How Clean Should Your House Be?

pear trees in snow
© 2013 Christy King

“Despite its apparent banality, housework has always been an intellectually confounding problem.”

- Stephen Marche

On Sunday, I read an opinion piece, The Case for Filth, in the New York Times.

According to the piece’s author, Stephen Marche, younger men are doing about the same amount of work around the house as their fathers did.

“At least one thing is becoming clear: The only possible solution to the housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it.”

- Stephen Marche

Marche points out that, although men aren’t doing any more housework, the housework gender gap is narrowing. It’s because women are doing less.

Housework is perhaps the only political problem in which doing less and not caring are the solution, where apathy is the most progressive and sensible attitude. Fifty years ago, it was perfectly normal to iron sheets and to vacuum drapes. They were “necessary” tasks. The solution to the inequality of dusting wasn’t dividing the dusting; it was not doing the dusting at all.

The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple: don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. Don’t fix the garden gate. Fail to repaint the peeling ceiling. Never make the bed.

A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.

“Housework is a treadmill from futility to oblivion with stop-offs at tedium and counter productivity.”

- Erma Bombeck

I’m not ready to concede we need to live in squalor, but I do hate housework. So, how can we live in relative order and cleanliness without spending a lot of time cleaning?

Having less stuff is one solution. The less stuff you have, the less you have to dust and organize. Plus, you don’t need as much furniture. This saves more time since you don’t have to dust or vacuum that either.

Cleaning the floors is easy when you don’t have a bunch of items to have to pick up first. And cleaning the kitchen counter is amazingly fast when it’s not cluttered.

Most importantly – with less stuff, you can have a smaller home. It’s easy to see how it would be much faster to clean 1500 square feet instead of 3000.

So how clean should your house be anyway?

My grandmother used to iron pillowcases and sheets. My mom used to iron pillowcases. I don’t iron any bedding. Actually, it seems most of us rarely iron at all.

Makes you wonder which of today’s “requirements” you could give up without have any significant impact on your life, doesn’t it?

“My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one else cares. Why should you?”

- Erma Bombeck

Think about what else you could forego without your home looking or smelling like a pig sty.

You can probably think of a few things you can either skip or do less often. If, however, you’re already doing the bare minimum, don’t cut back!

I’ve noticed most of my friends don’t care too much about what their homes look like (within reason, of course) unless company is coming. But do you really need to panic then?

We use guests as a good excuse to dust, which rarely happens otherwise, but don’t spend long tidying up for them. We haven’t lost any friends yet. They’re probably secretly happy they don’t have to spend a lot of time cleaning for us.

Maybe you have a special guest (like your boss) you’re really worried about. In that case, you might want to shoot for perfection. However, your family and friends should be able to tolerate a little clutter and dirt.

In the comment section below, please share what you’ve given up on cleaning without noticing any problem from your newfound efficiency. Also feel free to share what you won’t give up.

17 thoughts on “How Clean Should Your House Be?

  1. I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days and just want to throw in my two cents.

    I believe that some of the reduction in housework has to do with innovation. We have fabrics that do not require ironing, we have dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, electric vacuum cleaners, etc. Not only that, but if there are two adults in the home and both are away working for most of the day, likely the children are also at school or in daycare and there is no one making much of a mess at home during the day. Finally, we are a more and more urban population. When I lived on a farm I did much more gardening, canning, and cleaning up muddy messes. Now I buy my pickles and jam at the store.

    1. I think you’re right – it’s probably a combination of many things. Another factor is how many more things we pay others to do now – seems like most people pay for oil changes for their cars now, for instance, instead of doing it themselves. This ties in to your comment about buying pickles at the store instead of making them yourself – essentially you’re paying someone else to make the pickles.

      Another point I thought of when reading your comment is, depending on how the surveys are written, it may be a change in what we count as housework. I make our bar soap and bake most of our bread, sometimes make pickles and jam, but I’d probably count those as hobbies rather than housework. In earlier times, I’d guess they would unquestionably be considered chores.

  2. Some interesting stats Christy!

    As a bachelor, I tend to not clean a lot of the time, but I do try and keep the place looking somewhat tidy. Personally, I like a place that looks lived in and enjoyed, rather than sparkling and neat.

    That being said, for the most part I do clean up . . . and dust . . . when guests come over. Actually, since i am hosting a Christmas eve dinner, I will do extra cleaning for my guests which they will appreciate I am sure :)

    Take care and all the best.

    Lyle

    1. Sometimes I say “We need to invite some people over so we’ll HAVE to clean,” on the occasions we’ve been too busy (or unmotivated) to mostly keep up with the housework!

  3. Hello Christy, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post! The sentence “Think about what else you could forego without your home looking or smelling like a pig sty” made me laugh out loud. I love cleanliness but I pretty much hate cleaning. Thankfully I have a small home – just right for my husband, my brother, my 2 doggies, and me. It’s pretty well clutter-free, so that helps too. It’s interesting that things that were once the norm (ironing, etc.) are pretty much ignored by most of us,

    This reminds me that just before I got married, Jordan Marsh (the now defunct department store) gifted me with a book about housework, It even included timetables for things like dusting lampshades. Even back then I thought this was pretty funny!

    As for cleaning for company, I no longer do that at all. I try to keep the house pretty decent at all times, and don’t worry about what others think.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Carol. I’m just like you – I always wonder about people who say they LIKE housecleaning. But a lot of people wonder about my enjoyment of cooking, so to each his/her own, right?

  4. Interesting post as usual, Christy. I can’t even remember the last time that I ironed–we keep the ironing board down in the basement; it very rarely sees the light of day! I’ve also given up hoping that the ever-growing Laundry Mountain (all the clean clothes waiting to be folded and delivered to each person’s room) will ever cease being a mountain, because I’m usually washing a load of clothes on any given day. Occasionally, my children help me with the folding and delivering, but we just can’t keep up with it and I’ve finally made peace with this. (Sort of…;)

    1. I know the last time I ironed. It was a year and a half ago! Not everything traveled across the country looking nice enough for the wedding we were attending.

  5. Like you, I have cut down on the work it takes to keep a clean house by reducing my stuff, but I can’t compromise on dusting because of allergies. Removing the carpets has made cleaning the floors easier (and quieter!). An unexpected bonus was by using simpler cleaning supplies, it is easier to find what I need and get the job done. A spray bottle of vinegar and a cloth is all I need to quickly clean the surfaces in the kitchen while the water boils.

  6. I grew up with a perfectionist grandfather. Everything had to be put away, nothing on tables or desks, etc. My grandmother ironed sheets, pillowcases, handkerchiefs,table cloths, and even my grandfathers boxers. I don’t iron at all. I read labels if clothing needs ironed or hand washing I don’t buy it. I have areas that get cluttered through the day, one is the stand next to where I normally sit, but it’s easy to clean in a tiny apartment. I agree having less stuff makes it quicker to clean and being in a small space means there is less to clean. One way I have learned to cut back on chores, for instance the shower is to spray the walls with white vinegar after a shower, it saves on having to wash the walls often and is easy because I rinse my hair with the vinegar.

    I do see a lot of messy homes, as long as it’s not real filth I don’t care, it’s their home not mine. Although when I had a job cleaning a home, stepping in cat puke or chicken droppings on the bedroom carpet was definitely where I would say this house is a problem. No, I didn’t work there long I just couldn’t take the filth.

    1. Yes, I would say animal droppings on the floor is beyond “minimalist cleaning”! There’s a big difference between real squalor and letting a little dust accumulate.

      And for other readers – we do the vinegar spray for the shower too. It really helps!

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.