The Real Reasons We Are Overwhelmed by Housework

Every day readers arrive at the Blue Day site looking for help with the house work. Many have desperately typed 'overwhelmed with housework' into Google, and ended up here. It leads the way to a housekeeping routine that is not theoretical, but based on what I actually do (more or less, often less) each week. I think it is rather useful and keeps the place ticking along nicely. However, it isn't quite enough, is it? Useful housekeeping routines abound, but there have been times in my life, where like my readers, I have been absolutely overwhelmed by housework as well. It doesn't seem sensible, does it? Housework is basically a collection of rather repetitive tasks that aren't difficult to learn, and aren't particularly physically demanding for the average person. They are, beyond question, off the scale of tedious towards mind-numbingly boring, depending on your level of tolerance for such things. But that doesn't explain why so many people, including me, have found a clean and tidy house so difficult to achieve.

Here are the places I have found myself in throughout my life when the housework has been overwhelming:

New babies and small children: Chaos, chaos, chaos. Oh, my goodness, is there no end to all the sick and the poop and the crying and the snot and the sleepless nights and the MESS! Well, there is, eventually, but that's not much use in the middle of it all. This is a time for survival, with occasional bursts of unreasonable joy when tickling tiny toes. Sleep when your baby is sleeping, do not use that time to catch up on housework. Mummy-lying-down time is essential. If you can, do the housework with the baby in its little baby seat, watching and learning (you can never start too young..). Toddlers will slow down housework considerably, but try to remember - you are home with your toddler for a reason. Slow down with her. Take two hours to fold washing and do the vacuuming together. There is absolutely nothing more valuable to her educational development and her relationship with you than to count socks and arrange the underwear by colour. Put old socks on your hands and hers and dance to loud music while dusting. You will no doubt go stir crazy whilst doing all this, so make that music REALLY loud.

If you are reading this and pregnant, forget painting the baby's room, it won't care. Take a look around your house and get rid of everything you don't absolutely love RIGHT NOW. Make sure you have cupboard space for everything that is left. Look at all that stuff you have collected for the baby. Get rid of at least half of it. Send all the toys to the charity shop. Babies don't need toys, they need you and a wooden spoon to chew on and cardboard tubes from the paper towel roll to wave around and hoot into. Look around your house again. Is there anything on the floor at all other than furniture? Would a sergeant-major be happy with the state of your cupboards? NOW you are ready to have that baby. I so wish someone had told me this before I had children!

Too late? Already have a baby and a toddler and stuff everywhere? Whenever grandma/your best friend/your sister offers to help, hand over the baby and set about accomplishing the above. It will do so much more for your peace of mind than a movie or candle-lit dinner. If the house is easily tidied, it always looks great, and you can skimp on cleaning. Clutter always looks messy, even if the house is clean. Does the whole decluttering project seem too overwhelming? Don't worry, next week I will be starting my own whole-house decluttering project, and everyone can join in.

Sub-Par Health: When I am healthy I bounce out of bed like a six year old (well, I do if I don't have to get up before 8am. Before that I sigh a tiny bit, but perk up after the first cuppa). I am generally cheerful, swear a bit about cleaning the bathroom again, find most things about my life intriguing, and am excited about new adventures. The times in my life that I have not been healthy I have felt like life was grey, I had no energy, the thought of cleaning the bathroom made me want to weep, and I wanted to climb under the covers and never leave the house again. Last year I discovered I had ridiculously low iron levels which had been causing me to feel tired and draggy for years. I didn't actually realise how awful I had been feeling until I felt better! So if you feel tired and draggy, if something is not quite right, if you are miserable and depressed, please go and see your GP, and ask her about iron levels (a very common women's problem), and probably she will test your thyroid as well, and give you a thorough once over, because probably you haven't actually been to the doctor yourself for a check up for years, have you?

Take away message: Tired, draggy, depressed, weepy, life-is-grey... this is not normal. It is not how life is meant to be. Go and get everything tested. If it all comes back normal, then start to look at your diet, and think about exercise. I know, I know, you've heard it all before. I am not normally into either diet or exercise, but I joined a gym last year, have started walking more, and quit sugar, while adding actual vegetables and wonderful healthy fats (butter, mmm). Lifting weights (quite tiny ones so far, I must add!) has completely sorted out those middle-aged niggly aches and pains, quitting my six cups of tea a day habit has raised my iron levels (rooibos tea has saved the day there), not eating sugar means I have lots of extra minerals being absorbed, and all of those things combined makes for a happy camper who still thinks housework is tedious, but doesn't find it overwhelming anymore.

Of course, if you are sick, and this is your daily reality, then you are in a hard place indeed regarding housework. The best thing I can offer is the advice to new parents. Declutter, declutter, simplify, simplify. Take every offer of help to get 'stuff' out of the way, which will reduce the cleaning workload, and the worry, and part of the burden, which will hopefully impact positively on your health. If you are healthy and know someone who isn't, take them dinner, and ask if they need a hand unloading their stuff and taking things to the charity shop.

Escaping from Pain: Sometimes in my life I have not been overwhelmed by housework so much as just overwhelmed. Sometimes life sends stuff at us that is just hard. Sometimes we might not even want to acknowledge that stuff, even to ourselves, so we look around at the mess we are in, at the housework that is not getting done because we are so consumed by other hard stuff, and think, 'If I can just get the house sorted and clean and pretty like every single other person in the world seems to be able to do, then maybe all this other misery will go away and we can be the Brady Bunch, and every area of my life will be Pinterest worthy, and then I will be happy.'

We human beings don't like to face pain. Why would we? It is hard, and most of us have a highly developed 'flight' instinct. It is very easy for many of us to push unpleasant emotions away, and pretend they are not happening. Unhappy marriage? Constant anxiety about high needs children and their uncertain futures? Complex and dark issues left over from childhood? Difficult and seemingly unsolvable family issues? Many of us self-medicate these problems away from our conscious lives so we don't have to deal with them. Brene Brown, in her brilliant scholarly but vulnerable book The Gifts of Imperfection calls this 'numbing behaviour'. We recognise it when it is done with alcohol and drugs, but what about those of us who 'take the edge off' with compulsive facebook time, comfort eating, extreme busyness (joining the committee of every group we ever belong to, and becoming indispensable), shopping, or in my case, comfort reading. I have recently come to recognise that when I am hiding in my bed in the middle of the day rereading the same old Agatha Christie novel for the nineteenth time, it's not because I want to know 'whodunnit', it's because I am craving the comfort of an ordered world where I know what happens next and everything will be alright at the end.

Sometimes we can be so successful at our smokescreen 'numbing' activities of choice that we don't really recognise that there is a whole underlying layer of misery and anxiety just under our daily life. We know we are unhappy, restless and unsatisfied, but we don't know why. Then we look around our house at the mess caused by being busy, compulsive shopping, spending time on the internet or watching TV, and we decide that it is the housework that is overwhelming.

The cure for this existential malaise is not a better housework routine, or more determination. It is recognising our mindless, desperate daily addictions for what they are. It is fearfully, but with enormous bravery, quieting down and listening to what that tiny still voice at our centre is saying. It is fearfully, but with enormous bravery, telling another human being about the fears, the anxieties, the dark places, the uncertainties, the unhappiness. That is the first step of the immensely hard task of becoming a whole and honest person, and that, my dear friends, is the first step towards happiness. Once you are happy and healthy, keeping house ceases to be overwhelming, and resumes its rightful place in the order of the universe as a tedious necessity with the pleasant consequences of comfort and peace.

Sometimes, of course, the hard stuff that life throws at us is not at all hidden. Sometimes it is the bleeding obvious. Birth, death, sickness, grief. Life happens. For this last year I have spent many hours of most days lying on my bed looking at the ceiling, or howling in corners as I contemplated the dissolution of my marriage. I did the bare minimum of housework, and counted the day a success if I made dinner. The children got a reasonable amount of exercise walking to the shop to buy packets of fish fingers, and I managed to keep on top of the washing if not the ironing (I am convinced that school jumpers were invented to hide the fact that Bad Mothers don't iron school shirts).

Again, the reason that the house isn't in too bad a shape now that I am recovering a bit of a spring in my step is that several years ago, I threw out most of our stuff, and fiercely guard the front door to make sure no more gets in. It is worth repeating this one true fact about housekeeping. A tidy house looks clean, even when it isn't. A messy, cluttered house always looks a bit grimy, even if it is perfectly clean. So let's not waste our precious life energy cleaning a cluttered house. Stuff is overwhelming many of our houses. It is making us poor, and wrecking the planet. It also makes difficult times in our lives so much more difficult, frustrating and overwhelming.

Unfortunately, stuff follows my children like rats followed the Pied Piper. I haven't been as diligent as I would like to be this year about keeping spaces clear and continuing to shuffle stuff straight back out the door. Therefore next week I am going to start a multi-week House Clearance project, working through every area of the house so we can all breathe easy again. For those who are already nicely organised I am going to add the particular cleaning jobs that my own house is crying out for, which may make your house happy too.

So join me next week to fight the good fight, until we are all in a place where although we may be overwhelmed by many things, life being what it is, at least we won't be overwhelmed by the housework.


CJ said…
Fantastic post. I need to declutter more here, I love nothing more than getting rid of useless stuff. And you talk a great deal of sense about the phases of life and why things are difficult sometimes. I relate to the comfort reading thing, although I'd never heard it articulated it before. I'm determined to get a grip on things more! Thank you for this post, I've found it very helpful, positive and uplifting. CJ xx
Jo said…
Oh, I'm so pleased CJ, sometimes I hit 'publish' and then squirm about being too vulnerable or too bossy. I'm so not the person with everything so together that I feel I can tell other people what to do, but I'm glad it meant something to you:)
Unknown said…
I agree, well thought out and well written post Jo. You don't have to be perfect to give advice. Often its the writers that you can relate to that have the most impact. We are all in this together. You are doing well Jo.
Great post, Jo! I think it's especially important for the parents of young children to cut themselves some slack. If the money's there, consider hiring someone to come in once a month to do a deep clean. Ask friends for help. But most of all, don't expect to be perfect. Ever.

I think you're right that getting rid of clutter is key. I'm going through that process right now, and it's very freeing. The hardest thing for me to get rid of? Books. But I'm trying!

Anonymous said… can just give up entirely and let the dog hair, the spider webs and the ash from the fire compete for ultimate supremacy while you put your feet up and enjoy a nice cup of tea ;)
Jo said…
Thanks Lynda!
Frances, yes, perfectionism is such a trap and a snare, and so hard to let go of. We women foster and perpetuate it, and need to come out and fight against it.
I had a wonderful house cleaner for three years when Posy was a baby. She was a kind and wise older woman, and I looked forward to having my bathroom cleaned, but more than that, looked forward to telling her all about my life and have her give me sensible advice. In the end she had to leave due to ill health, but reassured me that she had trained me well enough in the intervening years that I would be fine without her!
Books, Frances - the library. I know it is excruciating, but we don't have to own everything we love:)
Fran, believe me, I have tried your cunning plan, but it's no good, I disappear under the detritus of a million children. I may try it again when they have all left home..
Anonymous said…
Yep. Last year, I got so overwhelmed by the state of the house and the endless piles of CRAP that were creeping in everywhere that I took a week off work, divided the house into five chunks and Got Stuck In. At the end of the week, it was so much better and I felt so much better...

Fast forward a bit over a year, and it's not as bad as it was but it definitely needs doing again. But because I seem to be the only person who can do it (Himself rants about clutter and stares at me pointedly. The children are hoarders.) and to me, clean clothes and dinner are more important than clutter. nothing much happens (plus, bake or declutter? No decision there!) Maybe there should be a Maslow's Heirarchy of Housework!

I was astonished that when we renovated the kitchen, I happily culled more than a third of the contents of my cupboards - and when I put stuff back, I culled yet another third of the stuff I thought I desperately needed. Now I have places for things and if it won't fit and it either doesn't replace something or it's not wonderful - it's not welcome. I've not rushed out and replaced anything I turfed, either. And you'd think I would have in six months.

(Oh, and books... I have an ereader now, so I can hoard them on the computer. But the kids both read actual books. And have different tastes.)

Jo said…
Miss Maudy, there is definitely a Maslow's Hierachy of Housework. It goes - food, cleaning up food, dishes, laundry. Some weeks I do not get past that. After that it is a toss up whether to declutter, vacuum or clean the bathroom. Decluttering probably leads to more long term sanity on the whole:)
And I know kids love their favourite books, but The Library Miss Maudy, remember The Library.. my daughters and I have the library catalogue tab fairly permanently open on our computers as we order books on a daily basis. I would go broke if I bought them books!
Anonymous said…
Excellent post, Jo! There seems to be a belief that we should keep up by doing a little bit of housework each day, on a schedule, and then it will never accumulate too much. But life intervenes, and instead of reducing the backlog by doing one task at a time, we find it overwhelming. I agree with your priorities (food, food cleanup and storage, dishes, laundry) as well as messy spills, litter boxes and making sure that bills and important docs don't get lost!
Anonymous said…
Oooh. The comment about doing something compulsively to numb the pain is very true.

Won't be able to join you in a housework week. I'm off on holidays. But I will enjoy reading about your efforts.
Jo said…
Ah yes, Dar, the litter boxes, and filing. Aargh! Luckily the girls do the litter trays, but I am very bad at filing!
Lucinda, I bet you are so sad that you don't get to declutter with me:) Have a fun week.
heather said…
haha thats EXACTLY how i ended up her i typed overwhelmed by hpusework so funny you said ythat im a mom of 7
Unknown said…
Hi , what a great post!! As you rightly said I ended up here after googling 'overwhelmed with housework'!! The futility and the repetitiveness of housework drains me out mentally and physically , your wonderful pearls of wisdom are really helping me look at my housework and messy house situation in a new light!! Thanks heaps!!

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