Many of us are task-driven. We want to see things done, accomplished, finished. This is what the world tells us is productivity.
However, our life at home is not the kind of world where things are often finished. You might check off “laundry” for the day, but before the day is out, there will be more dirty laundry in the hamper. You might check off “make dinner,” but dinner will have to be made again tomorrow. Not only that, but because you made dinner today, there are now dishes in the sink to wash.
This can be supremely frustrating. It can be discouraging, disheartening, even depressing. But that is because we have the wrong framework for productivity and accomplishment and also a wrong idea of what the point of cleaning the house actually is.
Why do we clean our house at all?
Household Chores Maintain a Home
In Home Comforts, Cheryl Mendelson writes that a “traditional woman” kept house in a way that “her affection was in the soft sofa cushions, clean linens, and good meals; her memory in well-stocked storeroom cabinets and pantry; her intelligence in the order and healthfulness of her home; her good humor in its light and air.** She lived her life not only through her own body, but through the house as an extension of her body. Part of her relation to those she loved was embodied in the physical medium of the home she made.”
Keeping a tidy house is a way to embody love and care, to make thoughtfulness visible and felt.
Household Chores Steward Our Gifts
Even before the Fall, Adam and Eve had to tend the garden. Work is not a result of the Fall, but a part of what we were created to do. We are supposed to tend and keep our plot, our little portion of the Earth we call home. It is our job to care for what we have been given.
Work isn’t bad; neglect is.
Household Chores Facilitate Hospitality
Flylady puts this in an amusing way when she asks if you’re suffering from CHAOS: Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome. That’s such a good diagnostic question and motivation. Our houses don’t have to be perfectly clean and tidy to have people over (at least, not in my circles, thank goodness), but they do have to be functional: places to sit, food to fix, an atmosphere that lets us focus on others rather than our surroundings.
Keeping up with weekly housekeeping routines helps us keep our homes ready to function in one of the ways God desires them to function: as a welcome retreat from worldly cares and anxieties, a place of fellowship and peace. “Seek to show hospitality,” Romans 12:13 says. And one very practical first step toward that pursuit is to keep up with the housework so that the state of the house is not a barrier to opportunities that might arise (including the unexpected doorbell).
It can also work the other way. This has actually been a very useful strategy (or, perhaps, mind-game) for me over the years. For over a year awhile back, we were having people over for dinner once or twice a week, and I also had someone over during the day not infrequently. The only way we could have a houseful of four young children, homeschool, and still practice hospitality is if I actually worked my weekly routine and kept at the little jobs while they were still little, so that the house was only ever 15-30 minutes away from being presentable (“presentable” has also varied greatly over the years and in different seasons and with different people – that’s ok and normal).
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Keeping the house reasonably clean is a way to be available for others.
Household Chores Train Us for More
Christ says, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” And in the story of the talents, the master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.”
Our homes are small stewardships given to us as practice and training ground. If we would seek to be responsible and faithful stewards of great ministries, we must start where we are, not where we daydream we will be in five or ten years. How we execute our responsibilities in the here and not is how we will execute them in the future. More responsibility doesn’t make us better managers; being a better manager brings more responsibility.
Taking care of current duties is the best preparation for future duties.
Be a Homemaker
These four reasons can help spur us on, but spur us on to what? What is a clean home? What are we after here? I like Leila’s definition of “reasonably clean”: “The blitz [because you’ve been keeping up with other cleaning routines] enables you to live a real life with the sure knowledge that you can whip things into shape in 15 minutes.”
In her reasonably clean series, Leila talks about recovering from a boom and bust cycle, which is definitely my propensity. But, all those boom and bust cycles have taught me a lot about what work there is to do, how long it actually takes, and the difference between booming and maintaining. I think each homemaker needs to find her own sweet spot for what “reasonably clean” is in her house, and it’s the balance between “our house can function smoothly” on the four levels developed above and “cleaning is stressing me out because it’s undone every time a child merely walks through a room” (because, of course, children never merely walk through a room). So, somehow we have to find that spot between being a frazzled mess because everything is a chaotic mess and being a frazzled mess because there are actually other people in our house.
For me, the concept that’s helped the most in combatting both ends of the frazzled spectrum is “clearing to neutral.” That is, a clean house is not the end point, is not the goal. The cleanish house is a means, a tool, to reach the four ends listed above. So, if dinner preparations makes the kitchen dirty, the kitchen cleaning I did yesterday isn’t a waste of time: it made those dinner preparations more pleasant, and both the cleaning and the dinner were responsibilities I executed. A cleanish house helps keep us all more focused on what we’re supposed to be doing, and if the kids are supposed to be playing, then the toys (and maybe even all the blankets from the closet – cringe) are supposed to be out. If we’re doing school, then papers, binders, pencils – and all the toys because the baby is loose – are going to be littered over every clear surface. But, even though I clear those surfaces once or thrice a day, those papers and pencils and books aren’t undoing anything – they are the reason I cleared it before and will clear it again. It is a sign of life and of duties being done. It’s ok. We aren’t after a static clean. We’re after smoother functioning of day to day life.
The goal of home keeping is not to have a clean house.
Our homes are tools to be made use of, not display pieces to handle gingerly. Tools get dirty. Tools have to be taken care of. The point is to keep them useful and functioning, not pristine. A shovel left out in the grass all winter will rust and rot and not be much use in the spring; a home left untended will run to weeds. But a home cared for will not be immaculate. The aim in cleaning house is not to have a clean house, but to prepare the house for further functioning.
When you find yourself looking around and sighing and cringing and feeling deflated and defeated (as I do almost every day), it is a sign that your hope is set on the wrong end. Do not confuse your tools with your projects.