Banish Housekeeping Guilt!

Today I have an email to share from a lovely reader who contacted me recently with her housekeeping dilemma. She has kindly agreed to let me publish it and respond to it here:

I have been reading your blog as I've been trying to get myself organised so that life can be that bit easier.

I just wondered how on earth you went from being a really untidy person to a tidy one? I always feel that it would be so much easier if I could just tidy up as I go along. However, it never seems to happen. My husband and I go through phases and we might be tidy for a week but things then quickly slip.

I really liked reading your step by step blog but how do you find the time to do so much each day?  I work 2.5 days per week and I have a 6 year old and 3 year old and I just don't think I could have the time to be so thorough. Do you work?

Anyway I hope you don't mind me contacting you.  I'm always interested in how other people do it as I seem to spend my life in a constant state of guilt -  guilt if I do clean and I'm not with my kids enough and guilt if I don't keep on top of the house.

Of course, the original housekeeping routine I published here was written for a family of six by a stay-at-home-mum. I'm currently working on a plan for a household of four with a single mum working part time. But honestly, working out a housekeeping routine is the easy part. The hard part is unpacking the reasons that we feel so overwhelmed in the first place.

So let's start with that constant state of guilt, which, of course, dear reader, you share with so many of us. Guilt is such an interesting emotion. Let's contrast it with another emotion, shame. At first glance, guilt and shame might appear to be synonymous, but they are subtly different. Shame is our friend. Shame tells us that we have done something wrong, and shouldn't do it again. Yelled at the kids, kicked the dog, betrayed a friend. Particular actions that we don't want to repeat.

Guilt though, is an evil, amorphous black cloud that hangs over our heads and can never be assuaged because it has no parameters. 'Mummy guilt' stems from the ridiculous myth that mothers should be perfect, selfless saints at all times, and devote their lives exclusively to their children. Guilt about housekeeping stems from the equally egregious myth that our worth as women is linked to how close we are to that perfect internalised standard for gold-plated femininity - thin, pretty, compliant, devoted wife and mother, domestic goddess.

Not only does guilt condemn us to failure because no-one can possibly meet those standards, it condemns us because the goal-posts move all the time - just how 'pretty' is 'pretty' for instance? We can always be thinner, nicer or more devoted, because none of these variables are actually measurable, which means we will be feeling guilty forever.

Now, let's just stop here for one tiny minute and think about who stands to benefit from our constant sense of guilt? Oh, yes! It is the 'pretty' industry, the 'thin' industry, the purveyors of 'things' which will make us appear to be better and more devoted mothers (education, toys, cute kid clothes, cute kid accessories), and those who attempt to seduce us with Kitchenaid mixers and decorative tat, all the better to allow us to pose as Domestic Goddesses..

Yes, people, again I am angry at the proliferation of STUFF, this time not just because it is wrecking our future on the planet, but because it is making us feel terrible AS WELL!! We will never win at the 'perfect woman' game, so why don't we all just stop playing? We can take the power back into our own hands and decide ourselves what we are going to look like, how we are going to live, what values we are going to live by, and that actually, yes, we are pretty damn good parents..

Guilt is encouraged by powerful interests to make us feel constantly unhappy with our lives. Shame is helpful. Why? Because it encourages a measurable outcome. If I yell at the kids because we are always late, and I feel bad about that, then I can arrange the day so that we are not late, then I don't yell at the kids, and then I have succeeded. That's nice. Determining to be a more devoted mother, on the other hand, has no measurable outcome, so how will I know when I am there? Never, that's when.

So really, looking for actions with measurable outcomes is a wonderful remedy for mother guilt. Let's talk about spending more time with your small children. If you work for two and half days, then you have four and a half days each week with your children. Let's say they are awake fourteen hours a day - that is around sixty-four waking hours a week you spend with your kids. Wow! They are so lucky! I bet you are exhausted!

Now, I am hearing you in that it is possible to feel like those sixty-four hours are almost entirely taken up with household chores. As I wrote in my last post, housework will happily chew up all the time you devote to it because it never ends. There are always dirty dishes, dirty laundry and dog hair. These things never go away. Therefore the secret is to set limits.

If you can divide the household chores into daily chore lists, you can complete your daily list, then have the rest of the day to hang out with the kids guilt-free. Of course, there is no reason you have to do all the jobs on your list either. If you can work out an equitable system with your husband, and post a list of jobs on the refrigerator so that everyone knows who is expected to do which job on which day, then all the better. Only you know what level of cleanliness you are both happy to live with, so your list might be very different to your next-door neighbour's. But the key point here is knowing when to stop. This is one of the things I love about my workplace. I work from 9 to 3, then I get to go home. If we don't set the same limits with the chores we do at home, they will expand to take up the whole day. If you set the timer for an hour, then you are more likely to race through your daily jobs efficiently, then have time for play.

Next, let's talk about being tidy. I love your question about how I turned into a tidy person. So funny. I never did. I still have the capacity to exist quite happily in the midst of an enormous mess and ignore it completely while I read my book. What changed was that over time I decided that I want to live in a reasonably tidy house where I was reliably likely to be able to find my keys/glasses/library books/children when I wanted them. This doesn't involve a personality change, merely a boring set of routines.

I consider myself to be a flexible and spontaneous person, and the word 'routine' always set my teeth on edge, but oh, my goodness, it is so much easier to be creative when your environment is peaceful and organised. It's also easier to be flexible and spontaneous if next week's school uniforms are already washed and so much nicer to invite people over on the spur of the moment if you know there is somewhere for them to sit down when you all arrive home.

I think as a tidy newbie, it is best just to focus on the living areas (this is me by the way. I still dump things in my bedroom. It's all a work-in-progress). The key to being tidy here is to institute a morning and evening tidying-and-cleaning-the-kitchen routine, and what motivates me to do this is imagining how immensely pleased my future self will be to wake up to, or come home to a clean kitchen and tidy living room. In the morning before I leave the house I aim to: clear the breakfast table, wash the dishes, put away all the food, and wipe down the benches. I also make sure the living room is tidy. Sometimes this involves refusing to let the children leave the house until they have put all their things away..

In the evening before bed I make sure the table is cleared and wiped down, the dishes are done, food put away, benches wiped, and again, that everything is put away from the living room. If you have quite the cluttered living areas you might want to limit this tidying period to five minutes. But if you do five minutes twice a day, every day, you will have it clear and clean in a very short time. It generally takes me only a minute or two to do this job every day.

Friends of mine with small children have a system which seems to work for them - she puts the children to bed while he does the evening jobs, then the next night they swap. And what a wonderful way to regain some adult space in the house every evening!

The absolute best way to keep the house tidy with small children though, is to employ the kindergarten teacher technique. Every kindergarten room I have worked in is tidied up by the children three times a day. Yes, the four year olds 'reset' the table stations they have worked on, put away the toys they have been playing with, stack the chairs and spray-and-wipe the tables. Ten minutes before every break is reserved for this and because it happens three times every day, they are brilliant at it by the time they are five. If they can do it at school, they can do it at home. It requires us as parents to structure that into our schedule though. Ten minutes on top of the finding-shoes-and-bags margin every time we go out, ten minutes before every meal, ten minutes before bed. I have to admit, I came to this technique too late to try it with my own small children, and I am actually really terrible at remembering to do this, but the eleven year old (and her endless art projects) and I are currently working on it together...

Dear reader, I do hope this helps a little. While practical tips can be useful, the older I get the more I think that some of the most useful work we can do in our daily lives is to pay attention to our negative emotions, and deconstruct the stories that are making us feel bad. Life is too short to let society punish us for something we are not even doing wrong..

Always remember - being a good housekeeper is not a virtue. Having a clean and tidy house is pleasant and conducive to a calm and organised life. But let's not forget that it is only a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Get those chores out of the way and then you can really start living:)


Treaders said…
Beautifully said. And I think particularly at this time of year you will see all the ads of immaculate people, with immaculate children, hosting fabulous parties with the perfect gifts. And I always hated Christmas for that reason (BTW I was fairly drunk by the time people had arrived last year - just the stress of it). Now that shameful secret is out, I just wanted to say I have always (had) to work full-time even when my kids were babies. So I found it easier to do say just an hour cleaning at the weekends and just 10-15 minutes a night on something else (maybe just one drawer in the fridge). The trick is then to stop, say to hell with it, and play with your kids (I have to admit I found the "stopping" part hard). And keep meals simple - I always tried to make fancy stuff (because I like cooking) but that just doesn't go with all the other stuff. But don't judge yourself by anyone else's standards, and particularly not the media. There are plenty of women in the cemetery whose floors were so clean you could eat off them. Good luck. Anna
I need a tidy bedroom - I can't sleep with excess stuff in my bedroom.
my way of being tidy - and i'm far better at tidying than I am at dusting and vacuuming - is to: have less stuff (so once or twice a year I have a critical look at everything); have a dedicated space for my stuff that it goes back to when I've finished with it (or before I go to bed); imagining i'll have friends/parents drop by - I'm into making a lovely impression (and that's me setting standards for myself - it's not about other people's standards); and ... being a bit OCD. the last bit definitely helps :-) :-)
Jo said…
Anna, I am entranced at the idea of one hour of housework a week. You must be super efficient, and a very strong-minded woman.. I am also with you on the Christmas season rage thing. Bah, humbug:)

e, I sometimes wish I was OCD about something other than the correct placement of apostrophes. But I must admit, that after writing this post I finally decided to tidy up my room. It has looked quite clear and elegant for two whole days now.. I like your thoughts about setting standards for yourself, yes, let's all please ourselves and ignore everyone else. If we could all do that the world would be such a wonderfully diverse and interesting place, and we would be so much happier..
Great post Jo. My aim os to be OCD in housework. I think that is the only way it will work for me! That is my NY resolution for 2016!!
heather said…
"Being a good housekeeper is not a virtue..."! Thank you for that surprising but immediately-recognizable-as-truth tidbit. Truly, our minds can set us free!
Chicken Heather
Jo said…
Wendy, hmm, I almost agree with you - it could be rather useful to HAVE to do housework, BUT I treasure my slatternly ways - I mean, I would never read a whole book in an afternoon in the hammock if I had to have a perpetually tidy house..

Heather, yes, they certainly can - I have been telling myself all sorts true stories recently, and at last I think I am listening:)

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