I’ve never been tidy. I hate to clean, though I like having things clean. I tolerate more clutter than I want the outside world to see. In truth, there are so many other things I’d rather do, like writing, or walking in the sunshine, or talking with people I love. I come by all this honestly, as we say in my family, having learned at my mother’s knee how to clean like mad before company comes, how to sweep a pile of papers into a box to clear off a table before company comes, how to worry and stress about being judged by others for the state of my house.
From what I’ve seen, worrying about being judged for how tidy and/or clean the house is is primarily a female experience. Traditionally, historically, this was our domain, and it doesn’t seem to matter how creative or gainfully employed my women friends are, the state of one’s house is still an area where we expect judgment.
When I was a teen I made a new friend who invited me to her house. Without a word of warning or apology, she led me into a house more cluttered and untidy than any I’d ever seen. I was in awe of the fact that no one seemed worried about being judged for it, though my new friend did offer an explanation. Her mother was a brilliant scientist, and couldn’t be bothered to keep house. When I think about it now, I realize that she never mentioned what her father did, or how he felt about it. We just assumed that it was the mother’s job, even if she had a career that kept her out of the house while her three kids and husband made a mess of it.
The other day, one of my daughter’s friends stopped by unexpectedly. I’d been putting off the tidying and cleaning until I finished the revisions on the novel I’ve been working on. The housework loomed over me, and I knew it had gone beyond where even I was comfortable, but I’d put off my own work for family duties too often in recent months, and I needed to finish my novel. Yet as soon as my daughter’s friend left, I set to work cleaning, embarrassed that the state of disarray had been seen by someone outside the family. I don’t know whether she noticed the clutter, or if she cared, but seeing it through someone else’s eyes was the nudge that pushed it to the top of the to-do list.
Once when my daughter was little I dropped her off for a play date at a neighbor’s house. The living room was immaculate, without a single toy or lost sock in sight. And as we talked, the other mother straightened the already tidy pile of two magazines on the coffee table, as if to draw attention to the fact that there was nothing else that even could be out of place. Of course, her intention is unknown to me, and anything I read into the situation is projection, but I felt she flaunted her housekeeping because she knew that my house was never that neat.
I wonder if I’ll ever grow out of beating myself up for my “relaxed” standard of housekeeping, to quote another mom who was trying to pay me a compliment on how comfortable she felt in my home. I’ve consciously chosen to stop apologizing for the mess when guests arrive unexpectedly, and I’ve openly discussed it with several of my closer friends who also confess to living with more clutter than they publicly display. But the judgment runs deep in my psyche, as if my untidy house is a reflection on an untidy soul. I want to have less stuff, but on the other hand, I like my stuff. I like being able to find what I need for any creative project that comes to mind, and I like having my family archives at my fingertips. And things trigger memories, so often when I try to give away old toys or clothes or books my children have outgrown, I see so vividly the moments when we sat on the couch and read that book together. And that makes it hard to let go of, because memory is a faulty thing and triggers help me hold on to those moments that will never come again but still fill me with delight and longing.
A good housekeeper in generations past was frugal and saved useful things for future use, so as not to be wasteful. Unfortunately, that piece of the genetic puzzle came through loud and clear in me, so I have many things which I’ve saved because they might be useful someday. And I’m often vindicated in that belief by the thing actually becoming useful, or by needing it within days of finally throwing it away or donating it. Fortunately, there comes a point where even I am overwhelmed and have to haul stuff out of my house to find new homes. And I don’t even care whether those homes are tidy or not.

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2 thoughts on “Housekeeping”

  1. This reminds me of this poem by Erica Jong:

    Woman Enough

    Because my grandmother’s hours
    were apple cakes baking,
    & dust motes gathering,
    & linens yellowing
    & seams and hems
    inevitably unraveling
    I almost never keep house
    though really I like houses
    & wish I had a clean one.

    Because my mother’s minutes
    were sucked into the roar
    of the vacuum cleaner,
    because she waltzed with the washer-dryer
    & tore her hair waiting for repairmen
    I send out my laundry,
    & live in a dusty house,
    though really I like clean houses
    as well as anyone.

    I am woman enough
    to love the kneading of bread
    as much as the feel
    of typewriter keys
    under my fingers
    springy, springy.
    & the smell of clean laundry
    & simmering soup
    are almost as dear to me
    as the smell of paper and ink.

    I wish there were not a choice;
    I wish I could be two women.
    I wish the days could be longer.
    But they are short.
    So I write while
    the dust piles up.

    I sit at my typewriter
    remembering my grandmother
    & all my mothers,
    & the minutes they lost
    loving houses better than themselves
    & the man I love cleans up the kitchen
    grumbling only a little
    because he knows
    that after all these centuries
    it is easier for him
    than for me.
    Erica Jong

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