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.