The Art of Keeping Home? My Struggles

Ever since I first picked it up in graduate school, Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson, the way I view maintaining my home has transformed.

Notice that I use the word, "home," because at the time I read this book I was a poor, anxious, stressed, and run-down graduate student who badly needed the dignity that came with having a real home.

That was at a time when we lived in a 400-sq. foot bungalow (more like a hut) in a solidly working-class Los Angeles neighborhood. I remember well: the stained carpets, greasy walls, and moldy bathroom. I tried to keep up our "home," and for the most part I did a good best as our resources allowed. I even remember attempting (futilely) to create a small garden. 

It didn't work; the soil was dead and all of my plants kept dying. 

Still, I had a dream that one day I'd have space for a garden and a home without a carpet layered with a dozen previous tenants' soils. 

I now have that home. It's not the largest or the most extravagant, but it is mine--and, upon first moving in I had the joy of tearing out the carpet. 

So why is housework now (with a higher-paying job and a better home) more arduous than it was back then? 

I think that the more we have the more we need. More space in our lives has inevitably led to more clutter, due to the fact that we've accumulated more stuff. My kitchen and home at first seemed too large for us--we felt compelled to fill in the spaces with more furniture and gadgets. 

Then there's the 40-hour workweek, which really chains us to leaving our precious domestic spaces so that we can devote our time and creative energy to something else--something foreign to our plan for domestic bliss. 

This entry, however, isn't about my dislike of the work-life imbalance and the havoc it wreaks on our domestic lives and personal health; I instead want to write about how I'm starting to view housework not as the thing I "have" to do, but the thing that I have every right to do. 

When I was first hired on as a teacher I knew I'd hit rock bottom when I forgot to pay our light bill. 

Even in graduate school when I was stressed all the time, I had never forgotten to pay a bill. Yet here I was two years later, I had more material comforts than I did in graduate school and certainly more time-saving devices on my hands...and yet I'd forgotten to pay my light bill. Why? I was too busy leaving for work at the crack of dawn and coming home too late and exhausted to think about anything else.

And often we think of housework or cleaning or folding laundry at the end of (or beginning) a long work day as an appendix to our already bursting schedule. Housework and domesticity isn't an escape, but yet another chore. 

But I choose to see it differently. 

After reading Home Comforts, I realized that cleaning and keeping a home involves not only the practical day-to-day chores, but an assertion of our values regarding our homes, our place in them, and the boundaries that we set between our homes and the ever-encroaching outside world. 

In short, it should remind us of "our sense of entitlement to a recognizable standard of everyday living" (Mendelson 12). 

The Mindset Issue

I lead a busy life, so I understand what it's like to come home and want to watch "Cable Girls" on Netflix and forget about the drudgery of the next day. 

But just like I've had to change my mindset about the full-time job I'm not passionate about (it is what funds my dreams), what would happen if I changed my mindset about housework? 

What if housework and the maintenance of a home could be one of the few areas of my life where I felt true accomplishment and success? What if it could be my place of Zen where I could bring order and peace and immediately reap the rewards?

I'm going to think of it this way: I'm not just tidying up and I'm not just hanging up my clothes in the closet--I'm re-establishing the sense of order after a long day. 

Starting Points and End Points

I think this is what's always gotten me about housework: it never seems to end. Or, perhaps, as Mendelson points out: maybe we're just competing with unrealistic standards that are handed down to us from the impossibly immaculate rooms in the magazines. 

Who has an all-white kitchen? What cook can truly cook and create while maintaining counter tops flawless? Bathrooms get dirty and so do bedrooms and living rooms. There's the stuff in the magazines and then there's the coziness we live with. 

The thing is that there should be a starting point and an end point of essential tasks that are done daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. A home can operate similar to a business--no one does everything in one day; there's a time for everything...and the same is true for a home. 

There's a time when we "clock out" and enjoy our labors once we've completed those essential tasks. 

Recognizing the Essentials

If I could complete one housekeeping task that would make the rest of my day easier, what would it be? 

That's the question I ask myself as I hurriedly make eggs in the morning, with only an hour before heading to work: like a GPS I'm always calculating and re-routing to meet my shifting priorities. 

I focus on the task that will make other tasks easier. Usually, that task is neatening my space: folding clothes, putting things back, throwing out the garbage...anything that will establish order so that I can think when I get home from work. 

Everything I do is directed at creating a safe and relaxing space for myself at 5:00 PM, and when you add the fact that I teach several fitness classes per week, coming home to a home that is well-ordered and has some calm is crucial.  

And while for me, neatening is an essential task, for your home it may be something else--but there usually is one task that, when completed, can make so many other tasks easier for you. 

If you've read Home Comforts, I'd like to hear your thoughts. Likewise, I'd like to hear your thoughts on your experiences with trying to maintain a well-balanced home. And now I'm off to do precisely the thing that I've been writing about.

Libet ChangComment