But We Live Here–In Which I Discuss the Perils of Housekeeping

Dear Lily June,

They say the first year of marriage is the hardest. “They” are not wrong. Between the tornado that we lived through, a death in the family, and a car accident that totaled the one vehicle your dad and I shared between us, that first year was riddled with drama and difficulty. But what surprised me was how complicated the little mundane everyday tasks of life grew to be when suddenly everything domestic became a compromise instead of a choice.

Where to fit all the items that we’d separately accumulated in our prior lives became a puzzle. Who got to take up more blanket on the bed became a tug-of-war grudge match. How to load the dishwasher became a high-risk game of strategy in which there were clear winners and losers.

Without question, all of the little adjustments turned out to be worth it, and your dad and I eventually fell into a routine with housekeeping where we honored one another’s space and separate ways of doing things (mostly). Now–after you’ve been born–we’ve landed on the exact same page when it comes to keeping our areas tidy: Ain’t nobody with a baby got time for that.

***

In fact, because we’ve both wrestled over the course of our lives with depression, we’ve had some moments where our cleaning ritual becomes a vicious cycle of overwhelming messes paired with a complete lack of motivation. It goes a bit like the conversation with the drunkard in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince:

โ€œ- Why are you drinking? – the little prince asked.
– In order to forget – replied the drunkard.
– To forget what? – enquired the little prince, who was already feeling sorry for him.
– To forget that I am ashamed – the drunkard confessed, hanging his head.
– Ashamed of what? – asked the little prince who wanted to help him.
– Ashamed of drinking! – concluded the drunkard, withdrawing into total silence.
And the little prince went away, puzzled.
‘Grown-ups really are very, very odd’, he said to himself as he continued his journey.โ€

Except that, for someone in the midst of a depressive episode, the cycle goes something like: I’m too depressed to clean. [Dirty dishes stack into a food-encrusted hill in the sink, threatening to avalanche.] Well, now the mess is so bad, I can barely bring myself to even begin. [Dirty clothes pile up and become the arching wave of a tsunami, threatening to break overhead.] Oh, my god. How did I let things get so bad? I’m such a terrible person.ย [A smell sets in from the cat box so potent that, like the cartoon smoke of a pie, it becomes a hand that sneaks its way around your throat.] This mess is so hard to come home to, it’s depressing me. [Neighbors start to knock on the door of your apartment, thinking someone has died inside.] Now I’m too depressed to clean.

It’s a bum deal that the more the mess grows mountainous, the less motivation you have to attempt to scale it. Why in the world would anyone live this way, letting filth compound until they’re ready to star in their very own spinoff of Hoarders?

TRAVELER DIGITAL CAMERA
You know you’re a hoarder when you have to push the boxes full of dead squirrels out of the way of the TV to be able to watch an episode of Hoarders.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know a lot of my cleaning dysfunction comes from the way I was raised.

***

Your dad was brought up by his mother, your Grandma Alison, with this simple phrase: “A clean home is a safe home.” She was not wrong.

But that expression took on an entirely new connotation in my family. Each weekend, my mother would gather my sister and I together to scrub each rung of the staircase banister, wipe each window down with a wet cloth, slap away any stray cobwebs from the corners of the ceiling with a broom, make our beds, do the dishes, get the hard-to-reach spots–like soldiers in a boot camp–with the fine hairs of a toothbrush. We would be down on our hands and knees bleaching baseboards and up on our tip-toes to pull each bulb from the light fixtures, scrubbing every square inch clean. It was like living in a five-star hotel in the middle of our middle-class suburb: We were expected to keep it pristine.

And who expected to live in such luxury? That would be my father who, though he didn’t lift a finger to help, would have swung a hand to punish if every spot weren’t immediately removed the second or so after it was made. He was a mean drunk in my younger years, but the vodka shots he tossed back from mugs like they were cups of coffee didn’t stop him from having quite a sharp inspector’s eye with which to scrutinize our domestic scene.

As a child, I was always taken aback by how much dust could accumulate in the course of a week. I remember thinking it was like we were being haunted by ghosts who, in order to poke the bear, would shake the dandruff from their hair just to ensure we had something each weekend again to try and clean up.

This fear of what could happen if the house wasn’t tidy enough would become one of the catalysts for my listing later in life. I felt a crushing need as an adult to make sure everything got done in a week, and at the start of the marriage especially, this was so hard on your dad who liked to fly by the seat of his pants sometimes, tackling each room one by one and scrubbing as he saw fit. I would practically chase behind him with my lists, pointing out crannies and crevices he had missed, and I was the perfect nagging pest of a wife who demanded perfection in my own home.

It was as if, because I feared my father’s auditing eye so much, I unscrewed it from his skull and turned it into mine. For that, dear Lily, I am still so sorry to your father. Just as, no matter what my sister and mother and I would do over those weekends, the house could never be clean enough for my drunken daddy, so, too, your dad could never sweep and mop and wipe and scrub and scour enough to make me not fear (in the child inside of the adult in me) that my mother–who has already escaped my dad, even remarrying a man who could barely care less if the house is clean–my mother would get hit.

This is the very picture of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder or OCPD, an anagram that I once read on a support group’s message board really stood for Only Contemplating Potential Disasters. I live mostly in the present, but back then–that first year of a marriage to the love of my life–I cleaned from inside of a memory. God forbid I ever do the same to you, Lily June. I hope your dad has the good sense to stop me if I do, and that, of all the things you inherit, my perfectionism is something that gets, literally, left in the dust.

***

Nowadays, with practice at negotiation and a hell of a lot of trust, your dad and I mostly take turns at letting the apartment we live in get buried, then digging our way back out of the messes we’ve made. There are places that have become safe spaces to be a little dirty: I know your dad’s stack of mail and books on his desk will always be a little cringe-worthy to me. Likewise, he knows when it’s time to clean the glass end table next to my chair in the livingroom, he’s going to have to, shudderingly so, wipe up a lot of sticky beverage rings.

We may not have a handle on keeping our side of paradise spick-and-span, but as the domestic goddess herself said in an episode of one of my favorite shows, Roseanne,

“You’ll have to pardon the mess, but we live here.”

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Like a vacuum cleaner, the way I used to approach cleaning completely sucked.

Picture Credits

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12 thoughts on “But We Live Here–In Which I Discuss the Perils of Housekeeping

  1. originaltitle says:

    My husband and I also have agreed upon, “safe spaces to be a little dirty,” I can completely relate. Strangely, he seems to hoard things that accumulate in his pockets throughout the day. They used to lie everywhere, a chapstick here, a screw, random sets of keys, scraps of paper with (possibly important) notes, etc.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. originaltitle says:

      I finally got him a little tray to throw it all in at the end of the day. Excuse my early “send” on my reply. This new reply system keeps throwing me because I accidentally hit send too early every time. Great post, thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. May says:

    I made a commitment to myself a few months ago that I was going to stop apologising to people about the state of my home. If it is clean enough for me to be in, then it is clean enough that I should not be ashamed to invite others here. If it is not clean enough for me to be in, then I need to clean – for myself. Not for anyone else. They’re coming here to visit me, not to inspect the carpet. It’s very hard to truly believe that though, no matter how much I objectively know it’s true.

    Your relationship is clearly built on a strong foundation of trust and understanding ๐Ÿ™‚ And mutual willingness to clean up each other’s messes!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jordan says:

    My fiance and I are adjusting to living together and I related to this post a lot. I also had a father who was a mean drunk, and it’s not something I would wish upon anybody. You are a wonderful writer and this post made me feel less alone in my cycle of anxiety-messiness-anxiety-about-messiness.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. musingsbym says:

    I Loved this post! I am obsessed with cleaning as well; but as you said, I too get bouts of wanting to simply vegetate.
    I hate to dust/vacuum, whereas my husband obsessively wipes surfaces clean! I ‘need’ to pick up things and keep them in place, whereas he hates doing that sort of thing. All-in-all, methinks, we both balance each other quite well in the housekeeping dept!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Ellie P. says:

    My husband used to say, while entertaining pals with ‘war stories,’ that we “bought a dishwasher since it was cheaper than getting a divorce.” However, we did end up getting divorced a couple of years later.

    I kept the house and the dishwasher. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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