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More women, exhausted by trying to do it all, are hiring ‘household managers’

T.J. Quirk, a home operations manager, runs through paint options with Heather Murphy at the Murphy family home in Acton.
T.J. Quirk, a home operations manager, runs through paint options with Heather Murphy at the Murphy family home in Acton.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

Does the term “household manager” conjure images of a deferential butler or a sour-faced woman in a starched apron methodically throwing away wire hangers? Think again.

For some busy middle-class families, tired of trying to do it all, a house manager is becoming an essential tool in the arsenal. Mind you, these aren’t the kind of assistants that a Silicon Valley mom advertised for in January, a job description that went viral for requesting an aptitude for vegan meal-planning, skiing, calisthenics, Excel spreadsheets, and vacation organizing based on children’s developmental levels. No, these people just want some help folding the laundry.

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Waltham-based caregiving platform Care.com, widely known for its nanny postings, says that housekeeping jobs posted by families nearly doubled in 2019 to 14 percent of its listings. The company now outlines the manager role, highlighting its administrative nature and specialized requirements, such as meal planning and home maintenance.

Real estate agent Heather Murphy of Acton hires home operations consultant T.J. Quirk (business motto: “restoring the peace in your home and life”) to prep healthy meals for her three kids and to assist with renovations on her home. A single mom of three — “and there’s no such thing as 9-5 hours as a realtor,” she says — Quirk plays a crucial role in Murphy’s family dynamic.

“I have a choice every day: Do I want to spend an hour [on chores] or do I want to be at my kids’ soccer game or volunteering at school? I can create time by giving that job to someone who’s good at it,” she says. “These jobs exist for a reason.”

These women — and, mind you, it’s women doing the hiring — aren’t leaning in or leaning out. They’re leaning on others to preserve peace of mind.

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“Women are starting to realize that to get ahead they need to delegate to other people and that it’s OK and acceptable,” says Danni Lerner, a Medford-based personal concierge.

Many clients call Lerner — a former doula with a master’s degree in child development — a “second wife.” She charges $65 per hour to make kids’ lunches, do laundry, plan vacations, and organize closets. She launched her business two years ago, seeing a growing need for those services. Most families hire her for a couple of hours per week, but she also offers a retainer arrangement of 40 hours per month at $2,000.

“Women who hire me can feel much more productive in their own life, in business and family, if they can offload some of this onto someone else," she says. "I’m a clone of you. We all wish we could be in two places at once, but we can’t.” (Lerner also has a young child and admits that some of her own household chores fall by the wayside, despite a supportive spouse.)

“The market has opened up wider. People always thought of this as a luxury. People are now realizing that it’s attainable and accessible,” she says.

For some. Sixty-five dollars an hour is a hefty price tag — unaffordable even for many middle-class families. Tellingly, several women interviewed for this piece asked to remain anonymous. They didn’t want to be perceived as wealthy, saying that they grew up without such help and sometimes still can’t believe someone now does this stuff for them.

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But for those who can afford it, the manager lightens a mental load. In a world where women still perform the majority of household tasks and work full time, it can be an essential business strategy to find someone who can run errands, drive the kids to practice, help with homework, or leave a meal in the fridge. A 2019 Gallup poll found that women are still more likely to do laundry, clean the house, prepare meals, grocery shop, wash dishes, pay bills, care for children, and plan family activities.

Kathryn Beaumont Murphy, a mother of two and a longtime Boston attorney who now works in Philadelphia, was pulled aside by an older female colleague when she began work at a new firm.

“My very first week at my Boston law firm, the most senior female partner came in and said, ‘Let me give you a piece of advice: Outsource everything you can possibly outsource. You need to hire a household manager,’” she recalls. “You can’t get to where you want to be in your career if you don’t do that. I’d have a lot more money — and I know people who make daycare work — but I wouldn’t have the bandwidth to be where I am professionally [without one],” she says.

Liberating though it may be, there’s a nagging sense of “who, me?” guilt that comes with hiring someone for such a role, these women say. The guilt is partially inflicted by a society that still prizes the ideal of doing it all and doing it well.

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“It’s only in this country that we expect families to do everything themselves [with the demand of parenting more every decade], run a career, be a volunteer, be a great ever-present parent and a meticulous housekeeper at the same time, all in the context of an isolated nuclear family. It’s a ludicrous set of expectations that essentially set people up for failure,” says Robin Schoenthaler, a longtime Boston-area physician who has mentored many younger doctors.

Somerville’s Jessica Peterson, a tech startup veteran, wrestled with hiring a household manager (though she also employs a house cleaner, which she says people bristle less about).

“One of the things that I went through is, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so privileged.’ I’m a middle-class kid. We didn’t have this help growing up. How do I deal with this guilt of doing this?" she says. “But you’re giving women jobs, and you’re helping another family to make ends meet by using somebody’s services. If you’re paying people a good, decent, living wage, you can create meaningful work for other people and create a local economy.”

Peterson cofounded Pepperlane, a community platform that launched in 2017 to help women start their own businesses. She sees an uptick in women interested in becoming household managers, as well as women who need the service, noting that market research shows that women in their 30s are more likely to outsource.

“It would make life easier and better, so why not?" Peterson asks. “As a company, we’re trying to change this perception of guilt and this feeling of, ‘Oh, I don’t deserve this. I can’t spend money on this. I’m not good enough. I have to do it all myself’ — all these horrible lies that we tell ourselves and that are told by society.”

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Peterson practices what she preaches: She now works with Lerner, who comes twice per week for a few hours per day to fold laundry, make lunches and beds, and coordinate service providers like plumbers. Peterson spends roughly $200 per week on the service.

“Nobody wins if you’re stressed out and beyond the brink. You’re mean to your kids, you’re mean to your husband, and your husband’s mean to you. … For people that can afford it, I don’t think it’s something to feel guilty about. I think that it’s something that can really help, especially women, unfortunately, to do their best work, whatever that is,” she says.

Quirk, who studied to be a social worker, charges roughly $75 per hour. She calls her company Rise Up Home Consulting, and it’s aptly named.

“Everyone is so stressed. My tagline is, ‘Restore the Peace,’” she says.

Many clients — again, women — call her because they simply don’t want to fight with their spouses about household chores. It’s a shift from her own Generation X childhood, Quirk says, when DIY was de rigueur.

“My customers say, ‘I don’t trust my husband to hang these pictures, quite honestly. But I don’t want to start a fight,’” she says, not entirely joking.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.