I’ve been thinking a lot lately about anti-housework memes. It always surprises me when I see someone talking about housework (or not doing housework) on social media. Someone will post about spending an entire day doing laundry, or hours cleaning the kitchen, which sounds like a nightmare to me! Another of those topics is “adulting” and how nobody wants to adult. When I was 17, I used to write in my journal about how I couldn’t wait to have my own place; I’d make lists of housewares I thought I would need. I couldn’t wait to “adult” and I established myself as my own head of household at 18. I probably felt the same way about having my own kitchen as most teenagers feel about getting a car. Maybe the difference between people who talk a lot about how much they hate housekeeping, and those who don’t mind and just get on with it, is that we are expressing autonomy in two completely different ways.
What I hear from people is that they feel oppressed by societal expectations and that other people are JUDGING THEM about their homes. This is tied inextricably to the feeling of BEING JUDGED about body image. We act like we are constantly under the scrutiny of this evil cabal that wants to force us to become Stepford Wives. When we leave dirty dishes in the sink (or on the coffee table, or on the desk, or on the toilet tank), we’re like the Rebel Alliance, demonstrating that we are independent thinkers. When we leave dirty and clean and dirty and clean (hard to tell sometimes) laundry in piles around the house, we’re showing that we have better priorities and we’re too smart to waste our time on such trivial matters. This is why there are so very many variations on the themes of “Dull women have immaculate houses” and “A clean house is a sign of a wasted life” and “Excuse the mess, but we live here.” We’ve somehow conflated living in chronic clutter, grime, and disorganization with personal sovereignty, passionate living, and creative inspiration.
It’s a false dichotomy. Despite the propaganda, there is no reason to assume that a dirty house inevitably leads to happier children or better parenting. There is no reason to assume that a dirty house guarantees a fully and passionately lived life. There is no reason to assume that a dirty house leads to more or better artistic production.
I think a dirty house is a symptom, not a cause. A dirty house can be a symptom of power struggles. A dirty house can be a symptom of ambivalence or conflict about life choices. A dirty house can be a symptom of chronic illness, physical or mental. A dirty house can be a sign of stress and burnout. A dirty house can be a symptom of emotional distress. A dirty house can be a symptom of lost hope, lost direction, lost purpose. A dirty house can be a sign of boredom and dissatisfaction. A dirty house can be a statement of anger. A dirty house is often just one casualty of a life in tailspin. There is nothing about a dirty house that calls out thriving, flourishing, or being in love with life.
Sometimes, though, I think a dirty house is just a sign that nobody who lives there has any better ideas.
There are myriad ways to look at housekeeping beyond the stunted, undeveloped version that involves resentment and contempt. The key to finding a more positive vision of what home can be is to imagine something beautiful, personal, compelling – a place that truly reflects how we feel and what we want. Not what we don’t want, what we do want. Not a house that says I HATE DOING DISHES or I HATE LAUNDRY; is that how we define ourselves? Is that the first statement we want to make every day? A house that says I LOVE and I LIKE and I ENJOY and I PREFER.
Perhaps it’s a house built around a library. Maybe that includes a collection of Victorian armchairs, lamps, and stained glass.
Perhaps it’s a house built around a bedroom. Maybe that’s something exotic, like a Moroccan theme, or maybe it’s more like something from the golden age of Hollywood.
Perhaps the heart of the house is a kitchen styled like a 50s diner, with vintage dishes and embroidered tea towels and a cute apron.
Perhaps it’s a treehouse, with a ladder that can be pulled up or let down to invite a special guest.
Perhaps it’s a tiny home, something that allows constant travel, or a few weeks here and there with friends or at the nation’s most fascinating landmarks.
Perhaps it’s not a house at all, but a luxury hotel room or the stateroom of a cruise ship, which may be cheaper than home ownership for a single person.
None of these fantasy rooms includes a pile of laundry or two days’ worth of dirty dishes. Isn’t that strange?
I’ve been allowed into some homes in my day that most are not privileged to see. The reason is that the inhabitants are embarrassed or afraid for anyone to see how they live. There have been real and justifiable fears that unveiling the home to strangers could result in eviction or lost child custody. I accept that a sacred trust has been placed in me, that I am now standing in the inner circle. I respect that I’m a guest, a temporary visitor whose access can be revoked at any moment. That is the core element of my work. I’m not there to recreate my living environment in someone else’s home. I’m there to discover the buried passions and deferred dreams, to excavate the alternative and more meaningful life they would prefer to live.
I’ve also visited some homes that are a privilege to visit for a different reason. Opening the door is like entering a different world. Even the most ordinary space in the most ordinary apartment complex can be transformed by the power of personal vision. One friend had no furniture in her living room; all she had there was a stereo on a low table, because that was her dance, yoga, and meditation room. Another friend had a canopied bed in the living room, replete with color and cushions and tassels and fringes and exotic fabrics, because the “bedroom” had a door and she needed office space to meet with her clients. Another friend had built her home herself, with help from friends, and she had a mural on her ceiling. After a few years, she bought another house in the same neighborhood and started all over again. Every doorknob, every stair tread, every floor tile was carefully chosen, installed, and finished to her tastes. You couldn’t walk a foot in the door without your jaw dropping open. These were three different women (one a single mom of a preschooler – can you guess which one?) who CHOSE how to live. None of them had a single sock or plate out of order. The reason they kept immaculate homes is that they lived a vision of their own creation. They LOVED their houses, and it showed.
I clean my house because I’m the boss. I want it to look the way I want it. My husband has delegated this to me, because it’s not important to him beyond being clean, organized, and not fugly. Also, I work at home, and since I spend at least three times as much time in the house as he does, it’s much more a reflection of my work life than our love life. If you came over, you wouldn’t really see evidence of either, because one is digital and the other is private. You’d just see clear surfaces. You wouldn’t see dirty dishes or dirty whatever, because taking care of those tasks is something I see as an insignificant part of my daily routine. I just get it done. Laundry and other tasks need to be nothing more than a blip on my radar. As you may have noticed, I spend significantly more time writing about cleaning than I do actually cleaning!
I have total autonomy over my life. I’m married, yes, and I’ve made a blood oath to my man and his family that involves certain agreements and responsibilities. Within those constraints, I go where I want and do what I want. So does he. We both travel a lot, separately and together, and we have our own work and passion projects. If there was some way to quantify these things, I’m ready to bet that we would score in the top rank on interesting and fulfilled lives. I am not dull – neither is he – and we haven’t wasted our lives. If you come over, we figure you already know we live here, and we don’t need an “excuse the mess” sign. We don’t need defensive refrigerator magnets because we have nothing to be defensive about. We do what we want, and so should you. It is my wish that you do whatever it takes to feel the fulfillment that you deserve. Reframing the necessity of doing laundry is a vital and underestimated part of that.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.