Daily Intelligencer’s Jonathan Chait has a good response to the perennially thorny question of why men spend less time cleaning in heterosexual couples. His easy answer to one of the last battles of the “feminist frontier”: lower your standards of cleanliness, ladies. While there’s a lot of legitimate complaining about husbands who do less housework, he might be on to something.
There is a drawer in my family’s kitchen we call “the junk drawer.” You probably have one too: It’s the place you can always find random batteries, soy sauce packets, loose bits of string, and the spare keys to long-lost padlocks. Since it is connected to the kitchen island where our family of five eats, does homework, and pays bills, it is often the receptacle where we sweep all the clutter that accumulates after a week of neglect. For a long time it weighed on me, this literal manifestation of my inability to “get my home under control.” My husband also works full time and has never cared as much about cleaning as I did. We don’t have legions of housekeepers, so when we had our third kid and I took a leadership role at work, we had to decide if we were going to let the tidal wave of domestic disorder bother us enough to spend our precious free time vacuuming. I stopped cleaning very often and what had been a black, messy spot on my domestic conscience spread to every surface, room and closet — in effect, our whole home became “the junk drawer.”
A great deal of energy gets spent on female-oriented websites railing against magazines for fostering unrealistic expectations about women’s bodies. But aspiring to domestic perfection can be just as detrimental to our sense of happiness and our sense of success. Wrapped up in the now-ubiquitous “having it all” conversation amongst my working-mom-peers is the expectation that a woman will also have time to keep a perfect home. In many of our minds, truly having it all means a job, a family, and maintaining Martha Stewart–esque standards of cooking and decorating. Talk about setting ourselves up for failure.
One of the best bits of advice I ever got came from a friend/mentor in her late fifties whose career I admire. Having just sent her son through college, she had all kinds of new free time to do things like reflect on her life. “I wish I’d spent less time painting the porch and baking pies,” she told me as I complained about something related to curtains. She wasn’t regretful about working hard or how she’d preformed as a mother — only that she’d wasted time being overly domestic. Time she could have spent making art, reading, or even being better at her work.
So perhaps the flip side to women raising our hands in the workplace is lowering our standards of perfection in the home. For now, the list of things I’m willing to strike from my scenario of “having it all” include: exercise, hobbies, and folded laundry that gets put away. After all, what good is an organized spice rack and an empty 401(k)? For now, I am content to tell myself that rather than teaching our kids to be slobs, my husband and I are liberating them from the notion that they have to overachieve in all arenas of their lives. Mommy and daddy work really hard. We’d both rather lean in than clean in.