My favorite chair is surrounded by piles of art supplies. There is yarn stacked high in baskets that I once aspired to organize. Metal boxes of paint and brushes are squashed next to jewelry supplies that are threatening to fall 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 the giant beating hub of the artist inside my heart wants—perhaps inspired by the likes of Yayoi Kusama’s organized chaos. And, it’s what all women, indeed 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—a trend that began in the mid-2010s—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.”
Indeed, there has been relentless messaging pushing us to maintain clean homes. We may be appalled by the overt sexism of vintage advertising, but even modern commercials for cleaning products are often gendered.
Even when stripped of gender, today’s messaging about maintaining cleanliness pushes us to wage a losing battle against germs and clutter. At the doctor’s office, bathroom walls sport signs reminding us of just how many millions of fecal bacteria gather on the undersides of our shoes. News stories breathlessly report scientific findings of how disgustingly bacteria-ridden everything is, from door knobs to the lemon slices that restaurants serve on water glasses.
It’s enough to terrify us into submission and to go way past the commonsense practice of frequent handwashing with soap to using antibacterial spray cleaners on every surface. Indeed, the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic were a redemptive moment for the obsessive cleaners among us who already had a large stash of Lysol on our perfectly organized shelves.
There is a strong moral component to the obsession behind maintaining clean homes. 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 metal refrigerator. We worry about being judged when people enter our messy homes. We are expected to feel shame over the clutter. Even our mental health suffers when we can’t keep up with cleaning, as per some studies, likely because we fear being judged for being messy.
Countless online cleaning guides offer “secrets” and “tips” to keeping a house clean. They rarely, if ever, account for the fact that 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 former is achieved by the aforementioned societal messaging and moral pressure to clean. The latter is made nearly impossible by the demands of jobs, especially on 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 help. The rich are so reliant on hired help that in the early months of the COVID-19 lockdowns, it was revealed just how helpless they are when forced to clean their own homes.
Few labor and legal protections exist for domestic workers, who are disproportionately women of color and immigrant women, and are often hired “under the table” or exploited. In California, domestic workers won a modest “bill of rights” in 2013. In 2016, that bill was updated with protections for overtime pay. In 2021, the state passed a law that current and former workers helped to craft, protecting them from dangerous working conditions. But the guidelines for protection remain voluntary. Domestic workers still suffer horrible treatment and even trafficking.
It turns out that the rest of us—Marie Kondo included—eventually succumb to the madness and mayhem of real life. Kondo, the queen of clean, in a recent Washington Post profile found that after having multiple children, 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.” Kondo’s fame and fortune likely afford her the ability to hire cleaning help. Still, 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. And those of us in the know admired her charming cleaning ethos rather as we might view a stunning piece of performance art—envy-inducing, discipline-requiring, and fleeting.
As a person of Indian origin, I grew up in a sparkling clean home, where wearing shoes indoors was strictly forbidden. Both 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. House cleaning work is the worst sort of mind-numbing drudgery, of the type that we have been conditioned to believe is nonnegotiable and a precursor to domestic peace.
Today, I routinely reject the desire to clean and instead embrace all the possibilities of creativity that were denied to my female ancestors.
As for shoes in the home? There are plenty of studies one can look up to scare oneself into the submission of leaving shoes outside. But, as one infectious disease expert, Amesh Adalja of John Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Vice, “Just taking off your shoes isn’t really going to substantially diminish that microbial load you have in your house—nor would you want it to—because a lot of times, 99 percent of the microorganisms on the planet don’t do any harm.”
As a working woman with multiple jobs, responsibilities toward two children and two elderly parents, a home, and more, I am often asked how I do it all. How do I write, make dinner and shop for groceries, knit and paint, care for my community, agitate for political change, and still take time for self-care? My secret—one that is 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.