I always feel immensely awkward writing about housekeeping. There are the world's excellent housekeepers, and then there's me, just muddling along. At any one time there are all sorts of messes, piles of, er, treasures, and egregiously begrimed windows decorating my house. But I came from a place where I was overwhelmed with housework and the demands of the day, to a place now where I can get on with my day, and the housework is just there in the background. Housekeeping is such an automatic routine now that I hardly think about it. In fact it can be very calming and grounding, working away with my hands as they confidently wash and wipe and fold and scrub while my thoughts are elsewhere. Why grounding? Because suddenly I 'come to' and find I have finished cleaning the bathroom, or folding the washing and it is rather a lovely surprise to know that my hands are so capable and sensible while my mind is so flighty! There is a sense I have now that housework has found a good and useful place in my life - I am not a slave to it, but it doesn't scare me either. I may have an almost permanently untidy laundry, but I have a living area that is calm and restful and clear, which makes me very happy indeed.
But again, perfectly clean and tidy my house is not, so yes, I do feel like a bit of a fraud holding forth about housekeeping. And yet - every week, dozens of readers come here to this site because they are 'overwhelmed by housework', so every now and then I go back to thinking about why I do what I do in the house, and share some of the revelations that have helped me. Today, I am reflecting on the role of housework in lifting my mood when I am unhappy or stressed. This may seem just a little too Pollyanna-like for all you sensible and healthily sceptical lifelong housework-avoiders out there, but bear with me..
When I think back to my days of a very messy house with too much stuff and no idea what to do about it, I realise that I was very unhappy. I was in an unhappy relationship, and it would be years before I would admit that to myself, let alone take a hand in resolving it.
Don't get me wrong, I am not blaming my untidiness on unhappiness - I have always been somewhat untidy, somewhat vague and disorganised, but I think that maybe our natural tendencies are exacerbated by stress. Some of my very good friends, who I like even though they are neat and organised, become clean demons when they are stressed. If they are unhappy or traumatised they clean the house, then wash the windows, then start cleaning the cracks at the sides of the drawers with a toothbrush. I must say I think this is a very useful response to stress.
My response to stress is to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. Another one is to distract myself by starting dozens of projects and never finishing any of them. Another is to re-read my entire Agatha Christie collection without drawing breath. None of these responses accomplishes anything useful, and adds a great deal more mess and stress to daily life.
I was in the garden the other day, buzzing about weeding and planting, and thinking that finally, after fifteen years I might possibly be getting to a place where I had put enough effort in to be getting the garden I wanted, and I wondered how it had taken so long, and why I couldn't have put those hours in years ago, and I realised, "Well, it's because I'm happy. It's so much easier to finish a project when I'm happy."
And this is indeed true, BUT it is not the whole story. I started to declutter and started learning how to keep house some years before anything changed in my unhappy relationship, and in the early days it felt like I was pushing boulders uphill just to accomplish the least little thing. But that was the key. Accomplishing the least little thing.
Last year, for some reason that is to this day completely unclear to me, I decided that I needed to be able to do ten push-ups. At that point I could do three, which I thought was a bit pathetic. I decided that every day for a month I would do three push-ups, but that on the first of the next month I would do four. Well, I did, and it worked. For seven months I did one more push-up each month, and now I can do ten. I presume I could keep going until I could do fifty in several years' time, but that would just be silly:) Ridiculous, I know, but it taught me something actually useful, far more useful than being able to do push-ups. Permanent change happens slowly. It is quite hard work, but changing one little thing and continuing to do it faithfully every day, and then periodically adding one more little thing adds up to great change.
Maybe for us messies our mess is exacerbated by unhappiness, and bravely looking at the causes of that unhappiness and beginning to resolve it is terrifying but liberating, and may make everything else easier. But by the same token, don't underestimate the power of a little organisation, a clean kitchen bench and up-to-date paperwork. Many years ago I read a lot about feng shui, and came to the conclusion that really it exploits the subconscious connection that we all have with our environment, and the intentions we have when we make the changes. I don't think there is a linear causal effect going on, but more of a powerful feed-back loop. When we take a little step to change our environment we feel accomplished, happy and powerful, which gives us the energy and motivation to take another little step. And maybe, just maybe, the more responsibility we take for changing our environment, the more we will be able to make the big changes in our life that lead to happiness as well.
There is a lot of air-time, mostly in advertising, but also in the self-help industry, devoted to the concept of self-care and 'me-time'. I have to say I regard this trend very warily. Not because self-care is at all a bad thing, but because I believe it is often applied quite wrong-headedly.
If you are a madly energetic Type-A person who responds to stress by ramping up activity, like my darling friends who clean the house when they are upset, then yes, learning how to calm down and take breaks is really very useful. But me? When I am stressed I go to bed, or read, or go straight to the internet. This is not self-care people, this is distraction and avoidance tactics. The very best thing I can do for myself is to face up to what I am avoiding, and have a little chat to myself. I ask myself about what is worrying me and I make a little plan of how I might resolve it, or who I might be able to discuss it with (I am not very good at sharing my angst and worry, but I am slowly beginning to understand that old granny proverbs such as 'A problem shared is a problem halved' are actually bang on the money). And do you know where is the best place to make such a plan? No, it is not under the covers, or between the covers of a book, or on a screen. It is while working your way down the list of chores for the day.
Washing the dishes, dusting and vacuuming are brilliant activities to do while resolving problems because they are completely automatic and leave your mind free to wander. And here's the thing - these jobs need to get done whatever your mental state. At the end of an hour when your house is clean, you have achieved something splendid, and the endorphin rush is marvellous. Then you have the energy to walk the dog, call a friend, and maybe even begin to resolve the issue. But the important point I want to make, is that for many people, self-care is not about taking a break, it is about achieving something useful, and giving yourself something to be proud of. And once the list of chores is completed, then a break is truly well-earned.
I find that any time I am in a situation where life is just getting on top of me, the worst thing I can do is go to bed and try and make the world go away. It never does. The jobs just pile up, and the sense of doom hanging overhead gets much, much worse. By that time, I am not only stressed by the original issue, but by everything left undone while I wallowed.
Mimi always has brilliant advice for getting things done, and she often quotes her mum, who would tell her, "Darling, just do one thing. Then just do one more thing." Sometimes I cannot face the thought of all I have to get done in a day, so I just concentrate on the one thing I need to do right now. Clear the breakfast things. OK, I can do that. Now do the dishes. Now wipe down the bench. Oh, and suddenly the kitchen is clean, and there is that little spark of self-satisfaction that will motivate me onwards and upwards.
This is not a situation where it is at all useful to get carried away making enormous plans though. Deciding whilst in a fragile mental state to declutter and spring clean the entire house is a very bad idea, because it is bound to fail, and then self-loathing sets in, and that is not fun. What is a good idea is to have a housekeeping routine with specific jobs for specific days. Mine can be found here, but it is very easy to write your own on the back of an envelope right now. Vacuuming Monday and Friday, bathrooms on Tuesday, laundry on Wednesday and Saturdays, dishes and cleaning the kitchen benches morning and night, tidying the living areas every evening before dinner, and every morning after breakfast. Or whatever suits you. Why is this important? Because then you know when to stop! Housekeeping is an invidious eater of time. It can keep on finding jobs for us forever. And that would be a terrible waste of a life. What we really want to do is to grow edible perennials or write poetry or do quantum physics, not endlessly clean the house. But if we don't have a lovely peaceful space to live in it is hard to concentrate on artichokes, iambic pentameter or neutrinos. So, on Monday morning after you have tidied, washed dishes, wiped the kitchen bench and vacuumed, you are done! The house is presentable, and you can get on with the rest of your day. You don't have to worry about all the rest of the jobs, because they have their own day. This is a system that kept our grandmothers sane, and we should always pay attention to the wisdom of grannies...
So here is the thing I have learned - housekeeping is really about self-care. It is kinder to yourself in the long run to do the jobs that keep the household running smoothly, because then life will run more smoothly. Tidying and vacuuming won't solve your anxieties or troubles, but it will make you feel better because you have achieved something positive, and made your house a nicer place to be.
Lastly, be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend. Sometimes you won't get your jobs done. This happens in our house several times a week. Self-loathing has never historically solved a single problem. Tomorrow is another day (although seriously, doing the dishes tonight will make tomorrow a much better day)..
Next time - a case study from a very lovely reader who is finding it hard to keep house, work and be a mum to small kids all at once. Fancy that:)