Life in the city

To clean or not to clean

When it comes to taboo topics, forget about sex. Ditto for religion. Both are pass. Big yawn. Race is still dicey. So is class.

But if you want to get a reaction -- guilt, angst, self-righteousness, fury -- just bring up professional housecleaning. Especially among women. But before we go any further, I need to make the following public service announcement:

Sisters, no matter what we do, some national study, expert or rinky-dink columnist will announce we have Done Wrong. Chosen Wrong. Misplaced our Priorities. You can't win. So don't even try. If the only way they'll take away your housecleaner is to pry her out of your cold, dead hands -- God bless you, and ignore this whole column.

For the rest of you, I'll start out with full disclosure.

I've been a professional housecleaner.

I've had a professional housecleaner.

And now I -- along with my husband and three sons -- clean our own house, which makes us sort of a rarity on our upper-middle-class street and in much of the 55410 ZIP code where "current residents" recently received a four-page brochure from Cottagecare, a national franchise based in Overland Park, Kansas.

"Imagine a world where you always come home feeling good about your wonderfully clean house," proclaimed the brochure, "a world where buying and storing cleaning supplies is ancient history, a world free of housework hassles and cleaning arguments. It's not fantasy. It's CottageCare and we believe it's for you."

One page had boldface quotes from the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers about the national trend of handing off chores to the hired help. "Customers are washing their hands of the dirty work altogether, and not just wealthy matrons, but secretaries, nurses, singles and students. … Homeowners who are busy professionals are increasingly turning to professional housecleaning to deal with the three Ds -- dirt, dust and disorder." And finally, in extra large type: "There is nothing moral about cleaning your own toilet. Buy whatever household help you can afford."

According to the brochure, for about $80 a week (which is $320 a month or $4,160 a year -- no small chunk of cash for a secretary or student), Cottagecare will clean a "typical, three-bedroom home" with a team of screened, bonded workers who work "quickly and quietly" and "each one wears a uniform and a smile."

Now call me a cynic, but it seems the only real way to "always come home feeling good about your wonderfully clean house" is to get rid of your kids, the spouse, the retriever and the cats, all of whom have the distressing and daily tendency to mess things up.

Because actual life involves constant dirt and disorder. It's a law of nature, as immutable as breathing. You inhale.

You exhale. Crumbs fall. Toothpaste sticks to the sink. The dog shakes and clouds of fur settle to the floor.

Or to paraphrase the bumper sticker: Mess happens. All the time. Thus housework. Whether this is seen as a major hassle or something Real People Do In Order To Live Together depends on how many people are subconsciously waiting for Mom to show up (sometimes even from the grave) and take care of it all.

Of course. I get the social context. Most women are working. Most men are slugs. With our insanely busy lives, something's got to give. But in the long run, I'm still not convinced we should be aspiring to homes that are free of housework hassles. … where storing cleaning supplies is ancient history because uniformed, supposedly smiling workers who are -- let's get real -- underpaid and usually just in from Mexico sweep through our homes and (according to the brochure) "hand-wash" the floors.

Which is something I never did when I cleaned houses in college. I encountered a few wealthy matrons (alias New Money) who seemed unusually keen to see me on my hands and knees, but I just said no, and used a mop. I attended a conservative Christian college where students were encouraged to turn the smallest, most mundane conversation into a talk about The Lord. This irritated people who wanted a housecleaner as opposed to a house evangelist. So I developed a thriving niche market as The Girl Who Could Wipe Down A Bathroom Without Witnessing. I charged high prices. Set my own hours. And most of my clients treated me well, as if I was their … personal savior.

And I did the same for the women I hired to clean my house for seven years when my kids were small. Parenting books are full of tips about how to manage infants and toddlers while cleaning the house. But the tips never worked for me. The baby cried; the toddler almost drank bleach.

As I cleaned the bathroom, the five-year-old completely dismantled the bedroom. I got to the point where I decided I could hire a babysitter and clean. Or hire a cleaner.

But to tell you the truth, I never felt great about it. Because I actually believe there IS something moral and spiritually grounding about cleaning your own toilet. In our increasingly class-conscious, technological society, we're encouraged to focus on our own narrow niche, where we can earn maximum profit because that's the most efficient division of labor.

Under this economic model, no doctor or lawyer should ever be dusting. In her rare moments off, she should be pursuing highly stimulating pleasures. And this is the modern image of The Good Life.

But from my experience, people who don't clean up their own messes tend to lead isolated, weirdly detached lives. The monasteries figured this out a long time ago. That's why monks spent hours meditating -- and then cleaned toilets and did laundry.

Which put them with the minority of guys. And that's my final gripe about Cottagecare and professional housecleaning -- it gives women a break, but lets half the population off the hook of taking personal responsibility for their lives. Yet again. Which is why, in my family, we ultimately got rid of the housecleaner.

We're raising sons, not princes. And men who can't clean a bathroom and vacuum a house are a menace to society.

  • Lynnell Mickelsen is a Linden Hills writer who can be reached c/o the Southwest Journal or at [email protected]