Cleaning my mother’s house. Cleaning my own house. This week, these parallel activities have me musing about the nature of housework.
I am a good-enough-for-government-work cleaner. The basics get done, and a little less frequently, I delve deeper, noticing and eradicating the toothpaste splash on the bathroom wall and the cobwebs clinging to the bulls-eye molding. These extreme sanitation sessions are generally elicited by impending guests whom I must fear are coming over to judge me on dust bunnies and fingerprints. Why is it for women that the state of one’s dwelling can be a source of shame as well as pride? I hope our self-worth comes from somewhere else, yet in preparation for an upcoming party, I am washing curtains and detailing the bathrooms. The effort is not without its rewards.
My husband has specific viewpoints on housework. He grew up with Nellie, the live-in maid who was a surrogate mother and whom he stills reveres and who was probably the sanest person in his house. She was his companion and confidant and he felt for her plight of literally doing the Bendiks dirty work. He believes housework is overrated and we can get by and remain healthy with a lot less. Doing laundry and dishes are the indoor chores that matter. Perhaps that’s because they are the ones he does. He also believes that it is wrong, maybe even exploitative, to employ a house cleaner. Back when my pay grade supported it, I tried bargaining for one. He argued that people should be responsible for their own messes and we should not demean others to do that which we are not willing to do ourselves. He has a point.
My mother was certainly willing. She was formerly rabid about cleaning. Growing up, it was a source of self pity believing that the quantity of our chores – and the quality expected (dusting the light bulbs?) – was unfair. She even had a hotel career with the oxymoron of a job title of “executive housekeeper” where she was responsible for training maids on the proper techniques for making beds and dusting light bulbs. Years later for a brief period , my mother known as “Nanny” to the grandchildren was a true nanny to our household when I returned to work after my daughter was born. Whatever housekeeping annoyance I had as a child dissipated when I was greeted each day after work by a miasma of Lemon Pledge, Murphy’s Oil Soap and Windex. The house truly gleamed like it never had before or after.
This past week, my sister and I decided to “speed clean” the main living areas of my mother’s house. It was overdue by most standards and was becoming a source of anxiety for us. We did not complete it all, but we tackled several tasks, large and small. It was a full-body workout and, however temporary, we “made a dent.” My mother could not recall where the broom or vacuum is kept and without doubt will forget our efforts, but she enjoyed our company and joked that she wished we were as enthusiastic in our efforts when we were children. If she only knew.
Does housework have meaning? Is it a measure of one’s worth? Why does the burden fall to women? Why do we care? I don’t have answers. But, based on an assessment of my recent efforts, I’ve concluded that the act of cleaning can not only be satisfying but can also mean more. When my mother cleaned for me, I felt more caring than I did judgement. My sister and may have experienced resentment and certainly frustration cleaning my mother’s house, but it was tempered by compassion. And, as I polish the woodwork in preparation for Lo’s first birthday party, I hope she will one day know that an act of love can be evidenced by the scent of Lemon Pledge.