Why I Can't Just Let The Housework Slide

by Gail Cornwall
Originally Published: 

Now, as the parent of a newborn, there’s the ubiquitous “sleep when the baby sleeps”—a phrase the matriarchs of the blogosphere have thoroughly eviscerated with both logic and snark—and “let the housework slide.” An idiomatic sister of “a messy home is a happy home,” this suggestion presumes that turning a blind eye to dishes piled in the sink will free us to roll around on the floor with our giggling kiddos, and venture outside together to find music in the banging of the garbage man and poetry in the clouds overhead. With a little more breathing room—so the thinking goes—we can gain perspective and redirect our attention to what really matters: our kids and the beauty of the two short decades we get to share with them intimately.

For me, this admonition is, well, worthless.

For starters, where exactly is it supposed to slide to? If you’re fairly efficient and not obsessive, there isn’t much slack in the system. Those dishes will need to be washed before bearing food again. I suppose cleaning each one as it’s needed eliminates time spent opening and closing the cupboard, but those seconds would be more than canceled out by the increased difficulty of having to scrub dried food particles rather than simply rinsing. True, clean laundry could be worn directly from the pile rather than folded, stowed and fetched first, but the clothes still must be washed and dried, and there’s the time spent rummaging to consider.

Even if procrastination were able to decrease the burden of specific domestic tasks, the greater visibility of pending work would increase the total load, thanks to the broken windows theory. Though it has come under fire in national politics, the notion unquestionably applies on the home front. A sink full of dishes and heaps of laundry create the general appearance of disorder, silently authorizing additional laxness. The messier the home, the happier its inhabitants are to discard their trash, dirty clothes and other by-products on its surfaces and floors.

© Gail Cornwall

In other words, housework we let slide follows the laws of physics and ends up in a heap at the bottom of the slide, along with extras tossed on the pile. It sits there waiting for someone to come along and deal with it later. That someone is me, and later means after the kids are in bed, when I could be reading a good book or watching Nashville.

The sight of undone labor foils the workability of the plan for a second, separate reason for some people. I’ve never been a fan of study breaks or long lunches, because I’m unable to “let loose a little” when I know there is work left to be done. I could put off cleaning the kitchen after breakfast and plop down on the rug for a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” But I wouldn’t be “living in the moment.” I’d be fixating on the wadded-up paper towels and peach pits in my peripheral vision. Spending two quick minutes shoving them in the compost before playing, on the other hand, allows me to sing and sway merrily, merrily, merrily.

Lately, I’ve come to question the assumed causality of the advice as well. When we picture a parent straightening hallway runners and scooping up discarded jackets as her rambunctious progeny frolic around her, we tsk-tsk, inferring that her preoccupation with the housework prevents warm engagement.

The reality can be quite the opposite. When the demands my kids place on me—utterly reasonable ones like their need to eat, talk, move around and snuggle, but times three kids, again and again and again—threaten to emotionally submerge me, when it all just feels too unwieldy to manage, I turn to something doable. I choose discrete, satisfying tasks like matching socks in order to restore a sense of calm and control amidst the activity, insatiability and unpredictability. Blue stripes with blue stripes. White low-rise with white low-rise. Little cars with little cars. Back in possession of my wits, I then can enjoy it while it lasts.

Letting the housework slide would mean foisting work off onto my future self, adding a stressor and sacrificing a valuable release valve. I, for one, will go ahead and do the housework, letting this little pearl of wisdom slide instead.

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