At church a few weeks ago, I overheard a woman talking to her friend about how much she liked it when her kids were all outside, because then she could clean her house in quiet.
I confess to feeling a flash of guilt, because I might just be the world’s worst housewife. If I have time to myself, the last thing I want to do is clean. Even if it’s messy. I know some might see this as a personality flaw, but I am puzzled by women who take delight in cleaning their houses. It seems like (from my outsider’s perspective) cleaning the house is good for their spirits, which simply baffles me. (Not that I am judging them. My life would actually be much more pleasant if I were one of those women. I just don’t understand it.) Sure, I like it when it’s clean, but I have a finely-tuned ability to ignore the messes. And cleaning doesn’t do anything at all for my spirit, except for a little flutter of hoping that the people in my house will know that I love them because look! How clean is that bathroom?
(I feel like I should add a disclaimer. My house isn’t disgustingly messy. I do clean my house…but not really with joy.)
Housecleaning is something I almost never do with my solitude.
Today, though, I cleaned my house. And if you knew how sacrosanct my Thursdays are, you’d know that that is a big deal. Usually on Thursdays I devote all of my (lovely, glorious, quiet) time to doing something creative. But, I think because of a change that might happen soon, I am restless in my creative time. My heart pounds and I can’t lose myself in any of my usual processes. And this morning, for no reason I can determine, I woke up with the itch. The itch to get organized, the itch to clean a little bit, the itch to have just one day when I acted like a normal housewife (whatever normal means).
So while the kids were at school and Kendell was at work and I didn’t have to be anywhere, I:
- Detailed the kitchen
- Cleaned the kitchen windows
- Organized the bathroom cabinet (giving myself tons of space for all of the stuff that had just been on the counter)
- Detailed the upstairs bathrooms
Hmmmmm. Typed out it doesn’t look like a lot, but it felt like I got a lot done.
While I worked, I thought about the poem “Housewife” by Anne Sexton. I first read it when I was working on my associate’s degree, so in 1991 or 1992. It was one of the first pieces of feminist writing, in fact, that I discovered. I was beginning to learn what feminism means, then, just barely dipping my toe in, and this poem was a revolution to me:
Some women marry houses.
It's another kind of skin; it has a heart,
a mouth, a liver and bowel movements.
The walls are permanent and pink.
See how she sits on her knees all day,
faithfully washing herself down.
Men enter by force, drawn back like Jonah
into their fleshy mothers.
A woman is her mother.
That's the main thing.
I was already married by then, the first time I read this. The poem ate at me a little bit. I troubled me, and I finally had to read it and read it and write about it before I understood why. It was because I didn’t want to be part of the group of women who marry houses. I wanted marriage—my future, really—to be more than just housekeeping. I didn’t want it, in fact, to be anything about housekeeping. Even if the house is the Jonah, pulling a man back to me.
What troubled me was that I was discovering I had married someone who really, really likes a clean house. And might likely be happiest if he were married to one of those women who marry houses. Who delight in housecleaning. But just as he hadn’t married one of those, I hadn’t married someone like me, with my ability to overlook messes. I was troubled by the conflict of not wanting to be that kind of woman for myself and knowing if I were it would make my husband happier.
I don’t know if my resistance has really accomplished anything; my lackadaisical cleaning perspective is the thing we fight about the most. But we both brought our cleaning issues into the home of our marriage; we have both compromised some and we have both resisted.
The house is clean enough.
Today, I was the woman faithfully washing myself down. But I didn’t do it with resentment because I chose to do it. No one asked me to clean out that neglected cabinet. But I was reminded today that while housekeeping can be all sorts of things—an expression of marital politics, a battleground, even, sometimes, a place we come to with laughter and unity—it is also, oddly enough, a form of creativity. A temporary one, to be certain, but still: it did do something good to my (anxious and terrified and excited and uncertain) heart today.