Friday, September 4, 2009

Letting it slide—accepting a clean enough house

When Amy Herendeen first became a stay-at-home mom, she dedicated a lot of time and effort to keeping house. But the chores were often interrupted by her daughter's needs. Trying to be the "perfect housewife" and take care of an infant left her feeling frustrated and angry.

So she changed her priorities.

"I didn't quit my job to stay home to clean house," said Herendeen, 31, of Manchester, Mo. "My daughter is my job. I am a stay-at-home mom, not a maid."

Now Herendeen strives for a house that's clean enough — meaning the bathrooms and kitchen are clean and the house appears tidy. But she doesn't spend a lot of time scrubbing floors, washing windows or deep cleaning. And she doesn't feel guilty if the laundry doesn't get done.

Many people are making peace with messier lives, casting off the expectations they grew up with. Busy careers, super-scheduled children and less interest in housework have contributed to the new mindset.

"Over time, housekeeping standards have lowered," said Francine Deutsch, a social psychologist at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Mass. "There's no question about that."

And while houses might not be as clean as they were a generation ago, that's OK with today's women.

"It's about 'what are the standards of my generation?"' Deutsch said. "If push comes to shove, housework is going to go — not child care."

In fact, mothers devote an average of four more hours a week to tending their children and 14 more hours of paid work than they did 40 years ago, according to a report last year from the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-profit group based at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They do 14 fewer hours of housework a week, the study said.

"I don't think we really had a choice," said Alana Morales, a mother of two and author of "Domestically Challenged" (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2006). "We don't have time to wash baseboards every day. You have to learn to let things go."

Morales said she noticed standards changing about five years ago. Women are realizing, she said, that you don't have to have a perfect home to be a good mother or wife.

"It just kind of happens," she said. "Oh well, I didn't get my floors washed today, but I did teach my daughter to tie her shoes."

On a normal day, there are toys strewn across Chastity Zumwalt's office, living room and hallway in Springfield, Mo., and dishes in her sink.

"I have three kids and we live here," said Zumwalt, 29. "I like things clean, but there's paper on the table and magazines on the bar in the kitchen."

Zumwalt keeps her floor mopped and her carpet vacuumed but allows other things to slide. "The curtains haven't been washed in a year and that doesn't bother me," she said.

She sometimes suspects, however, that her husband disapproves of the state of the house.

"I think maybe part of him does and the other part of him doesn't," she said. "I think it's something he has to accept. He has dinner when he comes home and his clothes are clean. What more do you want?"

Melissa Chang of Beverly, Mass., adopted a new approach to housecleaning after launching her own business two years ago.

"It's really time-consuming to start a company," she said. "It just became overwhelming to clean every week."

Eventually Chang found shortcuts that gave her house the appearance of being cleaner than it was. She adopted a morning routine of straightening up. She spends about 10 minutes putting dishes in the dishwasher, cleaning the bathroom and clearing away clutter.

"I'm a big fan of the closet cleanup," the 34-year-old said. "I chuck it in my closet and shut the door."

Trish Berg, author of "Rattled: Surviving Your Baby's First Year without Losing Your Cool" (Random House, 2008), would like her house to be cleaner but she's not going to let a little clutter stop her from entertaining or spending time with family.

"We get focused on the stuff in life but what really counts is the relationships in life," said Berg.


A regular contributor to Christian Web sites and magazines, she considers it a ministry when she lets a friend see her house when it's less than perfect. If her friend's house is neater than hers, Berg reasons, the friend will leave feeling better about herself. If the friend's house is in similar condition, she leaves knowing that other women also struggle to do it all.

"The ministry of mediocrity applies to the cleanliness of your house as well as many, many other areas in life," said Berg, a mother of four.

Guests aren't likely to focus on the flaws in your house anyhow, she believes.

"I only see the good" in others' homes, she said.

Herendeen agreed. "I think we've all been at each other's houses and there are dishes in the sink or Cheerios from last week on the floor," she said. "We all just laugh and joke about it."

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