That beast called housework

I missed my opportunity to write first thing this morning and I am out of kilter. The last two days have not been easy. The house seems dirtier then usual and more of a mess given my cleaning lady’s absence these past two weeks, given the difficulties we have of keeping the dog outside, and given the three cats. Given that I’m not interested in keeping up with the housework – I could do it but it would take most of my spare time and I would resent it as countless generations of women have resented it before me – not a lot gets done these days and we live in perpetual clutter.

Mothers are meant to do everything – to cook and to clean, to nurture children, to keep order, to contain pain, to assuage anxiety, to bake cakes and to weed gardens, to paint walls and to set tables, to serve drinks and to hear homework, to nag adolescents and to be flexible at the same time in our approach to them.

The list is endless and after nearly thirty years of being a mother, I am beginning to flag in the housework stakes. I am happy to be the mother of adult and adolescent children, and a grandmother to boot, but I cannot keep a tidy house anymore. Not when I work full time, struggle to complete a PhD part time and want desperately to write in my spare time.

I cannot keep it up. I cannot meet everyone’s needs and expectations. I cannot keep peace between my husband and his daughters when they clash, as well as deal with my own clashes with my daughters and husband, which happen equally often. I cannot be a good and cooperative helpful and deeply intimate wife and mother when I have so much to do, when I have no longer the desire of my pre-children self, when my husband and I used to chat each night for hours and hours, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine till late.

We do not smoke anymore and I cannot drink as I used to drink. I must limit my intake. I no longer enjoy nor can I manage huge feasts of three or four courses. I simply cannot hold it in. My stomach has shrunk. My appetite exists only for writing and blogging and working as a therapist and relating to people, those close to me and those further afield, but I cannot provide my children with a spic and span house, not that my husband expects it, though he’d love it if I tried harder and he thinks that I should have trained my/our daughters to do more housework themselves, instead they expect me to take on the entire load.

All this of course is my own fault. I determined when they were little that I would not impose upon them the same demands imposed upon me and my siblings especially the girls in terms of housework. I especially determined that I would not expect any of my children to grow up like my older sister who had to do all the housework, cook most of the meals and raise the small children in the absence of our mother who was away at work and both unable and perhaps a little unwilling to take up the load herself.

My older sister did it all or so it seemed to me. She was like a substitute wife. I determined I would not put my children in such a position. But in matters such as these we tend to go to the opposite extreme.

Someone has to do the housework. It will not go away. It is a relentless beast and one that will not succumb to wishing.

In recent weeks I have been watching the old TV series, Upstairs Downstairs. They had it worked out in those days it seems, the housework, that is, not the class relations. They were a disaster.

53 thoughts on “That beast called housework”

  1. Thanks, Bonnie.

    I'm all for a balance in the distribution of labour. It's simply that no one here, myself included, wants to be loaded down with responsibility for the beast and given that not one of us will take up the whip, we flounder.

    I do not want to lay blame on anyone's doorstep.

    I know families whose homes are like those in Vogue Living. Most have at least one member who is unemployed and can dedicate their spare time lovingly to the upkeep of their house, or they earn sufficient money like the landed gentry of Upstairs Downstairs to pay someone to keep order.

    Most people I know struggle with the housework beast in one way or another. Thanks, Bonnie.

  2. When I'm faced with these housework dilemmas, I try to lower my standards. I can only manage that for short periods of time. I usually liken the clutter in my home to the clutter in my mind. Right now it's hopeless….so,
    I feel your pain.

  3. Someone has to do the housework… but what if you didn't do it for a week?

    Actually, my wife and I divvy up the work: I do laundry, dishes, yard stuff, and fix the dogs' 30-day food store once a month; she does dusting, bathroom, vacuuming, and desert baking.

  4. You are right, it does take a ridiculous amount of time, this cleaning and cooking and shopping and feathering of the nest. Which is fine when one is inclined. And completely onerous and vexing when one is not. I am right there with you. I am so not inclined right now.

    That's why I would prefer to live in a little Airstream or something. Everyone have a tiny bed to make up themselves. One tiny space for cooking a bit. Then we turn ourselves outside all day. No house, so no housework.

    My husband has wanted to move into "something bigger" for several years and I have dragged my feet. And this is the real reason why. I cannot bear it, I just cannot bear more to have to deal with.

  5. My mom brought me up on the saying, "There is always something more interesting to do than housework." Hence I grew up thinking that all dining rooms had a chair with the ironing pile on it. I pay for not doing housework that would meet most people's standards sometimes–when there is going to be company. But most of the time? I just don't CARE… and have always felt this must mean there is something missing in me… You do so much else, Elisabeth. I feel your frustration, but I just bet you provide your family with things that matter far more… Your piece speaks to some layers of guilt I think in a whole lot of us moms who could not do it all but were somehow expected to.

  6. hahaha! i HATE cleaning too! HATE IT! and i laugh out loud because i'm glad i'm not the only one! hell yes, writing is a better use of your time than cleaning! 😀

    and then i trudge and kick my feet because i know it "must" be done because it won't go away on it's own…. but man, i sure do leave it to the last minute a lot of the time. i've also gotten rid of a ton of possessions so that there's just less, in general (in terms of objects at least), to take care of.

  7. Kass, my standards are not high I can assure you, not when it comes to housework. They never have been though occasionally I can go over the top and scrub and sort for hours. Thanks for your words of encouragement. It's good to hear I'm not alone.

    Well, Mike in a sense i haven;t done it for a week, though that of course is not true and today after I wrote my blog piece above I made up for all my tardiness by getting into an obsessive burst and cleaning out the laundry for the first time in years. Thanks, mike. I'm glad to hear that you and your wife share the load. It's the best way.

    Thanks, Glimmer. What a lovely description you offer here – to 'live in a little airstream', with minimal fuss, minimal cleaning and cooking. Again it's good to hear that I'm not alone.

    I was thinking about your husband's wish to expand and your hesitation. One advantage of space is that you can put things away more readily than when you're cramped for space. Space is one of those things for which I also long.

  8. Thanks, Jeanette, for recognising the guilt. It's a dreadful hangover from my Catholic upbringing I suspect and the fact that my older sister took the brunt of domestic responsibilities while we were growing up and I've never quite made up for it.

    I'm glad that you at least don't care. I'd love to be in that state but when my sixteen year old complained this morning about the place, how much it stank of dog and how ashamed she felt I, of course, took it on myself to share her shame, given my memories of my own shame as a child living in the messiest house imaginable. With eleven occupants, what could you expect?

  9. Thanks, Angela. Good on you for getting rid of useless stuff. The trouble for me is that I'm not the only one with stuff.

    Try urging one of my hoarder daughters to chuck out certain loved objects from the past and it's not possible, anymore than it was possible for me to chuck our loved bits and pieces when I was young.

    Thanks Ocean girl, I'm sorry to remind you but it's there waiting for you, isn't it as it's waiting for all of us, men and women alike.

    Perhaps housework's not worthy of a blog post. It's just one of those things we need to do regularly,like brushing our teeth, showering and going to the toilet and to sleep etc etc.

  10. I go with Quentin Crisp: “After the third year, the dust doesn't get any worse.” It’s a matter of priorities. There used to be a girl I knew once who, whenever you asked her what she’d done the previous night there was always an element of cleaning in there which sounds commendable especially in such a young person but I never understood how her place got so dirty because she was never there to mess it up hardly. I think of it now more as dirt prevention than cleaning per se running around wiping perfectly clean surfaces in case they were dirty. That seems a terrible waste of time. Then again she didn’t read or write or do anything creative. Even music was something to clean to as far as she was concerned.

    The whole cleaning thing has to do with how people judge us. I’ve just finished a lengthy couple of blogs about the writer Alan Bennett and I include a longish quote with him talking about the hierarchy of cleaning implements in his mother’s house. Cleaning was an obsession with her. But really the obsession was not to give the neighbours any cause to talk. The worst thing was to be embarrassed in front of your peers.

    I was brought up to do my share of the housework. It’s never bothered me but I tend to tidy rather than clean. Organised dirt is fine. The main thing I find is to disturb things as little as possible. Carrie does not keep good health and so it would be unreasonable to expect her to do very much. There are chores she does (washing clothes mainly) and there are chores I do (washing dishes and hoovering mainly) although she still insists on cleaning the loo herself; apparently I’m untrainable in that regard.

    A cleaning lady sounds like such a luxury though.

  11. I think it was William Morris who opined that possessions should either be useful or beautiful, or both. Following that advice helps limit one's collections! Another way I've found to manage clutter is if I intend to bring something new home, something already there must leave.

    When my daughter was young, I explained to her that when she was tiny, she could ride in the cart, but as she grew, we needed to pull the cart together.

  12. You did have to mention housework, didn't you? Linda and I have neglected our housework, our attention focused elsewhere these past few weeks, and now it is quite out of control. So we plan to do some serious cleaning today.

    Although, at the moment we have both successfully avoided beginning. Perhaps if we avoid long enough, it will just do itself? Do you think?

  13. The empty nest is far easier to keep straight. But clean? That's another story. This old house is covered with a thick layer of felt-like dust. I like to think of this condition as "blogger house". It doesn't bother me like it used to. Who cares? Are the dust police going to arrest me?

  14. Dear Elisabeth, I have the whole series Upstairs Downstairs, we have watched, me and my wife, all the episodes twice. The actors, the atmosphere, everything is marvellous, those were the same years I enjoyed, from a different perspectives, in The Children's Book, by Byatt, even though Byatt stopped earlier with her story.

    We are great fans of English good old tv comedies, also Only Fools and Horses and One Foot in the Grave, To the Manor Born, Yes Minister, The Vican of Dibley etc. very comic and marvellously interpreted.

    In the nineties we came home from the Uk and Ireland with a bag full of VHS.

    All my best, Davide

  15. Hi Elisabeth

    Early on in the piece, my ex-husband (& still-good-friend) told me he'd 'grown up in a museum and never wanted to live in a museum again…' This took the pressure off a bit when it came to housework and also meant that he was capable of living with & amongst a fair bit of clutter. He has a high level of tolerance with children's collected treasures/projects in various states of development, but wasn't all that observant when things reeeaally needed to be done around the place!

    I love the idea of home as a nest, which means that from time to time it's going to turn into something that resembles a hairdo in a storm! Happy dishevelment is worth every bit of it when compared with the stress that overly-high standards of maintenance can bring?

    As you suggest in your last comment, housework is just one of those things we have to do from time to time – if we can see it as something of choice (as opposed to obligation or government) I imagine there's a chance 'working the house' can also bring a great dollop of pleasure to the nest and its inhabitants.

    The 'museum' comment P made all those years spoke loudly to me — I understood it to mean (and I remain grateful for this message) this… "please let us never have a home that's more about display than it is about comfort…" Which might be considered a fine enough standard when it comes to tending our nests, I think?

    ; ) L, C

  16. Oh, housework is worthy of a blog post. It's the repetitive nature of it that gets one down. But then if the house stayed clean and uncluttered, it would be a stiff, chilly place. I try to do one little thing a day.

  17. Until illness got me recently I used to devote Tuesdays to doing all the housework: cleaning, laundering, even cooking in bulk and freezing the results, so that for the rest of the week I was completely free to write. It was completely exhausting, but worth it. Unfortunately I'm not quite up to doing that again yet, so I sit here in dusty clutter.

  18. Thanks Jim, for your thoughts. One of my daughters wrote an essay as part of her honours thesis on the topic of 'dust'. There's quite a body of theory surrounding notions of dust, would you believe?

    I'm impressed that you're impressed by the idea of a 'cleaning lady'. It's not such a luxury here, I can assure you. It's more a necessity for me otherwise I think I'd drown in the dust.

    Besides she only comes for a few hours on Fridays. She does most of the weekly tasks – toilet and shower cleaning, bed changes – but the daily minute by minute tasks like clothes washing, cooking, clearing dishes etc continue everyday.

    We are not quite at the level of Upstairs Downstairs.

  19. Oh dear, Golden West, you seem to have it sorted out well. I wish I could be as disciplined as you are with yourself and with your daughter.

    Barry I'm glad to meet another avoider when it comes to housework, another avoider and another sharer. It seems to me it's the only way.

    Thanks, Willow. I like the idea of a blogger house that's covered in dust. Mine has become that way. I'm sure too that it will be better once the nest empties.

    Hi Davide. I'm up to the third series of Upstairs Downstairs. I love it for it's microscope on another life and time, however much i am appalled by the mores of that time. I'm glad it's not the same today here.

  20. Thsnks Claire. Your previous husband's reluctance to live in a museum strikes me as very sound. I to like a house that has that lived in feel. There is energy in mess.

    in order to be creative in any way, shape or form we inevitably must create some mess, otherwise nothing new can emerge. 'Home and happy dishevelment are synonymous to my way of thinking. Not chaos but not rigid perfection either.

    You're right, Mim. It's the repetitive nature of housework that is it's greatest disadvantage. You can have a terrific clean up as I did in the end on Sunday after I wrote this post.

    You can feel virtuous and satisfied for some short time, but within hours the mess creeps back and all your good work is undone unless you become rigid about it and then stress levels rise. Ah me. It's tedious.

  21. Thanks, Eryl. When I was young I used to dedicate entire Saturdays to housework, until one day I decided I did not want to give up a full day to the beast. Since then I have tried to break it up into small segments but it's never as good as doing it all in one day. Now I refuse to give up the time and the mess continues.

  22. The question is whether not having spic and span house is disrupting the flow of your energy. Apparently it matters enough that you write about it. So it is because you are blogging more?

    I hate housework. Even if I did not blog, I will find another activity to excuse myself from doing it.

    My children help a lot. Even my son can and will prepare supper for himself and others. Last night he seared Alaskan king salmon and halibut fillets for us. He and his sister also do their own laundry. I love teenagers. They can do things for themselves.

    My house looks like a studio. There are paintings and canvases everywhere. I only make sure we have clean toilets and the kitchen is clean.

  23. Funny to land on this post (I followed your link from Elisabelle's blog) on a day when I posted about getting my kids to do their share of housework! The problem with housework is that it's really not rewarding: as soon as you finish it, you have to start all over again! I found very interesting to read how your self and your interests evolved in the years. Women have the ability to take up (on?) so many roles in their lives.

  24. Thanks, Ces. I'm not sure that the housework has crept up on me because I'm bogging more. It's been an issue for me for some time.

    It's a complicated story and one I can't describe here, save to say that blogging has become a way of dealing with some of my frustrations, at last of sharing them more, but otherwise it doesn't compound the problem. It only highlights it.

    I'm glad your children help. Mine help too, at least basically. It's more a struggle with my own expectations I think.

  25. Francesca, it's lovely to meet you. I agree women take on many roles and tasks and not always with as much joy and pleasure as some of us would like to imagine.

    I also think that the endless repetitions of housework are the worst aspect. It never ends.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  26. I totally agree. I hate housework but I love to live in a spic and span house. I also resent the fact that the wife or mother is responsible for it but you know what? I would hate for a man to be obsessed with housekeeping. That would be too dysfunctional and neurotic in my eyes. It reminds me of that movie with Julia Roberts and that creepy movie husband of hers, I can't remember the title right now. Have a great day.

  27. You know Ces, I think I'd find anyone – male or female – who's obsessed with house work a worry. Best we all keep the mess in perspective. Thanks.

  28. How interesting to read, as I felt being talked about. Makes things however half as difficult to learn that things seem to be alike around the world.
    Am still wondering whether there might be a connection between the amount of housework and size of the city living in.
    A wonderful Wednesday for you.

  29. You know what? I loved your piece for all the wrong reasons. Let me explain.

    Last night I began to prepare a post that will come out in a fortnight and will primarily be aimed at the female bloggers and followers who read my blog. Men are still welcome to join in the debate but the focus is on women. Why? An article a couple of days ago by a British journalist triggered off a whole set of questions to which your beautifully – if also, anxious – post has provided an unintended answer.

    Many thanks. You have probably helped me polish the rough edges of one of the questions I will be posing in a fortnight. Great post.

    Greetings from London.

  30. Your post reminded me how lucky I am. As retired, empty nesters we sold our home when we moved to Florida and bought a small condo reducing my housework drastically. I also have a husband who does more than his share – including most of the cooking.

  31. Housework is a subject of never ending interest. Having grown up in the days when housework was definitely the responsibility of the woman, and having seethed when I returned to work part time and all my husband had to do was give the children their prepared dinner and wash up afterwards. I'd arrive home to find he had not started the clearing up, a and he never wiped down the kitchen bench – that would have shown ownership of the task. When that marriage broke up, I started to look upon household management as one way of being in control of my life, and I like things done my way. Which is not to say I actually enjoy the cleaning and tidying. My sisters and I shared a few horror stories, for example arriving home with a new baby and being asked what was for lunch….
    I do agree that we should do what suits us. And that we should be able to focus on what we consider the most important things in our lives.

  32. Mothers: dear Elisabeth, yes, they have had the most necessary matters of the world on their shoulders ( often whether they liked it or not!), without them most of us, men, would have simply died. Of sadness in particular among other ailments.
    Next post in my blog, in a few days, will certainly be about Mothers.

  33. Mothers: dear Elisabeth, yes, they have had the most necessary matters of the world on their shoulders ( often whether they liked it or not!), without them most of us, men, would have simply died. Of sadness in particular among other ailments.
    Next post in my blog, in a few days, will certainly be about Mothers.

  34. Well Robert, I'm not sure whether there is a connection between the amount of house work and the size of the city in which you live. Maybe.

    Maybe the size of the city also influences the size of the house. For people living in apartment blocks in Europe say compared to the large mansions in some of the middle suburbs of Melbourne, places like Templestowe there's probably more house work per square foot.

    But then again as I've observed elsewhere, if you have more room in which to spread out and store your stuff you are less likely to have so much clutter visible and therefore less actual housework as a consequence.

    Thanks Robert.

  35. Hey Cuban, I'm looking forward to your forthcoming post for female bloggers. I shall endeavour to answer your questions. In the meantime I'm working ion the georgraphical ones from Niamh's post. Thanks, Cuban.

    Thanks, Dave. Despite my ostensible anxiety on the matter of house work, I will try as you suggest, to 'let it hang'.

    I'm glad you're a lucky empty nester, Jane, but surely you've had your share of housework too, even with a supportive and helpful husband.

    My husband cooks too but when he does I tend to take on the role of 'sous chef'- the one who tidies up during the cooking process. I do this for any of them, my husband or children who cook. When I cook, I tend to do without a sous chef. It's self imposed therefore.

  36. Thanks, Persiflage. It goes back a long way, the business of housework and women's role – in the home.

    Though maybe it also relates to women's ability to 'multi-task'.

    I still feel a strange shiver of pride when I remember overhearing my husband say to a friend shortly after I'd had one of my babies and he was at home looking after the older children while I was still on hospital.
    'She as an amazing ability to tidy up after her as she goes. After she's bathed the kids. Just a wipe of a towel and everything's done. For me it's a major operation.'

  37. Mothers and housework, Davide, the terms seem to be synonymous. Of course they're not, but still we see them that way.

    I thought my mother was lazy when I was a child. The house was always in a mess. Now I recognise it differently. There were nine of us children. How could any one person keep up with so many and not have a mess unless they turn their home into a boot camp.

    Thanks, Davide. I look forward to your forthcoming post on mothers.

  38. We like to watch this show on cable with two British ladies who find disgusting places people live in and then clean them. They're a real hoot to watch.

    Stephen Tremp

  39. Thanks Stephen. It can be fun watching other people work, but I find my impulse is to pitch in. I'd feel too guilty otherwise. Thank goodness they don't have interactive TV. I have enough of my own mess to deal with.

  40. Wood you believe…
    I have no idea of how much dust
    has settled inside me spacious innards.
    My house works without my help.
    No one has complained, so I think I'm good. 🙂

    Hello there! Branching off, UT

  41. Good to meet you, Uncle Tree. Are you related to those folk from 'The Faraway Tree'?

    A tree must be easy enough to keep clean, as you suggest in your comment here. A house that works without help. Lucky you. Thanks.

  42. how wonderful to find this post, and timely; i have been reading and thinking about this exact thing a LOT this last two weeks. i just finished The Bad Mother and also read through a few articles and studies…one article in particular was interesting from NYT which I may link to in my blog..i think i want to write about this too. it's amazing how chaotic things became externally without the patriarchal setup..although not amazing at all i guess, things always fall apart before we figure out how to put them together satisfactorily.

  43. Hi Maggie May. Thanks for your comment. I haven't read The Bad Mother, but it's a loaded term isn't it? How easy it is to be a 'bad mother' , even without trying and especially even when you try not to be one. I look forward to checking out your link to this topic. Thanks.

  44. When I was a boy my parents did just about everything for us kids and we weren't required to work, and to do the dishes etc and I actually knew that something was wrong..I needed to badly to do more things myself. I wanted to be made to (as this doing is also learning and I knew that even as a child) – not by bullying but by some degree of strictness. I envied my friends who "had to" do more – in one family of four boys – boys note – the parents had the sons doing all kinds of work around the house and they liked doing it…mostly they did well. Childeren like to participate.

    The difficulty is motivating them or organizing them and I know your dilemma as my teenage kids were pretty hard to get activate…

    One (I haven't seen him for years personally though) is now a prominent professor at A.U. in the area of bio medicine.

    One mistake they made was too push the children too much (expecting too much of them) and one son had a break down. But the aspect of getting them to pitch in was good.

  45. But I agree that if there is a man and woman together it should be shared, and that needs to be openly negotiated at the right time… but certainly not put on the woman to do the main work. Men have hands.

    [Of course any number of people need to share such work.]

  46. Thanks twice over Richard.

    It's a difficulty most parents have in that so often in a bid to improve on our parents we go to the opposite extreme.

    I can imagine that my kids might push their kids harder vis a vis housework, but who knows.

    Sometimes it takes more than one or two generations to bring about significant changes, though in fifty years time we might have machines to tidy up after us.

    We'll most likely be dead by then and not be able to enjoy the benefits.

    Never mind.

  47. Elizabeth

    Yes. My children mostly grew up quite well despite me!

    With every progress there is a step back. I did envisage a house that somehow maintained itself but we are long off that!

    Most people in the world have to struggle without even any appliances.

    I liked that 'Upstairs Downstairs' – also I loved 'Are you Being Served?'

    Re servants etc the book and film 'Remains of the Day' by Ishiguru is great. It connects to fascism as it set before the 2nd WW, and how it can arise. Also repression of various kinds, and love. It is a book in the tradition of the best of Dickens.

  48. I haven't read the book, Remains of the Day, Richard, I'm ashamed to say, but I saw the film, which was wonderful.

    The thing I find about blogging is that we tend to post on things that matter to us, at least i do, and then after awhile I begin to feel that my latest preoccupation has worm thin, but it's still there as a preoccupation. All these simple and boring domesticities, and yet they are-in part at least-the stuff of life. Thanks Richard.

  49. Wow, a good writer AND an Aussie! I'm so impressed! In spite of my threat to throw myself under a bus for doing this, I am so pleased and delighted that you found me and thus, I, you. Don't you like to take pictures? That's the only thing lacking in your very interesting and well-done blog. Thanks for looking me up. I have one follower from Germany whose blog I can't make heads or tails out of since it's in German. I figure it must be my dogs that caught his attention. I'm so glad my newest international blog buddy speaks English! I look forward to getting to know you better. Thanks again so much, it means a lot to me to have peoples' support, it really does. I'm glad my sarcasm didn't throw you off.

  50. Thanks for your comment here, Donna. I'm not very good at picture taking, less so at downloading them onto the computer. So I plan one day to share pictures but in the meantime I'm word heavy.

    I'm mindful of this lack and I promise to attend to it one day, one day…

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