I had this feeling that the house would be a lot cleaner once I’d retired. This has proven to be completely untrue, but today I suddenly realised why. Before I reveal all, let’s just think about academics and housework more generally.
First, cleaners: we don’t have one. Lots of my academic friends do, whether they are single or married, childless or the mother of four. I remember when Mary Beard published her handbook, The Good Working Mother’s Guide, in 1989, and advised readers to ‘pay for as much help around the house as you can afford’, but I’ve never followed that advice.
I was thinking about this, and realised that there has only been one period in my life when I paid a cleaner. This was when I was lodging in a friend’s house, where one of the fixed elements was that we had a cleaner, and everyone’s rent included this cleaner’s weekly fee. It made perfect sense; it avoided all those shared-house arguments about whose mess it was in the bathroom and who left the hob in such a revolting condition. The deal was that the cleaner would also hoover your bedroom, although if it was too disgusting she reserved the right to refuse to go in there.
In that context, a cleaner was ideal, but I’ve never had one since, whether I lived on my own or with my husband. Why not?
Well, first, there’s the desk. Like many academics, I don’t understand the office norm of having a clear desk at the end of the working day. That may be because, for academics, so often the working day never ends. My desk is a mess, and a couple of times every year I go through it in archaeological fashion, finding layers and assigning them to projects or to the bin. At various points in my working life, the mess from my desk will extend on to the sofa next to the desk, and thence on to the floor. When I’m writing a book, the ‘desk’ extends into the whole of the house. In this situation, the idea of the necessary cleaning up so the cleaner can clean just strikes me as insane.
In my case, there’s also definitely a strong element of nurture. My granny cleaned front steps (in the days when Cardinal Red Polish was a thing) for her neighbours in the 1960s; sociologically interesting, as it suggests that changing working patterns meant that the 1950s standard of the shiny red doorstep was becoming impossible to achieve without assistance. My pocket money was funded by this work. In the world of cleaner and client, I feel on the side of the cleaner. We never had a cleaner at home when I was a child, partly because we didn’t have much money and partly because my mother didn’t work after she married (these two things are, of course, related). I was brought up in a spotlessly clean home where my mother even ironed socks. And flannels. You get the picture. She wouldn’t allow me to iron because her standards were so high. As a result, ironing became attractive. Eventually, she announced that I would be allowed to do some of it, if I could pass the ‘handkerchief test’. This involved ironing one of my dad’s handkerchiefs in such a way that all the edges lined up. It was tough, but eventually my samples were deemed up to scratch. Hello, ironing!
I still quite enjoy ironing, but I don’t much care for the rest of the housework experience. I shared a house once with a friend whose policy was to keep the toilets and basins clean, and not think too much about the rest; I continue this approach, except when my mother comes for Sunday lunch and expects the living room rug to be hoovered.
In addition to practicalities and family history, I also feel uneasy about how the employer/home cleaner relationship can work out. That’s partly because, in recent years, my mother has employed some pretty dodgy cleaners; the line between ‘friend’ and ’employee’ seems particularly hard to negotiate when you’re elderly. One cleaner clearly expected to move in with my parents when her relationship fell apart. But even without these complications, I feel uneasy about being the one who can afford not to clean. A few years ago a colleague from another university, on buying a bolt-hole in my town, asked me if I ‘had a little woman who does’, who could keep an eye on her new residence and check if any mail needed to be forwarded. I cringed. I can’t be doing with this. I didn’t even reply.
So, no cleaner. It’s all down to me, with assistance from the husband, At one point we had a wall chart on which various tasks were listed with an indication of whether they were weekly, monthly or whatever. Whoever did them initialled them. This was rather too close to the whiteboards one finds in public toilets, so I can see why it fell into disuse. However, the husband doesn’t see dirt, and I do, although that doesn’t mean I choose to respond to it.
Today, though, as I walked past the cupboard where the top needs wiping and the shelves which need dusting, and once again did nothing about them, it suddenly struck me. The house used to be less dirty because, when I was working, housework sometimes came higher on my list of desirable activities than paid work tasks. Confronted with a pointless document to read, or wrestling with the laborious online system for monitoring tutors’ marking, cleaning a room would become surprisingly attractive. A pile of ironing would call out to me, and would sound lovely. The Open University even encouraged this with its induction video suggesting that mowing the lawn is fine as a break within the working-from-home day. But now I’m retired (and now we’ve got rid of the lawn), there are so many things which are on offer and which are much more fun than housework: there’s always a novel on the go, for a start. Here’s my current reading pile…
Housework is no longer an escape from Something Worse: so, it doesn’t get done.