Friday, August 05, 2005

A necessary enterprise

I [she says with some little defiance] am a stay-at-home mom. I haven't always been, and it's very likely that once our littlest is duly launched I'll find work outside the home that I'll want to do again. At present I'm in the fortunate position that my contribution to family income is not necessary.

My contribution to home life, however, is vital. And today I'm gonna blog about it. Housework, that is.

First the philosophical basis. We decided after our first child was born, when the Man of the House was also the Man in the House and I was the full-time worker, that the at-home person would do "all" the housework, leaving the at-work person free (or shackled, depending on your point of view) to interact with the child/ren after work. Naturally we soon learned that that division of labor is impractical and needlessly mean to both people. There are housework tasks that I hate but Steve enjoys; likewise there are times when he doesn't want to be overrun with children from the minute he walks in until the final salvo of the bedtime battle. So the way it works out is this: I do the cleaning. I do most of the cooking. I dither about yard work because I hate getting all hot and sweaty. I do the laundry but he usually distributes it and puts ours away (the kids put their own away), because I hate that part. He brings me coffee on the weekends, which is a fine morning ritual. He always offers help with the work to be done in the evenings, and if I want to talk I accept the help, because I'm able to work and talk simultaneously; if I want him to talk, I just ask for company, because he talks with his hands and with full eye contact at all time, which puts a serious crimp in the dishes.

As to the cleaning: may I recommend two diametrically opposed approaches:

Cheryl Mendelson, who is a bit persnickety (not that there's anything wrong with that), undertook to write a housekeeping manual such as would have been on the shelf of any middle-class housewife in England or the United States through, probably, the 1930s or so. She wrote a tome, in fact: the book is Bible-sized and biblical in its scope and detail. She tells how to fold a shirt. She tells how to wash a cutting board, as well as what type of cutting board to buy. She tells how to sweep a floor. She tells how to conquer soap scum on a glass shower door if you've let it get out of hand or if (the favorite Mendelson quote of a good friend of mine) "your cleaner has betrayed your trust." She tells what documents you must save and for how long. She tells how to choose domestic help, and how to avoid the commonest pitfalls in the process. The book is an incredibly useful, highly specific reference for almost every housekeeping question you'll ever have. But in order to do everything her way, you'll need her life: she, her husband, and one school-age child live in a Manhattan apartment.

My situation is somewhat different: three kids, one a toddler, in an embarrassingly big house in what amounts to the country - which means dirt. Dirt on clothes, dirt on floors, dirt in bathtubs, dirt on children. Hence the FLYLady. The FLYLady lives in my world and preaches several important sermons:
  • You're not behind - just jump in where you are.
  • Even housekeeping done imperfectly blesses the home.
  • No whining.
  • Do your routines.
  • Shine your sink!

That last needs a bit of explanation. The FLYLady exhorts all harried homemakers to start small: clear our your sink every night before you go to bed, and shine it. Just shine your sink - wipe it clean, dry it, and polish it if it needs it, so that when you get up the next day even if the entire rest of the house appears to be teetering on the brink of disastrous collapse, your sink will make you happy. She establishes a number of routines and brooks no dispute about them: a bedtime routine that includes doing something for yourself alone, a morning routine that gets you out of bed and dressed down to the shoes so that you are aware that you're doing a job, a daily routine that takes care of what needs to be taken care of, a weekly routine for keeping the house in general trim, a seasonal routine that rotates through the standard areas of the home, hitting them thoroughly at intervals so that "spring cleaning" is never necessary. I only aspire to her full system, but I shine that sink and I have my routines that I do my best at... so I never hesitate to welcome people in, because the house is never more than a week out of "clean" and seldom more than half an hour out of a reasonable standard of "tidy."

Moving on to my favorite cleaning tools:
  • Roomba! He's not the best vacuum cleaner in the world, and certainly not the fastest, but he'll work while I'm not there, he manages to find his docking station and recharge himself most of the time, and he's great fun to watch. (In our house, he's a "he." Some have "she" Roombas, I understand. It's a difference that only matters to another Roomba.) Besides, with three floors' worth of carpet, it's nice to be able to do a decent job on, say, the basement without having to lug the big vacuum downstairs every week. I remember when I was six and my dad told me that by the time I was a grownup every house would have a central vacuum system; from what I understand they really are da bomb, but I'd rather have my upright and my Roomba. Oh, and my DustBuster and my ShopVac. (Do I really have four vacuums?)
  • FloorMate. This device is a personal version of the zamboni-like device that drives around shopping malls and airports vacuuming, mopping, and squeegeeing the floor. It looks like an upright vacuum cleaner and it's the least uncomfortable or gross way to clean hard floors that I've found. With constant suction, it wets the floor with clean cleaning solution, scrubs it if you want (you can turn off the brushes if you want to for "delicate" floors, but I figure my family is much harder on our wood floors than a weekly scrubbing with a soft nylon brush), then sucks up most of the water - very nearly all the water if you change one setting with your thumb. This is a boon for people whose children do not heed warnings to "Stay off this wet floor! You might [boom] slip and fall..." There's no bending, no mopping with effluent water, no rinsing, no stinky mop drying in the laundry room or the garage. It's not perfect but it's a heck of a lot easier than the hands-and-knees method propounded by Ms. Mendelson. (I fully acknowledge that only the hands-and-knees approach can get a floor really clean, but even then it's only if you do it absolutely right.)
  • Clorox Disinfecting Wipes. I resisted these for about two years after they came on the market; they're expensive, compared to making your own disinfecting solution with a little (super-cheap) bleach and water. But the convenience factor cannot be overstated here. I keep a container in each bathroom and in the kitchen, along with a package of the similar Windex Wipes.
  • Electrasol 3 in 1 Tabs with JetDry Powerball. Honestly, what I like most about these is not so much the great job they do; I have yet to notice a significant difference between dishwasher detergents, which has led me to conclude that the dishwasher makes a lot more difference. What I like about them is that you plunk the whole little brick into the dishwasher without regard to which compartment it goes in or whether you got a little distracted and poured in a whole lot more than you needed. As a person who has had four dishwashers over the past five years, I value not having to understand my dishwasher in detail: which compartment is "pre-wash," which is "main wash," will a particular compartment require a particular setting in order to pop open... Feh. Unwrap a little brick and toss it in.
  • Clorox ToiletWands. Toilet brushes are gross. This thing is a slim plastic wand that you can hang unobtrusively on the side of your toilet tank, then, when you want to clean the toilet, you click it onto a scrubby disk impregnated with cleaner. When you're done, you hold it over a waste basket, click again, and the scrubby falls into the trash. I have one in each bathroom, together with a six-pack of scrubbies. The Lysol ReadyBrush seems giant by comparison, and though it claims to disinfect its own brush head each time you use it, it still seems gross. The Scrubbing Bubbles flushable toilet brush seems not very scrub-worthy, and with a septic tank I'm pretty sure I shouldn't be flushing things like that in the first place. Scotch-Brite has a competitor out there, but for some reason I like the aesthetics of the Clorox model; you never actually have to pick up even the clean scrubby.
  • Lest you think I am a full dues-paying member of the Disposable Society, dishcloths. I buy (once every five years or so) a big pack of cheap washcloths, which I then change out at least daily, washing them in the washing machine with chlorine bleach. Chlorine bleach, which has gotten a bad rap lately and is undoubtedly toxic, is also highly effective at disinfecting. I want my dishcloths clean; the sponge-in-the-dishwasher method seems suspect to me, as interior sponge pores aren't readily exposed to the water and detergent. Evidently microwaving sponges can sanitize them - but be sure all food is off the sponge first.
  • Likewise, cleaning cloths for anything involving heavy scrubbing or just a lot of dusting. I use the least expensive cotton napkins I can find; they're lint-free and can be laundered vigorously.

Enough already! I am not a clean freak, I promise. Ask anyone who knows me. I subscribe to the belief that some dirt is not only inevitable but necessary and valuable, and I apply the Five-Second Rule to any food that falls on the floor as long as it's not the floor in front of a toilet or the litter box, for instance. I don't sterilize baby bottles but I do sterilize beer bottles (maybe a homebrewing blog entry some other time); I don't iron children's clothes but I sometimes iron sheets. I am a catch-as-catch-can housekeeper, just doing my best to support the family in the way to which I am currently called.

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