Essay: Coming Clean

(Originally in Parents Magazine, July 2010)

At last, I am alone. I cheerfully made breakfast and did the dishes, then kissed my husband and youngest son goodbye and shooed them out the door. Now I have a whole hour before heading to my office. I take a deep breath and bolt upstairs.

I clear tables and dressers, hang up towels. I shove laundry into the washer and scoop out the cat box. I am sweaty and breathless when I hear a terrifying sound: the back door opening, followed by heavy footsteps on the stairs.

I panic. Not because I think there's an intruder breaking into the house, but because I recognize my husband's tread. Why is he here? OMG! I am so busted!

I spin around, arms loaded with dirty socks and toys, to bare my teeth in a smile. “Hi, honey.”

Dan studies my expression. “Whoa. What's going on?”

“Oh, just a little picking up.”

At the desperation in my voice, he narrows his eyes. “Why do you look so guilty? Are you waiting for your lover or something?”

Worse. I'm cheating on him with the cleaning ladies.

“No!” I dash past him to toss the toys into a basket. Only 21 minutes left to blast a path through the house, and I haven't even started picking up downstairs. “I called the cleaners,” I mumble, bending over to fish out everything I've shoved under the bed in the past months.

“And, what, you thought I wouldn't find out?”

“No, I knew you would,” I admit. “I don't fold the ends of the toilet paper into those little triangles like they do.” I don't dare admit that I actually pictured myself dashing through the house after the cleaning ladies left, unfolding the toilet paper triangles to keep my secret safe.

My husband stares at me. I stare back. Stalemate.

There are watersheds in every marriage. Issues like infidelity, in-law problems, parenting differences and financial hardships can all pose hurdles that end in compromise or combustion. In my marriage, the watershed is housekeeping.

Dan and I both grew up in middle class households, neither rich nor poor. His mother didn't work outside the home. Mine did. Both hired weekly housekeepers to create order out of chaos. These women arrived once a week and spent a lot of time ironing in front of the TV or having coffee with our mothers once the floors were mopped. They were such fixtures that Dan and I never realized what a huge role these women played in our families.

Ours is a blended family; after we were married with four young kids (two from his side, two from mine) and then, two years later, added our own baby to the mix, we came smack up against this stark reality: there weren't enough hours in the day to clean between work and family responsibilities. Newspapers collected in the driveway. Weeds strangled our garden. The kitchen was so sticky, I once stood up and had to pull the kitchen stool off my bathrobe. The bathrooms looked as if an entire college fraternity used them.

By the time baby #5 arrived, we were desperate enough to hire outside cleaning help. There was a steep learning curve; the first woman quit because I hadn't realized that most cleaners don't pick up, they clean. She walked into our toy-strewn house and walked right out again. Quit on the spot. The second service we hired sent their cleaners out in little yellow bumblebee cars with a full artillery of cleaning supplies. We also hired one housekeeper who came twice a month for three years and did some day care, too. Ah, bliss!

But the bumblebee cleaners were too flighty – we never knew who would show up – and the housekeeper was too costly. Then, a few years ago, a friend recommended her team of Brazilians. This team of three young women cleans so thoroughly that I am constantly wowed by the things they do that I don't even think of, like taking apart that little vent thing beneath the kitchen cupboards to clean behind it. Their boss, a young mother who attends the local State college, is their cousin; when I emailed her a few days ago to ask if she could come back, she emailed right back and said, “Can't live without us, huh?”

I nearly fell to my knees with gratitude when she said they'd come today. At the same time, I felt a flush of shame at the implication that I'm too incompetent to keep up with my own house. But that's the thing about having outsiders clean your house: it's a complex relationship.

On the most basic level, Dan and I resist hiring outside cleaners because we're always broke. Our house needs painting and our driveway needs repaving. This is a recession; our jobs are precarious. Housecleaning is an absolute luxury. I feel guilty for even considering it.

Hiring an outside cleaner also puts you in the tricky role of employer. We live in a modest neighborhood of ranch houses, Capes and old Colonials like ours. Our neighbors include teachers and social workers, carpenters and secretaries. We all rely on outsiders to help us run our households: appliance repairmen, electricians, plumbers, snow plowers. About half of our neighbors use outside cleaning help. You would think that cleaners would fit neatly into the same loose category of household employees, but nope. The relationships are too fraught with emotion. Cleaners see us up close and personal, right down to the cookie crumbs between the sofa cushions. We can't help caring about their lives, because our cleaners are usually mothers like us, scrambling to make ends meet.

Ethically, too, hiring cleaners is problematic. When the cleaners move around my son's Lego constructions and he has a tantrum about it, I want to smack him down for acting so entitled. I feel guilty, too: why should some other woman have to scrub my toilets? Who am I to play Lady of the Manor?

So there are long, dry spells where my husband and I do without house cleaners for reasons that range from the purely practical to the uncomfortable. Dan and I make vows about spending our weekends catching up on toilets and vacuuming. We assign chores to the kids. We feel virtuous.

Gradually, though, everything spins out of control. My husband and I divide our responsibilities along the usual tiresome gender lines: he does outside chores, I do indoor chores, with each of us crossing the line now and then. We cajole or threaten our kids into helping. Yet, this is still not enough. Dust bunnies blossom into dust buffaloes. The shower tiles turn yellow. Household detritus collects between the cracks of our old pine floorboards. Recycling piles tower. The refrigerator and stove are streaked with hasty dinner efforts. If we were a restaurant, we'd be closed down.

I start to feel sorry for the house. I avoid inviting people over because I feel foolish making the usual excuses. How can I say, with a straight face, “Sorry about the house; it doesn't always look like this,” when it does?
Guilt intrudes, weighing me down like a familiar threadbare sweater. Why can't I be more like my friend Debra, who gets great joy out of cleaning? “I felt down today,” she said recently, “so I took everything out of the refrigerator and scrubbed it. Now I'm doing the closets.”

About every two months, my longing for outside cleaning catches fire and becomes full-blown lust. I can't live without them! The cleaners make my appliances sparkle like new! They find earrings and pens I haven't seen in two years! They fluff the pillows and pluck dead leaves off plants! I cave in and call them.

After they clean, we all relax and breathe more easily. Even the house breathes more easily. I make a point of entertaining lots of company during the first week or two. Our social life perks right up. This is so worth the money, I think. As a friend of mine says, once you have your house cleaned by someone else, “It really is like being addicted. I'll eat beans every night before giving it up.”

“What must these cleaners think of us?” I mutter to Dan, who by now admits that he's glad I called them. He's actually following me around the house, helping me pick up, sort, throw out in preparation for the deep cleaning.

Dan puts the dilemma into perspective. “They're probably thinking about how glad they are to be working, especially in this economy.”

“I'm sorry I went behind your back and called them without talking it over first. I just couldn't stand it anymore.”

“We should ask them to clean before your brother visits, too,” Dan says, putting a last stack of magazines in place.

I barely restrain myself from jumping up and down. It's almost my birthday. I know exactly what I'll ask for, I think, just as the doorbell rings.