In cleaning, women find satisfying sense of control

Family Matters

January 18, 2004|By Susan Reimer

THE MOMENT THE KIDS returned to school after their holiday vacation, I sank up to my wrists in warm bubbles.

Not in the tub. In the kitchen sink.

I love my kids, but they are big, messy teen-agers and they spent the holiday eating.

Every two hours. Like infants.

They were barely out the door when I began to reclaim my kitchen -- by cleaning it from the floor tiles to the tops of the windows.

It turns out that I am part of a trend.

"Spring cleaning will always be with us," says Brian Sansoni, vice president of communications for the Soap and Detergent Association.

"But more and more people are choosing to clean at other times of the year -- after the holidays, when the kids go back to school, is one of the big ones.

"It is an easy way for women to feel satisfied and in control," says Kristin van Ogtrop, editor of Real Simple magazine.

"Women -- and it is mostly women -- are reclaiming their space," says Carolyn Forte, director of home care for the Good Housekeeping Institute.

"And I think the world has taken note of this," says van Ogtrop.

She's right. Spring cleaning season is months away, but stores like Williams-Sonoma and Bed Bath & Beyond are featuring cleaning materials right now, and The Container Store -- a retail phenomenon if ever there was one -- is riding the wave of the de-clutter movement.

Real Simple research shows that there are 60 million women in the United States between the ages of 25 and 54, and half of them rank organizing as their No. 1 priority.

More than 500 books were published in the last year on the subject of cleaning and de-cluttering, including one by the Queen of Clean herself, Heloise, titled Get Organized With Heloise.

Most of these books can trace their lineage to Cheryl Mendelson's 900-page definitive tome on cleaning, Home Comforts, published in 1999.

There are magazines dedicated to the uncluttered life -- Real Simple knockoffs like Chic Simple and Budget Living and Organic Style. And "Time to get organized" was the cover story on this month's Better Homes & Gardens.

The success of air-purifier products -- some of which cost thousands of dollars -- is traceable to our need to clean the very air around us.

Even my mother, who vacuumed her box springs, never felt the need to clean her air ducts, and that is a service industry now.

Industry analysts warn that waxes and polishes are on their way out, swept aside by the Swiffer wipe movement.

There are now pet wipes, microwave wipes, face wipes, hand wipes, disinfecting wipes, leather wipes and electrostatic dust cloths.

"Wipes are one of the fastest growing segments of our industry over the last year," said Sansoni of the Soap and Detergent Association.

We don't want to spend a lot of time cleaning, but we don't mind spending a little more money on products that make cleaning more pleasant.

Even grocery store shelves are now stocked with the pricier aromatherapy dish soaps that were so recently the province of boutique stores.

"We call them affordable luxuries," says Sansoni. "Products that make you feel good about being home and more joyful about cleaning."

"Life is so hectic now that even little things mean a lot," says Forte of the Good Housekeeping Institute. "It is a way of pampering yourself. Of taking care of yourself and your home. Of making routine chores fun and whimsical."

Unfortunately, these impulses can be traced to 9 / 11, for concrete as well as emotional reasons.

Americans continue to spend more time at home, cocooning there and entertaining there. And it is a fact that the more time you spend at home, the more likely you are to see the dust.

We are feathering that nest, and we want to take good care of it, says Marshall Cohen of the NPD Group, which tracks retail trends.

"People have granite counter tops, and suddenly they need special granite cleaners.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the next product we see is a big-screen TV cleanser," he says.

Likewise, van Ogtrop's sense that cleaning means control for women is suddenly important in these uncertain times.

"We aren't even sure which diet to be on, let alone the big, scary things out there," she says.

Regardless of whether we are dispatching unseen germs or soothing our fears of unseen enemies, housecleaning can give a woman a palpable sense of satisfaction.

"I feel the way my husband feels after he plays a sport," says van Ogtrop, "a combination of achievement and exertion."

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