Pregnant with my son, and so at home more during the day, I started noticing an elderly neighbour sweeping leaves from the pavement in front of her house, wearing a dustcoat and flesh-coloured tights. As I brushed past this woman on my way to the train station, she seemed a relic from another era. Perhaps she was, however what I now realise is that every woman (and man) who keeps an attractive home must have a streak of this madness. But also, what I didn’t realise then, as I rushed by, late for work, was how profoundly satisfying this madness can be.
One of the criticisms of housekeeping, often given with a sidelong glance at house-proud women, is that it stretches like an accordion. Well yes, housekeeping does expand without end. Even so few of us reach anywhere near the standards recommended by housekeeping experts. Asthma is on the rise, yet how many of us regularly air our children’s bedding? Food poisoning is common, yet how many of us date everything that goes into our freezer? Were it lived to the letter our domestic lives would be a noose of details. We’d never get out the front door – let alone to work. All of us, to the degree that we invest in our homes, live in a constant struggle with a job never done.
Housekeeping really does escalate once children enter the equation. The chores that I once got away with once a week, I find now demand my near daily attention. Growing up in a large family, my mother would sweep the kitchen floor each morning with what seemed religious fervour. However what I failed to appreciate, back then, and do now, is that there’s never a right time to sweep the kitchen floor. And also, that when a family eats most of their meals in the kitchen, it just will require regular sweeping.
One morning, feeling domestic madness about to envelope me, I sat down and wrote a list of the kinds the tasks that, joined together, regularly drive me to the domestic edge. Surely, I said to myself, there must be something wrong with me that a quick clean up should so regularly stretch into my work time?
This is the list of what I regularly spend my time doing, when really I should be doing more important things (housekeeping being closer in my mind to an obstacle course, than to real work). My list starts with the obvious before spiralling to the smaller tasks that, I think, account for housekeeping’s accordion-like stretch.
Here goes: ‘Clearing up the kitchen, putting dishes away, making beds, opening or closing windows, cleaning up the bathroom, deciding what’s for supper, putting away clothes, gathering up pyjamas, ditto shoes, sweeping the kitchen floor, putting out the rubbish, hanging up washing, basic ironing, watering plants, vacuuming, changing sheets, picking up stray toys, opening mail and bills, dusting, mending, cleaning the hob, keeping an eye on what’s in the fridge, switching off unused appliances, writing lists, collecting library books, cleaning the water filter, soaking clothes, clearing fluff from the dryer, checking vases, sorting underwear, thinking I must get out the cobweb brush, draining the kettle, gardening.’
Please don’t mistake my list. Reading it through now, it seems faintly silly – like a list someone from The Magic Faraway Tree might come up with. Besides I don’t actually do all these things. I can’t remember when I last peered into the kettle, with cleaning it in mind, or for that matter changed the water in a vase. However when I’m in housework mode it does cross my mind that at some point I really should do these things. Also note the lack of order and hierarchy in my list, which is exactly how I go about working though it. I’ve never thought to myself, ‘I really must change the vacuum cleaner bag this morning’. Instead I’ll start vacuuming, dust comes through, and I’ll realise, bother it, that the bag needs changing.
The problem with housekeeping is that it has to be done in our own home, our own time – and minus an audience for our efforts. And unless housekeeping is a job that you pay someone else to do, you never really get to the end of your list. (And even if you do employ someone to clean, you have to draw the line somewhere if you want her to keep coming.) Instead housekeeping, and our constant need to do it, lurks at the back of our minds, pushing its way forward before visitors arrive or, for whatever reason, our domestic life starts to unravel.
The child is still sufficiently alive in most of us to feel quiet outrage at the parade of tasks that a family’s upkeep requires. Housekeeping, note, isn’t the same as housework. It’s a far larger animal, consuming far more time and energy than the relatively tame housework animal. None of us is so versatile that we’re good at every aspect of housekeeping (cooking, organizing, playing, cleaning, nursing, and, changing the battery in the smoke alarm).
But I want to end on an up note. Which is that there’s something rather wonderful about feeling on top of housekeeping – rather than it being on top of me. It doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen. My children, of course, thinks it is normal to come home at the end of the day, drop school bags in the hall, and be welcomed into a well-running house. Only I know what a daily miracle it really is.