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Fighting Dirty to Keep the House Neat and Tidy

April 18, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Last Sunday, in a front-page story, the New York Times reported that Americans just aren't cleaning house the way they used to.

"People," intoned one home economist, "have better things to do with their time than clean."

This is news?

Seems to me if they'd really wanted to blow the lid off this housekeeping thing, they'd have written not about whether we do it, but about how much we fight about doing it. Very few domiciles, in this reporter's opinion, have escaped rancor on this issue. Recurrent studies generally uphold the notion of a gender gap in housecleaning, even when the woman works outside the home.

Women report doing more housekeeping than their male partners, though less than they used to; men report doing more housekeeping than women say the men actually do.

It stands to reason that some working husbands somewhere toil harder than working wives at keeping the hearth swept. I just don't know very many of them.

In my experience, couples are more like my husband and me, scarred veterans of the Ajax wars. I claim I do way more housework than he does; he insists he does more than his fair share.

For years, we kept bitter score. Finally, four years ago, we threw in the towel. We decided we were old enough and tired enough to hire a cleaning lady. In point of fact, the decision was made for us.

The people from whom we bought our home informed us that, since they were moving out of town, the cleaning lady would be staying on.

She has become indispensable to our happiness. Her weekly visits turned out to be a far superior investment than the marriage counseling we were headed for. After all, when your therapy session ends, you still have to come home and clean the house.

Part of my resistance to picking up after people stems from the fact that it's not in my blood. I do not hail from a long line of clean freaks. There is only one tidy-obsessive twig on the family tree; my father's mother, who will die with a broom in her hand if we let her.

My mother, a more immediate influence, has a laissez-faire attitude toward dirt and clutter. Unhappily, I inherited the worst tendencies from both--the desire to live in clean surroundings, and an aversion to making them so.

Only once, many years ago, did this dysfunction lead to serious political revolt. While I was in graduate school, I embarked on a cleaning strike.

My misbegotten boyfriend and housemate, a not-so-nice young man who looked fastidious, was, in reality, an extraordinary slob. He didn't mean to be, but his parents had never required him to become proficient in, or even acquainted with, the domestic arts.

As I say, I wasn't such an immaculate housekeeper myself, but it finally dawned on me that only one of us was doing the really unsavory tasks around the house.

As an unspoken gesture of rebellion, I decided to forgo cleaning the toilet. How bad would it get before this guy picked up the toilet brush? Day after day, week after week, the toilet bowl was ignored. It got greener and mossier and more disgusting.

Finally, his parents announced that they would be coming for visit. The toilet looked as if it had been resting 40 leagues under the sea. This guy's mother was a fanatical housekeeper. She expected our house to be clean. (At that point in my life, I cared a lot more than I do now about what people think of me.)

This woman did not expect her baby boy to clean toilets, and he obviously didn't care. If we had a dirty toilet, the fault would be mine.

My strike proved a complete debacle. I got out the plastic gloves and the cleanser.

It is conceivable, though unlikely, that my boyfriend would have cleaned the commode if I had asked him to.

What I saw as a silent power struggle was completely one-sided. I failed to take into account that, for all the anger and energy I invested in that stupid toilet, he didn't even see the dirt!

Now when I think about it, I laugh.

What did I expect?

As a result of this decline in household standards, the cleaning industry has apparently had some bad years recently. Products that enjoy sparkling sales are ones that offer more than one benefit--cleaners and deodorizers, for instance.

This got me thinking. . . . Perhaps the folks at Johnson & Johnson could invent an all-purpose cleaner that also acts as a marriage enhancer.

It would come with glasses . . . and a score card.

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