For a clean house, climbing the walls and hitting the roof

December 21, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

The allergist said dust mites were causing asthma in my son. And then he showed me a picture of a dust mite.

Big picture. Huge picture. The dust mite that ate New York City. Then he told me that they are everywhere. Millions of them. You can't see them. And they live off flakes of your dead skin. Gross.

He's talking about furnace filters and pillow covers, and wrapping mattresses in plastic and pulling up the carpet and stripping the child's room of everything, all his models and his sports trophies and his skull from a dead fox. All the dust catchers. All the dust-mite havens.

He's talking about washing walls and vacuuming three times a week and washing the bedclothes once a week in very hot water. But I have stopped listening.

All I can hear is this: My son's ability to breathe is directly related to my ability to clean. Talk about pressure.

For women, cleanliness has nothing to do with godliness. It is a dark legacy from our mothers. Either they cleaned or they didn't, but their attitudes and their compulsions have been passed on to us, have marked us.

Some of us are clean freaks who hide our midnight scrubbing fanaticisms from even our closest friends, breezily dismissing the subject with an off-hand gesture and a lie. "My kitchen floor? The only way you could eat off of it is if you were hungry for something the kids dropped."

Others of us couldn't care less. Fingerprints on every surface. The bedrooms and the bathrooms are chaos. The kitchen always looks as if it is in the middle of holiday meal preparation. "But

she's great with those kids, isn't she?" others say about her.

Still others of us want the house to be clean -- we just don't want to do it. Cleaning services are a booming business, but the cost is more than financial. A woman gives up part of her privacy when she hires someone to come in and see her dirt. And she is admitting she can't do it all.

One friend nearly had a breakdown trying to pick up after her kids all day the day before the cleaning service came. She finally fired the service after a tearful confession to her husband that she'd rather do it herself.

"It took me a long time to get comfortable with the fact that they changed my bed," said another friend. "And then my mother would come over, give everything the white glove test, and say she couldn't believe I was actually paying someone to do this bad a job."

Our mothers. They are the source of this. I scrub the backs of dressers and headboards because my mother did. My sister vacuums her mattresses and box springs because my mother did. "I can smell the dust when I'm sleeping," she used to say, scarring us both.

Another friend woke to find her visiting -- and insomniac -- mother Windexing the face of the alarm clock beside her bed. Another had a grandmother who cut a cardboard template so she could polish the picture hangers without getting the polish on the walls.

I bleach my kitchen counters every week to kill germs. When my sister's children were toddlers, she used to wash her kitchen floor -- by hand -- after every meal. Another sister responded one day to the stress of two small children and a return to college by ripping up her dining room carpet and throwing it away so she could clean under it.

Women who have small children often do their housework at night. "No point doing it during the day," a friend said, "the kids tear up as fast as you clean up." So she would start at 7 p.m. and clean until midnight. "Then I'd go to sleep happy, knowing my house was clean for at least seven straight hours."

Women who work clean at night, too. How many of us are starting loads of wash at 10 p.m? A friend can be found scrubbing her toilet when the rest of America is getting ready for Letterman.

"Take the baby out of here," she said, scolding her husband as she knelt on the bathroom floor. "I don't want her to ever see me like this."

Cleanliness. What a trap. Women are driven to their knees -- or to pay through their noses -- for a state of grace that lasts only until the kids get home from school. And we know that no child ever loved her mother more just because the box springs were vacuumed regularly. What dark compulsion are we imprinting on our daughters?

I don't know. I can't even think about that now. There are dust mites everywhere and I have to kill them.

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