Cleanliness is in the eye of the beholder

August 11, 1998|By SUSAN REIMER

RECENTLY, I took time off and spent a week at the beach with my family and a week at home cleaning out closets and washing walls and windows.

When I returned to work, my women friends asked where I had gone and what I had done, and when I told them, every one expressed her envy.

Not of my week at the beach -- of my week cleaning house.

"Don't you feel wonderful?" asked one of my friends. And I knew instinctively that she was not asking if I had been rejuvenated by the sound of the ocean.

"I feel like I am starting fresh," I said, smiling placidly.

The relationship between a woman and her house is as complex as any she has with the humans who share it with her. A woman loves her home -- it is the nest she keeps for the ones she loves most -- but it is also work. Endless, mindless work. And all who enter take her measure as surely as if they were, indeed, wearing white gloves.

No matter what a woman does outside that house -- teach, nurse, make laws, build roads -- if her kitchen floor crackles under foot as you cross it, you think less of her. If the place is littered with kid stuff, you question her child-rearing standards, her authority. If there is dust or grimy fingerprints, you wonder about her work ethic.

And if she does not work outside that house, you wonder what she does all day that she can't find the time to pick up a dust rag.

"Keeping our homes clean involves a great deal of time and effort; it arouses strong feelings and preferences and prejudices; it conjures up bizarre practices, deeply ingrained beliefs, and decades of powerful conditioning," Margaret Horsfield writes in "Biting the Dust," a social history of housework.

"How we care for our homes, and how we are encouraged to care for them, is a deceptively simple matter. But just lift the corner of the rug, and see what lies underneath."

No one with whom I live need lift a rug to discover my feelings on the matter. I can become homicidal over the state of the kitchen after a summer day of nonstop snacking. I will star in an episode of "Cops" if people don't start hanging up the towels in the bathroom and stop leaving shoes in the front hall.

Yet my mother, who polished even the furniture surfaces that stood against the walls, might not cross my threshold without a linen hanky pressed to her nose.

It is clear that cleanliness is not next to godliness, as John Wesley opined. Cleanliness is in the eye of the beholder. But if you read the research of John Robinson of the University of Maryland, '90s women are winking at the messes in their houses.

After tabulating the minutes spent on housework in time-use diaries -- in which people record what they actually do and not what they imagine they probably do most of the time -- Robinson concluded that women spend about 10 hours a week less on housework than they did 20 years ago. Certainly that is because so many of us are working.

Are our houses dirtier?

We don't think they are.

Attitude surveys among women, Robinson reported in American Demographics magazine, reveal that the majority of us are just as satisfied with the cleanliness of our homes today as women were 20 years ago.

Robinson also reported that the labor-saving devices we buy may save labor, but they don't save time. What we don't expend in elbow grease, we spend doing one more chore. Which probably explains why we are satisfied with the cleanliness of our homes.

Women also think national standards of cleanliness have deteriorated, according to Robinson's research, and that our neighbors' houses are messier than our own. I guess it is easier to feel satisfied with the cleanliness of your house if you think everybody else lives in a pigpen.

But those attitudes are different for women of different ages, and women of my generation -- the baby boom generation -- are burdened with the opinion that our mothers would not approve of our housekeeping.

I know mine would not be.

And we don't deceive ourselves. Women of my age say there is a difference between "cleanliness" and "tidiness," and tidiness doesn't make it.

Apparently we are convinced our mothers could look under that rug Margaret Horsfield is talking about.

Pub Date: 8/15/98

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