I’ve always admired the person who can keep the keeping in housekeeping. It implies that the trick to the whole thing is in maintaining the status quo; in staying on top of things and returning everything to its proper order immediately if not sooner. I once shared a dorm room with a neatnik. It gives me shivers just to contemplate repeating the experience. She was forever neatening up our environment to the point of making it impossible to take a break from a project without having to start again at the beginning, for she’d have put everything away in its proper place and I’d have to haul out the typewriter, the colored pencils, the reference books, and go back to square one.
This is not to say that the things on her desk were any easier to locate than the ones on my desk. Hers were just as varied and mixed as mine, except that, as a junk-piler, she had hers in tidy little piles according to size, or color, or some other arbitrary classification system that had nothing to do with the content– but it did look quite a bit nicer than the hodgepodge of my accumulation. Since our graduation, she has moved about as far from Iowa as one can get and still remain in the continental United States, so I don’t have to know if she irons her socks and alphabetizes her spices.
What housework I’ve done in my life has been under protest and a matter of survival. Kids, husbands and pets make what should be a simple matter of doing the dishes after meals and dusting the furniture once a week into a perpetual and never-quite-finished drudgery. The duties involved in keeping house are tiresomely routine, boring and unchallenging. Your average twelve-year-old is perfectly capable of doing everything that qualifies as housework, yet we expect mature adults with high school diplomas, college degrees and unique skills to spend large chunks of their time picking up toys, scrubbing toothpaste out of the sink, vacuuming dog hair off the sofa, sorting socks, polishing windows and making beds. It makes no sense at all.
With more and more two-career families, housework is shared by couples today much more equably than it was during the time when I was raising my family. There was no time for even dreaming about the teaching career I had aimed for earlier. It was at least partly my choice to stay home with my children while they were growing up, and I’m glad I did. Thinking that the day would come when they would be grown and I could devote a little more effort to my own goals, I took on more and more of the burdens that could have been shared. Then, one day, I realized that I was no longer a partner but an employee. My partner had not been required to develop either the skills or the habits to shoulder any of those responsibilities, so it was up to me to carry on as before.
I’d noticed that other husbands, when they retired, shared some of the work– emptying the dishwasher from time to time, taking out the trash, picking up the mail, shopping for groceries, cooking an occasional meal (or at least grilling the burgers from time to time). Foolishly, I anticipated the same when it became my turn. I discovered, to my dismay, that I was now expected to replace the secretary he’d had in his office for so many years. More duties, not fewer.
Now that I have no one to please except for myself, I have staged a revolution of sorts. After fifty years of keeping house, I decided to retire. This means that, though there is no fairy godmother who sneaks in and does the dishes while I’m asleep, I don’t have to keep the kitchen tidy if there’s something else I’d rather do. I have several sets of dishes, flatware, glasses, many pots and pans; I could probably go a month or two without having to wash a single item, but I do– when the mood strikes me– sometime before the last coffee mug has been used, the ants have invaded the kitchen, or I am reduced to eating beans straight out of the can with a plastic spoon.
As for the three major causes of never-ending housework; I’ve learned that pets, once you’ve become accustomed to tripping over the litter-box in the laundry room, and picking dog hair off your clothes, are considerably less work than husbands and kids. And pets, especially dogs, are very forgiving and don’t complain if the TV screen is dusty. Kids grow up and leave sooner or later, and they can be taught, with perseverance, to take care of their own messes. Husbands, unfortunately, cannot.
I once stated that I hoped, after my death, to be remembered for accomplishing something more impressive than having been a good housekeeper. My husband, speaking from first-hand observation, quickly assured me that I definitely needn’t worry about that.