Cleanliness is next to cleanser in the dictionary: a deliberately controversial post

Why do we have to train our kids to want to be tidy?

Yes, we need our kids to be polite and respectful of others’ spaces.  They need to know the basics of how to clean a floor or a dish or make a bed or whatever, because some day they may be a guest in someone else’s house and when you’re in someone else’s house you need to be a good guest.   But why do they need to get uneasy, unhappy, upset, etc. when a room isn’t clean?  Isn’t the ability to deal with a little bit of mess a much more important skill than the need to make sure a room is clean?

Many (but not all) women I talk to can’t even comprehend this idea.  They look at me like I’m nuts.  Eyes narrow.  Conversation gets really awkward.  Cleanliness really is next to Godliness and is something we should all be striving for and God hates those who don’t clean up after themselves.  Usually it’s women who are SAHM or who are WOHM but always stressed out and complaining about not having any time and having husbands who don’t help out enough that are most unable to comprehend the idea.   Really, just let things go.  It may even help your relationship!

(For some reason, I’ve never met a man, other than the rare case who has been formally diagnosed with OCD, who seems to have this hang-up.   A pathology in men is the social norm for women.  IBTP.  Also:  think about the implications this situation has for gender division of chores in a game theoretic framework.  The person who cares is the one who does the work.  The one who does the housework gets to relax less at home.  And bam, you’ve just supported a Gary Becker hypothesis about wage-gender differentials.)

But I think they *can’t* let things go because having things cluttered really bothers them.  It gets down deep into the craw.  And yet they want their children to have the same disability.  The same visceral need to have the place be spotless.  As if it’s a virtue.

I don’t mind a house being clean, but I don’t mind it being messy either.  Messy houses are more comfortable.  Clean houses are more like places one goes to visit.  Both have their virtues, but neither one bothers me.  Obviously there’s a problem with broken glass, rusty nails, excrement etc… but that kind of thing is not going to be an issue with the average family (even if news reports make that kind of thing seem more common).

We don’t have a house-cleaner.  We don’t need our house to be spotless.  We don’t need it to be tidy.  If company comes, we clean.  If stuff is in the way on the floor, it gets moved out of the way.   It doesn’t take that much cleaning to make sure that the kitchen and bathrooms aren’t going to be giving anyone salmonella.  Things that need to be found in a hurry are organized (like spices or paperwork).  But that level of cleanliness sure as heck doesn’t require the fly-lady.  Or spending $80/week on a cleaner.

Disclaimer:  We are NOT saying there’s something wrong with you if your house is clean.  If you have the time or the money and it’s something you value, go for it.  But if you don’t have either and it’s stressing you out, we feel bad for you.  Sure, one solution might be to somehow find time, money or family support to get things shiny, but another is to work on being more comfortable with something less than perfection.  And the ability to live with imperfection is a gift we should give all our daughters (and sons).

Does your house have to be clean?  Do you need to train your kids to become neat and tidy?  Does a made bed (Gretchin Rubin’s hang-up) or kitchen sink you can see your face in (flylady’s thing) make that stress you didn’t know you had go away?  Are you unable to function in a cluttered environment?  Do you worry about “what others must think”?  Does a messy house make you feel like less of a person… less of a woman?

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79 Responses to “Cleanliness is next to cleanser in the dictionary: a deliberately controversial post”

  1. eemusings Says:

    Tidy doesn’t always equal clean. Although I grant that a messy room to the onlooker may be more likely to look dirty.

    I’m definitely not tidy. I’m not filthy but I’m not super clean, either. (I would like our house to be cleaner, and no doubt it would be if I lived alone.) When we buy a house I would like a cleaner to do the occasional deep clean, which I loathe.

    I never make the bed. I don’t see the point.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My dad used to make us make the bed because his mother used to make them make theirs, because SHE was raised to think that unmade beds were Low-class. Sigh. Me, I never make them, ever!

    • Well Heeled Blog Says:

      I don’t like making the bed, but I do love the feeling of getting into a freshly made bed. Unfortunately, lacking a dedicated bed maker, that job falls to me. ;)

  2. Thisbe Says:

    I am a messy person, and we have house animals. So things are often messy, and often not exactly clean. I feel apologetic towards my partner when my messes get out of control, and that sometimes but not always motivates me to get them out of the way. We are working on developing and putting into place household systems of behavior that make it easy rather than difficult to do cleaning and tidying.

    We do not necessarily clean before people come over, although if it sounds like fun we might.

    I do have emotion about the house not being clean, left over from my childhood. I am working on defeating this. Intellectually and poetically, I subscribe to a notion of the practice of cleaning laid out by Annie Dillard in For The Time Being – which is that the reason for cleaning is not cleanliness (which doesn’t last), but to keep from being buried.

  3. mom2boy Says:

    I was made to vacuum as a child. I hated it but I think it’s because we had one of those insane vacuums that drags around a bucket of water with it. Wtf?

    I’m not unhappy with my clean and tidy house or with taking the time to keep it that way.

    However, do you ever look at women with a tidy appearance and think if only they could wear wrinkled and stained clothes how much less stressed and happier they’d be? I totally stress about clothes and appearance. I can’t wear jeans and flip flops in a business setting or to work. I like getting dressed up every now and then but having to everyday makes me not as happy as I’d otherwise be. However, I picked my profession knowing this. So it is what it is and I deal with it. I’m not staging a revolution but I totally BTP.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      However, do you ever look at women with a tidy appearance and think if only they could wear wrinkled and stained clothes how much less stressed and happier they’d be?

      No, not unless they look visually uncomfortable or complain a lot. I don’t generally think that much about other people’s appearances beyond the superficial, “that looks nice,” (or more common, “What does that shirt say?”) now that I no longer live in SoCal.

  4. Leah Says:

    For what it’s worth, my husband is more picky about clutter than I am. I tolerate some clutter in areas. But, for me, our mess comes down to usability. I don’t like stuff on the floor, so things end up the coffee table, couch, or dining room table. That means that those spaces are less usable, and that really does bug me. I can let it go during the week when I am busy, but I typically do a tidy-up every weekend. We’re working on having spaces for what we own/use so that things really can get put away.

    I will say that I am likely more into cleanliness as a product of a dust allergy. On our coffee table is my camera, a warm icepack and a towel, some socks, some paperwork, a binder, and a wiimote. Those don’t bug me. But I do pick up dirty dishes every time I see them, because I don’t like dirty stuff to sit around.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We keep dirty dishes in the kitchen and dining room too– anything that can grow things or start smelling bad or attract insects is taken care of. Usability makes sense too. In general pragmatic cleaning makes sense, which is why our spices are organized from A-Z or my office gets a good organizing the moment I can’t find a specific piece of paper.

      I also have a dust allergy, but have found if you leave it alone it’s less painful. It wasn’t until I discovered Swiffers (which are not particularly environmentally friendly) that cleaning dust off became less allergenic than leaving it be. (We still mostly leave it be.)

      • chacha1 Says:

        I loooove my Swiffer. It may not be environmentally friendly but it sure is a time-saver.

      • Cloud Says:

        Practical note of no relevance to the actual topic of the post: the microfiber dust cloths work almost as well. But I still use the swiffers, because I can never remember to wash the microfiber ones. I think an endangered forest animal just cried when I typed that.

        I agree that my allergies/asthma are worst when I’m removing the dust- I actually wear a face mask with a filter if I have a lot to clean up- but I’ve found that if I just let it be, it will start making my asthma worse after about two weeks.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        What ends up happening is I let DH take care of any dusting/vacuuming and I do wet things like bathrooms.

      • Leah Says:

        yes, husband is the duster in the house.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Is it wrong that I’m wondering how mine would look in a French maid oufit? Maybe a butler outfit…

      • Leah Says:

        mine looks snazzy in a suit. a butler outfit might just work. Except I usually ask him to dust while I am out.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, I generally hide out in a bathroom or outside or someplace where dust is not being moved around.

        But I still like the mental image– partner as Jeeves!

  5. Perpetua Says:

    I agree with your general points, especially as I was raised by a woman (who worked full time) obsessed with both tidyness and cleanliness until she could not relax in her own house and she was always angry at every one for not living up to her standards. (As a teenager, I used to think, why does everyone else have to live YOUR standards? We’re members of this household, too.) I think as a cultural artifact this makes sense, as you pointed out – women used to be homemakers. Keeping a tidy and spotless house was their work, and one could judge each household by how neat and tidy it was, just as men judged each other by how neat and tidy their lawns were (and if they were farmers, how clean their fields). So in that respect, I can totally see why it’s still like that, even though I agree that it *shouldn’t* be like that anymore. .

    I never like my mom’s fixation on the house and don’t have it myself – I’m very aware of the ways my house does not live up to her standards (I do not clean my floors on my hands and knees; I do not keep every surface spotless). At the same time, I have some friends whose houses make me think, “Man I could not live like this!” because of the level of messiness and uncleanliness that feels disordered to me (though clearly not to them, and I don’t think any of it is a reflection on anyone – they are packrats, and I’m more of an ascetic – clean lines and empty spaces. I don’t want a lot of stuff around).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The pack-rat thing I think is different… if you don’t bring stuff in the house, it can’t accumulate.

      Though I’m always a bit bewildered by the constant decluttering posts that go up on many PF blogs. Where do people get all this stuff to declutter?

      I mean, I do understand the kids stuff… that comes in the house at every holiday whether we want it or not. But in general it seems like if people spent less time buying the perfect tchotchke, they’d get to spend less time cleaning said tchotchke and then ultimately decluttering those same tchotchkes. (I don’t get bric-a-brac. I also like clean lines and empty spaces– I’ve always admired East Asian decorating.)

      Some tchotchkes do come as gifts (which have their own level of obligation depending on one’s cultural background) but I don’t think all, or even most, of them do.

      • Debbie M Says:

        It’s a problem when you think you need to own everything cool you ever see, as if your house is a museum. And it’s also a problem when you decide to get the very highest quality things for a whole bunch of activities that you don’t ever quite get around to doing but you might one day (sports equipment, craft stashes, tools). This is especially a problem in areas when new and better stuff is constantly being invented (electronics). And you can’t really toss the old stuff in case the new stuff turns out not to be better after all. Or if it breaks, it’s nice to have a back-up. Or if someone needs it, you have an extra to give away.

        Actually, even low-quality things can accumulate, like interesting-looking magazines that the library’s giving away and like ads and coupons from that mail that we “should” look through.

        The fact that “shopping” is an activity people do as a treat when they have time or when they are bored is also a problem, even if it’s just food shopping.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        You’re doing the YMoYL thing– does your guy have any interest in reading it? Maybe the section on gazingus pins would be illuminating to him!

        The nice thing about having money is that you can treat Target or Amazon as your storage– if you find you really need something you can buy another! And if you don’t need to buy things just to have them on hand, then you can have more money to buy what you need when you actually need it, even if it’s not on sale.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Oh, the stories I have heard about things he always wanted and when he finally saved up to get them, they were no longer available!

        He is slowly realizing things like that he should get rid of books he knows he’ll never read again or lend to anyone. Like the ones from the authors who are so great that you want to read all their books, except that you really can’t deal with the horror ones or the military ones. And the tools he has better versions of now and hasn’t used in years and never will. And sometimes he decides to sell his collector items.

        He doesn’t like to read non-fiction, but he is happy to listen to me talking about the cool parts from it. So maybe I’ll bring up gazingus pins. Some old ones of mine are degrees, books, movies, and whooshy skirts (even if they have no pockets). He may know some current ones of mine. Then we can talk about infinite t-shirts, tools, books, computers.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Amazon and ebay have really fixed the problem of not being able to find things again. It’s amazing. (Yay technology!) Yes, sometimes the used thing costs more than the new one, but if I really do need it, it’s worth it and worth not having the storage cost.

        Our gazingus pins are books, but we’re not letting go. :) (Though we do tend not to keep books we’re not planning on reading again– we send them to the relative who is a reader or each other or paperbackswap etc., because that makes room for more books. Mintingnickels has a great post on how to sell books.)

        I have a hard time letting things like clothing go (generally this is DH’s clothing… “But this is a lovely shirt and you look great in it” “But I never wear it”…) but about twice a year I get into the goodwill spirit and he gets rid of as much stuff as he can without me minding. And I say goodbye to things like that adorable little dress that was totes appropriate for 20 year old me, but even if I get to be that size again, I can’t wear it. When the spirit hits, it’s a good idea to purge as much as possible! (Because you can always buy it back if you need it… but most of the time it turns out you didn’t need it.)

  6. hush Says:

    Amen. Meet my husband circa 2009 – not OCD, but cared way too much about clutter just like the “social norm in women.” He wasn’t parented well… Therapy rocks… blah blah snore… You can change the way you choose to think about shit… Case closed.

  7. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    When I finish a big bout of grant writing, I enjoy “clearing the decks” in my office: dumping the f*ckeloade of paper–paper printouts, grant drafts, etc–that accumulates on my desk and dusting it off.

  8. Cloud Says:

    Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. Our house is usually pretty cluttered, but I love coming home on the day that the cleaner came to a clean house. When I was laid off, we ditched that right away, and I cleaned every now and then. Before we had kids, we had no trouble keeping our little two bedroom apartment to our standards. I have allergies and asthma and dust mites are one of my triggers, so I do need things swept, dusted, and vacuumed periodically- it seems to be every two weeks keeps me healthy.

    We prefer to clean up the kitchen every night- mainly because that keeps it from seeming overwhelming.

    But I don’t worry much about tidying up for most guests. We make sure you can walk in our living room without stepping on a toy, and if the bathroom is looking skanky we spot clean it. We also sweep the kitchen before Chinese lessons because the teacher takes her shoes off and comes in barefoot, and we don’t want her leaving with a bunch of crumbs and junk stuck to her feet.

    We don’t make the kids clean up their rooms at all times- only the night before the cleaner comes so that they can get an adequate vacuuming and dusting. The living room probably gets tidied up once a week or so.

    And I totally don’t feel the need to make my house look like it has been professionally staged at al (or any) times. I get that some people enjoy makign their home look beautiful- I am not one of them. I enjoy a lot of other things more.

    Anyway- I guess I occupy the middle ground on this one. But I don’t judge other people by their housekeeping standards, either- whether they are cleaner or messier than me.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We only judge when they don’t shut up about how much their “messy” house makes them miserable and how they hate the rest of their lazy families for not doing the same level of housework, or not doing it correctly.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Also:

      I think we must not have been clear on the point of the post here.

      We weren’t talking about the state of people’s houses. We’re not even talking about people enjoying having a clean house, especially one that someone else has cleaned.

      We’re specifically talking about how the *need* to have something spotless or it makes them miserable. And how they believe that need is a virtue rather than a disability. And how this belief is primarily forced upon women, who perpetuate that belief upon their daughters.

      It’s a level up from preferences for cleanliness, it’s unhappiness from things not being spotless.

      • QueSera Says:

        I come from a family of men who believe in cleaning and will clean up the house when their wives don’t. My dad, my brothers, my uncles, etc. all like things tidy and clean. So does my FIL. So in my case at least I’d say that I didn’t get it from my mom. Our place was cluttered when my dad was out of town and we’d clean some before he came home, but he’d clean more when he’d get home. I expected my husband to be the same way when I got married and was surprised when he wasn’t. Even visiting my cousin, I watched him vacuum, do laundry, mop, cook, etc. After they are done, then they watch TV or relax.

      • Cloud Says:

        OK, I get it. I think that in general, you’re going to be less stressed and happier if you can accept some clutter and even a little dirt in your house- particularly once you have kids.

        And I agree that our culture pushes an ideal of a clean and beautiful house on women- look at all the magazines and shows dedicated to showing you how to get that perfect look, or giving tips for decorating.

        I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with enjoying that. I have an Aunt who is an interior decorator, and she does some really great things and makes her clients very happy. She is also great at coming over and telling me how I could rearrange my furniture to make our living room feel less crowded, etc., which made me happy.

        But… I think we’ve gone overboard on this. I picked up a “woman’s magazine” at a store recently, trying to find a treat for me that doesn’t involve chocolate and calories. As I flipped through the pages, I came across a list of decorating tips, and one was “tassels are the earrings of the home”. That made me laugh because I thought: “This? THIS is what I’m supposed to spend my mental energy on instead of having a job? You have got to be kidding me.” And again, if figuring out where best to put tassels in your home is what makes you happy- go for it. But don’t try to sell me that it is an essential part of living, and that if no one in my house gives a rat’s ass about tassels, something essential is missing from our home. That’s nonsense.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        When I come home and my partner has made the house spotless and shiny (something he does sometimes when he’s under stress at work), that brings me happiness (the underlying stress does not, but somehow cleaning or baking helps him sort through whatever is bothering him… I think it provides a sense of accomplishment and allows him time to think while doing something productive). But when we’re busy and our housework focus is solely clean underwear and dishes, that doesn’t cause us additional stress.

        There’s nothing wrong with enjoying to clean or enjoying a clean house, as we said in the disclaimer. It’s the opposite– the unhappiness– that’s the problem. And the idea that there’s something wrong with you as a woman if you, or your children, don’t feel that unhappiness.

        I don’t have earrings, so I don’t think my house needs them either.

      • Cloud Says:

        Ooh, I clean when stressed/angry, too. Something about making a pile of clutter go away is therapeutic, particularly when done to the accompaniment of loud music. I think you’re right that it also give your body something to do so that it doesn’t get in the way while you mind solves the problem.

  9. Liz Says:

    The title of this post made me laugh.

    I’m a bit unsure where I stand on this. I am a very organized/neat/tidy person. I like my home to be neat, my office desk to be neat, and my computer e-desktop to be neat. If things are cluttered, it stresses me out. But, I am really quite indifferent to things being clean (ie; floor scrubbed/vacuumed, bathroom sparkling, surfaces dust free, etc) and generally don’t bother with these things until someone is coming to visit or I start to worry that things might be growing in th sink. This works for me for now, as I live alone but will have to re-evaluate when I move in with my partner, who has differing opinions.

    Growing up, my family had a lot of discussions/arguements about cleaning and who was to do what and how frequently, etc, because my mom felt that things did need to be clean but she was busy and generally disliked cleaning as much as I do. I think it was more about keeping up appearances for visitors as opposed to our own day to day living. The day my parents hired a cleaner was a fantastic move for them and notably decreased family arguements.

  10. rented life Says:

    It too me a minute to remember the other meaning of fly-lady. Where I grew up there was a woman we called fly-lady–she comes to hoomes every fall to spray homes against flies. So at first I was like “Well who *needs* that to have a clean home?”

    I don’t like making cleaning a women’s issue. I think there are more clean men out there then we realize but they don’t find the need to TALK about it. (My brother for example…his apartment is always clean/tidy. period. He’s one of many guys I know like that.) I feel like this conversations validate making it a woman thing. I mean, why do we need to talk about how essy or clean our home is (to anyone?) Why do we need to encourage each other to accept messiness (which stresses me out btw. I don’t like clutter, I don’t like mess, I don’t think it’s because I’m a woman), and why do we need to push cleanliness on others? I just flat out don’t get it.

    FWIW, it’s not just people with kids who have these conversations, though apparently it’s just people with kids who get notice on most topics.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Well, I don’t try to push messiness on other people (because, honestly, I don’t care, except when people complain about things that don’t need to bother them and expect me to agree with them, it irritates me) unless they bring up the cleanliness stuff first. It isn’t something I actually think about on a regular basis, except that other people (and, in my experience, always women) bring it up.

      I’m sorry to hear that clutter stresses you out. If it doesn’t impact your life, then it’s no big deal, but if it does, then why not try to stop being stressed by it? The world would be a less stressful place if such things didn’t stress people out.

      • rented life Says:

        I’m not sorry about it. I don’t want you to be. I’m just saying if I decide to not have clutter, mess, etc b/c it stresses me out than that should be just as ok. Telling people they should not have messy homes, etc just because you’re ok with it isn’t much better than the conversations you’re complaining about. I don’t understand these conversations anyway, why can’t we just leave people alone? So I decide to have my home one way, another person decides another way, so some things stress me out, some things stress others out…so what? I just don’t get why these things need to become such issues. Why isn’t it ok that if something bothers me I do something about it instead of trying to not be bothered? if I can fix it, why shouldn’t I? (Obviously, this doesn’t apply to things you can’t fix–those you shouldn’t stress because…well you can’t do anything about it anyway) If I do better with less clutter, why can’t I fix the clutter rather than just not be stressed…I just don’t get these issues.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        If it makes you feel better, you can feel sorry for me for disliking goat cheese with a violent passion. Many people do feel sorry for me about my goat cheese dislike, including #2 and several of my family members. I don’t mind people feeling sorry for me about it, and at some level wish that goat cheese didn’t taste so foul since other people seem to get so much enjoyment from it. I would much rather enjoy a beautiful goat cheese tart than have to spit out my first and only bite.

        Many of my food dislikes have gone away with repetition and being open to things (blue cheese, for instance, used to make me unhappy, but I kind of like it now). Goat cheese is one that has not, quite possibly because I can taste a chemical that only a minority of the population is genetically pre-disposed to taste. I’ve also never developed a taste for anchovies, but so long as I avoid high quality Cesar salads, anchovies don’t cross my path to give me unhappiness very often.

  11. Debbie M Says:

    I agree with you perfectly. It’s nice to have things clean, but I’m fine with clutter, ESPECIALLY when you’re in the middle of a big, messy project.

    Except–I now live with someone even more comfortable about clutter than I am. After a decade, this means that quite a lot of my stuff is behind piles of his stuff. So I can’t get to it, so I may as well not have it. I miss some of that stuff.

    It also means I never want to invite anyone over. So I haven’t had a party in years. I miss parties.

    It also means it’s harder to take care of things. I went out the other day to touch the water heater to see if it was the kind that felt hot, and thus I could reduce energy use by getting a water heater cover, or if it was the kind with good built-in insulation. But it turns out I can no longer get to it because stuff is piled all the way to the ceiling in front of it.

    Having parties sort of looks like it motivates him to clean, but really he just stuffs things into storage without properly sorting them. Now all of our storage areas are completely stuffed, bottom to top, and thus completely useless to me. He even bought a whole extra storage unit to use as a holding area so he could sort through stuff without risking any of it getting rained on. Now that storage area is also completely stuffed.

    He often re-buys tools he knows he already owns just because he can’t find them. That drives me nutso.

    He seems amenable to me just saying, “Hey, let’s spend an hour cleaning,” but for some reason I really hate doing that. I know I have an irrational dislike of asking people for favors and that includes crazy stuff like calling companies for information, so it’s something I should work on. But I’m really not going to even try when he’s sick or when he just spent hours fixing the car or mowing the lawn, etc.

    Things are mostly just piled up against the edge of the room, so the magazines are overflowing in the magazine rack (I no longer keep any of mine there), the shelves have books and things piled up in front of them, the dressers have clothes piled up on top of and in front of them, etc. So we can easily get through the house and do virtually everything we want to do. We clean the kitchen daily and always have clean clothes. The build-up has been gradual with no particular thing being a problem except that eventually it adds up.

    Back to the original question, I think kids should be taught to keep common areas neat and fairly clean but allowed to do whatever they want within their own private areas (even if that’s just the inside of some drawers) and deal with the consequences. In families with allergen problems, you may have to be a bit more strict with some things. But then I don’t have my own kids, so that opinion doesn’t matter much.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It sounds like the clutter has gotten to the stage where it needs to be dealt with for efficiency reasons– at work I organize my office whenever I can’t find a paper I need. Buying a tool because the old one can’t be found does sound like a good reason to declutter and organize.

      I agree that it sounds like y’all just need to spend some dedicated time sorting through stuff. Maybe do a goodwill run or a garage sale to get rid of duplicate tools and things. Don’t be afraid to ask to spend time on it!

      • Debbie M Says:

        He does think differently about efficiency than I do–he’s so proud about how much he can stuff into a closet or refrigerator, but then I feel that it makes everything inaccessible. (I can literally take something big out of the freezer and not be able to figure out how to get everything else back in!)

        At least he agrees that re-buying stuff is ridiculous! And he knows that having to pull everything out every time you want to get to something is over the top.

        He’s finally over his flu, and though this has been one of the most stressful work weeks of all time for him, I’m still going to ask. And we should also discuss which areas are public and which are just his. And why I have needs for empty space(?!) in storage areas that I use.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Spring cleaning can be a fun family activity, especially when combined with donation (keep the receipt if you itemize!) or selling.

    • Quail Says:

      “I think kids should be taught to keep common areas neat and fairly clean but allowed to do whatever they want within their own private areas (even if that’s just the inside of some drawers) and deal with the consequences. ”

      Yes, I totally agree with this. And that a person should, at some point, live in a small apartment with roommates to teach them the common areas lesson – because I think that was a hard lesson to learn as a kid who grew up in a rather large house and never saw the reason to not have my stuff in common areas (aside from getting in trouble for breaking the household rules.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        When #1 and #2 lived together in a single dorm room, we learned that we needed to separate the room so that we each had our own dedicated space for our junk. With the rule that if #2’s junk got into #1’s dedicated space or vice versa that junk could be jettisoned (politely) back to where it came from.

        Definitely good training for sharing a living space with a more permanent partner!

  12. Quail Says:

    I’m a messy person. I leave dishes everywhere around the house and my clothes, books, papers etc are scattered on every surface. Luckily, my spouse and I have the same level of cleanliness: we both get to the point where a kitchen counter is un-useably cluttered or the laundry has taken over the bedroom floor and we both clean.

    When I was first married a few years ago, I was much more concerned about cleaning. I think it was subconsciously a “wifely” thing that I should clean but also a feminist thing that *he* should clean, goddammit. Once I got over that and realized that no one in our household cared (except for the cat and his litter box situation) my life has been better. It’s much better that we both just let it go and both clean when there’s either guests coming over or too many piles to effectively live in the apartment.

    The only thing that really squicks me out is the bathroom – specifically, the toilet rim. I am not squeamish about cleaning it but I just do not understand why it must get so, so dirty. But since I don’t have to see it, that’s a pre-guests operation.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I hear you on the toilet thing. I have just hired some cleaning people to come clean the bathrooms and kitchen. I feel uncomfortable if there’s NOT clutter around! But sooner or later someone has to clean the toilets. Clearly, my partner and I both think that that someone is not us. And that’s ok. (If we had less money we might have to fight about it.)

  13. oilandgarlic Says:

    I just think many women are more “brainwashed” by magazines/websites/blogs etc..! When you’re exposed over and over to images of perfect-looking houses, you want to duplicate that.

    I personally don’t like too much clutter or mess (and neither does my husband) but I don’t mind a messy, lived-in house at all. Like Quail, I do have a “thing” about toilets, so I’m usually the one cleaning it. I don’t mind if it’s my immediate family but it was harder for me to clean it when we had guests all using that 1 bathroom and I was the only one cleaning it. yuk…

  14. mom2boy Says:

    “The person who cares is the one who does the work.” Only in an unbalanced situation which I think is really at the heart of the unhappiness you are hearing.

    We don’t have an equal divide but we have an equitable one and we are both quite content with the arrangement.

    • Cloud Says:

      Yeah, the problem I have with “the person who cares is the one who does the work” is that it ignores the fact that there may be some very valid reasons one person cares more than the other. For instance, since I have asthma, a dusty home can literally make me sick. With a different sort of husband, I might be the only one who cares about the dust. Even with my current husband, who believes in splitting chores, I sometimes have to remind him that the dust bothers me for a good reason.

      Even without the (physical) health issue, it seems that an (emotionally) healthy couple could discuss the issue and come up with a solution that works for everyone. But saying that often gets me in trouble!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        The actual game theory problem we did in grad school involved roommates who were just together to split the rent, not romantic partners who cared about each other’s utility (and listening to some of the folks who complain, one thinks that their joint utility functions do not look like the loving daisy petal that couples who value their partner’s utility as their own have). Obviously the roommates needed to work out a system of side-payments to deal with the problem… but that’s a solution from a different class.

  15. Obsessing Over Cleaning « Clarissa's Blog Says:

    [...] is an interesting quote from a blog I follow: Many (but not all) women I talk to can’t even comprehend this idea.  They [...]

  16. bogart Says:

    I love the way you’ve framed this. I think we’ve already established that I am a messy person. I embrace that (as I say to friends: I can go for a walk in the woods, or I can vacuum the house: hmmm …). There are both pros and cons to the reality that my DH and do each actually care that a few things are clean(er), but they are not the same things (pro: more stuff gets cleaned than if we both focused on the same items; con: we each think — correctly, from our individual perspectives — that the other person is totally neglecting the few things that really matter).

    My mother totally got dragged into the game theoretic problem you mention. Conversely when my brother visited me once (I was not only messy, but in grad school with falling apart furniture, etc.) and looked askance at my set-up I said, “I don’t want any man to imagine I’m going to clean up after him.” My brother replied (drolly) “I don’t think you need to worry.” Right. Got that covered!

    As an undergrad years ago I took a couple of Soc courses that looked, basically, at the (gendered) implications of the built environment. Varies some by era, but basically houses (etc.) are built with the assumption that someone will be caring for them, and who that someone is and how visible she (sic) should be, and so forth. E.g. the position, size, and visibility of kitchens has changed dramatically over the past 50 years (and more).

    When we remodeled the front half of our house I put a lot of thought into layout, ease of cleaning, and so on (I insisted, for example, that cabinet doors must be vertical panels — no nooks for dust). We also chose a sink that is not shiny: take that, flylady! And one of the most brilliant things I did was get a board the width (3’?) of that section of cabinet and the depth of the counter installed just to the side of the fridge, on rollers, in the cabinetry. So when you come in with grocery bags or have to get a bunch of food out (and the counter is cluttered with yesterday’s dirty dishes, or whatever), you just pull out the board and put stuff on it, and then roll it back in when you are done). Also, it is at a height about 6 (8? I forget.) inches lower than the counter, making it an appropriate height both for a child and for someone seated (including if in a wheelchair, I am hoping to age in place, let’s remember) to work. I love it.

    I was amazed at how unenthusiastic our builder, a family man and ostensibly a feminist/equal partner — and maybe he is — was at my insistence that things be built to make life in the house easier. He was always like, ” … but couldn’t you just [walk 6 more steps to get to the stove, whatever]?” No, I couldn’t. The building is getting done once. The walking will be done over and over and over throughout my lifetime. Mind you the fact that we hope to live in this house for many, many years makes my insistence more logical; I can see where someone is redoing a house they don’t expect to stay in, or building a house for someone they don’t know (aside: I am always amused when I see a listing for a “custom home!” Custom for whom? Someone other than me, clearly, as I wasn’t consulted.).

    I do like a made bed, and manage this by sleeping under a comforter in a duvet so that making the bed consists of grabbing each of 2 corners (my side, his side) and pulling them back up to the head of the bed.

    • bogart Says:

      Oh … my sloppiness notwithstanding, I do actually pay attention to what I consider to be safety issues. We have neatly hung, reachable fire extinguishers in logical locations (and they are charged). I always make sure that the path from my bed to my son’s bed and to the exterior doors is clear of clutter before bedtime, and I also clear (or have him clear) the floor around his bed of ditto as he has from time to time rolled out of bed (it is not far from the floor — about 18″ — and the floor is carpeted. He usually sleeps through the experience, no joke. But no one wants to land on a toy dump truck…). If I had the remodel to do over, I would pay a lot more attention to getting less slippery tile for the kitchen floor and the entryways, and I do promptly soak up any liquid that falls on them because when wet they are treacherous.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Brilliant! You’re a regular Lillian Gilbreth!

      One of my colleagues was very insistent that she wanted an old fashioned kitchen you could close the doors to when company was over.

  17. chacha1 Says:

    My house doesn’t have to be clean. I don’t have kids; I have cats, who are responsible for about 70% of the not-clean, and cannot be trained to not shed. I make the bed in the morning before work, but mostly because I don’t want the sheets covered with cat hair and toe-pickins at bedtime; my sink wouldn’t be shiny if I polished it eight times a day, because it’s a 30-yr-old much-scarred enamel rental special. I hit it with Soft Scrub when there is company coming.

    Certain things are important to me. There is a minimal level of clutter I can live with easily, but clutter that goes beyond easily-picked-up-in-a-half-hour does bug me. Mostly because I *am* the cleaner, and if I let things accumulate past a certain point, it means it takes me more time to do it than I want to devote to it.

    So I am all about the quick daily minimum. Our furnishings and finishes have been quite deliberately chosen to facilitate easy cleaning (closed storage, glass-fronted bookcases, leather upholstery, wood floors).

    Peace and comfort are FAR more important to me than a spotless, antiseptic home.

  18. chacha1 Says:

    I’m trying to think about my women friends in the context of clean house fixations, and they are all so wildly different. One is nearly 20 years older than me and has three or four cats in a tiny, tiny, Craftsman cottage that she has spent a ton of money renovating. It’s full of books and cat hair and sawdust. One is currently living mostly out of an RV as she and her husband explore the country; their “home base” apartment is minimalist. One works at home with a husband who works from home, and both are borderline hoarders. They have a cleaner who comes in every two weeks who basically polishes the edges because anything else would involve moving something. One is a multiple-hobbyist in a carpeted condo with two cats and an also-multiple-hobbyist husband (he’s our dance coach as well) and both are more inclined to enjoy their hobbies than to obsess about levels of cleanliness.

    When I think about these various homes, I doubt that I spend more time actually cleaning than any of them, but my apartment is A) bigger than I need, and B) relatively decluttered – so that a little effort shows up more, if that makes sense.

    I am a little house-proud, I think, but I certainly don’t get stressed out or miserable if I haven’t had a chance to (or been inclined to) Swiffer or dust or scrub the bathroom sink. My hormones sometimes direct me to devote more time to my nest, and I go along with them.

  19. First Gen American Says:

    The psychology of cleaning and order I think can be discussed on so many levels. I clean to feel in control, so I often do it when stressed and my room was never as clean as it was right before finals time. I also clean as a way to procrastinate other even ickier things that I don’t want to do..usually work related. I have this burning need to be productive, but at the same time not wanting to use my brain. Hey presto, cleaning has come to the rescue.

    When I broke up with one of my ex’s, he went to his garage and organized his tool box. My old boss (who’s on the messy side) was like…happiness is a messy toolbox because when you’re running around organizing that stuff, it means that you don’t have anything better to do.

    I like having a clean house but it’s more about having control over my surroundings than it is about my gender. My mom is very messy and could never remember where she put stuff. It was tough living like that and being inefficient and constantly losing stuff.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I like organizing things. It makes me happy. (One of the things like best is alphabetizing books. I’ve been known to do it at the public library just for fun.) Some people (despite Carol Channing’s claim otherwise) like cleaning, and more power to them.

      The problem, and what I think is the gendered thing, is the innate displeasure that some people get when something is messy, or the question, “What will others think?”

      And it makes sense to need to clean when you can’t find something right away or if something is dangerous. That’s not what this post is about. There are levels of clutter where it isn’t easier to buy another tool to replace the one you can’t find because either the tool is where it belongs or you know where you last saw/used it. And that level of clutter still drives some people crazy. It makes them unhappy. It makes them angry at their families. Dealing with making the unhappiness go away takes time away from things they’d rather do. Doing something to remove irritation is different than doing something to bring more pleasure.

  20. becca Says:

    I only feel the obligation to tidy once a month (or rather, once every 28 days, precisely. My mom has this too. Someday, I will do the study to figure out what is regulating my moonstral cycle to make me want to clean!). Or when I’m REALLY MAD. When my house is abnormally clean, stay out of my way!

    My Carebear is a LOT tidier than I am. Though I get yucked out by dirty bathrooms more easily, everything else bothers him more. (hmm… my Mom used to pay me to clean the bathroom, and that is now the thing I see most as “needing” to be done- maybe by paying me my Mom communicated that was important? I still certainly don’t get majorly stressed about it, but I do find more satisfaction in a clean bathroom than a dirty one). We hire someone to clean to keep the peace. It’s nice to not have to do the dishes some of the time too.

    Also: making your bed is bad for you, if you have allergies to dust: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4181629.stm

    @Debbie M.: I’m always so excited to be invited to a party, I would never think to judge the messiness (besides, I’ve seen worse). The world Needs MOAR MESSY PARTIES!

    • bogart Says:

      @Becca — ha! The MOAR MESSY PARTIES bit (which, yes) reminds me of 3 cohabiting friends in grad school who decided to host a party. Two went out to get stuff and came back and the 3rd was cleaning, the other 2 were like, “Why are you cleaning beforethe party?!”

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I love this so much. God yes. The trick is to have friends whose houses look kinda similar to yours in terms of junk level. We all live in our houses, and we’re not trying to pretend that people don’t live there.

  21. mareserinitatis Says:

    I will have to disagree but not because I’m an obsessive neat-freak. I was raised by a mother who really had no idea how to keep things organized (or at least couldn’t explain it). I never was able to get a clear handle on what needed to be done to keep at least the most basic level of cleanliness and organization in a house. Then I met my husband, and he gets very stressed about clutter. To be perfectly honest, I really hate that I can’t keep things more organized. I have learned a lot about cleaning from my husband, but neither of us really likes the level of cleanliness. We have someone come in once a week and do the bathroom, vacuuming, and floors and stuff like that. It’s clean that way, but it still looks like a tornado went through. And it doesn’t help that it’s in a perpetual state of remodel.

    I have learned to accept the mess, but I still hate it. I find that internally, it’s a real stressor. I really like having things ordered and neat simply because the clutter makes it hard for me to focus on the things I need. I can’t work at a messy desk, and I can’t relax in a messy house. Unfortunately, I am so busy I just don’t have time to address is adequately. So really, it’s something that’s internal to me. It’s not that I’m worried what people will think, but it violates my internal sense of balance.

    • Cloud Says:

      You can learn to be more organized! I’ve taught my husband some of my tricks, and we’re both happier as a result. We keep the clutter manageable with very little time invested- roughly an hour every two weeks to get it all super tidy for the cleaner to come (we don’t pay her to tidy, so she only cleans surfaces that aren’t covered in junk). Maybe 10 minutes if we have some reason for wanting the clutter levels reduced in between cleaner visits.

      I don’t want to offer advice where none was requested, but I also hate to leave a teaser, so:

      My biggest things are (1) things have homes, even if they aren’t in them right now and (2) we set up processes and systems to help us avoid cluttering mindlessly. An example of point #1 is that I bought plastic boxes for art supplies and papers, so that it is obvious what to do with the crayons or what not. An example of point #2 is that we got a console table to put by our front door. There is a tray for mail, so it doesn’t end up strewn across our dining table. Also, a drawer for keys, so we can always find them. Basically, any clutter that is bugging us, we look at and try to come up with a system that keeps it under control without much noticeable effort.

      My husband has started to come up with his own systems without my input now- he says that once he started looking at it as an engineering problem and not just a mess, he could see solutions.

      • bogart Says:

        “(1) things have homes, even if they aren’t in them right now …”
        See, this is what stumps me: some things don’t have homes. I get that this is a problem and I am responsible for solving it (if it bothers me, and sometimes it does), but based on experience to date I am not very good at it and/or don’t care enough to learn.

      • Cloud Says:

        If it isn’t bothering you, it isn’t a problem!

        Or, as someone once said on a parenting forum I read- it isn’t a problem if you hate the solution more.

        Homeless items bother me, so I invest the energy to give them all homes. And money- my most common solution is to buy a bin or some other container. For some reason, stuff sorted into containers is fine with me. Stuff stacked on tables is not. I freely admit this has no rational basis.

      • bogart Says:

        Yeah … I think it falls in a grey zone, i.e., it bugs me enough that it *might* count as a problem, but solving said problem often (apparently) bugs me more. I’ve put it a long-term goal category, I guess …

      • mom2boy Says:

        I remember a conversation, I think on Cloud’s blog re organization, where I confessed to not being particularly adept at organization. My solution is always to throw/bag things up to give away if they start to overwhelm me. Currently, the little toys have bins in cubbies. Books have shelves. The number of big play sets are limited. Mail gets sorted and chucked almost daily. I have very little emotional attachment to things. Other than that we are fortunate to have a house with a decent amount of closet space and a garage. I am extremely fortunate to have picked a master organizer to live with. And not be parenting a baby anymore. And Santa brought a mutt that doesn’t shed. Oh happy day.

        I think what you (N&M) are trying to say is that this “distaste for any and all clutter/dirt/dust” is a Donna Reed sort of unrealistic expectation and if women who can’t manage to find a happy balance could just accept that they (and perhaps their husbands) have been sold a false bill of goods re the need for spotless perfection, they’d be happier/less angry with life?

        (My aunt had a kitchen with a swinging doors that kept it a separate room. I thought they were the coolest thing as a kid.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Sure, why not. Though that’s more of a potential pathway rather than what we’re actually trying to get at. (Although that is the point Cloud made earlier, and it does fit with the story.) Really we’re trying to say something more general.

        It’s also that there isn’t a virtue in feeling uncomfortable or unhappy when things are cluttered. (And this is something I did feel… for about a week before my kid was born during the nesting stage. I basically told my father to go home if he couldn’t stop leaving dirty spoons on my spotless kitchen counter. Normally that doesn’t bother me.) We shouldn’t moan about how our kids are learning to be comfortable with clutter because being comfortable with clutter is freeing. It’s one of the greatest gifts our own parents gave us. It means we can partner with spouses who aren’t neatniks (and on average, gentlemen are less so than ladies and are more able and more willing to pay someone to clean if they are). It means that we can just not do housekeeping when life gets busy without adding additional stress to our lives.

        If cleaning brings happiness, do it. Doing things that make you happy (so long as it hurts no one) is a good thing. If clutter brings deep unhappiness then that’s a problem.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Wouldn’t you be happier if your internal sense of balance weren’t violated?

  22. mareserinitatis Says:

    Maybe that’s what I need to try. I think the big thing is that I feel like I have to have a good chunk of time to accomplish anything. I also am beginning to think that we simply have too much stuff. If I didn’t have so much, I could keep it better organized. In fact, my husband is one of the neatest people I know, so if he can’t keep it clean, no one can. (And I have learned a lot from him on this front.) I am starting to spend time trying to get rid of things, not just organize. I think that does more than anything else.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      On the one hand, I hate it when people tell me I should get rid of things. I like having things! OTOH, sometimes I get into a big organizing spree and donate a lot of unused and unnecessary things to Goodwill, and it is SUCH a great feeling! I feel like I have really accomplished something when I take bags of things out of the house, and cleaning doesn’t give me this same feeling. My partner and I both work equally towards filling up those donation bags. This happens maybe 3-4 times per year.

  23. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I feel like you guys are talking about me LOL

    Ok so here is MY deal as much as I can understand it. I am actually sort of figuring this out as I go because I’ve been thinking about it lately after my mom made some comments the other day.

    My mom loves cleanliness. Her mom stayed at home and my mom was a single child for ten years until my uncle came along and he was the last of the children. So my mom grew up with a mother who did not have to work at all. So she cleaned. That was her work (and didn’t cook, my grandfather did). And that’s what my mom grew up with and my uncle too. My mom and my uncle are clean-freaks. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think a lot of it is what you grew up with and it’s hard to escape that.

    My mom was a stay at home mom until I was 8 and even though I have two younger brothers, my mom cleaned and cooked and cooked and clean. I honestly do not remember my mother complaining about any of it. She would complain about our rooms being a wreck and wishing we would at least do our part but as far as the general housework went, I honestly don’t recall her complaining. To this day she maintains she enjoys cleaning her house and wishes she could do it more often (she works now). I grew up in that environment.

    Now there’s me. When I want to clean something, I love it. The thing is there is no sense to this sort of thing. This weekend, my favorite thing to do was wash the sliding glass doors with vinegar and water until they were practically invisible. Why did I want to do that? I dunno but I just did and I liked it. I do like to clean when I’m stressed or angry. And I think it’s because it plays into the whole instant gratification stuff– especially these days with cleaning products having really nice fragrances more often than not (I love perfumed cleaning products, but I know other people can’t stand it).

    When I have to clean something, I hate it. Unfortunately, with my mid-size family of five there is more frequency of things that have to be cleaned. These include– dishes, pots, pans, clothes, floors, kitchen counters, dinner tables, and toilets. These things just get really abused in my house and get gross fast. And I don’t mean somewhat messy either. I mean smelly sticky dirty messes. The kinds of things that can attract roaches in the case of food-related messes. And clothes, well there’s a lot of us and we don’t have a lot of clothes so we have to wash it often. Having lots of clothes doesn’t really fix it because eventually you have to wash it too and there’s just tons of it and that’s annoying in its own way.

    Of course, there is the simple reality that I am not my mother or my grandmother. I work full time, raise three children and am going to school. There is simply a lot less time in my life to dedicate to cleaning the house. My rational brain knows that. My emotional brain doesn’t give a crap. My emotional brain has a connection between cleaning product smells and happy memories. Why? I honestly have no idea. But it’s there and I think my kids have it too because when I mop the floor with a particular product, they almost always comment on how nice the house smells. I still love Windex for the same reason. And I even like bleach.

    When it comes down to it, when I am stressed and frustrated and exhausted the easiest thing to bitch about is a messy house. And I think that’s true for lots of women. And I think it also gets a lot of sympathy from fellow women because as much as there is societal pressure to keep a tidy house, I also think that’s fading in today’s world. I think we’re in the in-between stage. Housework is a nice common ground women can bond over because they can bitch about it without being judged or devalued (most of the times). The more I think about it though, the more convinced I am that when I am complaining about my house being messy and driving me crazy, it’s not really true. The house is a metaphor for my life. When I am in my happy moments, I don’t give a damn about the house’s condition because I know it’s as good as it can be and I am truly honestly perfectly content with that. When I’m in my bad moments, I take it out on the house. is it because we are told that our homes are a reflection of who we really are or is it simply because our home is the thing we see most of the time? When I get like this, I don’t even like my office being too messy and will often clean it up to make myself feel better. I’m in my office a lot of hours a lot of days. It is much easier to fix my house or office up to look clean and tidy and cared for than it is to do any of this for my life.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s a really good insight. Wow.

    • becca Says:

      I have noticed the common-ground aspect of house cleaning! Even though I do not totally grok frustration over not-clean, I’d much rather try to empathize with that than the other common-ground aspect so many women seem prone to… frustration over not-thin.

  24. pvcccourses Says:

    LOL! Where do you come up with these ideas? :-D

    Have you ever noticed that most women (don’t know about men) focus on a single subtopic of “cleanliness” when it comes to maintaining the living space? I had a friend who said no matter how messy everything else was, the place felt “clean” if there were no smudges on the woodwork and around the light switches. Another said her desideratum for a clean house was reasonably clean bathrooms; the rest could go by the wayside.

    For me, it’s dusted furniture and clean floors. My windows are dirty. The chandelier needs to be wiped down. The stove sports a week’s coating of grease and spills. The bathroom sink is graced with more face powder than I could possibly dust on my face. But when my feet do not stick to the floor or turn black when I walk from the bedroom to the kitchen, the place is clean.

  25. Petal Says:

    I don’t think that men are really less inclined to want a clean and tidy space. It certainly hasn’t been my experience that they are more comfortable with a mess. My grandfather used to clean everything when my grandmother went out of town to visit family. My mother and her sisters were not to tell my grandmother as my grandfather was afraid it would hurt her feelings.

    My current partner is far more tidy than I am, but I wouldn’t categorize him as ocd. It is one of things I like about him. The first time I had him over for dinner, he cleaned up everything afterword. It’s great.

    So, I agree that the problem is mismatched expectations about how you keep your house, not whether you like it clean.


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