The National Catholic Review

When I was home with my four baby birds, I used to say, When I go back to work, I want a cleaning service. Just one day a week. Let someone else scrub the shower and wipe the dog’s nose prints from its glass door. I will pay handsomely. I hated housework. Somehow during our nesting years, it became my mission. My life was a succession of overtime shifts, cleaning and straightening and nagging. The house was never clean all at the same time. It frustrated me that as I moved to the next room, the one I had just completed was being thanklessly dismantled and dirtied. I resented the time that cleaning robbed from the things I wanted to dolike staying home with my children.

My husband, probably tired of listening to me, had the stellar idea some years ago of cleaning as a family. He reasonably observed that since we messed up the house as a family, we should clean it that way. Remember the old days, he said, before children? We cleaned together (those soulful apartment days). My giving birth was not supposed to make housework synonymous with woman’s work, something beneath husband and children. How easily I had turned into June Cleaver, albeit without the pearl necklace. When had I graduated from the School of Model Homemaking?

The most profound changes in life are often the most simple.

We began setting aside from three to five o’clock on Saturday afternoons for cleaning our house. No one was exempt. I made a list of the chores that needed doing. The person who completed the task initialed the list. Each person chose from the list what she or he wanted to do that day. When one chore was finished, another was chosen, until all work was initialed.

The list changed according to the needs of the week ahead. When my grandmother visited for the first time, the long list required an extra hour of cleaning time. For dinner guests, we did a bang-up job on the kitchen. When spring whispered in the air, we focused on windows, sliding away the gritty reminders of snow and letting in the promise of wildflowers on the distant mountains.

The benefits of cleaning together over the years have been enormous. When a seven-year-old has to scrape from the sink a week’s worth of toothpaste that her sisters have not rinsed down the drain after brushing, she is likely not only to remember to rinse the sink after brushing, but to remind her siblings to do the same. In two weeks, she accomplished what I could not make stick in their brains after years of admonitions. On the whole, they became sensitive to making a chore easier for their sister (or themselves).

Our three-year-old took pride in the skill with which she cleaned her play table. Through the years the play table has functioned as an art easel, a banquet table, an enchanted fortress, a vaudeville stage, a cat bed and the site of elaborate tea ceremonies. But every Saturday that table sparkled anew from the spritz of our daughter’s lemon water and the circling of her sponge. For her, the ritual was all. Today, the play table is stacked mostly with schoolbooks or music lessons, around which we dust.

Our older daughters, the most vehement protesters at the beginning of this tradition, have grown in spiritual insight. Products of a competitive, goal-oriented society, they resisted having to clean things that were only going to get dirty again, sometimes in less than a day. I mean, where was the accomplishment in that? A well-swept floor, unlike a well-understood math test, does not last as a testament to the achievement. The floor, momentarily sleek and smooth, will once again be overlaid with the pattern of cracker crumbs and dog hair, and will once again need sweeping. But they learned, in accepting that inevitability, an intangible satisfaction in finishing the job just for one day. They also learned that certain tasks belong to the litany of daily life and have their unglamourous, comforting place as such. As they have grown to driving age, they’ve had to be responsible for clean cars as well.

My normally messy husband has not always been around for cleaning days. But when he is, he works with a speed and a perfectionism that would make his mother proud. He has also provided many hours of Music to Clean By on a Saturday Afternoon, an eclectic assortment of songs with good beats.

What surprised me about family cleaning was the difficulty I had giving up control of the housework. I had to learn to choke back needless criticism of a smeared window here, a neglected spot there. If there was a job on the list I considered so important that it had to be done precisely the way I wanted it, then I did it. Simple. I learned to accept that different people perform chores to their own rhythms, but in the end the house is still clean.

I work part time now. I still haven’t hired that cleaning service. We cannot expect our children to care about cleaning up a planet if we teach them that someone else will clean up their rooms. My oldest fledgling is now the roommate of two other college girls. We shopped for cleaning supplies on my last visit. It seemed important to her, the care of her new nest.

Valerie Schultz, who lives in Tehachapi, Calif., is an occasional contributor to America.

Recently in Columns