Tuesday, September 06, 2016

house, work

1. tgif

A couple of Fridays ago, I came home from work, relieved AK of Dash duty, fed him, put him to bed and set to work cleaning the house while she caught her breath after a day of childcare. I picked up the remnants of the day’s Dash-nado: blocks, balls, plastic eggs, a floppy-limbed Angels monkey, a squeaky Lamb Chop that is actually a dog toy, multiple Wubbanub pacifiers, keys, clothes and so many books. He likes sitting in our laps while we read to him (and if I teach him to love reading my life’s purpose will more or less be fulfilled), but he also likes flinging the ones he’s not interested in from the shelves till he finds his favorites. He also likes stacking them on top his toy drum and occasionally drawing in them.

I changed the sheets on our bed and ran a Swiffer Wet cloth over the floors. I wiped down the sinks and toilets (it’s still weird to me to live in a house with toilets, plural) and did a couple of little extra things: dusted some floorboards and hung a picture. It gave me a high I can’t quite explain. First, cleaning on a Friday night meant I would get to wake up to a clean house on Saturday. When your child wakes you up every morning, you pretty much start each day running behind. I’ve tried to get up before him. I always fail. A clean house means you’re only a few paces behind instead of a mile.


Dusting floorboards and hanging pictures also communicated a couple of untrue but satisfying things to me.

1) Surely a person who was taking care of details like this must really have her shit together.

2) Maybe I hadn’t earned the money that paid for the house I now pseudo-owned, but look at me caring for it—I would earn this house I didn’t deserve one strip of moulding at a time.

Cleaning and organizing my physical surroundings makes my scattered brain feel more orderly. My mom cleaned the house when she was stressed out, and I am very much her child. I’ve been cleaning a lot lately because of the new house—because of the false moral equation in my head, but also because it cleans up a lot prettier than a bare-bones duplex with nine years worth of dust in the corners and a splotchy wall where the handyman didn’t match the paint right.

2. master of none

As I’ve cleaned, I’ve thought about cleaning. It’s something I spend a lot of time doing. You wouldn’t necessarily know this to look at our house. It’s a beautiful place, but mostly for reasons that have very little to do with me. I’m certainly no decorator (except on Polyvore, which is basically Fantasy Football for femmes). And while things are generally sanitary, generally orderly, it’s not hard to find boxes full of completely random objects—computer cords, vases, bundles of AK’s business cards, probably Dash’s toothbrush—and there are small tumbleweeds of cat hair under most of the furniture.

And yet I spend so much fucking time cleaning. I don’t hate it, but I certainly don’t love it—not like writing, or talking to my friends, or sex, or painting, or cooking. Or even exercise, which I don’t like all that much. But cleaning takes up more hours of my week than any of those things. If we could afford a house cleaner, it would probably make sense to hire one, but I take a certain amount of pride in doing what most healthy mammals and birds manage to do, which is maintain my little nest.


Does this mean that I’m more of an expert on cleaning than I am on writing? Have I logged the 10,000 hours necessary to achieve mastery? I still think I’m a better writer than housekeeper, for the simple fact that you can build on a piece of writing, and you can build on that skill, whereas cleaning is the same damn thing over and over. A woman’s work is never done, right? And when all the males in your house are either under the age of two or lack opposable thumbs (not to mention a work ethic), cleaning is a woman’s work.

There was a time when I would have said—with a mix of bitterness, pride and martyrdom—that I did more of the housework than AK, although she always took care of the yard. This hasn’t been true for a while. She still leads the charge in the yard, plus she does more of the laundry, mops the floors, takes out the trash, makes sure we’re stocked with toilet paper and paper towels, and probably some things I’m forgetting.

I imagine most middle class households have some variation of this life (rich people have help, poor people often have multiple jobs and probably don’t have much time to clean, although some make it a priority). But people don’t seem to talk about cleaning a lot. Because it’s boring? But we live in a world where people Instagram every meal, so “interesting” doesn’t seem to be a high priority for sharing.

I do see a few proud before-and-after pictures in my feed from friends who’ve tackled a particularly arduous garage or neglected basement. But it’s worth noting that these achievements more often fall under the banner of “home improvement” than “cleaning,” even if significant cleaning is involved. And home improvement is cool, right? It’s manly, sometimes glamorous. There are channels devoted to it. It takes money and strategy, and there is a reveal. Cleaning is just maintenance, and maintenance isn’t sexy.

3. “housework, if you do it right, will kill you.” –erma bombeck

Cleaning is part of the domestic sphere along with childcare, but while there is mommy literature and mommy blogs and mommy comedy, and all of the above may contain jokes about cleaning up after kids, there is no such genre as housework lit or housework blogs (unless you count those hack videos that show you how to make a phone charger out of a dish detergent bottle). Erma Bombeck, maybe?

Obviously raising children is more important and more interesting than keeping a tidy house, but since the two acts often inhabit the same physical space, I can’t help but think of them as competing for attention. I certainly feel the tension between the two. Lately I’ve been a little paranoid that I’m taking Dash for granted, letting him do his thing (throw his toy cars off the porch) while I do mine (pick up his toy cars). I have to remind myself that he is not dessert, to be enjoyed only when the broccoli that is laundry is done. He is the meal.


To parent a toddler is to surrender to chaos over and over. To clean the house is to swim against that current. I don’t think I’ve neglected Dash (so far) in any way that he’ll bring up to his therapist later in life, but I’d fare better if I could tell myself, Cool, we’re just gonna be covered in yogurt for a while. 

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Washing up is my continual nemesis - along with washing clothes. If I could only count the number of weekends I have spent washing clothes instead of doing ANYTHING that normal people do... I feel your pain.