My kids, both teenagers, have taken to leaving their clothes in small mounds on the floor of their bedrooms. And leaving their beds unmade. They don’t do this to annoy me. When they leave in the morning for school, or go off on the weekend, they are oblivious of the molehills of clothing strewn by their beds, or the duvet leaning over their beds. They don’t intend for me to have to guess whether the underwear on their floor is clean or dirty. Or to pull up their duvets. It isn’t a trap they have left for their home-loving mother. They simply have no investment in an attractive bedroom that the stuff on their floor is a blight on.
My son likes to tell me that he prefers his room messy. His disregard is proof that he cares about things more important than the state of his bedroom. My own reading is that heaping his clothes on the floor reflects the pressure he feels under in his life beyond home. And clearly it’s a protest against his over-aestheticised mother. What does he care if he has to tread over yesterday’s clothes in order to flump on his bed with an apple, a magazine and his phone?
Whereas as I pick my way over his bedroom floor my heart sinks. Unlike my son, who thinks he knows better, I have an investment in an attractive home. I like my eye to glide across a room without it tripping on an inside-out jumper and yesterday’s underwear. I like to go home and feel glad that I live there.
But this is not a moan about teenagers. As my kids love to remind me, I’ll be heartbroken when they aren’t around to taunt me with their laundry. This is about something larger, something that that we don’t often talk about. It’s about how we feel about housekeeping. Not the housekeeping itself, but our feelings about it.
These days it’s normal to feel down on housekeeping – to decry the washing up, to joke about To Do lists, and to avoid opening certain cupboards in front of friends. We scoff at the idea that running our homes could ever fill us with pride, or that we might undertake household tasks with a lightness and grace that ennobled our time on this earth. We might peer at a Vermeer painting of a woman shining a doorstep, but this is more in wonderment than admiration. We may long to celebrate the ordinary, the dailyness of household tasks, but precious few of us actually do.
Surrendering to what needs to be done at home is no longer a source of self-esteem. It’s not an attitude towards life to be passed on to the next generation. All too often domesticity, and the time we spend doing it, is experienced as a mistake. Rather being essential to a fulfilled life, we see it as a threat to our creativity and ambition.
And yet housekeeping has the potential to be be experienced in a very different way. Instead of a negative spiral of unmet demands, housekeeping really can be fulfilling. That may sound far-fetched in our post-feminist commodified world, however most people know it to be true – if only as a longing. Being in tune with the running of your home, feeling that you have the energy and drive to stay on top what needs to be done, from the laundry basket to meal times, is quietly empowering.
Ultimately what we are talking about, in feeling on top of our home lives, is the sense that we are up to looking after ourselves. There are further benefits – like experiencing beauty in the everyday and being at one with time passing – but really it’s this ability to look after ourselves, and those we love, that we are on about.
‘Have you made your bed?’ my mother used to ask as I came down the stairs for breakfast. ‘Yes’, I’d fib. I didn’t get it back then. Just like my two teenagers, I cared more about being late for school than the state I’d left my bedroom in. Whereas these days my feeling is that if I can look after myself and get the simple things right, like making my bed and putting my clothes away, everything else follows from this.