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Sounding Board: Housework

It’s the great equalizer: Time. Each one of us receives a new allotment of 24 hours every time the clock strikes midnight. And most of us feel like that allotment is never enough. It often seems like there aren’t sufficient hours in the day to do all the things screaming for your attention, never mind working on your creative projects or taking care of your own well-being.

While we can’t beg, borrow, or steal more time, there are things we can do to “save” time. One key area where you may be able to scrounge up a few more precious moments is on the domestic front.

How do you divvy up your household tasks? Are you able to delegate effectively to your spouse and/or kids? Do you feel like you do more than your fair share — and that housework cuts into your creative opportunities? Do you use positive or negative reinforcement to encourage your kids to pitch in? Do you tie chores to allowance? Have you ever used a chore chart? Is it all a regular routine, or a free-for-all? Are you the kind of person who thinks it’s just easier to do it all yourself? Do you subscribe to the idea that chores are important self-esteem builders for kids, and that even a three-year-old can help unload the dishwasher and put toys away? Do household chores cause strife between you and your kids or spouse?

Cathy Coley and I had an interesting conversation on this topic last week. There are certainly some common male/female dynamics at play in both of our houses. Tell us how things work — or don’t work — at your house. What would you like to improve? What successful strategies do you want to share? Let’s use our collective wisdom to gather up a bonus hour or two.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. We’re in the middle of a whole house do-it-ourselves renovation that has continued non-stop since 2002 and our house in Ohio. We have a 2.5 year old and a 9 month old, as well as 2 dogs and 2 cats. I spend half my life trying to straighten up and organize and the other half bemoaning my inability to keep up with the tide of chaos that threatens to engulf me. Tom and I rarely argue about money, but we constantly argue about laundry.

    He’s a neatfreak and the clutter really bothers him. It bothers me less, but since it bothers him so much, and I have to live with Mr. Kvetch-a-lot, it ends up bothering me too. Neither of us knows how to stay on top of it all though.

    Mostly, Tom focuses his energies on cleaning the kitchen every night after dinner and doing the bulk of the laundry on the weekends, while I try to keep the rest of the house straightened up. I enlist Sam’s help whenever possible, but there’s only so much he can do. Usually, I’m just grateful if he plays while I’m cleaning because then he doesn’t end up playing in the dishwasher (with the knives) or sticking his little fingers into nearly-sprayed furnitue polish, etc.

    In addition to house-straightening being a full time job, I am still struggling with the (seemingly) sudden transformation from a family of 2 into a family of 4. I am always surprised by how much laundry we generate, how much more food I have to buy, how small all of my pans seem now that I’m making 3+ portions of everything, how many more dirty dishes are generated, and how 2 children’s worth of toys can demolish hours of straightening in seconds. I don’t know how to keep on top of the ever changing demands on me now that I have so much more stuff to deal with.

    I wasn’t good about managing “stuff” before, and now I really have no clue how to keep on top of it. I have no advice on the subject, but would love to hear how others keep accumulating crap at bay, and stay on top of a family of four’s belongings and still find time to clean up after them.

    March 3, 2009
  2. suzannerevy #

    Like you, Brittany, I struggle with keeping a family of four organized. It was hard enough when it was just me! And I tend to put household work off in favor of creative work. The clutter will still be there, but if I clean it up, I’m too tired to work creatively. And of course, the kids will get home from school, and mess it all up again… and I won’t have any creative work done, and I’ll still have clutter to deal with.

    With that said, and I know times are tough, but I think having some kind of cleaning service is important. I haven’t had one in years, but I will reprioritize my budget, because I’ve decided there’s no keeping up. I want to have some kind of cleaning crew of three people come once a week (ideally… or every other week, more likely) to give the place a once over. I think with that help… it will be easier to keep up with the rest. (I mean really… the stairs and the living room get vacuumed once every other month if that!) It would be nice to have those areas that don’t require daily attention to at least get some attention more frequently. And it will force me to keep up with the clutter knowing that I want them to clean, and I’ll have to pick things up!!

    Back in the day before kids, and a steady paycheck… it was the best money I spent for myself. And I think it’s time to spend it again. (And stimulate the economy!)

    March 3, 2009
  3. cathy #

    for the most part, clutter doesn’t bug me too-too badly, but grimies do. please keep in mind, i have my own way of organizing that looks cluttery to others, but is more fruitful creatively, as in, i know where everything is as long as no one else messes with my stuff. when my guys were little i quit on the battle of the kid clutter front, except for periodic excavations. dh and mil hate clutter, but don’t see their own part in it. they take piles of papers i was just about to go through or belong to the boys or both, and shove them in random corners, not realizing that that is creating more of a clutter problem (and mysteries of unpaid bills, etc) than if they just told that kid to get rid of his, or this one to do the same or let me deal with my own, then more clutter in weird places, semi-hidden, but not really, just out of THEIR way. this doesn’t help the kids to know they are responsible for their stuff (which is largely contained in their rooms, until…) when it keeps getting moved from where they left it. now keep in mind, i am someone who may not be bugged by the obvious clutter, but i go ballistic when my spices aren’t alphabetized ‘anymore’ or everytime i go for a pot, i have to reorganize the whole cabinet again b/c everything fell out in a clatter to wake the dead. this is an issue with 3 cooks in the house sharing duties.

    like brittany’s tom, dh is the dish guy at night, i am the laundry queen. i had it down to a science before dh moved in with us. he’s a big guy and has a lot of clothes. it more than doubled my laundry doing (and the kids clothes are getting bigger, too, as they grow). i love/hate folding. pre-kids, i was persnickety about it. but with bad back issues, it’s always been literally a pain, esp as the loads grow exponentially as we add family members. it never seems to make it into drawers, and when i do get help with that, then, like spices or pots, i get pissy b/c it’s not my way which makes things easy to find b/c everything has a place (note this is mostly re: baby’s clothes that we fall into this..that old if he would just listen to my insturctions, there wouldn’t be an issue! hee-hee, maybe i need to sticker label the drawers)

    as for kids and housework: k is generally responsible for hs own room, with reminders, unloads the dishwasher afterschool, helps with random requests as they come up, including simple meal prep like boxed macncheese or frozen burritoes for the boys’ lunches and he makes a mean scrambled egg. he won;t do anything until i have asked for the 5th time and it becomes do it before i blow a vein, please. i think he learned his selective hearing and responses from his brother’s autism example. now, s: aspergians come in 2 varieties: complete neat freaks who catagorically need to place everything in their lives and s who must live according to the laws of chaos to feel comfort, surrounded in a sea of everything. usually i just open his door, close it again and walk away before we add a cow to our family. any of you who have seen my status updates on facebook knows i have been excavating for 3 weeks now. on rare occasions i can get him to help with stuff around the house, but in small specific tasks. usually i am regaled with a yelled speech a la calvin of calvin and hobbes recounting child labor laws, what am i, your own personal slave?! etc….

    baby c just makes diapers and leaves a bit of a trail of toys along the floors, but those are easy gets. and mil is straightener, as am i, but her version isn’t as thorough as mine: ie counters may have space to work and be clean in front, but what’s that gunk behind the thing there? i usually do another wipedown after she’s done. not a biggie. she does manage to polish the diningroom once a week and vacuum, or get dh to vac. i’m not quite structurally up to vacuuming yet after bedrest lingering issues.

    brittany, i don”t know how you polish! that is something i usually wish for until my antiques are showing major drying out patches….

    long story, summed up: i am a neatnik at heart who feels if i can just get to the source of the problem, ie: neat cabinets, drawers, etc and everything has a place, then everything can be in it’s place; but have turned a blind eye to the constant production of school papers, mail, toys, junk in general, in favor of not stressing myself constantly over it all. and nothing generally gets done unless i delegate repeatedly, then everyone resents being told what to do. if they just did it, i wouldn’t have to tell them, would i? i long ago gave up doing everything myself. lost one marriage doing that. it’s not worth risking my heart health to be stressed about housework. a random temper blow out here and there seems to do the trick better than constant muling. solutions? i don’t have them.

    March 3, 2009
  4. cathy #

    oh, and i have never known a guy to voluntarily even consider washing a bathroom: i shared one w/2 brothers, now 3 guys (nevermind former roomates). and male pee is never 100% toilet contained. disgusting, yet i’m the only one to notice.

    funny on this: s peridically asks why don’t men and women share public bathrooms? k tries to answer that it’s because we don’t want to accidentally see each others’ parts, but i always lay it down: ‘because you guys are disgusting pigs and women don’t want to be around it!’

    March 3, 2009
  5. amy #

    How do you divvy up your household tasks? I clean up most everything every now and then so it’s always messy. My husband will help on the weekends with folding laundry and occassionally empties the dishwasher.

    My vacuum sucks (ha ha) and so I use it and the kids and my husband vacate the room because my 4 year old daughter is scared of it.

    My 4 year old sweeps and mops the tiny floor surface that is tiled.

    Since I am at home with the kids I feel like cleaning up is my job and if I can feed them, bathe them and not have any major crisis then I am ok with the mess.

    Housework cuts into my daily creative time so I am attempting to have my power hour back every morning while my husband watches the kids.

    Our 4 y.o. has been doing chores off and on for a year and gets an allowance that she can put into share spend or save.

    I think kids can help and it’s good for them to help out if you have a schedule for doing it every night and a place for them to put the things (a basket in the family room or in their room someplace but not thrown on the floor).

    Chores cause problems for me and my spouse because we can’t seem to get them under control unless we have some deadline (like a birthday party). I wait for him to unload the dishwasher while the dishes pile up in the kitchen sink and then he gets upset about the sink. So with the “fly lady” technique if I can keep the sink clean he is happy and life is ok even if the rest of the house is trashed. 🙂

    March 3, 2009
  6. wow….housework…hmm….in reading all your responses, the one thing that keeps popping up is “dishwasher” and who’s going to unload it. we have a dishwasher, but we don’t use it…unless we have company. most nights, dh cooks and i clean the kitchen. i’d rather just do the dishes as they come instead of loading up a dishwasher. that seems to work for us.

    as far as the general housekeeping, i am the laundry queen. dh may attempt to do laundry on the weekends i have out of town work travel or a show, but he never seems to get to those final two steps–fold and put away–so invariably i come home to piles of laundry, clean but needing to be folded and put away. basic clean up around the house…we really try to get the girls to clean up after themselves and put away all their toys every night before they go to bed. most nights that works. then the whirlwind starts again the next day. 🙂

    as far as the general cleaning aspect, i agree with cathy…i’ve never come across a man who will clean a bathroom…and yet they are the ones who make it the dirtiest! drives me insane. we try to do a general cleaning on saturday morning at least twice a month…vacuuming, dusting, etc. we have hard wood floors and two five year olds, so we end up sweeping the kitchen and dining area almost daily to keep the massive amounts of food that is dropped on the floor from taking over the house. we have two cats as well who leave cat hair everywhere….and one big dog who most of the time stays outside or downstairs on the ground floor where our playroom and my workshop is.

    overall, i think we do a pretty good job of keeping a fairly clean house. i do think it’s really important to teach the kids to clean up after themselves. when i ask the girls to do a good once-over on their room, they really are proud of their accomplishment when they finish and bring me in to show me. so, yeah, overall, we’re doing pretty good. just don’t open those two closets when i throw things in and quickly slam the door before everything tumbles out on top of me. 🙂

    we split up the outside stuff…dh moves, i’m the weed puller. weeds drive me crazy.

    March 3, 2009
  7. cathy #

    ah! i didn’t cover outside!

    kelly, my dear old male friend in boston called today and we got into quite a debate about gender roles and household duties. he is definitely an exception being a primary care single parent. however he took umbrage when i mentioned the bathroom bit. i have been a guest in his home, he doesn’t realize that though he may be the one to clean his b-room, even during his long term relationships, it is definitely a guy’s b-room. i kindly did not mention it. 😉 though i did tell him of our conversation here, and he does periodically check in on what i’m up to here, though he does so w/o commenting. (so if you’re reading this, buddy, hi! and happy birthday tomorrow!)

    March 3, 2009
  8. Liz #

    My husband actually does the bathrooms! ha ha

    I waffle between just letting it get messy and then freaking out and cleaning, and repeat that process.

    We don’t let the place get filthy, just messy. And D usually does the dishes at night. I do the bulk of the housework.

    I keep repeating to myself “this is temporary.” While the kids are young, it takes serious dedication to keep up the chores. I usually choose to spend time with the kids rather than stick them in front of the TV so can clean…. until the house gets so messy that I have no other choice.

    Like I said, it’s a teeter-totter over here.

    March 3, 2009
  9. cathy #

    that’s the ticket, liz…balancing act….

    March 3, 2009
  10. I have a lot of “troops” at my house, but sometimes I fall into the trap of doing everything myself just because it seems easier. Always a mistake. My kids are 18, 15, 13, 4, and then the baby, who 10 months old. Obviously the three older ones can do a lot, and they should.

    Over the years I’ve used various systems to manage family participation. Some years ago, household chores were tied to electronic privileges via a “chip” system. The kids were eager to play Xbox or watch movies on the weekend, so that was a strong motivator. (Two hours of Xbox could be purchased for five chips or whatever.) The down side was that I had to stay on top of the system and track what each of the kids were doing. As the younger kids arrived, the system faded.

    Today the kids know what their responsibilities are, although they don’t always take care of them. The three older ones clean up the kitchen after dinner. They are also supposed to set the dinner table, but that doesn’t always happen. They have to bring their dirty laundry to the laundry room, and as of this week the older kids now have to do their own laundry (I created a detailed instruction sheet, now hanging on the laundry room wall). I just go crazy when I deliver a basket of clean, folded clothes to someone’s room and a few days later I find half of the same clean, folded clothes at the bottom of a newly deposited “dirty” laundry basket in the laundry room. As a household of seven, we create an unbelievable amount of laundry. I look forward to reducing that load (sorry for the pun) now that the older kids will be doing their own stuff.

    I also ask the older kids for help watching the little ones now and then—a random half hour so that I can take a shower or cook dinner. My oldest son often helps me out by driving the other two teenagers around to friends and lessons. I sometimes hand each of the three older kids an index card with a list of random chores I want them to take care of. They don’t usually complain too much. (Well, one of them does, but he still has to take care of his card.) They also have to help deal with snow: the oldest will snow blow, and his brother will shovel, if I sit on him.

    My husband does a lot of child care—gets our preschooler ready for school, takes him to school, usually gives him the evening bath, and plays with him before bedtime. He turns the dishwasher on every night before we go to bed—usually it’s ready to go, but sometimes there are a few more things to load. He’ll do projects or do a grocery run as needed. He also snow blows. He usually feeds and waters the dog and cleans up after her if she gets sick.

    Laundry, picking up, planning the menu, cleaning out the fridge, grocery shopping, cooking, paying bills, banking, taking care of the paperwork of life, tax prep, doing errands, gardening, weeding—all mine. I’m also a neat freak and I can’t go to sleep when the sink is full of dishes. My husband would probably say that I spend more time on the house than I need to, but I feel so much better when everything has a home, and is IN its home. Clutter makes me anxious—and grumpy.

    Speaking to Suzanne’s point, I do have a weekly cleaning crew and I would be a fast-sinking ship without them. It’s all I can do to keep the house tidy, let alone wash the floors and scrub the toilets. This is money very well spent, IMHO. My babysitter (two days a week) is also a big help in the house and even does the ironing. So even though I feel like I have a lot to do, I have a lot of help.

    At times I hesitate to ask my older kids to help out more because I don’t want to deal with the attitude that I often encounter from at least one of them. I worry about asking for too much, but then I swing to the other extreme where I’m fed up doing all the shopping, cooking, laundry, tidying up, bill-paying, etc. etc. by myself and I know I need everyone else to step up.

    Some things that really help me: tidying up the common areas with the little kids before going up for evening bath; forcing yourself to adhere to the Boy Scout Rule; encouraging the little kids to put something away before taking out something new; making the bed and straightening the master bedroom and bathroom before I go downstairs every morning (the room stays clean all day so it feels like a soothing retreat in the evening); following the Flylady shiny sink rule, as Amy mentioned (visit http://www.flylady.net if you’re unfamiliar); when things are out of control, set the timer for 15 minutes and run around like a crazy person getting it tidy; never, never letting dishes sit in the sink overnight—there is little that depresses me more than waking up to a dirty kitchen.

    In general, the more you build tidying up into your routine (such as tidying up the bathroom after you get dressed in the morning, a la Flylady’s swish ‘n swipe) or always putting your dirty dishes right into the dishwasher rather than stacking them on the counter) the easier it is to keep things clean. For me, the point is to avoid having to take three hours to get the house in order when I could be writing instead. Of course, since I’ve just ended a two-year period of having my house on the market, so I’m pretty much used to maintaining things so that we’re never more than three hours away from being in show condition. I definitely developed some good habits!

    March 3, 2009
  11. cathy #

    wow, you really are superwoman, miranda!

    i learned that letting go of ‘needing’ everything to be clean was a great constant stress reducer. if there’s a pair of shoes on the floor, not a big deal. doing it all myself, impossible. getting others to do it? usually highly improbable and annoying (i am currently up to 4th asking fo k to unload dishwasher, the sink is a mess, and we ordered chinese tonight, so it really shouldn’t be). i also prefer a lived-in space to a showroom. if a surface its too clean, invariably, i put something on it.

    March 3, 2009
  12. I wish I could let go — and sometimes I can, for short periods of time, but in the end the chaos makes me crazy and depressed.

    My daughter did her first load of laundry — ONE load that I didn’t have to do myself, so that’s a start!

    I’m also going to let go of my boys’ lair in the finished basement. If they want to live like pigs, I need to let them do so. That’s one thing I can cross off my list. (Actually, my ninth grader always cleans up before his girlfriend comes over anyway, so there is SOME motivation for him to keep things under control!)

    I also decided that I’m not going to cook on Wednesday nights. It’s leftovers and Trader Joe’s. I swear, the cooking — and planning the cooking — is a huge source of stress. I like to cook when I can do so leisurely — but having to get dinner on the table when the baby is at his most cranky is always a huge challenge. Usually drives me to eating a bag of cookies with one hand while I hold the baby/stir the sauce with the other.

    March 5, 2009
  13. cathy #

    good for you, m – until the bugs and critters head up the stairs from said lair 😉 i make certain my boys bring no food or drink into their sties. it usually works.

    your 9th grader has a girlfriend?! (sinking gut feeling re: my 8th grader who is headed in that direction) how soon i forgot what i felt like in 9th grade when i think my eldest child can’t possibly be ready for that.

    March 5, 2009
  14. Oh yes. I’m afraid he’s a bit of a ladies’ man. He’s been with his current girlfriend since last summer. Let’s just say I have my work cut out for me making sure that everyone keeps their clothes on….

    March 5, 2009
  15. cathy #

    ugh. cringe. i was hoping to stave off this stage at least until he’s driving!

    March 5, 2009
  16. Kristine #

    I have to admit that I’m a neat freak. My house isn’t necessarily CLEAN, but everything looks neat and orderly, which I think gives the impression that it’s also clean. 🙂 Clutter is my nemesis.

    I wish I had more time and the desire to clean my house, but there are so many other things I’d rather do than scrub floors and polish furniture. And if I could afford it, I’d most definitely hire a cleaning crew. Right now, though, I feel guilty since I don’t work outside the home and only have one child.

    But cleaning is definitely not my strong suit.

    March 6, 2009

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