Housekeeping Thoughts, Part I

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I had a few things go off the rails the this week, was hoping to get back to posting more frequently but doesn’t look like it’s going to happen for a little bit. But I’ll keep trying.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about revising the document I use for my natural cleaners class (coming up on Wednesday, April 27 at The Scrap Exchange, $18 per household, for any local folks who are interested in participating) and am considering whether I want to create an expanded version of the document that discusses housekeeping strategies along with the recipes and other information it currently contains.

Not sure if I’m up for that or will be able to find the time, but thinking about it made me review some of the things I have on hand with housekeeping and/or homemaking information.

One of the books I have that I like a lot is Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson. At 880+ pages, it is, to put it mildly, comprehensive, and I use it mostly to look things up, but after relying on it as a reference for a number of years, I revisited the introductory material and found it really great. I feel like a lot of what she says is so dead-on that I couldn’t say it better myself.

So instead of trying to, I’m just going to give you some excerpts of things that I think are especially useful or that touch on things I’ve been thinking about lately.

Here’s the first.

People used to be fond of the old saying that a housewife’s work is never done, but you do not hear it much anymore, perhaps because today, so often, the housewife’s work is never started. In any event, this maxim, like most, is only half true. Yes, you can always think of something else that could be done, and yes, you will do more tomorrow, but in fact there really is an end to what your routine calls for this day or week or year. You, however, are the one who sets limits. Beginners should recognize the importance of setting plausible and explicit goals in housekeeping so that they know when they are done. In my experience, the most common cause of dislike of housework is the feeling that the work is never done, that it never gives a sense of satisfaction, completion, and repose.

To avoid this, you have to decide what ordinary, daily level of functioning you want in your home. There ought to be a word for this level, but there isn’t. When I was a girl, my mother used to say, when everything was on schedule and as she wanted it, “The house is done.” Whatever words you use, you need to create end points that will let you, too, say to yourself, “Finished.” Otherwise you will feel trapped and resentful, in danger of becoming one of the many unfortunates who hate taking care of their own homes.

Another trap to avoid is that of inflexible standards and unrealistic expectations. You need different goals for ordinary times and times of illness, stress, company, new babies, long working hours, or other interruptions of your home routine. People with large houses, many children or guests, active households, or invalid parents will have to spread themselves more thinly and should not expect to be able to keep house like the Joneses. Also the fewer your resources of all kinds — money, help, appliances, skills, time — the more modest will be the level of housekeeping you can realistically hope for.

When you cannot have everything, establish priorities. Health, safety, and comfort matter more than appearances, clutter, organization, and entertainment. A jumbled closet may distract you, but it is much less urgent than clean sheets, laundry, or meals. Excessive dustiness can be unhealthy as well as uncomfortable; smeary mirrors (usually) aren’t. Clean the rooms you spend the most time in and those where cleanliness is urgent (bedroom, kitchen, bathroom); let everything else go. Polishing gems and organizing your photographs can be put off indefinitely.

When you fall below your ordinary standards of housekeeping, a backup plan can help prevent the fall from turning into a free fall. Planning how much you will engage in a housekeeping retraction at such times and return to ordinary standards when the crisis is past keeps you in control. The goal during these hard times is to adhere, more or less, to some workable minimal routine. If you can still cook simple meals and food preparation areas are safe and sanitary, if everyone has clean clothes, if the bedrooms are dusted, vacuumed, and aired, and the bedding is fresh, you are doing well.

2 Responses to “Housekeeping Thoughts, Part I”

  1. Valerie Says:

    I really appreciate this post. In fact, I’m at the library right now and this book is available upstairs, so I’m going to grab it before I leave. I’ve been doing some purging and re-organizing at home; I am at a point where my cancer is being treated as a chronic disease, so I’m always going to be on some form of chemo or another to manage the cancer. Which means I’ll always be dealing with the side effects of the same, which at this point, thankfully, is mostly fatigue. This reminder to prioritize came at a very good time for me, when I was feeling overwhelmed by my inability to do what I used to do. So, thank you!!

  2. lessisenough Says:

    Glad it helped!

    I’m about to put up part II, which is the part that helped me most, thinking about routines and what can be done to keep things on track. I felt like I was always digging out of a hole and it took so much energy that I could never make any forward progress. Once I got at least a few basic things on auto-pilot, everything got easier.

    Good luck with the treatment.

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