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Does Having Kids Let Me Off the Hook for Housework?

Messy playroom


Rachel Lu - published on 12/29/14

To dust or to take my kids to a museum. Why am I hung up on this question?

After a long and luscious autumn, the cold weather finally arrived, driving my children and me indoors. Now, as I sit contemplating New Year’s resolutions, it’s time to face hard reality. My house is a mess. It needs some serious winter cleaning.

I hate housework. It’s a constant source of indecision and angst. I don’t think I’m particularly lazy, but I’ve always been a total cretin at cleaning and sorting. Part of the problem is that household order gives me no real satisfaction. I appreciate the negatives of living in squalor, and I give myself pep talks about cleanliness and godliness, but a day spent cleaning still seems to me like a wasted, pointless day. St. Martha, pray for me! With a young, growing family, I need at least a shred of your pragmatic spirit.

How much, though? This question genuinely troubles me. As a single person I didn’t find housework too onerous, but children increase the burden by several orders of magnitude, and there are always so many other worthwhile things to do. I could easily spend several hours a day cleaning, sorting and dusting. Or, I could read stories to my children. I could take them to the art museum or zoo. I could research a seasonal reflection on Christmastide. Those activities certainly seem much more meaningful. I do appreciate that domestic disorder eventually becomes a source of stress and irritation for the whole family. But how many cherished activities must I sacrifice for the sake of a dust-free mantelpiece and sparkling shower tiles?

Seeking perspective on this subject, I looked to the wisdom of two writer friends. Both are, like myself, mothers of young and growing families.

My friend Susanna Spencer regularly amazes me with her clean, well-ordered home. I never quite understood how this was possible, since she also has three young children at home, one of whom she is now homeschooling. I asked if she could explain how she manages this. She obligingly wrote some tips on her cleaning regimen, which included such advice as “clean it before it looks dirty.” Err… right. So that’s clearly not going to happen.

Susanna also offered this more philosophical reflection on the good of housework, and specifically of dusting. Her main point is that virtue involves good stewardship over one’s possessions. She also notes that monasteries and other places of prayer are generally quite clean. In broad terms I grant both points, but I was amused by the focus on dusting, since I classify that (along with the folding of clothes and the making of doilies) as a thoroughly optional chore. If you find dusty surfaces aesthetically displeasing, feel free to dust them. But I’ve gone months without dusting, and not been able to discern any damage to my personal possessions. And if I were to spend 20 minutes per week dusting, that would be 15 hours each year that were not spent reading, writing, or enjoying nature with my children.

This is really my main rebuttal to the “stewardship” argument for good housekeeping. Of course, housework has some value. And certainly, we should expect life to involve some drudgery. But for mothers of large families, there’s just so much. We shouldn’t be lazy, but we should also acknowledge maintaining high housekeeping standards will involve some sacrifices. For most mothers, that won’t just mean less time reading comic books. It will mean less bonding time with children, less time serving the parish, less uplifting reading or prayer time, or less time for rewarding personal hobbies.

Monasteries are admittedly clean, but they are also occupied by clean, competent adults. My household is full of tiny barbarians whose mess-making capacity
greatly exceeds their ability to help clean. Is it fair to hold me to those standards? I already get considerably less time for prayer and contemplation than the average monk.

This is where I find some solace in this reflection from another mom-writer-friend, Maria Morrow. She has noticed that gosh, moms these days are sure expected to do a lot, aren’t we? The downside of the do-it-yourself revolution is that mothers feel they are expected to do everything, all the time. Moms are expected to provide nutritious meals, clean houses, stimulating opportunities for children’s learning and growth, consistent discipline, constant round-the-clock supervision (all the way through the teenage years), and ideally a variety of charming Pinterest-inspired extras such as holiday crafts and adorable baked goods. Homeschooling is now strongly recommended by many families. And what is childhood without some team sports, music lessons, cultural events and other activities, along with a solid dose of instruction in the faith?

Did you think you were still permitted to be a human with some interests and needs of your own? Sorry, sister.

Nobody can meet all of these expectations. And we do need to keep a little time for ourselves, for prayer and exercise and personal improvement. We have to set priorities, and do what we can while letting some other things go. Everyone’s family is different, so it’s reasonable for us to make somewhat different choices. In the spirit of solidarity, I think we should also make every effort to be supportive and encouraging of other parents whose priorities may differ a little from our own. Try to find something to admire, instead of defensively looking for things to criticize.

In this glorious New Year, I am going to try to improve my housekeeping. But I also accept that I’m never going to rise to the standard of my friend Susanna. And I’m sticking with my twice-a-year dusting regimen. Does God expect me to keep my mantelpiece dust-free? I’m comfortable answering that question in the negative. But I invite other parents to address the question for themselves.

Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.

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