As I mentioned before, I’m naturally fairly laidback about chores. I happily do them and pitch in wherever I can (and at times, I do something like 15-20 hours of chores a week). But I’m not someone that’s ever going to be automatically repulsed by clutter or a mess.
This is likely an adaptation based on how I spent my teenage years:
…the short version is that in the 90s, I lived with a wide variety of people. Sometimes I stayed with relatives, but other times I crashed at friends’ houses, friends who were still living with their parents, since their teenaged home lives were more conventional than my own.
Each family I stayed with had its own values system. And in every structure I slept in, I was subjected to a different set of rules surrounding my behavior, conduct — and housekeeping.
I noticed something very quickly as I shuffled from place to place. People could be downright moral about housekeeping. In a way that struck me as perfectly odd.
Several adults who took me in believed that there was objectively a right and a wrong way to perform particular chores (for example, folding towels, doing the dishes, washing a floor, etc.) and would hammer that method into me with a lot of emotional force.
If any one of those adults had been my parent and that had been the only house I lived in, then I would have probably internalized that lesson on a deep level. Would have become similarly moralistic about those tasks myself. And conveyed that there was an objectively right and wrong way to perform them — had I not shortly gone off to a different house where someone else argued for another method with the same degree of fervor and an equally strong logical argument supporting their choice.
But I didn’t. And instead, I was bombarded with a succession of adults who were determined that their way of doing things was the only right way. And there was little, verging on nothing, that you could present that would convince them otherwise.
What a lesson.
In essence, being a stray kid turned me into a moral relativist.
Not every place I stayed was tidy. And beggars couldn’t be choosers. So I dealt with it. I learned how to be comfortable (more or less) in cluttered, dusty, claustrophobic houses as well as ones that looked like showrooms that were so spic and span that there was little evidence that anyone actually lived there.
I’ve Done A Lot of Chores for Someone Who Doesn’t Emotionally Care About Them
Left to my own devices, I would probably seek out a middle path and do enough chores to be comfortable but I wouldn’t fret about clutter or the deep clean.
However, I haven’t been left to my own devices. I live with other people.
And a large number of them have been neatniks. Particularly opinionated neatniks who take on an almost moralistic bent to their assessments of how a home should be kept.
So for most of my life, I’ve done quite a few chores (for the sake of harmony and doing my share), even though I don’t emotionally care about gleaming countertops that much.
I Always Liked Being Around Passionate People
One of my favorite places to stay back in the day was at a friend’s home. Her parents were both college professors. Zoology. One of them taught invertebrate zoology, the other vertebrate zoology. So that together they covered the entire spectrum — without annoying overlap.
They were both extremely passionate about their fields. Always going on field trips, lecturing in Europe, and even discovering new species.
They were also extremely kind to me and let me tag along with the family whenever I needed somewhere else to be. I went with them on vacations to their farmhouse, watching grainy Dr. Who tapes that seemed like they were about to fall apart on a tiny black and white TV and being allowed to play with a fire in the hearth.
We’d make different shapes with paper and pitch them into the flames, watch them burn, while the professors talked to me about what was going on physically.
What Might Seem Like Laziness to One Person Could In Fact Be Different Priorities
I was talking to a partner one time about them, this family. A partner who was a neatnik, who was deeply disturbed by dirt and clutter and also really into science. Who thought this family sounded lovely.
“I bet that was one of the neater houses you stayed in,” they ventured.
I laughed aloud. “No, not at all. That house was a disaster. It was tiny, cluttered, and dusty.” But it was full of wondrous things, I explained. Old musical instruments. Custom computers. Strange bits of art.
Science Family cooked every night. I ate all sorts of exotic food I’d never heard of at their dinner table (they often brought home strange ingredients from their travels). But the counters were usually cleaned right before the next meal was prepared and not a minute before. I know they swept the kitchen floor, but not as often as other places I stayed.
“Cleaning wasn’t a big priority,” I explained. “They were more interested in interacting with their children and making scientific discoveries.”
The parents also seemed to clearly love — and like — each other, something I didn’t see that often in the married couples I knew growing up.
Most of the fixtures in the house were old and dingy (it was an older Colonial in which little to nothing had been updated).
But the home was bursting with light. It was one of the brightest places I ever lived.
I could tell that this puzzled my listener. Because they’d associated untidiness with laziness. Limpness. A lack of life. And I suppose it can be that. But sometimes, it’s just different priorities.
Because this family worked awfully hard — but not on cleaning. (When it came to housework, they did the bare minimum they had to in order to live safely within the house.)
It’s Important Not to Feel Taken Advantage Of
Now, that situation only worked because neither professor really cared about chores. They considered housekeeping a small, unimportant concern. Their attention was directed towards other things.
If one of them had found the chores important and the other hadn’t — woo boy… that could have been awful. It would have caused all sorts of problems.
It’s important not to feel taken advantage of. And that’s a big part of why I try so hard with chores when I’m living with someone who cares about dust, even though I lack the emotional reaction to clutter or mess that most partners I’ve dated have had.
But no matter how good of a housekeeper I become (and I’ve improved considerably over the last decade), I think part of me will always consider housekeeping a relatively small concern — in the grand scheme of things. Something I’m not doing because it brings me selfish personal joy — but something I do because I care about other people who care about it.
My Favorite People Growing Up Didn’t Care About Chores Much
But I could have just as easily grown up as someone who cares deeply about chores.
It’s an accident of nurture, mostly that I didn’t… because my favorite people just happened to be folks who didn’t care about the chores first and foremost. Now, they did chores. These weren’t hoarder houses or anything. There’s a difference between failing a white glove test and having a house that’s a fire hazard or hard to walk through without tripping.
But the act seemed to occupy a very small corner of their mind, of their emotional lives. They were instead fixated more on their passions, whatever they were. Their careers, their children, their relationships with one another.
And I had the misfortune of not liking the neatniks I was exposed to early on in life. They were by and large fairly cold people who fixated on the state of their home to the isolation of other concerns. They didn’t seem to have other passions. And spent countless hours polishing things that were perfectly fine. Combatting a war against dust that was never ending. And they invariably looked down on people who didn’t keep their houses as neat.
It seemed to me like there were better ways to spend your time.
Dust Shaming Reminds Me of Fat Shaming
It’s interesting because the two most cleaning-obsessed people I knew growing up also had eating disorders. They monitored their food intake with the same level of incessant scrutiny. And just as they judged people who had houses that couldn’t pass a white glove test (“dust shaming,” if you will), they judged people who ate more liberally than they did, fat shaming them.
Inevitably, whenever I talk about chores and how people can view them differently, I’ll have folks chiming in on the comments, talking about how they have “higher standards” than other people, placing their habits into a hierarchy with themselves squarely above people who don’t care about chores as much. Unsurprising, I suppose, because conversations about chores quickly turn moralistic.
I’ll find myself cringing. It’ll remind me a lot about how the eating disordered talk about food. How they fat shame. Look down on other people and judge them.
There’s no room in that kind of commentary for the possibility that someone else might just have different priorities. No, it has to be better and worse. There’s a clear moral imperative here, going by the speaker’s belief system.
There’s no room for a scenario in which a person might not feel compelled to count every calorie or to capture up every stray speck of dust.
And certainly no room for the idea that what might seem like laziness or a lack of self-discipline could in fact be a different set of priorities. And that the attention and work ethic could be fully present, just applied in other areas.
I’m Currently the Best Housekeeper I’ve Ever Been
It’s funny that I am writing about chores now. About how ridiculously fraught our beliefs about housekeeping and chores can be (and how they affect our relationships).
Because as I write this essay, I’m the best housekeeper I’ve ever been. Part of this is a product of having worked for many years on becoming a better one (for the sake of relationship harmony, for a partner who has clutter as an anxiety trigger). And part of this is that I sold my house last year while still living in it, which involved obsessive tidying and cleaning up after myself. Essentially being hypervigilant to leave no mess, leave no trace or sign that someone was even staying there while it was being shown.
Some of those habits followed me when I moved into my new place. And now I’m definitely the neatest I’ve ever been (although no doubt a neatnik devoted to fault-finding could easily poke holes in my habits if they wanted to).
So it’s funny that I’m writing about how strangely moralistic and fraught our beliefs about chores and housekeeping can be — just as I’m getting as close as I ever have been to being a “winner” — or at least not a total loser — by those standards.
Becoming a Better Housekeeper Allowed Me to Less Defensively Examine My Own Priorities
It’s probably because becoming a better housekeeper has helped me be a little less defensive about all the judgment I’ve seen slung about re: chores.
I think a small part of me always did think that there was something valid to all the smugness that was directed at me by bone thin women who had plastic covering their couches. Perhaps they were better people, people who knew something I didn’t. Maybe they had a right to look down on me. (They certainly seemed to think they did.)
And it wasn’t until I jumped significantly up in the hierarchy going by their own values system that I realized I was still me. Neat me was the same person as messy me. My schedule just looked a little different. I was just spending more time doing different things.
The way they lived didn’t signal that they were superior to me; it meant they had made different choices. And those choices weren’t any harder than how I normally lived my life. Just different.
But until I actually did that, until I took on part of how they lived, a small part of me bought into the way they viewed me. Viewed myself as something lower, not a person with different priorities.
Not Obsessing Past the Point of Diminishing Returns
I think I’ve gotten to a balance that I like these days. Where my house and body feel rather suitable, but I’m not obsessing past the point of diminishing returns.
When it comes to my home and my body, I want a place that’s comfortable and allows me to live the kind of life that I want. This does require some maintenance, sacrifice, and tradeoffs (as everything in adulthood typically does), but it’s not my primary focus. I try to set up some sensible habits and let inertia do its job. You know, a body in motion staying in motion unless another force comes in and messes with it.
I don’t need to look like a model. My home doesn’t need to look like it was ripped from the pages of a magazine.
I have different priorities: The people I care about, my pets, writing, making things, and traveling.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Those aren’t higher standards or lower standards. They’re just different ones.