Why we hate housework

Two weeks of leave, spent at home, found me tidying and organising and cleaning. I took my son to cricket and the beach, thought about what to make for supper (even though I largely don’t do the cooking) and swept cobwebs out of corners.

It took 10 days or so but I finally felt the house was “right”, as it would be if I were Mrs Seddon, housewife and stay-at-home mom. I would love to be that person – but I have been and always will be a working woman, Ms Moodie.

When I am Ms Moodie, I try to be Mrs Seddon as well, but rarely do things feel “right”. The cupboards get disorganised, the table fills with pieces of paper.

So always there are these two people, battling with the details of life. Ms Moodie thinks that Mrs Seddon has it soft, that her life is easier and of less significance. Ms Moodie is the one making the tough choices. You have to be really organised to be Ms Moodie.

Yet both of them have to do the housework – “right” or sort-of okay as it may be. In fact, there is not a room, a shack, a house, a mansion that doesn’t need “keeping”. Or we all end up living like the characters in the movie Withnail And I where the dishes haven’t been washed for a month, and things – creatures – are living in the mess.

I’ve been thinking a long time about housework and what it means and why we all hate it so much. Why doing it carries less status in our society. Why something that is so vital is relegated to slaves, servants, women, lower castes – is it the sweeping that makes people lower class, or do they sweep because they start out lower class?

And what is wrong with sweeping, cleaning, washing, tidying? I think our reluctance to do these essential things points to a deeper division in Western thought: creativity vs maintenance. Artists, chefs, writers are admired and envied; house painters, dishwashers, editors are not. Yet the world we live in would be poorer without either of these things.

Perhaps the problem is seeing these two things as either/or. You can be a great movie director or the person who cleans the movie theatre, but not both. You can be the venture capitalist or the secretary, but not both. And one is glorious and dreamed-of, and the other is boring and not worth talking about. Donald Bradman is remembered; the people who rolled the pitches are not.

And so we all grapple endlessly with these issues. How to work, how to create, how to keep things tidy and where, for God’s sake, are the scissors? I hope to use this ongoing Tidiness Project site to explore these issues. To try to make sense of it, yes – to make it tidy.

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