As we finish our breakfast of homemade waffles and bacon, I watch as my children scatter to various corners of the house.
My husband settles on the couch with the baby, and I smile at the sight of her giggling in his arms as I start to clear the table. I stand at my post in the kitchen, where I feel like I am on duty 24/7, all day every day, loading and unloading, soaking and scrubbing, clearing and cleaning, and starting in on yet another meal clean-up.
And just like that, my smile vanishes. Wouldn’t it be faster, I think to myself, if we all pitched in to clean this mess after meals, so we could all relax together? Wouldn’t it be better, I ponder, if my children learned that mothers alone aren’t meant to be the only ones who clean? Wouldn’t it make more sense, I wonder, to treat the space we share as a shared responsibility?
So, I just say it.
“Hey guys!” I call out to the four humans I have produced. “Let’s all clean up together real quick, so we can play a game when we’re done!”
My husband, sensing that my frustration is brewing, heaves himself off of the couch with a sigh and calls out his own order: “Come on kids, let’s all help Mom clean up!”
And just like that I realized, in a seemingly innocent statement that somehow manages to motivate my children and produce guilt in myself, that we have gone horribly, horribly wrong. Because cleaning — at any level in our home — should never be about “helping” me.
I will grant you that cleaning the house does fall to me as the stay-at-home parent. I will also grant you that on a general basis, I don’t mind it. I am here and home with my young kids, and I don’t consider domestic work “less” than any other type of work. It’s an important service to my family, and I’m happy to do it.
But — and there in lies the rub — it’s also not just my responsibility because I happen to be the mother.
Every family is different, and every family divides roles and responsibilities differently. But in our home, I happen to work full-time and make an equal income with my husband, all while staying home with our kiddos. To accomplish all of that, I have had to shift some things around, including how much cleaning I can get done on a daily basis. Needless to say, I don’t get a lot of cleaning done during the day anymore.
Which means our cleaning has changed from getting done during the “invisible” hours of the day, when my husband used to be at work and come home to a sparkling clean house, to the fringe hours of the day and night and to the weekends, and even to the housekeeper I hired once when I was feeling particularly desperate.
And so it has become apparent to me that:
1. There’s a lot of cleaning that goes on in our family.
2. I’ve trained our children to think cleaning really is my job.
It’s hard, because I don’t want to sound unappreciative, and I think that comparing and contrasting who does what is a losing game in a marriage. But I’ve also realized that it’s dangerous territory to veer into, especially with two working spouses, when we treat doing chores around the house as “helping Mom out” instead of just doing what needs to be done.
Every time I’ve asked my husband to switch the laundry “for” me or instructed my kids to pick up the living room “for” me or stayed silent when my husband rallied the kids around to clear the table “for” me, I’ve felt a little bit like I’m failing my duties as a mom. Because really, I don’t want to raise children who think that doing housework is any minor, worthless service or not even thinking about it at all because mom just does it when no one is looking.
I want kids who realize that taking care of our home is important work, and because it’s important work, we should all do it. Will I thank my husband when he goes out of his way to clean the bathroom when I’m swamped with work and he really is going above and beyond? Of course. And will I praise my children up and down when they surprise me with a clean basement just because they want to please me? You bet your brooms I will.
So, I promise it’s not about drawing hard and fast rules in the sand and stomping my feet in the kitchen when I’m left alone to clean.
It’s about realizing that I want to remedy the course of cleaning in our home before it’s too late. This isn’t just about me or my husband or my marriage. This is about raising our children into adults. This is about showing them — by example — how families work together. It’s not about who-does-what or gender roles or even gender equality. In my mind, this comes down to a pretty simple fact of life as a family: we’re all in this together.
Some days, it feels like a battle I will never win and shouldn’t have to fight, but by golly, I will stand firm on my belief that children don’t just clean the living room or sweep the floor for their mothers, and husbands and partners don’t fold the laundry “for” their wives — we do it all for each other, because we’re a family.