Yes, I Do Care What You Think of My House

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of Facebook memes and blog articles that, as a true child of my generation, I have dubbed “neat-shaming”.

The angry blogger lashing out at those among her peers who have the audacity to clean up the cheerios from under their toddler’s high chair before company comes over, which she is sure they do to make her feel like a failure. The meme, complete with a professionally staged stock photo of an adorable child in a house that looks way neater than mine or yours, warning us of the transience of childhood and urging us to “let the little things go” (read: dishes, laundry, housecleaning, cooking, eating, showering . . .) and soak up every precious moment before it’s gone. The introspective Facebook status pledging to just live life and not waste time caring what others think of their house.

Somewhere between my mother’s and my grandmother’s generations, where a neat, tidy home was valued and worked for, and my generation, cleanliness has become a vice, and messiness, a virtue.

Perhaps because I was a sixth child and my parents are older than many of my generation’s parents, I was raised to care what your house looks like. To care for your own sake, for the sake of your family, and for the sake of anyone who comes into your home.

To the mother of three small children who has to move half a load of unfolded laundry over so I can sit down on her couch, please know: I am not talking about you. I am not talking about going full-throttle Martha Stewart Ninja and making every corner of your house look Pinterest-worthy at every moment of every day. I’m not talking about erasing every sign that people, or, heaven forbid, children live in your house.

I’m talking about what our generation calls “being a neat freak”, but our grandparents’ generation called “being a good housekeeper”.

As I mentioned, I was my parents’ sixth child. And they didn’t stop there — four younger brothers came after me, for a grand total of ten (but at that point, who’s counting . . .). Believe me, our house did not look remotely like anything you will ever see on HGTV, unless it be a “before” shot on a renovation show. By the time I came around, my mom, if she had ever paid attention to decorating trends, had long since stopped. Most of what we owned came from garage sales, concerned friends, or my Dad’s DYI-before-DYI-was-cool projects. With ten kids, the house was rarely immaculate, and never stayed immaculate for long. But one thing stands out in my memory about our house: my mom never gave up. Nothing ever daunted her so much that she just stopped trying. There was a rhythm to it: every morning we all had to spend 15 minutes cleaning up the house. Every week, with religious fervor, all the sheets were changed. Dishes were done immediately after every meal — no exceptions. Of course we all hated it. But whether we realized it or not, we were learning something: it matters. The way you keep your house matters. We learned that to leave our things lying around the house was disrespectful to other people who had to share the space with us. We learned that company seeing our fresh-from-the-neighbor’s-curb furniture was nothing to be ashamed of, but company seeing a dirty kitchen and a dusty floor was unthinkable. As a future mom and housekeeper, I learned that this job is important. My mom, in a time when women were being pressured to self-validate with high-powered careers and glamorous vocations, took her job seriously, and took pride in doing it to the best of her ability, whether other people saw value in it or not. We learned that dignity came not from having the nicest things, but from doing the best you could to take care of the things you had.

These lessons were reinforced by the few times in my life that I have been in the house of a person who truly doesn’t care anymore. The kind of house that could be described by a word that I never heard my mom apply to anyone else’s home (although she did apply it to our rooms from time to time), but I learned from her nonetheless: slovenly. A home where dust is never disturbed, litter boxes never cleaned out, dishes never done, food left out to the delight of the uncountable ants, and there is no place to sit down, anywhere, because there isn’t a place for anything, and therefore nothing is in its place. There is an instantly discernable difference between a house where a busy mother is desperately trying to keep up with diaper changes, dirty laundry, and keeping the kids from killing themselves and/or each other, and just hasn’t gotten around to mopping the floor yet (and might not get around to it for another week), and a house where cleaning and tidying has never happened, and, for the foreseeable future, isn’t ever going to happen.

As a young single, I promised myself my house would never look (or smell) like that. My kids wouldn’t grow up in a place like that. My husband wouldn’t come home to a place like that. I am now married, with a 3-month old daughter. Before we got pregnant, I wasn’t working, and I kept our apartment pretty darn clean most of the time. After I got pregnant, morning sickness took its toll and I crawled around the apartment getting this and that done between fits of vomiting and dry heaving. It looked pretty good most of the time. Our daughter was born. Sometimes it takes me a few days to get around to cleaning the bathroom. Sometimes the dishes sit in the sink for a few hours. Sometimes there is only one day out of every week that our house can really be called “tidy”. But I still try. We’ll probably have more kids, and my standards of what passes as tidy will probably take a dip. But I will still try.

And yes, sometimes — often, in fact — I ignore the dust on the bookshelf and just stare at my baby even though she is asleep and I could be cleaning. But for all those who are mortally afraid that they are going to miss their kid’s childhood, it’s true, childhood is breathtakingly short and sometimes our children need us to get down on the floor and blow raspberries on their bellies, or to read Dr. Seuss to them, or play “Princess Leia and Barbie go to Jurassic Park”. But sometimes, they also need to see us model how to be a grown-up. People have different standards of what passes for clean, and I’m sure my standard is below someone else’s standard — maybe even a lot of people’s standard. But what I want my kids to grow up seeing is that I do have a standard, and that I strive for it — strive for it like the Dickens. That I never throw in the towel and say “I’m tired of cleaning up messes that just get made again the next day, let’s just live in a pig sty.” I want my husband to see that I know he works hard every day and I want him to have a reasonably clean home to come back to, because I love him.

And as for you, reader, whoever you are and whatever your standard of cleanliness is, when you come into my home, I don’t want you to feel like you are in a magazine house. I don’t want you to feel guilty that there is a layer or two of dust on your mantle back home, or that maybe you skipped cleaning the bathroom today because the dog had an accident on the carpet. I don’t want to show you how much better I am doing life than you are. I just want you to know that I thought enough of you to pick up the toys off the floor, maybe vacuum up the crumbs off the rug, and clean the spit-up off the back of the couch before you come in. And if you are ever an overnight guest in my home, you’d better believe you’re going to get a clean bath towel, the sheets are going to be fresh, and you will never have to wonder where the next roll of toilet paper is coming from. Because I do care. It’s my way of showing love and respect. I crave your good opinion because I respect you. I want to provide a pleasant atmosphere where we can sit and talk over a strong cup of coffee served in a clean cup because I care about you.

If you care, too, I salute you. If your house is cleaner than mine right now, don’t feel bad. If your house isn’t quite as clean as mine is right now, also don’t feel bad. It’s not about having one fewer dried-up French fry in between the couch cushions than the next mom. It’s about never giving up on having a clean house. Never surrendering the endless fight against the gathering scum in the bath tub, the pillars of dishes in the sink, and the ever-fertile dust-bunnies under the couch. Never taking it lying down.

It’s okay to care. Don’t let anyone ever tell you anything different.

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