Kolhatkar, Doing the work that’s most important to you

girl cave
Women can reject the pressure to maintain spotless homes year-round and focus on what really matters to us. Shutterstock gaphic.

Embrace the mess

by Sonali Kolhatkar – OtherWords

My favorite chair is surrounded by piles of art supplies. There’s yarn stacked high in baskets. Metal boxes of paint and brushes are squashed next to jewelry supplies teetering off the edge of a too-full shelf.

I want so badly to want to clean. But then I invariably set aside such desires and settle in to knit for the night.

This is not what the mini Marie Kondo inside my brain wants. But it’s what my artist’s heart wants. And it’s what all people ought to want as we aspire for a just world.

Cleaning is women’s work. This is not an assertion — it’s an observation.

In spite of the rise of the stay-at-home dad, women still do most of the housework. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, women are “much more likely than their husbands to care for children on a daily basis, shop for groceries, and wash dishes.” Even modern commercials for cleaning products are often gendered.

There’s a strong moral component to clutter. We may harshly judge those people — especially the women — whose messy homes we step into, mentally running our fingers along dusty shelves and noting greasy prints on the refrigerator.

We worry about being judged when people enter our messy homes. We are expected to feel shame over the clutter. Our mental health suffers when we can’t keep up with cleaning, some studies say, likely because we fear being judged.

Countless online cleaning guides offer “secrets” and “tips” to keeping a house clean. But there is no secret to house cleaning except 1) having the desire to do so, and 2) setting aside the time to make it happen.

The first is achieved by that societal messaging and moral pressure. The second is made nearly impossible for working parents. And still, far too many of us waste our precious moments of free time endlessly cleaning our homes.

There is a third (dirty) secret: wealthy families simply outsource house cleaning to domestic workers — who are disproportionately women of color and immigrants who enjoy few labor and legal protections.

The rest of us — Marie Kondo included — eventually succumb to the mayhem of real life.

Kondo, the queen of clean, profiled recently in the Washington Post, found that balancing a life of work and child-rearing leaves little time — and, dare we say, desire — to maintain perfectly clean countertops: “The multitasker seems somewhat humbled by her growing family and her business success,” the paper said.

She revealed: “My home is messy, but the way I am spending my time is the right way for me at this time at this stage of my life.” That should have been her message all along.

As a person of Indian origin, I grew up in a sparkling clean home. My grandmothers were relegated to the quiet submission of presenting perfectly clean homes and producing daily multidish family meals, while balancing paid jobs as teachers.

The demand to clean is a direct descendant of the enslavement of women in the home. It’s no coincidence that the labor rights long denied to domestic workers also descended from the exploitation of the enslaved.

Today, I routinely reject the desire to clean and instead embrace all the possibilities of creativity that were denied to my female ancestors.

As a working woman with multiple jobs, responsibilities toward two children and two elderly parents, a home, and more, I’m often asked: How do I write, make dinner and shop for groceries, knit and paint, agitate for political change, and still take time for self-care?

My secret — one rarely revealed in moral exhortations against messy homes — is to not clean until it’s absolutely necessary. And, most importantly, to reject the sexist pressures of guilt and shame that are inflicted on women.

It’s time to take back our time.


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