inherent, even when someone means well.

Your approach is grounded in mental wellness, including an awareness that you should do no harm to the humans living in the home and touch base with them to reconcile the work. How does that play out and what does it mean for readers who are not familiar with the concepts? Mental wellness is priority.  To maintain focus on mental wellness during a visit, it’s a lot of checking in with the client and also myself.  Every step is in consideration of ‘can this be harmful?’ and ‘does this need to be cleared before you move forward’ even ‘this might make a loud noise, I should announce that this activity is about to start beforehand.’  It’s not uncommon for there to be some reservation with new clients because no one knows what to expect. I’ve found that this approach of constant communication creates an environment of safety and trust for everyone present or will be present in the home.  It also allows me to understand the needs and goals of the clients. By the end of the first visit, the initial anxiety melts away. It’s an awesome thing to experience and be a part of.

Toward the end of your first visit, you intentionally asked me about my experiences with trauma around housekeeping and my eyes welled up. I can trace my source of shame back to my childhood experiences, like many folks. But no one who has worked with us has ever intentionally acknowledged that I carry this with me and that it isn’t as simple as just keeping a cleaner house to heal that trauma. How does trauma-informed care influence your work? Well, that’s because I don’t work with the home.  I work with the head and heart through the home. In order to know what role I should play – what support looks like for each individual – I have to understand.  That happens differently for different people, but typically it happens through conversation – the initial conversation usually being the most descriptive. To be clear, I have not taken any official trauma-informed care courses.  I’m informed by my training at Pitt, work experience, and life. The way you talked about how you were treated through your home was an indication that there has been some harm there. When appropriate, it’s important for me to explore those experiences, because it will inform my actions and presence in your space.  Everyone is different, so it’s important to do quite a bit of tailoring. The easiest way of doing that is listening intentionally and apply the knowledge and language as guides to understand what the space really needs.

You and I spoke quite a bit about “clutter” and I’ve realized that I find it inherently harmful to equate “my stuff” with clutter, a negative term. It isn’t that I am simply comfortable with the clutter or disorganization or chaos, it is that I have made some deliberate choices about how I manage my stuff. In some cases, those choices are based on my disability (keeping our multiple pairs of scissors in a pen holder rather than a drawer so I don’t hurt myself when I reach into the drawer) and in others, they are based on pragmatic needs such as the bucket where we store pet tools or how we stack unread or partially read magazines and newspapers and newsletters. I *could* make other choices, but these work best for me. This is not clutter to me. Clutter is the holiday decor that needs to go upstairs into the attic, the unopened mail, the CDs and books I cannot cram into my storage spaces without a massive overhaul, the unfolded laundry, etc.  But most of the time all of this gets mashed up into one judgemental term. What are your thoughts on clutter and clutter shaming? Self Care Housekeeping’s core values are 1) function and 2) safety.  Whatever that means for our client is what it means for us. That’s why it’s so important to understand the head and heart space because function and safety don’t mean the same thing for everyone (like your description above).  Our role is to never shame or put down. Even when a person is not ready to meet the goals that they’ve set out for themselves – it takes a lot to face our homes head-on, sometimes. Sometimes, it takes a little longer and that is ok.  With everything else, everyone’s idea of what clutter is varies. Our role is to figure out what is clutter through the eyes of the client and figure out what our role is in healing that space.  We try not to inform too much on what works for us as individuals, because that might not work for the people we are working with.  However, some clients do request support through our lens for various reasons, so we adapt to either and all circumstances that do not violate ethical or safety boundaries.

We’ve been working with house cleaners for nearly 15 years. I find that even when we have the resources and flexible schedule, it can still be a struggle. One big issue has been meeting the needs of the cleaners – for example, one person insisted on scooping and changing the papers with a litter box because she could not abide it even though we did not want her to do that or to have anything to do with that space. Another organized my hair scrunchies without asking me which was super annoying. Another insisted we use the rule of 3 to prepare for her to work for us which doesn’t even make sense. If I’m paying you by the hour, how does it matter if I have 5 items for you to pick up and dust versus 3? I wonder if people drawn to this work tend to be folks who are minimalists, declutterers, organizers but not necessarily caretakers. I think almost every person we’ve had has made jokes about “being OCD” as job skill which is actually a bit offensive to me as a person with mental health diagnosis. And now it is a red flag for me. How can cleaners and organizers step up their mental wellness skills to offer more compassionate and effective supports to new clients? I cringed just as much reading this as I did when you told me about your experience.  I don’t want to express everything that I thought and felt of the matter, but it was certainly a shock.  I also don’t have a lens for housekeeping as a singular profession, so this may be my completely uninformed critique with regard to the profession.  My thought on this, unless these are skilled social service professionals, I would suggest all housekeepers and professionals who work directly with people for that matter, to complete a trauma-informed care course and mental health first aid.  I think that would give enough foundation for empathy and consideration that isn’t always inherent, even when someone means well.

It just a mantel with items that we want visible/displayed. It just needs to be dusted, not rearranged.

You mentioned to me that you experienced this need yourself which is how you started your company – you saw the gap in service. Please tell us about this gap and how your company is filling it? Are you available to train others? Sure thing.  A few years ago, I was diagnosed with “unspecified bipolar disorder.”  For me, this typically means that I either have way too much energy and talk really fast (lol) or I’m mild to moderately depressed (in my subjective unit of measure).  Sometimes, I can reach severe depression, but that doesn’t happen quite as often. When I’m depressed, I experience anxiety and lethargy. In these moments, in addition to my speech being affected because of the anxiety, I can’t tend to my home.  Like, I’ll know the dishes need to be washed, I’ll know that I know how to wash them, but I can’t bring myself to do them.  My diet goes from food to trash, I’m not keeping up with routine household things like paying bills, managing accounts, etc.  After I was diagnosed I had to figure all this out. I didn’t know what it meant to live with bipolar disorder because I’ve always lived with it.  So, I had to figure out when I was manic (super energized) and when I was depressed and what it meant, behaviorally for both. When I figured it out, I had to establish some safeguards for myself.  When I’m manic, I’m not supposed to start anything new. I’m supposed to wait until I’m down off of that manic “high.” I don’t always keep to that, but it’s the goal (lol.) When I’m depressed, I do things like switch to paper and plastic because I know I’m not washing dishes for a while.  Those things help, but I needed support. After searching with my social work hat on for a number of days, I couldn’t find anything that spoke to my needs with regard to cleaning, organizing and decluttering, nutrition, and keeping the ship in order (bills and such.) When I climbed out of depression and talking to a number of people to find that other folks have similar needs, I got started with forming Self Care Housekeeping.  I wasn’t manic at the time, I should add, though my therapist gave me the side-eye anyway lol.

Self Care’ is currently in a season of growth and training/certification has been in consideration.  I am not currently training, but that very well might be a possibility in the near future.

However, because our society tells us to value capitalism and devalue labor, here we are. I also think our relationship to home chores play a good role in that, as well. The idea that we should be the ones solely responsible for keeping house and when we do not or cannot, it means we have failed, especially if you are identified as female.  Those two things, I think, weigh heavy on us when it comes to paying for home service.

 

Housecleaning mental illness
Our supplies ready to go …

You have two price tiers, one where the client provides the supplies and one where you bring the tools and cleaning materials. It was a good fit for me to fill our bucket with the cleaners we prefer, the rags we prefer, make sure we had the dustpan and so forth ready not so much to save money but to assure our needs were met. Most cleaners do not have this flexibility. Why do you use it? I didn’t realize that wasn’t a common option lol. In the interest in being accommodating and should someone want to use specific products or their own, that the option was there.

Do you find that affordability is a barrier for people seeking supports? What would you suggest to someone who really needs support, but doesn’t have the budget to hire someone? Affordability is definitely a barrier.  I’m working on qualifying to become a provider with the Department of Human Services, but it’s a process.  In the meantime, I try to create some space for affordability. I offer a free hour of service for referrals and the person who referred them, run specials – that sort of thing.  It doesn’t solve the problem, but I’m constantly looking for more access points for service. Anyone who really needs the support, I’ve heard of some church groups that help with the home, though I’m unaware of who they are or their parameters.  They can still reach out to us and we can see what we can do. Everyone deserves access to mental wellness.

I’ve found that most cleaning services are priced in the $20-25/hour range which seems pricey but is also averaging out at about $40,000/year before supplies, equipment, insurance, mileage, taxes, and so forth. And it is important and can be physically demanding work. Does our collective unwillingness to pay a fair wage for this work say something about how we value the people who typically clean for us or about our mixed up notions about the importance of the work itself? Or both? I think it’s a mix of things.  Definitely the social devaluation of labor work, which is ridiculous.  You and I talked about that, I believe. I think you said something to the tune of ‘if your accountant doesn’t show up for work, life will go on, but if all the labor workers decide not to show up for work, we’d shut this show down,’ and truer words have not been spoken!  However, because our society tells us to value capitalism and devalue labor, here we are. I also think our relationship to home chores play a good role in that, as well. The idea that we should be the ones solely responsible for keeping house and when we do not or cannot, it means we have failed, especially if you are identified as female.  Those two things, I think, weigh heavy on us when it comes to paying for home service. It is very physically demanding work, but it can also be unsafe in many ways.  I was faced with a dilemma of safety and ethics, recently.

A person recently contacted us for services who is connected to the individuals who have targeted me in the recent past.  This person, to my knowledge, was not directly involved, but the mear request from them was triggering. I also considered the potential of more harm being done through working with them, even if I sent a care agent other than myself to service this particular client.  This is also a person reaching out because they need our services and my want is to provide what I know to be so necessary. This was a really difficult conjecture between my business, ethics, and personal safety. I do not subscribe to sacrificing personal safety and health in order to land a contract.  I think that goes back to the toxic thinking that labor workers are not valued and therefore do not deserve safety and consideration. I settled on enacting our “safety and confidentiality clause,” which is used to ensure the safety and boundaries for the care agent and company. Clients with this clause attached are required to pay an additional good-faith fee and sign an inverse confidentiality agreement (confidentiality is automatically ensured for the client when contracting with the company.)  The fee has the potential of being removed after some time to the discretion of the company, but I wanted to share this here because safety is such an important, under-represented thing. In my experience with and witnessing of violence from physical to social to mental and emotional, safety is rarely prioritized for the individuals before they become victims. Being that we operate in spaces as intimate as the home, understanding what safety is and what it looks like for both our clients and our staff is always mandated.  Though this clause will be a rare occurrence and require proof by the care agent that the potential for harm is present, this is the precedent that we are setting with Self Care Housekeeping, because we are valued and worth safety and protection as well.

So, yeah, a mix of things.

Please describe your full array of services and your service area?

Cleaning – spanning from light to detailed

Organizing & Decluttering – defined by your specifications and needs

Meal Prep – designing menus with recipes, meal prep, shopping, and complete meal delivery

Home Management – organizing for productivity in the home

Workshops – we explore the head/heart space in physical form.  It’s pretty dope.

Is there anything you’d like to add? Life doesn’t demand perfection, only intention.

Where can readers find you on social media?

Facebook: @selfcarehousekeeping

IG: @selfcarepgh

Thank you, Shanon. Thank you for sharing this space with us.  It means so much to be heard.

Be sure to visit the Self Care Housekeeping website for more information. 

And use referral code PGHLES to access 1 free hour when you book a 3 hour appointment. 

  • What a great interview! I’ve never heard of this kind of cleaning service, but I wish I knew of something like it in the Dallas, TX area. I would pay for cleaning if it involved the kind of sensitivity Shanon seems to exhibit.

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