Q&A: housecleaning

Deborah writes:

"How do people keep their houses clean? When I was a WOHM I had a housecleaner every 2 weeks and that was bliss. I also had the attitude that SAHMs had it so easy and their houses must be sparkling because they have so much time to do everything. Ha! Right. And now, guess what, I'm a SAHM and my house is disgusting. And I'm not kidding. I have a 6 month old and a 6 year old. It takes me forever to get going in the morning. The baby is at that stage where just having a shower and getting dressed are major achievements (and washing/drying long hair is equivalent to building the Taj Mahal). Then baby naps and I um, surf around because it's my only down time, or pay bills or whatever. But I don't clean because it seems so monumentally huge to get the cleaning stuff out and get on with it and you know, baby is bound to wake up just when your hands are full of bleach powder. So after nap we try to get out of the house for a bit, then it's lunch, then Older Son comes home at 2.30pm and needs attention. There's no way I'm going to clean when the kids are in bed. I get about an hour before I force myself to bed to get an entire 2 or 3 hours of sleep.

This may sound like a frivolous question but I sometimes feel like I am the only one of my friends who has a problem with housecleaning. They certainly seem to get the stuff done but when I ask them how, they just brush me off and don't have an answer. Am I just lazy? I know a few things are holding me back. 1) Feeling like I don't know "how" to clean as ridiculous as that sounds. How do you clean pale blond hardwood floors and not get them waterlogged? Is a Swiffer really evil? Things like that. 2) is it better to do one area or room in a lot of detail or is it better to do an entire floor (several rooms) on the surface? I think about this stuff way too much!

Housecleaning is such a HUGE stress in my life. I would love tips on just getting started, and then keeping it up, not getting overwhelmed, not surrendering but tackling it, how to do the most without spending too much time, and maybe some philosophy on whether this is even important in the first place."

Well, I am so not the person to ask about this. I am not good at cleaning, nor do I really understand the flow of cleaning. Without my cleaning lady, who comes every other week (and who I can't actually afford, but she can afford to lose the money I pay her even less) I think things would descend into a morass of dust bunnies and errant rubber wheels from assorted cars around here.

At this point I do feel obliged to recommend the book Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. It really is an excellent book, and explains how often you should be doing certain things and how to do them. I think every adult should have this book at home as a reference.

But, having said that, if you could buy a book and that would solve the problem,then every single one of us would be in great physical shape, too. All the references and knowledge in the world don't help if we're not actually doing it, whether it's housecleaning or exercising.

So the task is, I think, to do some digging around in yourself to figure out what your personal blocks are with cleaning, so you can then work on that and figure out how to motivate yourself to do it.

I might as well go into full disclosure mode here so you can see what I mean: My dad's depression, and mine as well, manifests itself in keeping clutter because that feels like having control over what's out of control (if that makes sense). During periods of depression, the clutter escalates. (Not to the level of the people on TV, but just unnecessary piles and lack of sorting and purging.) Then, when I was in an unhappy marriage, I couldn't even imagine trying to "make a home," so the mess was subconsciously deliberate. And I used clutter as a way to hide in plain sight, so I could be there on the outside but not really have to be there emotionally. As soon as my ex-husband moved out I started purging and getting rid of so many unnecessary things, and was starting to take some pride in my apartment (crappy as it is), but I am so unhappy in New York at this point and wishing desperately that I could move that the apartment feels like it's suffocating me.

I've realized that wanting and being motivated to keep a neat house are, for me, tied to feeling free to choose my own space and being happy with the direction my life is moving in. When I've felt that way, the cleaning just sort of happens (I've found myself with a scrub sponge in my hand and not even realized I'd planned on cleaning anything). When I feel trapped, I can't keep up.

[Well.  That was therapeutic. For me, at least.]

Another issue, at least in Deborah's case, is that a baby sucks up all your energy. All of it. So, unless you have a solid plan of what you're going to clean and the energy to stick to that, you will never clean because you're just to tired or fried.

Now, hypothetically speaking: IF you had no mental blocks that were preventing you from being motivated to clean, and IF you could prioritize what needed to be done, you could, in theory, make a chart with 10-15 minutes-worth of cleaning tasks for you and also for your partner to do each day of the week. 15 minutes is doable for a SAHM and for someone with a full-time job (in theory) IF it's planned ahead of time so you don't have to think about it.

So if it seems like you and your partner are in the kind of emotional space in which your minds are willing to clean and you just need a plan, then get the Home Comforts book and figure out what the required tasks are, divide them into 14 10-15-minute jobs, and each of you takes one of those chunks every day.

Readers, what do you have for Deborah, and me, and everyone else out there? Thoughts about motivation? Thoughts about logistics? How old is realistic to make your kids be solely responsible for doing their own laundry? (I say 9, personally, but that may be because I don't have a 9-year-old yet.)