Cleaning Up My Act

Why does cleaning the house feel so damn good?

Why does cleaning the house feel so damn good?

If you are anything like me, you love when your house is clean.  A clean house to me has always been synonymous with serenity, a sense of control over my surroundings and well-being. When the house is a mess, I feel like a mess. But why?  And why sometimes, would I rather clean up than do things that are fun?  What would happen if I just let it all go to hell?

I hear lots of my friends and fellow suburbanites saying that they can’t do A, B or C until the house is picked up.  It’s as if the house has a pull that directly conspires to keep you from doing things that you want to do.  Except…many of us actually would prefer to do housework than do things like spend time with our children.  In Jennifer Senior‘s new book, “All Work and No Fun:  The Paradox of Modern Parenting,” she states that in our incredibly busy and achievement-oriented society, we are easily bored with things like helping with homework and reading a story.  Instead, we are playing a script in our head of what we can do next to tick off our to-do list.  Women, the ultimate multi-taskers, are particularly guilty of this.  While we highly value time spent with our children, it is not as directly satisfying as scrubbing some toilets.  I know, that’s fucked up.

So some pretty reputable psychologists have actually studied this phenomena and it’s fascinating what they have discovered.  In particular, with our levels of cortisol.  Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands in response to a variety of factors including stress.  Doing something active, something with your hands such as gardening or cleaning is known to be useful in alleviating depression and effectively lowers cortisol levels.   For dual income husbands and wives, this particular study looked at cortisol levels in response to having to do housecleaning after a day at work.  The results found that women spent more time after work doing housecleaning tasks while the men did more leisure activities.  The women’s cortisol levels only dropped when the men helped out with the cleaning.  But get this, the men’s levels only dropped when they were engaged in leisure AND when the women were busy doing the chores.  Okay, I get it.  Housecleaning is laden with heavy work and heavy expectations.  But does it have to be that way?

While all this is compelling, I still wonder why sometimes I can feel like I am in a goddamn reverie when I am cleaning.  Maybe it’s because I feel like there is so much out of control in my life that just getting that one room clean or that one pile folded or that one bed made feels like a mini-accomplishment.  Maybe it’s because my grandmother raised us to believe that a clean house reflects well on you, often exclaiming, “this place looks like a whorehouse after a fight!”  Maybe it’s because I am sensing forward movement where sitting at a computer or in front of a television feels stagnant.  Maybe it’s because my mother was and is the tidiest and most organized person I know and I feel like I can never fully live up to her dazzling spectacle.  And, yes,  maybe sometimes I am avoiding something I don’t want to do like paperwork or talking to my kids about sex.  Can I talk to them about sex while I’m mopping?

But I also find that I do some of my very best thinking when I am cleaning, particularly in an empty house.  It feels like a meditation, really.  Meditation is about shutting out the world and going in.  When I am cleaning, I can do that.  Attending to the small things in life:  getting out an ink stain on my husband’s shirt, sewing a button on my daughter’s pants, cleaning the windows to let the sunshine in, enjoying the fresh smell of clean sheets while making my bed, finding a lost bracelet while vacuuming under the couch.  These, to me, are not moments devoid of meaning.  They are actually fulfilling in simple and unexpected ways.  Look, life is busy and hectic enough.  But paying attention to the small things is how we show love.  At least that’s how I think of it.

How do you houseclean your life?


The beautiful photos are the work of Barbara Paulsen.  Her house is always clean.

Getting- And Staying-Hitched

Look at those two crazy kids.

Look at those two crazy kids.

After Valentine’s Day last week, I started thinking a lot about marriage.  About yours, mine and those that surround us.  About the neurochemistry in our brains that causes two people to click.  About how marriage looks in the suburbs.  About the future of marriage as we know it.  I mean, is it important at all to even be married?  And most importantly, to me anyway, what it takes to keep a good thing going.

Recent brain science tells us some pretty cool stuff about coupling and why we are drawn to our partners.  There are four personality types as defined by preeminent “love” researcher, Helen Fisher, a bio-anthropologist at Rutgers University.  There are builders, who are focused on family and who they know.  There are explorers, who thrive on adventure and doing.  There are negotiators, whose passion is introspection and who are interested most in feelings and finally, directors whose focus is intelligence and thinking it through.  (Single ladies! Or not! Find out which you are here).  Mostly we are drawn to others of the same type but apparently any type can match up and be successful if you are willing to do the work you need to do.  Like swallowing the fact that you are not right all the time.  And ignoring that irritating little thing he does with his lip when he’s looking for a parking spot.

Does it sometimes feel like things are fucked up in marriage land?  When I was growing up, people waited to have kids until they got married.  Not many parents were divorced, but the numbers seemed to go up and up as I got older.  A lot of people waited until they got married to have sex.  (I don’t know many of those people, but I know they existed.)  Also, “cougar” type couplings were pretty rare and, at the time, men were still the expected breadwinners.  None of this seems to exist anymore, which mostly is a good thing.  Nowadays (do only old people say “nowadays?”), it seems, people have babies without getting married.  Or ever planning to get married.  They get divorced and remarry all the time!  It’s not even a big deal.  Women are heads of households all over the place!  In terms of female sexuality, it’s actually women who are more turned on by novelty than men.  Really!  Is everything I was taught about marriage passe?  Am I, in fact, a dinosaur?  Are my notions of marriage quaint?  While I think lots of these things are great, why do I cling to the whole “til death do us part?”  When I look at my wedding photo, I see a much less worn version of me: my hair it’s natural brunette without a hint of gray, my smooth skin, flat pre-baby belly and my lovestruck eyes.  Hell yes, I can see how my perspective is a little, well, dated.

Now, I am going to do some cheerleading here for long-term romantic relationships, so be prepared.  Yes, “hook-ups” with someone new are exciting.  Ah the stomach flipping, the obsession, the constant checking of your messages,  the staring at each other for hours.  There’s nothing like new love.  Except, as it turns out, old love.  In new studies on long-term pairings, Helen Fisher has discovered that some of the feelings we have when we are hot on that new stud are interpreted by the brain in the very same manner as those of us who remain with our tried-and-true.  This area, known as the VTA (ventral tegmental area) , is responsible for how we respond to food, money, drugs and other highly addictive goodies.  That’s right, babe.  Everything old is new again.

In the study, people were shown photos of their long term partners.  Their brains were hooked up to see which areas lit up and bam!  Neural activity jumped in areas of the brains that process rewards, motivation, reinforcement learning and, get this, survival.  This means that the same guy who can’t get a dirty shirt into the laundry basket to save his life actually sustains your life.  Wow.  The studies also showed that these partnerships were associated with proximity seeking (wanting to be together), alleviating stress, greater calm in face of adversity and improving responses to pain. As far as sexual frequency, the long term couples’ brains equated cravings like hunger with a need for sex.  So whether you get hungry once, twice or 7 days a week, you want it.  Bad.  Now, it should be stated that the couples involved in the study were actually in love and not in one of those marriages where you wonder, “how the hell did that happen?”

Anyone who has been in a relationship for an extended period of time knows that there are ups and downs.  Sometimes the spark gets dull.  And sometimes it is hot.  All long term relationships go through this, and it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of a relationship that stands the test of time.  After all, don’t the lows make you appreciate the highs even more?  Sometimes I think how great it would be if we were back to the time when we first met, with all the new gooey love.  Not being able to sleep or eat!  Sheer in-loveness!  Staying in bed all day! Starting a movie at 10 pm!  Sometimes I feel nostalgic for, even envious of new love.  But I wouldn’t trade our now for our then; looking at the fabulous humans we created, the home we built together and the wool socks-flannel wearing-cozy-newspaper reading on a Sunday morning-kind of love we have now.  So what that we are relics?  I’d do it all again.

You're the one I want to be with for all the days to come.

You’re the one I want to be with for all the days to come.

Thanks to Barbara Paulsen for the beautiful photos in this post.  

Control Geek

You gotta go to this salon.

You gotta go to this salon.

Last weekend, this really cool thing happened.  My kids had been trying, for like a month since our anniversary, to have a “spa day” for my husband and me.  We kept putting them off.  We’ve got soccer today.  You need to get your homework done.  I’m too tired, etc. etc.  A lesser set of kids would have given up, but no, they kept at it.  And we finally had our spa day.  The day (not even a day, an hour!) that they had meticulously and sweetly planned.  You’d think I would be looking forward to it.  But no.  I winced at the thought of it.

What’s wrong with me?  Why can’t I just stop doing the laundry (dinner prep, dusting, cleaning, organizing, etc.) and enjoy the gift my kids are desperately trying to give me?  Why can’t I allow them to do this incredibly thoughtful thing?  Well, the only reason that I can come up with is not one I am particularly proud of.  I like to be in control.  Now I am not too keen on the control freak lingo.  It makes me sound fucked up and I’m not.  (But a geek?  I can totally geek out on neuroscience and pop psychology and yoga.  So yeah, “geek” is better.)  Besides,  a true control freak manipulates, pressures and is empty in a spiritual way.  I just want it to go my way.  Like, all the time.

Is this you?

Here in the suburbs, there is a lot of shit to do.  And worry about.  We have to do the carpool tonight.  Your friend found out her asshole husband is cheating on her.  You walked into your son’s room and mistakenly thought a bomb had gone off in there.  You have a deadline, a PTA meeting, a cold sore.  Your to do list varies from call the plumber to make an appointment to renew your anti-depressant.  Damn, it’s no wonder you’re feeling a little overwhelmed!

In your brain, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released when things are clicking and going your way.  You know, your kid got an “A” on his report card, someone told you that you looked good in those pants, you got out of the house this morning without yelling at anyone…you get it.  This neurochemical makes you feel good in the wake of these often unexpected good tidings.  But then, when things aren’t going your way, those neurochemicals (your friends:  neurepinephrine, oxytocin and seratonin) stubbornly do not release.  This is when you feel out of control.  This is when you feel powerless.

But wait!  Good fucking news!

There are other ways to open the feel good neurochemistry floodgates.   You actually do have control over your neurochemistry!  First of all, you could go straight for carbs.  That will do it.  Just don’t OD on them, you’ll only feel worse.  I personally recommend a slice of bread with butter.  Delish.  (*note* not five slices, just one).  Sadly, with carbs, the seratonin boost is short-lived.   If you want a boost that lasts longer, choose sex.  An orgasm.  That’s a surefire way to get your brain in a good mood.   Husbands:  you’re welcome.

Get a double whammy and go outside to exercise.  The light combined with aerobic exercise are known ways to increase seratonin production.  Also, hugs!!  Not a quick one, it has to last like up to 10 seconds for oxytocin to do it’s thang.  Positive social interactions also support your brain in a myriad of ways.  This means happy hour with friends to some.  To others it means bible study or book club or a sports bar for the game or quilting club.  Whatever floats your boat, but it has to be something you look forward to, not dread.

News flash!  You do not have control over your life, your child’s life or your spouse’s life.  You do not have control over whether your neighbor cleans up his yard either.  But it is up to you to make space for happiness, for quiet moments and for getting deep.

So when your kids have a spa for you, let go of your to-do’s.  Yes, the manicure is a little messy.  Yes, the hair stylist hurts you when she brushes your hair.  Yes, the massage therapist does this awkward poking-like hand motion.  But it all feels good anyway.

Because you let it.

Are you a control geek?

I'm in the process of getting over myself.

I’m in the process of getting over myself.

Above image credit:

What the Help!!

I'm thinking about help:  needing it and asking for it.

I’m thinking about help: needing it and asking for it.

Here in suburbia, it’s not always the land of picket fences, two car garages and expansive green lawns.  People need help. And I mean all kinds of people.  For us, the requests from our daughter’s elementary school have been coming in at a fairly rapid clip.  Licorice sales, nights of childcare, read-a-thon, jog-a-thon and every other imaginable a-thon.  When I was growing up, hell, the shit was fully funded.  Not now.  And it’s not just schools, it’s every other social service organization that’s been forced to cut its budget.  But you know what?  Your friend, the one who’s getting divorced with three kids?  She needs help, too.  Lots of it.  Only she’s not asking.

Why does it seem like the ones who need it the most are the least likely to ask for help? Could be a whole host of reasons, such as fear of judgment by others, of losing the perception of being “strong” or “independent,” or maybe they just don’t want to feel like they would somehow owe you.  In a recent study done by the Fetzer Institute on the neuroscience of love, compassion and forgiveness, it was found that as we experience fear, our capacity for trust diminishes.  When we need to trust other people in times of need, that pesky little amygdala  is activated, causing us to hesitate, to hedge our bets.  It might be safer to not ask for help, because we might lose our standing as the one who always gets it done.  We might be perceived as having a crack in our armor.  In our society, there’s not much worse than that.

A dear friend of mine once told me that the only real friends you have are the ones you can call to help you move.  Having moved more times than a vagabond, I can honestly say this is true.  Maybe it’s not a move.  Maybe you found out your husband is cheating on you.  Maybe you screamed at your kids.  Maybe you want to leave your job.   Any time you need help with something that seems huge and overwhelming, you want someone who:

  • shows up.  Does what they say they will do.  Plain and simple.
  • will not string you along, as in, “I might be available, I’m not sure, I’ll let you know.”
  • will not be disappointed that you may, in fact, fuck up sometimes.  So maybe not, like, your dad.
  • is not uncomfortable with someone asking for help, for example, someone who would NEVER ask for help.
  • is honest and will hold a mirror up to your imperfections.  And you let them.
  • won’t try and out-misery your misery.  That’s the worst.  It’s hard enough to ask, right?
  • is not a blabbermouth.  You know who.
  • is not the person who gives and gives and gives and never lets you give back.  Then you feel like a user.
  • just gets it.  That’s all.

Here’s the thing too.  People want to help!  In a study published last year at the University of Oregon, people’s “feel-good” areas of the brain lit up when they engaged in charitable giving.  Structures such as the ventral striatum and parts of the frontal cortex became more active, just as much as if they themselves had received a check.  But, as any charitable organization knows, it all rides on the ask.  How do you ask for help, anyway?

It doesn’t matter if you are asking for a thousand dollars or a ride home for your daughter.  Tough to do, either way.  The danger, however, is that your stalling will cause your problem to snowball into a full blown avalanche.  It’s hard not to be freakish and panicky when you ask someone to watch your kids the next day because it’s, well, the next fucking day.  What would have been a lot easier to do a week ago is now incredibly difficult.  Keeping  it simple.  Women, it seems, are particularly guilty of this.  We give too much background information, seeking pity, when what we truly need is some damn help!

Everyone needs a little help sometimes.

Everyone needs a little help sometimes.

When I think about the things that bring me the most satisfaction and joy, it’s the ways I connect to my friends and my family.  And that often means helping them in small, seemingly meaningless ways.  But I know how it feels to have someone really have my back and do something for me that, although small, felt absolutely essential at the time.  My mom putting a cold compress on my forehead when I had a fever.  My husband forwarding me a useful article.  My friend bringing me a cold 7-Up  when I was hot and dehydrated.  You know how it feels to receive the sweet embrace of a loving gesture.  A gesture so filled with meaning that “thank you” seems a meek and hopelessly inadequate phrase.  But say it anyway.  It’s enough.

Compassion is more than fundamentally human, it may even be a life extender.  Michael Poulin of the University of Buffalo is doing research now that says that compassion decreases your stress hormones, which lead your chemistry to go haywire and result in inflammation and all kinds of bad mojo churning in your body.  What’s important is offering help to someone you care about, so comforting your colleague who loses her job is more important than volunteering at  a shelter or someone else where you are not emotionally invested.

So, the next time you need some help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.  Think of it this way:  you are giving your friend or neighbor the opportunity to extend their lives and reduce their stress!  How great a friend are you!  I mean, you would do the same for them.

When’s the last time you asked for help?

Nailed it, Lennon.

Nailed it, Lennon.

Many thanks as always to Barbara Paulsen of Mt. Hood Mama photos.  I asked for her help.  I knew she would.