And The Kitchen Table Exists Because I Scrub It

On embracing being houseproud.

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.

W. H. Auden, ‘For the Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio’

The Auden poem I’ve quoted above is one of my favourites, particularly this part of it, all about the winding down after Christmas and all of the minutiae of chores that need to be done to wrap up the festive season. The coming of epiphany is the turning point of a new year for me, when it starts feeling actually like a new year rather than a Christmas hangover. It’s also the time when I inevitably start looking to what needs doing in the house and thinking about the spring cleaning I usually don’t get round to. This year might be different, though.

I don’t recognise myself. I asked for (and received – thanks mom and dad!) a cordless vacuum for Christmas.

Over the past few weeks, my sister has taken great delight in telling me that I’ve turned into our nan, an exceptionally houseproud woman who had a (regularly updated) filing system for her dusters. Fourteen year old me, full of misguided feminist rage, would be disgusted with the fact that when I get a spare five minutes, I wipe the kitchen down rather than read something Important or Noble. That I spend my spare cash on candles and cushion covers rather than classic literature.

If you’d have asked me whether I would have considered myself ‘houseproud’ just a few months ago, the answer would have been a resounding no. No, I have much better things to worry about than the house being clean and neat and tidy; of course I haven’t spent my day scrubbing countertops or folding socks or vacuuming floors. This isn’t the 1950s, I would have thought. Women have moved on.

Houseproud is often used as a derogatory adjective. It’s defined as ‘proud of the appearance, cleanliness etc. of one’s house, sometimes excessively so.’ It conjures to mind images of Hyacinth Bouquet and Margo from the good life – generally insufferable, two-dimensional characters. It’s also a very gendered adjective. You’ll never hear a man being called houseproud. In my mind, it’s lumped in with words like ‘nag’, ‘bossy’ and ‘gossip’. It’s one of those words that exists to trivialise the work of women and make them feel as though their labour is less important if it takes place in the home.

Admittedly, I placed little value on the type of work my nana and her mother were engaged in when they were my age and through most of their life. I used to roll my eyes and mutter under my breath about being made to tidy up and to help clean. I thought it was stupid and pointless and a waste of time – particularly the amount of time that my nan used to spend cleaning and looking after the house. We used to live with my nan when I was younger and Saturdays were always, always devoted to at least five hours of cleaning. Me, my mom, my sister and my nan would all be cleaning for those five hours, so that’s twenty hours of cleaning. That was on top of the daily dust and vacuum she’d engage in. Not to mention the daily polishing of the brass door knocker and the scrubbing down of the bathrooms.

My nan was a little excessive in her approach to housework. However, it was a large part of how she expressed her love for her family and I find myself wanting to do the same for our family. I want our boy to grow up in a clean, orderly, beautiful home. I want him to be able to navigate the rooms in the house with ease and feel included in every part of the house. I want to be proud of the home that my husband and I have created together and I want us and others to enjoy the time they spend there.

I am lucky that my husband takes an active part in housework and is a true partner in that sense – doing far more than I did when I was still at work full time. I am also incredibly lucky to have a cleaner who comes for a couple of hours once every few weeks to do the big jobs in the house. Following a Montessori approach in raising Lefty Baby will empower him when it comes to taking care of our environment and being an active contributor to the household, too. I’m very glad that the house is not solely my burden to bear.

Saying that, being at home all day every day leads me to put pressure on myself to keep the house nice. I feel guilty if I haven’t been able to sort the kitchen out and get the tea on and run the vacuum round. No-one cares about this except me, in reality, but the guilt and the shame can be overwhelming at times. I do wonder how much of this has been socialised into me from history, from the media, how much of it is because I occupy a space marked ‘female’.

I’m also very aware of the huge privilege I have in being able to stay at home with the baby, in being able to focus on our home and nurturing him rather than being forced back to work before I’m ready. I’m aware that I have a choice in these matters, which many women all over the world do not. I’m aware that my life is very different to that of my grandmother, and her mother, and her mother before her.

I’m also very surprised with how much I enjoy looking after the house. How much satisfaction I get from a job well done in the kitchen. I’ve had to remind myself that making the choice to spend some of my time cooking and cleaning, to spend some of my money on ‘housey bits’ doesn’t mean the feminist police are going to come and revoke my membership. My feminist foremothers did a lot of the hard work to enable me to have a choice in these matters.

And what is important is that I’m making a conscious choice to be houseproud. I’m reclaiming the word. Yes, I’m houseproud. Yes, I like to have fresh flowers on display. Yes, I think my new vacuum is the bee’s knees. This, for now, is my work and my work is important.

So, Nana, consider this my belated apology to you. I’m sorry I mocked your duster filing system. I’m sorry I never kept my room tidy. I’m sorry I rarely helped clean with good grace and that I thought the work you and Mom did to keep our home nice wasn’t important. I wish you were here to show my vacuum off to, and for you to teach me how to polish brass properly, and to give my little boy a cuddle. Thanks for setting an example I can never hope to live up to. I love you and miss you. And I’m happy to be houseproud, just like you.

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