Many women still see the cleanliness of their home as a direct reflection of them personally.
This year for Christmas I was given a thoughtful and generous gift by one of my best friends: a gift certificate for a full house cleaning by a professional maid service. I have rarely received a gift that filled me with as many conflicting emotions or caused me to interrogate my own thinking quite so much.
On one hand, it seems patently unfair that in a house of four adults, I was the one gifted not with a personal item but with a house cleaning. Yes, our house had become disorganized and dirty during my illness, surgery, and recovery. But was the problem not all of ours instead of mine alone? Wouldn’t everyone benefit from the gift equally? Why should I be gifted with a house cleaning rather than it being a gift shared among us?
On the other hand, it was probably my favorite gift of the holiday season. It made me feel like I was really seen and accepted. My friend knew me well enough to know that her gift would free me from the burden of an undefined but dark emotion. She trusted our friendship enough to give me a gift others might have interpreted as an insult or as sexist. I was filled with such an enormous sense of relief and gratitude that it brought tears to my eyes.
In truth, the house cleaning was not something that everyone in the house benefited from equally. I would feel restored to decency by it. Everyone else’s enjoyment of it would be secondary to my positive response; they would be happy because I was happy. It would not relieve any guilt for them or allow them to continue thinking of themselves as good people.
My friend had given me the gift of renewed dignity. Like me, she had been raised to believe that the state of her home was a direct reflection on her. So she understood that no feminist theory would alleviate the guilt that came with a dirty house. Despite the fact that my husband participates in housework and that my children are adults, I could not think of myself as a good wife and mother so long as my kitchen floor was dirty.
I was still thinking about this judgment of myself when the subject of household chores came up with a friend of mine. He is a feminist in practice if not self-identification. He said that he felt he did his fair share of necessary household work. But he went on to say that his wife has higher standards for cleanliness than he does, and it seems fair that the one with higher standards is the one who should do the extra work.
I groaned inwardly when he said this. The exalted Female Standard for Cleanliness is the evil cousin of “The List” which I wrote about a few months ago. The premise behind the Female Standard for Cleanliness is that men, left to their own devices, would live in a state slightly above squalor but well below what most women would accept. Frat houses and bachelor pads are said to be proof of men’s lower standards of cleanliness.
To hear men tell it, the Female Standard for Cleanliness is overly fussy and a waste of time. It is thought of as equivalent to decorating the house, not strictly necessary but done to satisfy some inner need in the ever-inscrutable female brain.
But for women who have been socialized domestically, the Female Standard for Cleanliness is as self-evidently right as speed limits in school zones. It is not some standard that we have arbitrarily created or that we adhere to for our own pleasure. We think of it as the true definition of clean, and more importantly, the standard to which we will be held and by which we will be judged.
I am glad that I did not groan out loud or engage my friend in an argument when he said that his wife has higher standards. I am starting to believe that this particular stereotype has a bit of truth to it. The Female Standard for Cleanliness is often higher than the standard held by many men. And it is not just because we have been taught how to clean and socialized to know the standards for cleanliness. We have a higher standard because we have more on the line. We know that we will be judged by ourselves and others based on how clean and orderly our house is.
It might seem far-fetched to think that for modern women dust bunnies are an accusation and a half-cleaned kitchen is an indictment. But cleanliness is still considered a virtue in our culture, and virtues are traditionally the domain of women. It is our job to live them, uphold them, and to civilize men by enforcing them.
Cleanliness is not just next to godliness as a virtue, it is seen as evidence of a host of other virtues, like a good work-ethic, self-respect, and good self-discipline. If we do not take pride in our homes, we are thought of as unfeminine. If a woman has a dirty house and children, her ability or willingness to care for her children is called into question.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have become aware of just how complex my relationship is to my house. It is, in some ways, like a troubled mother/daughter relationship. It prods me, offers mute criticism, and occasionally makes me feel proud. What surprises me, however, is how often I hide in housework when I feel inadequate in my professional world. Just this morning, as I struggled against writer’s block, I cleaned cabinets, polished stainless steel appliances, and scrubbed grout. Perhaps I see it as a Plan B for feeling a sense of accomplishment and worth. If I fail everywhere else, this is the one place where I know how to get it right. I might look in the mirror and see myself failing to live up to impossible beauty standards, but at least no one can fault me for my floors.
I would love to tell you that I have found a way to stop feeling that my home is a reflection of my character or that it is an indicator of how well I am performing in my roles as wife and mother. But I suspect that it will take longer than a few weeks to separate my identity and self-worth from how well I perform the most traditional aspect of the most traditional of feminine roles. That will come as I grow stronger and more confident in my other roles: friend, partner, mentor, lover, and writer.
In the meantime, I plan to muster up my courage and finally use the gift certificate that my friend so thoughtfully gave me. Sadly, I have been too ashamed to even let the cleaners see my house dirty. As my kids would say: “Yeah, that isn’t at all screwed up.”