I DON'T THINK a woman ever works harder than she does the day before the cleaning people come. Her mother-in-law could be just a mile away, her pastor could be pulling up to the curb, the woman she envies most could be at her door, and a woman would not work this hard to make her house presentable.
She scurries from room to room putting everything in its place. Her arms are overflowing with shoes, clothes, sporting equipment, towels, newspapers, schoolwork and whatever else the people she lives with could not be bothered to put away. That's because she knows the cleaning people can't clean what is buried in debris.
"Some days it is almost more trouble than it is worth," says my friend Nan, who prepares for her cleaning lady by "cracking the whip and yelling at my kids."
My friend Susan spends a day and a night getting ready. "I do the laundry and make sure the rags are clean. I pick up the house. I yell at my son."
Susan ranks her cleaning lady right next to her hairdresser on her list of indispensable people. "I can survive anything if I know she is coming."
Another friend and working mother, Nancy, tells her children that the cleaning service carries with it a "huge sucking machine" that will gobble up all their toys while making awful grinding sounds. "I use this every Sunday night," says Nancy, whose cleaning lady arrives on Monday mornings and restores order after a weekend of chaos.
"A request for help won't work. Neither will a threat. So I tell them a machine is coming that inhales toys."
If our mothers were fortunate enough to have cleaning help, they cleaned in advance to hide their shame. "I can't have strangers seeing my dirt," my mother once said.
But we have a different purpose: If we don't get the debris out of the way, the cleaning lady can't clean.
"I have to put everything back where it belongs," says my friend Susan. "That is all I do and it doesn't sound like much, but it is."
All these women are working mothers, and they are hard-pressed for time to do more than wipe out a bathroom sink. "A lick and a promise" was coined to describe our approach to housework.
We clean our houses in bite-sized pieces and by the time we finish the last piece, it is past time to start again.
"That's the pleasure," says Nan. "When I walk in the house, knowing that it is all clean all at once. It gives me a lift. It is not one more thing hanging over my head at the end of the day."
It is not that we mind cleaning, or even resent that we are expected to do it. As a matter of fact, most of us like it and would do it if we could. An article in the March issue of Good Housekeeping magazine likens housework to occupational therapy -- the management of emotions through activity -- for stressed-out working mothers.
Cleaning out a junk drawer or a hall closet gives the sense of accomplishment and completion that we might not find at the office or in dealing with our kids.
But there is no time for us to do it, and our kids are too busy with activities and school work to take on a list of chores that might get it done for us.
"My kids have chores," says Nancy. "One cleans the sink, and four days later another one cleans the toilet. Without the cleaning lady, there would never be a time when it was all clean at once."
It is our little secret. We never clean harder than the day before the cleaning people come. Unless it is the day before we leave for vacation.
Pub Date: 03/14/99