I got into a little argument with my kids about cleaning the house.
I let things slide during the summer. About a week before my son arrives home from college in mid-May, I realize order will cease to exist, and I mostly go with the flow until he evacuates in late August.
But we reached a crisis point, mainly because we were expecting visitors: the cleaning people who hadn’t been here in two months. And though I warned that I’d need all hands on deck for this recovery mission, they argued bitterly with me about cleaning detail.
Having kids, or should I say young adults, argue with me about cleaning the house infuriates me because I grew up in a family where daily and weekly cleaning chores were expected. I was wielding a Lemon Pledge can by age 8, and prided myself at cleaning a broiler pan better than anyone else. (For stubborn grease, pour a little dishwasher soap in with hot water and soak for about 30 minutes.)
As a kid, I used to read “Hints from Heloise,” both the original column and the one later penned by her daughter. I knew the difference between Janitor-in-a-Drum, Pine Sol, Lysol, Spic & Span and Murphy’s Oil Soap by scent, and even today can spot Fabuloso by its distinctive aroma touted as lasting 24 hours. (I once got into an elaborate conversation with a Target cashier over the joys of Fabuloso, but that’s a blog for another day.)
As the second oldest of seven girls, I was expected to pitch in with cleaning and even organize the little kids every Saturday. My father believed that the cook shouldn’t clean the kitchen, so he enlisted me and two of my sisters flanking me in birth order to clean the kitchen every night. We were 11, 10 and 8. When the little kids aged up, they assisted us.
My older sister handled dishes, while the younger one cleaned the table and counters. I was on pots, which sounds easy until you realize my mother used several pots and pans every night. “What’d she use every pot in the kitchen?” I’d often mutter under my breath. And I think she did.
Though some cooks clean as they go along, my mother paid little mind to the mess she was making because she had us to clean it up. I know because I’m the same way – you tend to be messier in the kitchen when you know you’re not the one cleaning up after yourself.
Besides nightly kitchen detail, we were expected to clean the house from top to bottom every Saturday morning. No one was particularly happy about it, but I don’t remember giving my mother an argument. We understood from an early age that keeping the house in order was the price you paid for having a roof over your head.
I was the cleaning organizer, and I relished my role. Each week, I’d write down the names of various rooms on slips of paper and put them into a hat. Everyone took turns picking out their assignments and then scattered to complete their missions. Some kids did better jobs than others, but no one balked. It was part of our routine, and we knew fun things like “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” beckoned once the chores were finished.
In addition to chores, we grew up knowing we had to put our stuff away. If you left a jacket on a family room chair, my father would storm into the room and throw it on the floor, making his disdain for clutter quite clear without speaking a word. The jacket would be scooped up by the offender and hung in the closest, never making its way to the chair again.
I used to think our house was messy, and it was compared to my friends’ houses, which were always neat as a pin. I loved the sense of order and quiet that a house with only two kids afforded. By comparison, my house seemed loud, chaotic and a bit of a zoo.
But I’m now in awe of my mother and her ability to keep such a tidy house with seven kids under foot. She ran a much tighter ship than I thought, teaching us at an early age that it takes a village to keep a house in order.
Show me a house where only one person cleans, and I’ll show you a messy house. Keeping a space in order takes cooperation from all household members and a bit of a covenant – I’ll do my part if you do yours. If you have a stake in the cleaning process, you’re much less likely to mess things up.
What I’ve realized about my family, including me, is that no one puts anything away. Backpacks, shoes, piles of clean laundry and tennis racquets are strewn about, making me wonder what my father would do if he was still alive and set foot in this place. He’d probably start throwing things on the floor to make his point – and he’d have to if he hoped to find an open chair.
I spent three hours – no exaggeration – putting things away. Most people would be embarrassed to admit this, but it’s true. Three hours to remove things from where they didn’t belong and into their rightful spots.
I’m not sure how we all became such slobs, but I blame part of it on the summer slide. The last thing anyone wants to do in the summer is clean house, though I’ve been in enough immaculate houses lately to know that some people still clean in the summer. Going into a clean house is such a wake-up call for us summer slackers, reminding us how far we’ve fallen.
My mother taught me from an early age that cleaning is not a one-person job that should fall on the mother alone. I forgot that lesson when raising my own kids. I failed to make daily and Saturday chores part of the package, perhaps because I was too busy shuttling them to sports and playdates every weekend.
Instead of getting out Pledge and dust rags, we were in the car, crisscrossing town for soccer, basketball or baseball. There was no time for cleaning or scraps of paper in a hat, so I forgot that it’s OK to expect kids to do their part.
As my mother often says, “You must be home to clean your house” and we were never home on Saturdays. We’re still not home a lot, but I want my kids to know that cleaning is important. It’s doing your part, and showing respect for the place you call home.
If I can get that point across without an argument, I will have done my job and taught them that cleaning is a fact of life. Period.