Housekeeping and Mental Health

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:)


Heather F said…
Beautiful post, Jo. I can relate to a lot of what you said. I love your push-up routine. I may have to steal that. xoxo
narf7 said…
Seems I was late to the habit epiphany. I only just realised that if you start something, and you keep it going, around about a month later it suddenly becomes your habit. The trick is to start. I have invested myself in plodding. I feel it is an entirely underrated thing. I, like the tortoise of the tortoise and the hare fame, now plod. The trick is to just keep plodding. Keep moving forwards and pretty soon you will be somewhere else. I put on a LOT of weight this year thanks to an incredible stress load. I started a course that was so far out of my depth that it was turning me inside out. Every day my panic levels would rise when I woke up and realised that I would have to spend another day immersed in something that just wouldn't click in my head. I felt like a fraud handing in my workload and never having understood much of what I was handing in. I knew that one day I was going to blow (the way I was stress eating it might just have been physically rather than metaphorically!) but the only way that I knew how to de-stress was eat. I hear you on the cleaning front. My mother was quintessentially unorganised and as children, we were never taught to clean, cook etc. It came as a serious surprise that "I" was supposed to do these things when I hit my teenage years and moved out! My approach to cleaning is haphazard and involves me hitting a specific (entirely internal) level of mess that apparently triggers a cleaning response inside me. I am thinking of hiring myself out for research purposes.

Back to the stress and the eating. I have lose 13kg since August 1st. I did it by applying my "plod" theory. You just move forwards each day. I am sure that the 10 step program is probably more salable but my plodding has "me" taking hold of what I "can" do, and doing it. I have stopped putting HUGE expectations on myself and have started learning to be kind. Does it matter if I go to my daughters and have a latter? Nope. Just get back on the plod trail the next day. See the problem that we have these days is that we put some pretty amazing expectations of what we should and shouldn't be doing with our lives into our heads. We do this as a result of being over-exposed to advertising fibs and whether we are clever at knowing they are fibs or not, some of those fibs tweak our desire to compete or poke around in our sub-conscience where we fear to tread triggering their own responses. We find ourselves reaching for lives that aren't ours and feeling incredibly stressed when we can't attain what "everyone else" is attaining.

I love your posts about cleaning and simple living. They are a wonderful reminder that we can accomplish a lot if we just start "doing" it. One day at a time, moving forward, "plodding" if you will and suddenly you are in a much happier place, feeling good about yourself because YOU did it. You had a degree of control over something that felt uncontrollable and you were able to move on. Sorry about the big comment here. It just struck a chord with me because I am much happier now, not specifically because I am losing my stress weight, but because I found a way to deal with it. I think that is the secret. Taking our lives BACK from the unattainable (perfect advertising lives) and realising that our lives are good enough, our homes are good enough, WE are good enough, we just have to start living our own lives, in our own homes ourselves and if something isn't working, start a brand new habit and plod your way into success. By the way, the course that had me thinking that I was the ONLY person in the world who couldn't understand HTML5 or CSS3 at the beginning of the year is still difficult BUT I now know that it isn't worth eating my way to an early grave. I am applying my plod theory to my course. So far, so good ;)
Jo said…
Heather, oh, do enjoy the push-ups!!

Fran, I do love your essays:) I feel rather honoured that you would take the time to respond in such detail, and you are so often spot on - yes, to plodding. My life is all about plodding! I am definitely tortoise rather than hare material.

And yes to the invidious nature of competition. It is absolutely poisonous, and we could all maybe just relax a little and let our guard down and be much happier. One of my housework mantras is, 'Never apologise'. I know my house can be clean and tidy, but often it is chock-a-block with children's art projects and dress-up partying and food preservation mess and baking orgies, all of which give a house that 'lived-in' look. I don't panic, because I know it is all recoverable, but I never, ever apologise 'for the mess' because I am not ashamed of living a real life!

I am so impressed with your 'plodding' technique for weight loss. You go, girl! That is some marvellous result for the unglamorous, slow approach of tiny, everyday steps forward which add up to great rewards xx
Anonymous said…
Bloody brilliant Jo. This is the sort of thoughtful, intelligent conversation we need to have about daily living, not the pointless 'mummy wars', where nobody wins anyway:-) Like you, I take to my bed with books and blogs in times of upset. I don't think doing it for a day or two does any harm, it is when it stretches to weeks on end that it is a problem. I am not a natural doer and have made my peace with that, but I do see the benefits of a clean and tidy house. My way of achieving this is to keep clutter to a minimum in the communal areas (with the kids' bedroom doors firmly shut), and have a place for everything, so that it only takes a short burst of activity to keep up appearances. It has taken me years to get to this point though, and was much harder with young children always at home. Now they are teenagers, my husband and I are both home all the time, and I have to tweak things again, which is not always easy, as he has higher standards of cleanliness than me. However, the window cleaning will often wait until I have visitors that will actually notice, like my sister or mother-in-law!
Loretta x
Unknown said…
I see you as a creative soul Jo. Even your writing is a work of art. Often those of this ilk are not the most tidy but i appreciate your efforts to overcome your natural untidiness. Having seen photos of your home i imagine you see the individual tasks like brush strokes on your piece of art, your home.
I have a big part of me that knows I like a clean house, but resents a BF who doesn't see most of it. At least we split the cost of a cleaner and then I don't have to do bathrooms. But I do washing, ironing, and there's the washing up, DW stacking and unpacking. This morning (Sat) I got him in on the kitchen clean up, and cause he helped, I had less resentment, and then I mopped the greasy floors. And I ironed the three clean, dry things needing it, and put on the third load of washing in 24hrs. And now I feel ok being on the internet with a TV show on - I don't feel like a slacker.

But perhaps I'm type A. I always feel I should finish the work before I start the fun. But I am also known to get home from work and get into bed (Monday night for example) and just be there til the 5.30am alarm the next morning for work...
gretchenjoanna said…
This is so sensible and wise, Jo. I am going to save it to give to women in need. Hey, I am sometimes that woman, come to think of it....

One time when I was exhausted and a little depressed, quite overwhelmed with "things" in my life, my husband told me he would put the kids to bed so that I could just take a relaxing shower and go to bed early. He was surprised to find me taking a very long shower while I scrubbed the shower stall spotless. I explained that it was very therapeutic. Now I think I might have said, "It is self care."
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Thanks for the thoughtful and intelligent essay. You display a remarkable sense of self awareness. Thanks for sharing your story too.

Housework and manual work in general can be like a ritual in its repetitive nature or even meditative. It is great to clear the mind of other thoughts and simply lose yourself in the familiar activity. Your mind can float around and dwell on ideas or even gain insights - or it can be used to banish troubling thoughts too.

I wouldn't worry too much about planning and mess. In the past I've seen some quite large businesses that have struggled with both planning and the resulting mess that has ensued. Businesses are exactly like households in that they're run by people with all of the different challenges and delights that that can bring.

If I may be so bold as to provide some advice: Everything in moderation is the key here as anything taken too far can become a negative force. :-)!


Mimi said…
Bravo Jo. What an insightful and honest post. None of us wants to be defined by the state of our home, and it's all too easy for we, the creative souls in the world, to feel that housework is therefore beneath us and we won't waste a Bohemian moment on it. Sadly that leads to all sorts of chaos, and I have several creative friends who are good candidates for that reality TV programme about hoarders. Serious floor to ceiling, one path around the house stuff. Yes their creativity sustains them, but as you said, it has also become a distraction and an escape from all that is wrong on home turf. Home needs to be our sanctuary. There is already so much in the world from which we need to escape. Whatever awfulness was in my life, I've always tried to keep home, 'sanctuary'. If you can cultivate that mindset, it's somehow easier to see housekeeping as less of a chore, and more of a pleasurable maintenance of a serene escape. Thanks for the wee mention too. My Mum was a wise woman indeed. Love, Mimi xxx
Jo said…
Loretta, yes, 'a place for everything, and everything in its place' - my mother-in-law used to say that, and it took me many years to realise that the simplest way to do that is to have a LOT LESS stuff, instead of my initial attempt which involved buying MUCH MORE storage.

Well, yes, Lynda.. sometimes it's about art. Often though, it's about yelling, er, gently reminding Posy AGAIN to take her snack bowls, sneakers, school bags and endless art projects off the couch and table so we can all have a calm, and, er, peaceful living area... and then moving my shoes, books and laptop as well:)

Sarah, negotiating housework in a relationship is a minefield, especially if you are not on the same page re your expectations. I WOULD recommend a full and frank discussion about that, and a routine that both of you can agree on, but I can't say I am recommending this from experience, as my marriage was never characterised by full and frank discussions at any point. However, it works much better with my kids..

Dear Gretchen, with a houseful of tiny children, that counts as 'me-time':)

Chris, yes, the small business I once ran very badly was quite disorganised too! Hopefully now I would be able to bring a bit more order to the table..

I love your advice on moderation. I read your blog. I know exactly how much moderation you apply to your 'to do' list, Mr DIY!

Mimi, seriously, your mum's advice has changed my attitude permanently. I hear those words in my head every day - they somehow manage to be both gentle and motivational at the same time xx

simplelife said…
This is the best piece of self care, me time advice I've read.
" 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"
I have so much trouble stopping, believing that if I'm continually working I'm valuable and worthy, but my life is miserable. I need to know when to stop to do the things that make me happy. Thanks for sharing this idea.

cheers Kate
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Small business, large businesses, government etc. are no different to running a household. Seriously, although many people with vested interests and positions to defend would tell you otherwise. Years ago when I ran a graduate program for a big corporate I was more of a mother hen than a boss and treated the graduates with 9 parts love and 1 part stick.

From the thoughts that you've written here I can guess that you have developed enough life skills to be able to run a small business well and learn the other bits on the fly as you progress. Many years ago I read a quote from a very clever dude who said that at any one time he had 10 things on the go, 8 of which were working and 2 of which were a complete disaster. That seems like a good metaphor for life. If you ever need help in such matters you know whom to ask for help.

Busted! Not to scare you, but I don't tell the half of that particular story... :-)!


Anonymous said…
I avoid my work in times of stress and hide in online forums. Really only one. Simple Savings.

I need to adopt the do one thing. Or maybe the cut back on work thing?

I've had full and frank discussions about housework and standards. Result: we have different standards. And even when Me S makes an effort, he doesn't quite meet my standards. Normally he just doesn't see the dirt and mess. Oh well. A few temper tantrums and sullen cleaning of the house seems to work.
wonderfully thoughtful post. so much to take in - I shall re-read this for sure.
when i'm stressed, i'm a 'pillow plumper' rather than a cleaner. I make sure everything is tidy and lined up and arranged just so. restoring order helps me calm down.
Jo said…
Dear Kate, thank you so much for sharing your perspective. So many of us fall into the trap of living a life that makes us miserable. Why? Why? It seems like a rather mean thing to do to ourselves..

Chris, I love that quote, "10 things on the go, 8 working, 2 are a disaster" - that possibly describes my life on any given day:)

Lucinda, yes, I tried sullen for many years. Glad you have had more success with that:)

e, I can see you as a pillow plumper. There is something very soothing in having a tidy living room with plumped pillows and folded blankets. I find the half hour after the girls go to bed and the half hour before they get up is the best (only) time to admire my plumped pillows..

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