One afternoon back when now seven-year-old Jack was five, he walked past our downstairs bathroom and noticed that his father was cleaning the toilet. Jack came to a halt in front of the door.
“What are you doing?” Jack asked.
“I’m cleaning the bathroom,” my husband replied.
Jack twisted his face into a look of concern, “What happened?”
Like any child confronted by an unusual event in a familiar environment, Jack didn’t know what to make of what he saw. The truth is that both of my kids witness housecleaning so infrequently that they consider the very activity evidence that some unfortunate event has occurred.
I rarely clean my house. Walk through my front door on any given day and you are almost certain to find dust collected on the coffee table and book shelves. You’ll spot books and magazines semi-stacked on floors and you might trip over those tiny, goody-bag toys kids gather like treasure. The windowsills between the inside glass panes and outer screens bear dirt deposited by seasonal storms and breezes, the wood floors do not gleam and there are blemishes pockmarking the bathroom mirrors – not to mention traces of toothpaste on the walls of the sink from kids who still haven’t learned to aim their spit in the center of the basin. In short, you will find dirt.
And I don’t care.
When I sat down to write this essay, the first thing I did was open my internet browser. I thought that I could perform a couple of Google searches, find a list – or several – of reasons why people thought it was so important to maintain a clean house when you have kids, and then refute those reasons one-by-one.
I was, however, surprised by the results of my searches. Site after site offered tips for how to keep a clean house when you have young children, how to get the kids to help you clean, even how to find cleaning inspiration when you have trouble mustering it on your own. But on no site – that I could find – did anyone bother to address the reasons why keeping my house clean should be one of my top maternal priorities in the first place. That’s probably because most people think the point is obvious. But it’s not at all obvious to me.
It’s no secret to any parent that time is limited. Once I’ve devoted six or seven hours of each day to sleeping, I’ve got about thirty hours of goals to squeeze into what’s left of any given day. I need to get the kids to school with all of their accoutrements, shepherd them to their activities, cook their meals, wash, dry, fold and redistribute their clothes, help with their homework, schedule doctors’ appointments and play dates, and so on. As soon as I get the kids out the door, I need to write and do all of the other things this business requires as well as fulfill my volunteer commitments at school, temple and around town. I need to shower and eat. I need to find the cat so I can take her to the vet. The last thing I want to do with any moments I have left over when all of these requirements are complete is clean.
I’d much rather spend time enjoying the company of my husband and my kids than battling with the detritus spawned by my house. I read Harry Potter to my seven-year-old son at bedtime. I listen while my four-year-old daughter takes me on long, sometimes incomprehensible journeys through the complex universe that lives in her mind. I accompany my children on long walks in the local apple orchards in autumn and together we marvel at the glowing reds and ambers of the trees, the hawks we watch as they dive for lunch, the apples we’ve just picked that taste so much sweeter than those we buy at the grocery store. We celebrate my kids’ and my own Jewish heritage every Friday night as we feast on challah I’ve made from scratch for them, we learn to cook and eat bulgogi together to experience a piece of my daughter’s Korean birthright and we share corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day in honor of my husband and my son. We watch movies together. We learn about the world, we play games, we have fun.
And no one in my family ever says to me, “Gee, I wish the house were cleaner.”
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, let me assure you: I do have some standards. If I notice that a bathtub or the kitchen sink is truly vile, I clean it – or at least I ask my husband to do it. If the dust balls drifting out from under the couch become large enough to invite possible investigation by the Board of Health, I sweep them up. When the cat pukes- as she does almost daily -I clean it up. I am not a total pig. My kids eat off clean dishes and they wear clean clothes. That’s good enough for me.
I should also clarify that I have no objection to cleanliness itself. If I could, I would hire a cleaning service to come in every week and have them tidy and sanitize and polish the inside of my house until it could pass even my late grandmother’s literal white-glove test. It’s the process of achieving cleanliness that I despise. It’s the process of achieving cleanliness that I despise. Cleaning is tedious and repetitive, and it’s disheartening when you notice the dust regrouping on the piano before you’ve even finished wiping down the other side of the room. I know some people love to clean, including some of my own closest friends and family. (And then there was that Monica-character on Friends. I never understood her.) They find it to be a stress-relief. I find it to be on a par with teeth-cleanings and colonoscopies.
I don’t even do much cleaning for family and friends. I might walk through my house before guests arrive and deal with anything that doesn’t pass my “Is this disgusting?” test. Beyond that, though, I reason that no one wants to be friends with me because of my housekeeping skills or lack thereof. If you’re going to condemn me for the state of my house, then my guess is you’re probably not going to enjoy my company very much in the first place.
As far as I’m concerned, there are countless better ways to spend my time with or without my kids than cleaning. My mudroom may contain actual mud and my countertops may be sticky, but my kids, my husband and I laugh a lot.
And I’ll take that over a clean house any day.