a brief history of housekeeping

by haywardhelen

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We like to think an attractive home is worth the effort required to maintain it. We want to believe that a cared-for living space adds to rather than takes away from a good life. Until, that is, we start running our own home, at which point our mixed feelings for domesticity come rushing in. The place of our own, that we once dreamed about, starts making demands on us that we can’t always meet and from which we pull back. Love and hate, joy and resentment, enthusiasm and reluctance – all these rise up during the time we spend at home.

This is a brief emotional history of housekeeping, not a social one; this is because, for many of us, our domestic thoughts and feelings prove as challenging as household tasks themselves. It traces a path from our childhood home, the dilemmas arising from our first flat or share house, the mid-life conundrum of balancing work and home, and the challenges thrown up as we age. It doesn’t address everyone’s experience of home; no appeal is made to the universal. Instead, it sheds light on the way a great many of us experience home across a lifetime.

So, back to the beginning. Before we’re able to pluck up courage to pack up and leave our childhood home for good – the home which, at an unconscious level, is a template for our every future home – we have to let it go. This happens slowly, bit by bit. We may grow critical of our family’s style of cooking. We might experience our parents’ help as interference, as meddling. Perhaps we bar the door of our bedroom and insist on cleaning it ourselves; only, always later. Our longing to be cared for – to be cooked, comforted and cleaned for – never ceases. However, at a certain point, we suppress this wish in a bid for independence. We shrug off our desire to be cared for as an unwanted comfort and, like a young bird leaving the nest, take flight.

It takes an almighty effort to leave our childhood home without looking back. So much so that we often wait until our new home starts to fall apart before we plug in the vacuum cleaner, pick up a cloth to dust, or do anything resembling housework. We wait so long for the fairies to come and rescue odd socks from under the bed that disgust propels us into a frenzy of cleaning up. And then nothing, for the next little while. Until another burst of disgust gives rise to a growing desire to keep our own cave clean. But this awakening is fitful. At first, we react to even the idea of a household routine. We may corral ourselves into doing bits of housework now and then, spurred by a fear of the chaos that ensues when we don’t. Even so, cleaning up after ourselves comes neither naturally nor regularly. Sitting back and hoping for the best, and the inertia that is its consequence, is what comes naturally.

In the coming years, we continue to avoid housework. Often without knowing it, we identify housework with our childhood home, with our mother’s sighs and nagging, with the humdrumness of existence that we escaped when we packed up our things and left. Those household tasks that we can’t avoid are like a thorn in our side, upending our plans for how our weekends should be spent. Unconsciously, they remind us of the mother (and occasionally the father) we are determined not to turn into. And so we stumble on, from one mountain of dirty laundry to the next.

We reach the next threshold. Perhaps, tired of renting, we start eyeing off property to buy. We may be encouraged to travel for work or study. Or something happens in our family to precipitate a big change. An event like Covid forever alters our perception of, and trust in, the world. Or we look around our home through the eyes of a soon-to-arrive baby, or a parent leaving home for a higher level of care. It could simply be that the pressures of our work keep on mounting. Whatever it is, something happens to make us realise that our home life is what we make it, that it’s an effect of our investment in it. The quality of our so-called ordinary life – the roughly quarter of our waking hours that we give over to looking after ourselves, those we care about and our home – is largely up to us.

As we approach mid-life, our home life tends to grow more complex. With more balls in the air, than ever before, we struggle to juggle work and, quite possibly, family. Family and work both feel essential. Yet together they are incompatible. They feel like different things and they won’t fit side by side. Some of us, at this point, fantasise about hiring a cleaner to swish in and out while we’re out. Or we might do the housework at night, when the kids are asleep and our standards are lower. Whatever we resort to, a continuous sense of background pressure means that our mixed feelings for housework feel normal, like the mixed feelings we have around having to work late, or dealing with a tricky relative. Such that when, one day, a friend confides to us how much they enjoy cooking, renovating or gardening, we can’t help hoping they’re being ironic. The domestic satisfactions of our friend show us up, making us feel our own shortfalls more keenly.

Despite a confusion about the value of domesticity, we continue to hope for a work-life balance. Surely it must be possible to square our longing for a pleasant home, with a seemingly endless parade of household chores? The answer that many of us arrive at, in response to this dilemma, feels closer to an existential decision than a conscious choice. Put simply, we decide that the benefits of waking up in a warm and attractive home outweigh the minuses of doing regular housework.

With this shift, our sense of housework expands to become housekeeping, a larger animal than the relatively tame task of keeping a home clean and tidy. Perhaps we start wearing an apron in the kitchen, and devoting an hour most days to household tasks. We may also realise that a large part of the stress that we previously experienced at home, and came to think of as normal, arose from our unwillingness to credit the time and energy that we spent housekeeping as valuable, as real work.

The domestic arts that many of us awaken to in mid-life – like cooking, renovating, gardening, entertaining – hark back to childhood. They bubble up from what we left behind when we gathered up courage and left home for ever. They reflect our wish to feel cared for at a deep level, and to mess about in ways that we enjoyed as kids. Except that we are no longer children. And even as we awaken interests at home, we are just as busy as we ever were. This makes it hard to find the time – and the head space – to explore our creative side. After a long day at work, or with our kids, it’s often easier to flick on passive entertainment than to pursue more demanding activities. The upshot of which is that increasingly we have daydreams about home life that we never act on.

Time passes and the web of our life keeps on spinning. We start to appreciate the therapeutic benefit of looking after our home, the fact that often we finish our housekeeping feeling better about ourselves and the world than when we started. And yet we shrink from the demands that domesticity makes on us. We make mental lists for the weekly cleaner that most of us still don’t have. We take a particular dislike to domestic tasks which, the longer we put them off, the more we feel humiliated by. The housekeeping that, just years before, felt like an invitation, shrinks back into housework, into a drudgery that depletes rather than adds to our life. And we cease to take pleasure in the very things which, when we were younger and less busy, enriched our sense of home.

Until the time comes for us to cut back on work, or at least to shift into a lower gear. Perhaps our kids, if we have them, leave home, and again cooking becomes the pleasure that it was before too much pressure made spending time in the kitchen less appealing. Now that time constraints have eased, we can heed our hunches about what matters most. But though we may work a little less, time passes more quickly. We exercise so as to be confident of living independently into the future, rather than to look good on the beach. Our resentment for housework lessens and, for some of us, even dissolves. We start to cherish housekeeping for the opportunities – and sanity – it affords. Through its rhythms, we find ways to express ourselves, and to feel at one with the seasons as they pass. We take pride in baking, in a plant grown from a cutting, in a spring-cleaned home. And as we look round our home, we wonder at all the hours that we were unable to savour when we were run off our feet with work and, possibly, family.

Not all of us arrive at this point. Tragedies befall people we know and love, which we know in our heart could have befallen us. We feel a humility, a glad-to-be-aliveness, that was somehow less available when we were young. We still admire expertise, but feel less intimidated by it. We take large amounts of pleasure in small things that tended to pass us by when we spent our days scampering to catch up on the business of life. For as long as our body doesn’t fail us, we take pride in running our home. We enjoy the same necessities – shopping, cleaning and organising – that, many moons ago, we resented. Thankful for the tasks that give structure and meaning to our days, we take comfort in housekeeping. We say ‘yes’ to ordinary life, knowing in our heart that nothing important is ordinary. We delight in baking for a neighbour. We enjoy taking a cloth bag to the local shops. Even wheeling out the rubbish bin feels less of a chore than it once did. Because by now we appreciate how closely housekeeping is tied to heart-keeping. We know that meaning and satisfaction can be found in the daily tasks of living. And that our ability to care about things that we don’t ultimately care about – and much of housekeeping is this – is a measure of our determination to do what it takes to live in this world.

We feel this so keenly that if, one day, we’re forced to leave our home, for a tick-list of sensible reasons, it shakes us to the core. Once the pain of packing up and moving is over, we react to being taken care of by staff we don’t know. We dislike being brought tea at odd hours in a disposable cup. We never signed up to spend our last days on earth feeling like a patient; yet here we are, nodding gratefully for services we never elected for.

Most afternoons, we sit in our comfortable chair by the window, hopeful of a visit from family or friends, none of whom can begin to imagine what it’s like to wait to be visited, for a missive from the outside world. Yet still we take comfort in small things – flowers from a friend’s garden, a warmed-up home-cooked meal. And as we look out our window, at a tree whose top boughs the wind shakes in line with our third-floor room, we recall an Emily Dickinson poem we once knew by heart, and now just the opening verse of:

Hope is the thing with feathers

that perches in the soul

And sings the song without a tune

And never stops – at all.

We so, as we come full circle, our housekeeping days are over.