This House Is Clean

Lessons from a week devoted to cleanliness

Photo courtesy of Catherine Stern

I have always loved the idea of a clean, clutter-free living space, one that’s comfortable and calm, like I’m in those houses in the movies — all white kitchen, a huge slab of an island with some colorful yet tasteful flowers arranged in the middle. The couch is probably a neutral sectional about which a dearth of throw blankets or pillows has never been complained. The cleanliness of the floors is perceptible on socked feet, and you’d know, because you don’t wear shoes into this house. I don’t live here, never have. Babysitters walk into our two-bedroom apartment and a look of concern passes over their faces, visible to everyone in the room. “How can I help?” they ask, eying the piles of laundry, the dishes emptied from the washer but not yet removed from the counter where they dry on dishtowels. There is usually macaroni and broccoli on the floor under the Serena & Lily barstools, a scene which only conveys the clean lines of a Serena & Lily catalog if you were in a Serena & Lily nightmare where bad things happen to white spaces and gingham. Let’s move to the master suite, where the lone chair sits stacked high with even more laundry, and a pile of shirts and boxes, inventory from my latest t-shirt venture, takes up the last bit of remaining space. We don’t need to go to the kids’ room. I think you get the idea.

Despite my admiration for clean spaces, I’ve struggled to justify spending the time on keeping things nice and spotless. I’ll do the bare minimum — make the bed, load the dishwasher when I have to, put clothes in the washer. I only vacuum with the handheld when absolutely necessary and I often pretend not to notice the stickiness of the counter or the visible trail of crumbs between the toaster and the cabinet. When I was working in corporate law, many other young mothers at my firm and I sought advice on tackling the demands of the job while also making sure our families didn’t sleep in a pile of newspapers and dried cheerios each night. I recall one partner in particular saying without hesitation, “Outsource everything.” I took that advice to heart and for a while things were wonderful in the cleanliness department. We had a cleaning team once a week and a full-time nanny who kept the kids’ clothes, toys, and food contained in a tidy system. There were rarely dishes in the sink, and our nanny even folded our laundry when that chair in our bedroom started to accumulate a pile of cleaned clothes. Now that I’m home, making messes with tiny humans all day, I’ve thrown in the towel on cleanliness so to speak. After I’ve put the kids to bed, the tasks of vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen, folding the laundry, they feel insurmountable. And this is how I slide into a “meh” attitude that facilitates our family living in a near-constant state of half-clean and clutter.

Recently I wondered whether a concerted effort might make the apartment cleaner and whether a clean apartment might change anything else. I always told myself it took too much time, but how much time did it really take? And did the benefits of cleaning outweigh the costs in time and energy? To answer these questions, I devoted myself to a week of apartment cleaning, consequences be damned. Here is what I learned.

1. I do love a clean space. More than that, a clean apartment makes me feel lighter and less stressed. There is value in being able to sit at a clean counter to write or eat or talk. Without the clutter and debris, there is space to create, to taste and to communicate. When I do sit down to read or reflect, I don’t feel that nagging sensation telling me I should be doing other things. I realized I carried that feeling around with me all day, and it was preventing me from focusing on the task at hand.

2. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. I know this is true for me and physical activity, but I was surprised to learn that it holds for me and cleaning: the more I cleaned, the more I wanted to clean. Not to mention I felt something akin to a kick of endorphins as I cleaned up various messes. A cleaner’s high one might say!

3. Cleaning up throughout the day seems tedious but it is critical for cleaning success. It was much easier to clean up after the kids went to bed because there was less mess to clean. An ounce of prevention goes a long way.

4. Conquering the messes in my home made me want to take on other tedious items that have been languishing on my list of “I shoulds”. I updated calendars, signed permission slips, arranged for CLE classes I need to maintain my law license and completed other administrative tasks. Getting these things done also made me feel lighter and less stressed!

5. The first day of this experiment required nearly five hours of cleaning, because there was a lot of “ground work” to get the apartment in shape. The rest of the week I spent an average of two hours throughout each day on cleaning. When broken up over the course of the day, the time went by quickly. An added benefit: I caught up on podcasts I had ignored because I “didn’t have the time.”

My experiment confirmed my suspicion that there are major benefits to keeping a clean space. And as I also suspected, cleaning took substantial blocks of time away from things I’d rather be doing, like reading, writing, and hanging with the kids. So, I now think of cleaning like exercise — it has demonstrable benefits and should be prioritized in a weekly routine. The goal is not to be a body builder, or a Martha Stewart, though — and if I fall short of that standard, that’s ok. There is a beneficial middle ground between couch potato and marathoner, between Pig Pen and perfection, and for me that’s the sweet spot.