Zen and the Art of Housework

Identity, Parenting

I dread housework, I dislike it, and I’m not very good at it.

Well, that’s what I’ve always told myself, but things are beginning to shift.

I’ll probably never be GOOD at housework; I lack the patience, the focus, the energy, the pure elbow greasability to really do an excellent job of cleaning. But it seems that I dislike it less and less as time goes on, at times I would say that I even enjoy it, and that means I dread it less, too.

Mike and I always had a fairly egalitarian arrangement when it came to keeping house. (It was no accident that I married a man who had clearly managed to keep a tiny studio apartment (even tinier than my tiny studio apartment at the time) relatively tidy.) But, things change. I didn’t foresee ever wanting to be a stay/work at home parent, I didn’t foresee how much Mike would work or how physically hard he would work, I didn’t foresee being a person who would never send my kids off to school (which means they are HERE ALL DAY playing and making messes), I didn’t foresee being a parent who would choose not to use behaviorism to get people to do what I wanted them to do.

All of the above factors led to a reality where I found myself doing more housework. Initially, I rebelled internally. I resented, wallowed, nagged, and sometimes lashed out. That made me unhappy. Then I tried another tack. I sank into the work. What would happen if, instead of spending time thinking about what was fair or how much I “should” be doing or how much I hated doing it, I embraced the work and owned it as my work.

Zen HouseworkI recognized, when I turned down the volume on my inner whining, that Mike was already working a lot; he was willing to do his part at home, but his part was simply a lot smaller – he is home a lot less and does not have much time for housework, while I have lots. I recognized that the kids had their own work to do, of learning basically everything there is to know about life, and their work was valid too. I recognized that I was lucky, in fact, to stay home with the kids, I wanted to be there, I appreciate our home and want to take care of it, I was happy that we’d been able to provide this enormous mess of toys and abundance of food that was spilled all over the table and floor, I was – though I hate this word, it’s so sentimental – grateful.

I admitted to myself that huffing around the house complaining about the mess and cleaning with a scowl on my face was teaching my children that housework is dreadful, no fun, a burden, a drudgery. Why then would they ever want to do it??? Sure, I could MAKE them do it, but they’d do it against their will and hate housework all their lives. There had to be a better lesson to be learned than that.

So I sort of suspended my opinion about what housework is like. Just pretended I had no feelings about it one way or the other, it was just something to be done and I would do it. Not by setting a timer or making a schedule or checking a checklist or “making it fun” with some assortment of tricks, but actually turning my attention to the tasks before me and doing the work.

And the weirdest thing happened. I started to like it.

Sometimes I listen to music or a podcast, and sometimes doing laundry or dishes can be a way to get a break from the kids’ demands, yes, but none of that is really the point. It’s almost hard to put into words, because it’s a wordless kind of experience. When I wipe down the kitchen, I am just wiping down the kitchen. I do the steps without judgment. When I clean the floors, I am just walking around pushing my steam vac. The floors get filthy again by the end of the day and I don’t care. I did the work and I’ll do it again. There’s a simplicity to it that is restful even though my body is at work.

So a funny thing began to happen when I found contentment in housework; the other people in my family began to join in more often. Mike has taken up an interest in cooking, and is teaching himself how to make things like pancakes and French toast on the weekend mornings, and tried his hand at granola bars. The boys get out the broom and try to sweep sometimes when they’ve dropped a bunch of kinetic sand on the floor, and they pick up their toys now and then without being asked.

Housework to me, now, is peaceful. It’s a way to rest my mind, to use my body, and to care for my home and my family. It requires no expert advice or knowledge – at least not the way I do it! – no thought, no anxiety, no busy-ness, just attention.