Sunday, November 13, 2011

Housekeeper, Interrupted

I have been married for fifteen years. I have been a stay-at-home mom for eight years. If I count from the time I gave up on the PhD, my profession has been "housewife" or "homemaker" for five years.

And I am really, really bad at it.

I am a good cook and a good mom. I don't doubt those things, for the most part, except on emotional-trainwreck days, and we all have those. But the homemaking and housekeeping part of this life? I consistently stink at it.

In terms of career, if I had worked part-time and then full-time at the same job for fifteen years and the end product were this bad, I would feel obligated to look for a different job. Clearly this is not the one I am suited for.

I have friends who keep very clean houses and I often wonder how they do it. After a moment's consideration I usually remember that one or both of these things are true: 1) they have fewer than four kids at home or 2) they don't read books.

Maybe I am maligning those friends. Maybe they clean furiously without rest for eight hours each day and still take an hour to read Proust in the evening (full disclosure: I have never read Proust either). But when I compare my home to theirs (which, I know, is a deadly stupid thing to do - no good can come of it), it is slightly mollifying to remember that the things I would have to give up to be that tidy are things I would never be willing to give up.

But. But, but, but...

I am still really bad at this. My kitchen is always cluttered and seems to always have cocoa ring stains on the counter. For days at a time, my floors are actually crunchy. My mom-in-law, who is a lovely and generous person, always makes the place more orderly when she visits, and always does it without (verbal OR non-verbal) comment, though I am sure it must exasperate her (another full disclosure: her son, to whom I am married, is even worse at tidiness than I am, so clearly sometimes it skips a generation). My own mother refuses to go into my basement because the tasks to be done there overwhelm and depress her, and she often gives me gentle pep talks about how I need to address certain chores immediately and regularly so they don't pile up and feel too big to ever finish.

I clean, of course. We could not function if I didn't. When I wrote up my NaNoWriMo schedule, I became aware of how much I clean. I don't rest much. My kids get very excited if I sit down before evening reading time. But while I do enough to keep us clothed and relatively non-germy, it is not enough to be tidy. Here I am at 39, a decided lackluster performer at my chosen career. Maybe the house will be cleaner when all the kids are in school, but only if I never homeschool, and part of me still holds on to that dream. And I am wondering what comes next.

What about you? Are you of the cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness school? If you could give up cooking or cleaning, which would it be? How does the state of your home affect your life in general?


  1. I am a binge housekeeper/housewife. I will go for days on end, barely getting the dishes washed and dinners cooked, while I focus on a particular project (projects are to me what books are to you-- gardening, home deco, sewing, etc). And then, project finished, I spend the next few days swooping down on every spilled drop of water like an avenging fury, washing the children's clothes before they even take them off, and generally behaving like a Martha Stewart on speed...

    Balance, shmalance.

  2. I am really sensitive to my physical environment so keeping things picked up and relatively clean is an exercise in self-care in many ways. For me, "picked up" is more important than "actually clean", but both can leave me feeling stressed out and unhappy. For home to be a peaceful, calm place for me to be, I have to invest the time/energy to keep things tidy. I think it does mean I make trade-offs; I will pick up a room or vacuum before sitting down to sew or read.

    That being said, I would definitely give up cleaning before cooking. I do not enjoy cleaning at all (necessary evil, in my book), while I love to cook.

  3. Anonymous11/13/2011

    I could have written this post, except for the Ph.D. part and having been a SAHM for only three years. I wonder daily how I can have been in continual motion all day - with the exception of sitting down to nurse a baby - and still have seemingly accomplished nothing.

  4. Anonymous11/13/2011

    I could have written this post with the exception of the Ph.D. stuff and having been a SAHM for only three years. I often come to the end of a day, completely exhausted, and wonder how I could have been in continuous motion all day and still have seemingly done nothing.

  5. I am not a good housekeeper, not when I was a SAHM or now that I am working full-time. I worry that the kids will think cleaning is something you do sporadically, usually when you have guests coming over.

  6. My housekeeping skill level comes pretty close to yours. But this doesn't mean you're a bad homemaker. I found that when I made and--for a few weeks--kept resolutions to keep a tidy house, the family was not happier. I drove them crazy, in fact. Because children and husbands cannot see most of the dirt and disorder that the cleaning maniac mother can see. But they can taste good cooking, and be enchanted by the read aloud times, and have a million happy memories of a comfortable (if not clean) home, and of all the family activities that you, the mom, have staged for them. As you already mentioned, the things you'd have to give up to have a clean house constitute the good stuff.

  7. I used to keep a clean house.

    And then I got busier.

    Now the house is a disaster, and I wish I could tell you that I don't care, but I do. A lot.

    I am totally depressed by the state of the house, to be honest.

    (No one else in my family cares even slightly.)

  8. Currently my kitchen looks as if someone went through our cabinets and dumped everything out onto the counters and then filled up the sink. Yup. That bad. I am an awful housekeeper, even before 3 kids I could never quite get the hang of it. I am getting better with each child, however I"m not willing to have the 20 that would be necessary to make me a good housekeeper.

  9. I have to be honest and say that I am a little obsessive about keeping my house clean, and at this stage in life it is the thing I wish I could change about myself! I feel frazzled when the house is torn apart, but with small children how can the house be anything but? I really, really wish I knew how to turn that switch off and carve out more time for reading and writing . .. or better yet, playing with my kids!

  10. I wrote this post while I was at the coffee shop, and when I came home I found that on my husband's watch, my three year old had gotten into the flour and left powdery evidence on counter, floor, chair and inside my husband's coffee cup. Exhibit A.

    Daria, I see your point. The only time I tried fanatically to keep the house clean was when we were trying to sell it, and I was a pretty awful mother for a while. My fuse was reeeeeaaaally short.

    Slouchy, I wish I didn't care either. This post is evidence it bothers me.

    Jessica, I hadn't thought about tidy people wishing they could be content with a little more untidiness. I was thinking dark, competitive thoughts instead, which is never good. But you're right - there can be something freeing about being able to live this way.

  11. Like lifemoreabundant said, I could have written this minus the PhD part! Ok, so I have only been a full-time SAHM for less than a year...but I already knew I was a lousy housekeeper before I had a baby. Like Julia, I am sensitive to my environment, and place more importance on tidy than clean...but I am also terribly prone to lethargy. I could never give up reading books, and I spend a wee bit too much online.

    I find that when I try to clean when I feel averse to it, I am very inefficient. Also, resentment builds within me towards my husband, my parents, my life, and the inanimate objects in my home. Ridiculous, but true, and so it is usually not worth it for me to force myself to clean. Instead, I try to use that time to be productive in other, writing, exercising, catching up on relationships, etc.

    Luckily, about once a week, if not more, I get a burst of energy and efficiency, and I am able to get everything in order. If only it could stay that way because I genuinely LOVE a clean, tidy, orderly home.

  12. I cannot think straight in the midst of clutter, though real cleaning is something I rarely do. We have 4 kids aged 5 and under, three of whom I am nursing. In order to cope, we've gotten rid of almost everything, even *gasp* some books. Kids must pick up and put away all toys before each meal or they don't eat (they don't have many toys, which frees their imagination and makes putting away quick). I do very short bursts of cleaning/tidying activity, primarily washing up the dishes in the kitchen and wiping down the kitchen counters after each meal and before I sit down to nurse. I also do spot cleaning when someone pees or drops oatmeal on the floor. When I take a shower, which is twice a week, I use my wash cloth to wipe down the bathroom sink before I throw the wash cloth in the wash. What I have described is all the cleaning I do. Though I do mop the floors annually, and I clean the toilet prior to having guests.

  13. I am not a domestic goddess by any stretch of the imagination. I hate to cook, I can't sew, yada yada yada. My house is almost never spotless (4 kids, a full-time job and a side gig teaching piano one night a week) but it stays relatively picked up, mostly because I involve my three oldest kids in keeping it that way.

    Once an evening we have a 10 minute pick-up where I set the timer and we run around like crazy picking up the kitchen/living room/hallway/family room. They actually sort of enjoy trying to beat the clock (yes, I have them brainwashed).

    They are also responsible for keeping their rooms clean and for helping to fold/hang-up their own laundry. Every night I dump at least one load of clean wash onto the couch and we all sit and fold it together. It only takes a couple of minutes with everyone helping. My husband does the dishes every night. We all help clear the table. I clean the rest of the kitchen every night and sweep/vacuum/wipe whatever needs it. I clean the bathrooms once a week.

    I am just supremely thankful that my kids are old enough to help out now (7, 8, and 10) (the 2 year old is useless though ;>) and that they do it without much resistance. They really are a huge help. If it was JUST up to me I would sink under the collective weight of the filth, I just know it.

  14. I can so relate. I am a rotten housekeeper. I have a certain sense of decorating style, but not much. However, things were really bad when I was a SAHM to little kids. They're better now. I'm still not a good housekeeper but I am better than I used to be.
    My advice: make your kids do chores--esp in visible places. I make mine do the kitchen every night. Also, you are prob doing more cleaning than you realize you are. You will continue doing this as the kids gets older and slightly less messy. So by the time your kids are teens, they'll be cleaning the kitchen every night and your house will be fairly clean because you get accustomed to doing a certain amount of cleaning while they're little and you keep doing it. This is what I did and while my house isn't clean if you look in the corners, it's relatively unembarrassing these days. Hang in there! There is so much more to life than a spotless environment!

  15. I, too, was a terrible housekeeper.

    Try Flylady It's hokey, but it works. There are many, many tips testimonials about involving your children. It helps them and you.

    You may scoff at first but just doing a couple of things daily (shiny sink: the goal is to keep the sink empty; and making your bed in the a.m.) can give you such a lift that you'll be encouraged to modify your movements around the house to expand on this. And- I'm now addicted to "decluttering." Even if you don't ever get to the point of "flying" (in her words) your life will be much, much better. I speak from experience.

    Mind you, as I recall my mother kept a beautiful house with 5 kids by banning us from most parts of it most of the time. Most repeated parental directive? "Go play outside." Then she went for her Ph.D. and hired a 3-day a week Mexican grandma to keep house and watch us. O! the halcyon days.

  16. Anonymous11/16/2011

    If ever you write a book, keep this style. It is real but beautiful. Well done.

  17. I hired a housecleaner. I have three boys under four, and one is five months old, and I have an incurable addiction to books and blogs and words. I will read ANYTHING. I have learned I have to make time for quiet, introspective time and for reading or I will go crazy, which is worse than going broke. I think.

  18. Yes. This post reminds me of all the reasons why I love you as a blogger. And how come I just BARELY found out that you were back to blogging? I feel like I've wasted MONTHS!

    I'm not a great housekeeper either, but I will second using the built in slave system of parenting. I have four (#5 will be born next week!) kids eight and under, and they CAN do some chores. My six year old cleans toilet bowls (not perfectly, but better than nothing, which is what happens when I'm in charge of that job), my dishwasher gets unloaded (lots of stuff gets left on the counter for me to put away, but again, better than nothing).

    But I think really you've hit the nail on the head: sometimes (most times) I'm not a great housekeeper because I've CHOSEN SOMETHING ELSE to do instead. Something that clearly means more to me than absolute order and tidiness.