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The Real Truth About Housework

By Belinda

Mum belonged to the generation of women, which after keeping the country running while the men were away at war, continued to work outside the home when they came back.

When I think back now, I don't know how she managed, without even a washing machine, let alone a dryer! One way was by having an after-work routine that she did not deviate from: 

Every evening the grate in the kitchen, which held the coal fire that heated the house, had to be cleaned out. The grate would be shaken vigorously with a poker and the ashes that fell through the iron bars would be swept out with a brush into a dustpan and a new fire built. The red flagstone kitchen floor, dusty with all of the ash floating around, would be swept and mopped daily.

Monday was washing night. On cold winter evenings while the washing boiled in a dolly tub, the kitchen windows and doors were open wide to the elements to let out the steam. I would shiver in our breezy house, hoping that it would all be over soon, that the doors and windows would be closed, and being "inside" would again feel different to "outside."

Our bed sheets were heavy white cotton twill; no permanent press--it would be years before that was invented. 

Mum would wrestle the sheets, steaming hot, and heavy with water, into the kitchen sink and then wash them before rinsing them. She would wring them out by hand, and I well remember how reddened and rough this made them. 

One day she bought an amazing invention called a spin dryer. This tool really helped. It was a thing of wonder and Mum cared for it lovingly! But it still required loading with the small quantities of laundry it could hold at one time and then holding on tight as it began to spin and wobble like a wildly bucking bronco, while the centrifugal force spun the water from the washing and into a carefully placed waiting bucket.

Then everything had to be hung outside or inside on lines, peg by peg!

Tuesday evening was  ironing night and all the sheets and pillowcases for our three beds, were ironed; along with the rest of the laundry.

Wednesday evening was Mum's night off, and she used to play her accordion in the kitchen when the dinner dishes were done; we also always knew what was for dinner by which night of the week it was. 

Thursday evening Mum did the bedrooms, which meant that she vacuumed and mopped the floors and I did the dusting (she hated dusting.) 

Friday evenings we watched one of the many old movie series on TV, together.

Saturday was shopping day and Mum would go to the village or into Redditch on the bus, bringing back only what she could carry in her shopping bag.

Back then a married woman was referred to as a "housewife," a term I never liked because it sounded like you were married to the house. Even worse was "the missus" which sounds like an accessory to go along with "the vacuum," (which in England we called "the hoover.")

When my Dutch Oma visited any of her daughters, she would help out with the cleaning by going over and above the normal cleaning--she was like a caped Super Hero: Super Cleaner and would do things like wash all the walls!

So I grew up knowing that keeping houses clean was a going concern, a constant occupation.

I never had as rigid a routine as Mum, and I had way more labour saving devices, but when I cleaned did clean deep.

Somewhere along the way though, maybe because I'm getting "older," I find myself struggling to keep up with the many rooms to clean and all of the shopping, laundry, finances etc. that are the stuff of everyday life after a days' work.

I often don't want to do anything else at the end of a long work day, and I don't want to spend every hour of a Saturday consumed by chores. I do what I can, but often feel that it is at a snail's pace and that I am nowhere near Mum's standard of housekeeping! 

So I wondered, how do my younger co-workers manage? They drop off and pick up children from day care or school, before and after work, and older children are enrolled in so many activities that evenings and weekends are consumed in ferrying children to hockey, ballet, music lessons and swimming lessons.

I asked the question of someone recently, after she told me what activities her daughter was enrolled in these days, and listed the exhausting sounding schedule of drop offs and pickups. 

"Whenever do you get your housework done?" I asked innocently.

She laughed at the question. "I don't," she said.

A couple of days later she said, "Belinda, I've been thinking about what you asked. I really just clean a washroom when I have a minute, or tidy a shelf when I have another minute. The whole house really never gets cleaned."

Now this; don't laugh; was a revelation to me. 

Things have changed as much from my generation to this one, as they did from Mum's generation to mine. 

I felt freed and I decided to adopt this method myself, and stop shooting for the elusive "whole clean house" idea. 

The real truth about housework is...
   ...that there are so many more important things to be done!


Anonymous said…
Housework is one of the most thankless jobs. It takes so much time and effort only to get dirty again. One of those necessary "evils".

When I was working full time, plus 2 part time jobs I was "done", yet would stay up all night trying to accomplish more at home. I think too much of my self-worth was reflected in the cleanliness of my home. Plus immense pressure was put on my by my parents who would actually check my toaster crumb tray and if there was dust behind the toilet roll in the holder. Yes they did!

I asked some co-workers how they coped, especially with the children. They looked at me as if I was an alien. Housekeepers of course. I found out that all except one of my co-workers (we are talking about 12 others) had housekeepers. Most weekly a few bi-weekly. I was shocked. It never occured to me that that is how they dealt with it.

Yet after my accident things changed. I could not longer do all the things I used to do. Things slip and slide away. I no longer tie my self-worth into my home, for surely I must be worth more than this mess. :-)

People are more important than projects. If I only have a few good hours on my "energy battery" then I want to spend them with people, not a vacum.

I join you in admiration of those before us who had to do so much with so little. I think I would have joined a nudist colony if I had to wash everything by hand!!!

We have so much to be thankful for!
The first thing I thought when I read about boiling laundry was, 'Wow, the English will make tea whenever and however they can!' I remember too the stress of cleaning day. We had this thing called a mangle that one one ever seems to have heard of - ours was electric and we used it for ironing. An odd machine that made the chore of ironing a little more fun. It's astonishing what work comes with adulthood.
Marilyn said…
HAHAHA! (to Dave's "tea" comment)

I'm not a big 'cleaner.' I get into one task and it leads to another and another and I end up frustrated I can't get it all done. Bad for me mentally. I am careful to tackle a manageable-sized chore clear a clear finish line and let that be enough. If I find something else that needs to be done, I write it down for another time.

In recent years, though, I find a cleaning task to be a creative rejuvenator. If I stop writing and go tackle a cleaning task, I come back to the writing with my thoughts sorted.

I have great respect for people who can keep a house running smoothly. The work is only noticed if it goes UNDONE ('thankless' is what Anonymous called it).

Loved your review of the old routines, your ponderings about today and your conclusion about keeping things in the right perspective!
Belinda said…
Dear Anonymous, you are so right about the thanklessness of housework. The brief glow of satisfaction vanishes as dust gathers again quickly before our eyes to take up its appointed place on shelves and floors! :)

Your accident brought forced clarity!

I laughed at the thought of joining a nudist colony in protest at hand washing, but in truth, I might just have to join you if it comes down to that! :)
Belinda said…
Dave, I laughed at the "laundry tea!"

Mum eventually got a mangle too! But she used hers to squeeze out the bulk of the water before putting the clothes into the spin dryer. Ay ay ay!

I am grateful that I live in this day!

Yes, so much work does come with adulthood. I often fantasize about going out to play and imagine adults at a children's playground, just having fun on the roundabouts and swings; playing tag etc. Maybe that's why God gave us grandchildren and young friends who drag us there! :)
Belinda said…
Oh, Marilyn, I so get the "one thing leading into another!" Endlessly. I loved your concept of having a "finish line." I tend to overestimate what I can do in any given time frame, so I will implement the finish line and remember to set myself up for success! I might then be even encouraged to carry on. :)
A quote by a fellow Englishman that may give some comfort: After the third year, the dust doesn't get any worse. (Quentin Crisp) And just for luck a couple other of his quotes: The very purpose of existence is to reconcile the glowing opinion we have of ourselves with the appalling things that other people think about us. And:Fashion is what you adopt when you don't know who you are.
Belinda said…
Oh, Dave! Thank you for the quotes. My favourite was the one by Quentin Crisp about dust! "After the third year, dust doesn't get any worse!" Ha ha. I will be laughing about that for some time. :)
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