Keeping house in America

Home, August 2016
Our simple dining room.

What does it mean to keep a home?

(Is it more complicated and more meaningful than we tend to think?)

Housekeeping is an easy thing to denigrate. It has always been “women’s work.” A man went out and killed dinner or worked in a coal mine, and the woman raised the urchins and swept the dirt floor. Women have done this for centuries upon centuries. Although it was a woman’s full occupation, taking care of the domestic realm has never been considered very important.

Now, men and women share more of the housekeeping and child-rearing and money-making responsibilities with one another. (Men help more than they have in previous generations. Women still do a lot more housekeeping.) It’s the 21st century: Women are not the only ones who can cook any more. Men are not the only ones who get the corner office. Housekeeping, as a virtue, as a thoughtful pursuit, has become rather passé. Being a self-made gourmet is really trendy right now. So is making your own clothes or growing tomatoes on your front porch. Or being a take-no-prisoners lady executive. But being great at keeping a tidy, well-run home? That’s not cool. No one wants to do that.

This is not a hectoring post about how we should all be better at picking our underwear off the floor or how those who fail to disinfect their kitchen sponges every week are bound for domestic purgatory. This is not that.

I just want to think about it a little, about what it might mean to reclaim housekeeping as a thoughtful, hospitable pursuit, and to rescue the word itself from its lowly connotations.

Posture

As with most things, we women learn about housekeeping from our mothers. My mother is a superb housekeeper* (*see how that sounds negative? Like she’s just good at mopping?), and I mean it in the fullest sense of the word. She has an eye for beauty and a perspective of welcome. And I like the way she taught me to think about keeping a house. I still ask her for housekeeping advice all the time.

There are two things Mom taught me about homes and living in them.

First, her posture toward the home and home-making has always been one that centered on hospitality. A beautiful and welcoming home was something to desire and to strive for because of how it made visitors feel — not because of how it made you look fancy or rich or smart or artistic. A home is a place of invitation and generosity, not of arrogance or selfishness.

Thanksgiving in Davidson
My mother’s dining room.

Second, Mom taught me that good housekeeping is also concerned with order. She was not focused on perfect cleanliness (is that sink spotless?) but rather on arrangement and organization (is the room free of clutter?). An orderly home leads to a peaceful life.

And we think about all of this because we know that homes create moods. They both shape and contain our emotions. A home that is uninviting makes people feel uneasy. A home that is chaotic makes people feel restless and anxious. A well-reasoned approach to housekeeping starts with our posture first and foremost.

Space

We can’t (and don’t) all have bright, flawless Scandinavian lofts or Provençal cottages with stone floors. We have the homes we have. And so we learn to love them.

We live in a 1959 nondescript Cape Cod; they seemed to have churned them all out of factories because there are three identical houses (including ours) right in a row on our street. Our siding is made of asbestos. I cannot keep the paint on the front banisters from peeling, no matter how hard I try. The carpet in the top floor is a weird, lilac-gray berber mess.

But I love our house. I am so happy I get to live there with Guion and our two outrageous German shepherds.

Home in March

I can’t change a lot about our space, but I am happy to approach it with my mother’s posture of hospitality + order. Even if my décor isn’t spot on, even if the kitchen sink has started to look scummy, so long as people feel welcome and peaceful, I feel like I have succeeded.

Objects

“More begets more. It stands in the face of reason, but when we have too much stuff we’re likely to amass still more of it. We forget what we have. We start looking for solutions to contain what is already there, and in the process we bury what we started with and add to our ever-growing pile. We end up overwhelmed.” — Erin Boyle, Simple Matters

An important component of my stance toward housekeeping is reducing clutter.

Clutter doesn’t bother some people. To many, a kitchen drawer full of utensils, sticky soy sauce packets, and expired coupons is not distressing. Life goes on. No one in the household worries about that drawer; on the contrary, they keep adding stuff to it, and soon you can’t even open it anymore. No one is upset. I am not, however, this person or this household; I am upset. I worry about that drawer. I fixate on it. I can’t sit down and have a cup of tea unless that drawer is cleaned out. (This is my weakness. You have yours.)

Still. Even if you are the soy sauce packet hoarder, I would like to posit this: Clutter is emotionally burdensome. It is taxing on our physical space, of course, but I also think it is taxing on our psychological space. Too much stuff is overwhelming and depressing.

As Erin Boyle implies with that quote, until we can break the cycle of clutter, we will remain trapped in its vicious loop. Stuff begets stuff. I used to think that stuff was the answer to my stuff problem, back in the early days of marriage and housekeeping life. I thought if I could just get more closet space or just buy more plastic bins from Target, THEN I’d have my organization problem solved. The organization wasn’t the problem. It was the stuff itself.

Closet visit

My sister Kelsey and brother-in-law Alex are masters of the clutter-free life. They live in a 500-square-foot studio apartment, and they run a tight ship. Kelsey has boundaries: We can only have five magazines at a time. We cannot accept any gifts of kitchen tools or mugs. We have everything we need.

The older I get, the closer I get to living out of this mentality of sufficiency and simplicity.

Here’s the surprising secret: Getting rid of stuff makes me want less and less. This still amazes me. We tend to think that throwing things out will make us regretful, and then we’ll have to go buy it again. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my experience. Once I let it go, I realize how little I needed it in the first place. And now that my shelves are so clear and orderly, I cringe at the thought of packing more stuff in there.

Habit

We go through life, floating on the highs and lows of fragmentary emotion, and our homes hold us in. They shelter us in our best and worst moments.

Homes deserve a little gratitude. I rely on habit to help me care for my home. We’re all creatures of habit, some of us more than others, and I, for one, love creating domestic rituals around “home care.”

Reading daze

Houseplants get watered every Sunday morning. The main floor gets vacuumed and mopped once or twice a week. Clothes are always folded and put away at the end of the day, even if you don’t feel like it (you usually won’t). If you’re not traveling for a while, you can buy yourself some fresh flowers for the table. Air dry most of your clothes and take pleasure in how the fabric reshapes itself.

I don’t always follow all of my own rules. Sometimes the house gets gross. Sometimes the dogs undo an hour of cleaning in two minutes. Life happens. But I am at peace. In consistency, I have order.

Inside/outside

I am still piecing together my domestic philosophy, as I’m sure you can tell, but I like the challenge of putting it into words. More, perhaps, to come.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about how you approach housekeeping. What inspires you about your house? What are your aspirations, tangible or intangible, for your home?

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5 thoughts on “Keeping house in America

  1. I am like you. Clutter drives me mad – the only things I keep are books. This was a really relaxing post to read, housework is relaxing and enjoyable. There is a lot that goes into running a house smoothly, I think 🙂

  2. In my married years I saw home making as a necessity- cleaning to make peaceful RESTING happen (hard to be calm when the dirt is looking at you from all directions!) . I also saw home keeping as a sorting ground for treasures–HONORING all that comes through the front door through a variety of persons who love a variety of possessions as much as I love my own special things. I enjoy your mother’s approach– making it a space to let others feel welcome FIRST and then a place to make ORDER despite the chaos of lives. And i admire your addition of HABIT– a regular schedule of chores is one I have never done well, having only taken duty in opening the shades to morning sun and closing them against the setting sun! I’m adding adjustments now- in my new single life, a time to make new peaceful processes work- and I’ll be adding the welcome mat style of your mother’s approach– ensuring that my door can be opened to all who stop in and knowing that pristine surroundings are not as critical as a smile and a warm heart.

  3. Good housekeeping makes a huge difference-by that I mean order and like your mother comfortable and hospitable. You are right about clutter and wanting less. It is a shame that keeping the home is so under rated, I so enjoyed your post.

  4. I love what you said about your mom being a “superb housekeeper.” As I get older, I have more and more people telling me to marry a man with a good income so I can be a stay-at-home wife (hello 2017?). Not only are my own ambitions not considered in this well-intentioned advice, but it also gives off the impression that stay-at-home moms and housekeeper do essentially nothing. Maintaining a home isn’t just about mopping. Being a superb housekeeper requires attention to detail, work ethic, creativity, hospitality, and intelligence. It’s the labor of love to me. And I wish more people would come to respect how difficult it really is to maintain a household and keep it all together for the family. Love your post, and the photos are beautiful!

  5. Really enjoyed this post, Abby. From your mother’s outlook on hospitality, to your point on “we have the homes we have,” to Erin’s wide-reaching philosophy of more begets more. Living in a fairly small home ourselves, we are very cognizant of what (or better yet, how much) comes through our doors. Borrowing on the advice of a family friend who also lives in a small home, if we take something in, we usually try to get rid of something else in return.

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