How do you view housework?*
I have one child, who is now 6. When he was a toddler and I was a full-time stay-at-home mom just starting my consulting business, I used to look around my house at the end of the day with guilt and depression, noticing the pile of laundry that didn’t get folded, the dirty dishes still lying in the sink, the toys still sitting out on the floor. And I didn’t have the energy to do a thing about it. But here’s the clincher: The business I was starting was an organizing business. I am a professional organizer.
Professional organizers are supposed to be perfect, right? Everything is always put away, the house is always presentable, and there’s never a stray ANYTHING on the floor; isn’t that the expectation?
I had fallen prey to the mindset that creates so much stress and shame in us mamas. If you are a SAHM, this mindset tells us that because we are home all day and not out working at a paying job, our default job is to take care of the house (in addition to minding children, running errands, cooking and planning the family’s social events). This mindset tells us it’s only fair, since our partners are doing their part by bringing home the bacon. And, because it is our 'job", we should try hard to do a good job at it. Is it too much to ask to keep the house kept up? How hard is it to fold towels and wipe up the counters?
Work-at-home-moms (WAHMs) and work-out-of-the-home-moms (WOHMs) experience this pressure to maintain the home with an added twist: After working at paying jobs all day, studies show that these women are still doing more housework at about 17 hours a week versus men’s 13 hours a week. Multipe studies show that WAHMs and WOHMs are stressed out from trying to juggle housework, child rearing and their paying job.
Furthermore, being married only makes all of us mamas more likely to end up doing housework. A 2008 study showed that having a husband creates an extra 7 hours a week of housework for women, while being married for men saves them an extra hour of housework a week. But for SAHMs, does the care of the house truly become our responsibility once we agree to temporarily or permanently quit our jobs to stay home with our young children? And for WAHMs and WOHMS, how did we end up being the ones with the primary responsibility for the housework? At what point did we volunteer to be the ones to make sure the dishes were done and everyone had clean socks to wear the next morning?
I decided to take on the care of the house as a SAHM not because I wanted to, but because I thought I should. “I can maintain my house and have everything cleaned up and put away at the end of the day. I can do all of this and take care of my son,” I told myself. “It’s no different than any other job.”
What did taking care of the house mean to me? My “clean house” definition was all dishes washed, counters wiped down, and everything picked up and put away by the end of each day. Also, laundry would be done regularly and promptly put away, the dining room table would be kept clear except at mealtimes and the floors would be consistently swept.
I couldn’t maintain these standards. Me, the person who was going to hang out her shingle as a professional organizer couldn’t keep her own house that pulled together. But whenever I opened a magazine with a photo spread of a beautiful home interior, I was overcome with envy and a sense of guilt. The guilt told me, “You COULD have a home that looked like that if you just tried harder.”
And I know I wasn’t the only mama who felt that way. So often when I came over to my mama friends’ houses, they would greet me at the door with an apology about their house’s appearance. (And once my friends found out that I was a professional organizer, the apologies for the state of their house became even more frequent!) I bet this has happened to you too, or maybe you’ve been the one apologizing to your mom friend, assuming that she must be better at maintaining her house than you and is silently judging you.
Have looked around your house in its various stages of messiness and asked yourself, "what’s wrong with me? Why is the house always a mess? How hard is it for me to just sort and get rid of the old toys?" That was the lament of a client I worked with, who was also a mom. Her husband snorted and said, “It just takes willpower and discipline.”
“And skills and knowledge,” I shot back. Telling a mom that her lack of willpower is the problem and to “just try harder” is the fastest way I know to increase her level of guilt and shame exponentially.
When I started working with more and more moms who also had high standards for their house and felt the same level of shame that I did from being unable to achieve those standards, I started relaxing my expectations of myself. I was telling these women to stop aiming for that magazine-quality look, and I was finally able to take my own advice. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen once my son hit preschool and I realized I had wasted a lot of time trying to achieve some unreasonable standard.
So my question for you mamas is, what is your outlook toward housework? Do you SAHMs feel it is your job by default to keep the house picked up? Do you feel a certain amount of pressure from your spouse or your friends to keep your house pulled together? If you are WAHM or WOHM, do you also do the bulk of the housework at home? And do magazines and web sites like Apartment Therapy and Pinterest make you feel badly about yourself and your home?
*This guest post was written by MaryJo Monroe, who has been a SAHM, WOHM and is currently a WAHM Portland mama and professional organizer with reSPACEd.