My next door neighbor is at it again. I hear her through the walls, filling buckets of water for mopping, vacuuming the throw rug in her bedroom. And as if there’s not enough to keep her busy inside, when I go out I often see her there, too, cleaning the windows or wiping down the iron grillwork or sweeping her front walk. She is not the only one. Later, in an apartment building nearby, I see one of the windows with the built-in blinds almost all the way down. A latex-gloved hand pokes up from beneath, wielding a mop. The hand expertly guides the mop over the vinyl blinds: up, down, across.
Wherever I look, they are out in their uniforms: the younger ones in sweats, the older ones in housecoats. Some are housewives, some probably hired help, and some are just getting in a good cleaning before they leave for work. Later, when they go out to do the shopping, they will change clothes again.
I too wear sweats at home, but not for cleaning. In my case, it’s for comfort, and because my “at home” clothes are most likely also “around the kids” clothes. Here, in Spain, it’s not quite acceptable to go out wearing baby snot and food stains. I suppose a housecoat would be practical, but just the thought makes me cringe. I might as well wear a sign on my head: Ama de casa. Housewife.
One day when I pick Pedro up from school, I hear two moms talking:
“It went by so fast! I got some of the shopping done, but I didn’t get to the ironing at all,” one says.
“Me either,” her friend commiserates.
Ironing? And I had been lamenting that with Elias to chase after, I didn’t get to work on my next column draft. I imagine these women with their mountains of wrinkled shirts and pants — since everything is line-dried, even jeans and t-shirts need ironing — and I vow never to become one of them. Yes, I have housework to do, but there are also books to read, essays to write, games to play with Elias. I don’t want to measure the day’s productivity by the number of shirts I ironed. I don’t want to become my mother-in-law, filling up my days with one chore after another.
And in my mother-in-law’s world, there are always chores to be done. When I was eight months pregnant with Pedro, she came to stay with us to help out. At 7:30 a.m., before I left for work, I’d catch her attempting to move all the furniture to the center of the living room to better sweep and mop. I would come home and notice small things — she had cleaned out the silverware drawer, no more crumbs or dust among our knives and forks. “Just let her,” my husband told me. “It gives her something to do, makes her feel useful.”
Now, two kids later, her visits are still fraught with cleaning.
After breakfast she stands in the doorway, hands folded behind her back. “What’s to be done today?” she asks briskly. Elias is playing quietly, Pedro is still in bed.
“Uh, I don’t know,” I answer. “Why don’t you just relax for a bit?” I’d like to finish checking my e-mail, maybe even surf the net for a bit while I sip my coffee.
Though she doesn’t say it — and, in fact, is careful not to criticize — I imagine what she must be thinking: How can I just sit when there’s so much to do? The thought irritates me.
I don’t want her to clean because then I will feel like one of those mythical bon-bon and soap opera moms sitting here at the computer while she works. But she won’t relax — no TV or books or magazines, just the endless flurry of household tasks.
Still waiting, she says, “If you give me a cloth, I can dust.”
Yet, as much as I hate cleaning, I also yearn for clutter-free spaces, order, tranquility. Not perfection, not the all-surfaces-gleaming effect my next-door neighbor strives for and, with her hours of work, manages to achieve. No, just a sense that things are under control. Instead, I am often astounded by the amount of effort it takes just to keep a fairly messy house from getting even worse. I look around at the fingerprinted mirror, the crumbs underneath the couch, the windows in desperate need of washing, and feel disgusted with myself. It’s not rocket science, I think. If all these other women can do it, so can I.
The next week I drop Pedro off at preschool, then come back and put Elias down for a nap. I put a load of clothes in the wash, throw some lentils and chopped vegetables into the pressure cooker, and toss some stray papers and twist ties in the trash. Next I tackle the breakfast mess, and soon the dishes are done and put away, counters wiped down, floor swept and mopped. It really looks good, and even though I know that in a couple of hours it will be time for the next meal and I’ll have to start all over again, I feel a sense of peace.
But then I look closer. Now that the big stuff is done, other things are thrown into sharper relief: the cupboard doors and appliances need wiping down, the windows are dirty, the curtains have food stains on them, the tile wall behind the stove is splattered with oil. I let out a sigh, and Elias cries from upstairs.
I’ve decided to go back to school next fall to get a teaching degree, so now I have one year to prepare for the entrance exam and to get some sort of household routine going that will carry me through. I know that what I really need to do is find some sort of balance: clean enough so I can feel at peace, yet not so much that there’s no time for anything else. A little more organization, a bit of optimism. Somehow, it has to work out.
I take a deep breath, and reach for the broom.