A guilt-free existence: Part 2, Keeping house, guilt-free

Now, the first thing I should say is that I don’t think I have ever met a mother who didn’t feel guilty. You wake up after your first post-delivery sleep, and the crushing fear that you’re just not doing it well enough is with you from pretty much that moment onwards. So, when I’m talking about being guilt-free in this context, I’m probably only talking about being relatively guilt-free, if I’m honest. At best.

When our first child was born, and I found myself doing the stay-at-home mum thing for the first time, I made one thing very clear to Kevin: I am here to take care of the baby. If, by the time you walk in the door, the baby is alive, more or less clean and more or less fed, then I have done my job. If during the intervening period I have also washed some dishes, then you are having a good day, because that’s a bonus.

Kevin is lovely, and had no particular problem with this approach. The division of domestic labour had been more or less equal before we had Daisy, and there was no obvious reason why it should be less equal once she arrived – she did, after all, increase the workload, not reduce it.

Of course, as she grew up, and became less dependent, and I was hanging out in the house so much more than he was, most of the household jobs did end up falling to me. Not cooking (except for a brief period when I still only had one child, and she was big enough to put in front of CBeebies). And not food shopping, once I got too pregnant with number two to successfully man-handle number one into the trolley seat. But most of the rest of it has been my job for most of the time.

I am not a natural housekeeper. I am not one of these people who never sits down, and who instinctively both sees and is compelled to resolve every item out of place at all times. I’m more of a natural sit-on-the-sofa-reading-Twitter person. At one time I was a strong advocate of the Flylady system, with its heavy emphasis on the idea that I was, in fact, good enough, and it’s very logical breakdown of just what the jobs were that needed to be done. The biggest flaw I found with the Flylady system, was the way the minimum number of jobs to be done was always on the increase. At the beginning, she’d say, “Just shine your sink. That’s all. Make it beautiful, make it something you’re proud of. Don’t worry about the rest of it, it’ll still be there tomorrow.” And I shined my sink, and I felt great. Two months later, I had a weekly plan to adhere to, with a strong sense of failure if I didn’t get all the things done in the one hour that I was supposed to, I had missions to fulfil to clean obscure corners of my bathroom that no-one ever saw, I had a timer to set for fifteen minute bouts of decluttering (and I hate decluttering – it’s hard!), and I had a list of “deep cleaning” jobs that were supposed to come around monthly, but which I never got around to at all. The sense of guilt and failure regularly became overwhelming, with the result that I stopped doing anything, and then, when I couldn’t live with the result any longer, had to start the whole system again from scratch.

I made many attempts to tweak the system so that it worked better for me. It kind of worked, but never for very long. It was like dieting – the effect might be impressive in the short term, but sooner or later, I would find myself right back where I started, plus an extra five pounds or so for good measure.

When I eventually spotted the pattern, it dawned on me that part way through the Flylady process, a switch was being flipped – probably by me, rather than by Flylady, but it was still being flipped. It went from being about celebrating the fact that I achieved anything, to being focussed on getting the whole list done. And the further into the system I got, the longer the list was, and the less likely I was to get through it. And that made me feel so bad, that I didn’t even start the list any more.

My current housework regime owes a lot to Flylady – she taught me a taxonomy of housework which I’ve found very useful. In short, some things need to happen most days; some things need to happen most weeks; and some things need to happen eventually. I prefer the idea of doing a single load of laundry every day, to having a week’s worth to catch up on all at once. I know that if I go a whole day without washing any dishes, the kitchen will be unusable (our kitchen has precisely four feet of work surface, including the bit under the microwave, so it gets overwhelmed very easily). I know that Other People hoover their floors every other day, but really, it’s a category two job. It would be great if it happened every week, but it doesn’t, and that’s OK.

So instead of lists of things that I feel bad about not doing, I reworked the way I thought about it. The daily jobs remain pretty much daily, though I have them prioritised – I try not to skip laundry or dishes, because my experience has taught me that it’s worse for me if I do. The rest is all about achievement. I did my exercise – go me! I ironed some creased stuff, hurrah! I spent five minutes (not fifteen – it turns out fifteen minutes is too long, and becomes a psychological barrier to doing anything at all) tidying one corner of Daisy’s bedroom – aren’t I fabulous?!

From the weekly list I took the word “weekly” away. It’s not a list of things I must do this week, it’s a rolling list of things that need to be done. As long as I do one thing from that list, I am making progress. If I do more than one, I’m amazing. Sometimes it takes two weeks, or even more, to get back to the beginning, and by then the floor can look pretty desperate for lack of hoovering, but it doesn’t matter, because I know I’ll get to it sooner or later. It’s great that I did it today, it’s not significant that I hadn’t previously done it in three weeks. Once the room is dusted, it no longer shows that I left it so long.

Doing it this way does mean that there is never a single moment when the house is “clean”. It might be hoovered, but dusty. It might have clean sheets on the beds, but sticky, unmopped floors. To be honest, that’s probably a good thing. Busting a gut to make the place nice just makes me unfriendly with family members who then have the audacity to live their ordinary life in my nice clean house. Almost every day I do SOMETHING, and every thing I do is reason for celebration.

My good friend @mamamallon lent me a book by Rachel Held Evans, called A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I was roughly as sceptical as you currently are, having read the title. Most of it didn’t blow my mind, though the author was rather less alarming, and more ordinary, than I had feared. I gained one important thing from it: the  bit of the bible in Proverbs 31, where it talks about all the amazing things a “Woman of Valour” does, and sets up a seemingly impossible standard for what a decent wife/mother is like, wasn’t designed to be a stick to beat me with. It’s not a check list. It’s a celebration – a love poem, to be recited in honour of a wife/mother, not to make her feel bad, but to make her feel good! It’s there to do exactly what my housework list does – to make a tiny celebration of something getting done. She doesn’t do those things every single day – not all of them, anyway. That she does them at all, though, is worthy of celebration, so the Jews, having a small amount of wisdom in this area, celebrate it. Jewish women, to this day, according to Held Evans, congratulate one another with the Hebrew phrase, “Eshet Chayil” – “Woman of Valour!” You washed the dishes! Woman of Valour! Everyone has clean underwear! Eshet Chayil!

Living a guilt-free life is all about celebrating what you did, not obsessing about what you didn’t do. Because every little thing is, in fact, an achievement, and it’s too easy to underestimate that truth.