#6 Learn to love housework

In Homeworking, midlife on October 19, 2009 at 11:17 pm

The day I caught myself congratulating myself on the whiteness of my white wash was the day I knew things had gone too far.

There is a certain type of parent I used to cross the playground to avoid, the ones who make you feel inadequate with their impeccable organisation, or wear you down with their boundless enthusiasm for cake sales and book bag notes. They aren’t, it should be noted, all women, but, if we’re honest, a lot of them are.

Then, with a bit more time on my hands, I got to know some of them. They are invariably bright, funny, skilled, interesting people who once did demanding jobs but, through choice or circumstance, now don’t. At least not one that involves financial remuneration and social status. Without them, schools would cease to function. Seriously.

Job satisfaction comes from doing a job well, and having such a job gives you much-needed self esteem, structure, and focus. Without it, you feel like you are at best drifting, at worst, worthless. So what do you do when you don’t have the luxury of an actual paid job? You turn to your other roles to provide what is missing. Which is exactly what these parents have done. While the working parent may congratulate themselves if they actually know where all their children are at any given time, the professional parent will be whipping themselves over something trivial such as forgetting a packed lunch. The working parent knows that they can only do so much, and praise at work makes up for minor domestic disorganisation. The profession parent works hard but rarely gets such positive reinforcement, however smoothly they run their home.

Earlier this year, Radio 4 serialised a wryly amusing book by Andrew Martin   ‘How to Get Things Really Flat: A man’s guide to ironing, dusting, and other household arts’ (Short Books). As well as offering some useful tips on home economics, it successfully evoked the primitive pleasure of a job well done.  [I have since also encountered the phenomenon of extreme ironing, but that’s something best left to another post.]

So it is that over the past few months I have found myself:

* ironing my son’s school polo shirts before he puts them on in the morning (you can’t see them under his sweatshirt, but he likes it if they are warm)

* buying extreme cleaning products such as Vanish Oxi Action, Neutradol carpet freshener, Dr Beckmann’s Glowhite and Ariel Excel Gel (brilliant cleaning from 15 degrees)

* stockpiling this season’s junk mail catalogues (Book People, Bright Minds, Yellow Moon) in anticipation of some well-planned Christmas shopping

* rationalising the hat, scarf and gloves box

* taking the empty juice cartons to the recycling bank

* washing the cloth shopping bags

* freezing left over coq au vin  and remembering to defrost it again in time for an evening meal

* making my own stuffing

* washing the filter in the Dyson, as advised every 6 months

* sewing name tags in things that could easily have got by with biro initials on the washing instructions label

* dusting the shutters, slat by slat

* buying the ingredients to make my own pizza

I now have time to shop locally on a daily basis for fresh food as I need it, rather than over-buying meat then throwing it out. I never have to buy ready meals. I can do the laundry on days when it is sunny enough for it to dry, rather than packing it into a weekend and hanging it on the radiators. I  can be in to receive deliveries or tradespersons. I have time to deliberate over special offers to ensure I get the best deal. I have painted a room. I have erected flat-pack furniture. I have fixed the leak behind the washing machine. I can pick up my children from school, rather than subcontracting the task at great expense, allowing them to invite friends round in the week or just hang out in their own rooms and play with the toys they previously never saw. I can encourage them with schoolwork. Explain long division. Read a bedtime story.

When I had a full-on, full-time job there was always a nagging concern that we were all getting further removed from a hands on relationship with the home, no longer able to so much as paint a room or change a washer, paying other people to do our cleaning, our childcare, our meal-making. On rare occasions, cleaning would even feel good, as if it was a physical reconnection with the home, sort of nurturing the house. It is no accident that cooking is often seen as an act of love towards you family or friends.

But what is a healthy balance? When at a party I teased the brilliantly energetic head of our school parents association about a minor blip in an otherwise faultlessly-organised money-spinning event, she looked crestfallen. When I reassured her that of course I was only joking, she simply stared into her glass and slowly muttered ‘I really have to get a job.’

And when I once found myself uttering the words ‘This is a really nice pinny,’ were things already beyond hope?


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