Don’t Buy It: Professional Housecleaning

1 03 2009

My grandparents always had a nice neat house, and they also always had a cleaning lady. Yes, always a lady. Always a not-well-off black or American Indian lady, as a matter of fact. Usually an older lady; sometimes old enough to have a grown daughter who rotated into the job as her elder moved into retirement. (Or had she become too sick to do the work? I never asked, and never knew.) These ladies didn’t come every day; once a week, maybe, and to clean up after my grandparents’ parties, which were frequent. All of these cleaning ladies were the vision of competence: they left behind spotlessly shined kitchens and bathrooms, cleaned around the clutter and made it look neat and intentional. At least one of them was a truly great cook; a former New Orleans hotel chef who is the only person who ever successfully kicked my grandfather out of his kitchen. He was an excellent cook, too, but Alnita Reeves’ Southern fried chicken and blueberry pancakes were the stuff of last-meal-before-the-execution fantasies. As my grandfather grew more frail, these ladies grew more important, and I was grateful for their attentions to him, but their presence always bothered me.

Cleaning is a chore, not a calling. It is something everyone needs done, that no one likes to do. It is quintessentially women’s work; we hire cleaning ladies, or maids. It doesn’t pay well (median annual income for full-time housekeepers and maids: $17,580), and it is done by people who do not have lots of other options. I just can’t quite stomach the idea of asking another person to do work I don’t want to do for a median wage that is below the poverty level for a family of three, can you? Surely having a house modest and tidy enough that one can clean it oneself is a basic element of a sustainable life.

And yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, residential cleaning services are growing rapidly, even in our current economy. Some of my friends have housekeepers, and they usually talk about this helper in reverent, grateful tones, as if having someone clean your house was decadent chocolate and spiritual purification all rolled into one. I can empathize with the feeling: it is really nice to have a clean house, nice enough to feel like a spiritual experience and a luxury. And if you have a busy life (who doesn’t?), it can feel totally unattainable. I understand why people hire maids.

My first house, which we sold about a year ago, was virtually always a mess. I disliked even just being there. Nothing got clean regularly, and there were places that neither of us ever cleaned. My husband claims that he didn’t clean them because he didn’t have the energy (it was a hulking Victorian behemoth, and it was too much for us to manage). But me, I didn’t clean a number of things that (it turns out) do need regular cleaning because 1) I didn’t know what needed to be cleaned, and 2) I didn’t really know how to approach cleaning tasks. I’d get overwhelmed or confused thinking about things like cleaning floors or dusting.

That was before I discovered Flylady. Flylady is one obsessively organized woman’s home-management system, but don’t get me wrong: There are a lot of things I can’t stand about Flylady. But she has some big advantages, and adapting parts of her system have allowed us to have a clean house, virtually all the time, in exactly the same way we would if we hired a housekeeper. We love being in our home, and we can always have guests over, without getting “ready.” We don’t need a housekeeper any more. And neither do you.

So here’s the dirt on the good, bad, and ugly of Flylady, and how we’ve adapted her to fit our family. The big advantage to Flylady is that she provides a clear, simple, and comprehensive system for housekeeping in a revolving, manageable format that keeps the house in a livable state without a lot of forethought, knowledge, or planning. Here are the parts of her system that we use, in order of importance to us:

1. A weekly home blessing. We do this every Sunday and it’s something my family truly looks forward to. My husband vacuums the entire house, takes out the trash and recycling, cleans out the woodstove, and cleans the cat box and cat dishes. I do 10-minutes-worth of dusting, sweep and mop the kitchen floors and front hall, clean the hearth, polish windows and mirrors, sort through and complete 10-minutes-worth of paperwork, and change our sheets. We also usually do the deep cleaning of one room besides. Our son cleans his bedroom and playroom. When everything is shipshape, we smudge ourselves and the entire house with sage, sweetgrass, and tobacco, and then gather together in the front room, hold hands, and pray together. It’s grown to be more than cleaning; it’s really the center of our spiritual life, and it makes Mondays a pleasure.
2. Flylady’s detailed cleaning lists provide an orientation to how to clean each room in your house. If you don’t know what to do to clean a room (and it may sound stupid, but I have a Ph.D., and I certainly didn’t), these lists will tell you. I wrote each list on a tiny post-it note and put it up for reference someplace unobtrusive in each room. They remind me of the checklists cleaning companies use for consistency and comprehensiveness: Now anyone who can read can keep the kitchen shiny.
3. Swish and swipe, and a load of laundry a day. It’s easiest to clean both bathroom and clothes if you have all the materials ready at hand and you do a half-assed job every single day. My husband and I take turns folding laundry while we get dressed and starting a new load before we go out the door. Similarly, I wash the sink and toilet in our most frequently used bathroom in between my morning ablutions. Takes 10 seconds, and the bathroom is always clean. Yay.
4. We check her sneak peek once a week to see what she’s cleaning, because it’s easier than putting cleaning on a calendar. In the space of a month, she rotates you through five “zones” in a house, one zone per week: the entry way and dining room, the living room, the kitchen, the bathrooms and one “extra” room (e.g., office, storage room, guest room, kids’ rooms), and the master bedroom. She updates her website weekly to reflect the “current” zone under attack, so you don’t have to remember what to work on when. Her idea is to clean or declutter in the “current zone” for 15 minutes a day, but we usually deep-clean the rooms in question once a week (15 minutes a day somehow manages to eat up too much of a weekday evening).

These four ideas have given us a peaceful home that we are all proud to be in, without spending a dime or enslaving anyone, so I’m grateful to Flylady for them. When I worked a forty-hour workweek and lived in a tiny cottage we did these things very faithfully and had a home so sparkling that our landlord returned an entire month’s rent to us as payment for how we left the house. Now that I work 60 hours a week and most weekends, we don’t always get a weekly home blessing or deep clean a room every weekend, but we do it often enough that the house is a home. Flylady has a testimonial from one of her readers that makes the point: if you can keep a comprehensive housekeeping system in place in your home, you feel as if you are living in a fine hotel, and living like royalty in an elegant hotel turns out to improve your spirit, your mind, and your relationships.

Those are the Flylady pros. But, full disclosure: I don’t subscribe to Flylady emails (she sends more than 10 a day, so you may not want to, either), and I wouldn’t buy anything from her, and I can’t recommend her approach without reservations. The most serious problem with Flylady?
• She is sexist as all get out. Her clubhouse has a sign outside: For Girlz Only. She writes for what she calls Sidetracked Home Executives – SHEs, get it? Har har har. Many families cannot afford the luxury of a full-time homemaker, and among those who can, some of those homemakers are men, so Flylady’s cute acronym qualifies as both sexist and classist just on its face. But the worst part is that Flylady is not speaking only to stay-at-home mothers and full-time female homemakers. In fact, she has an entire section of her website devoted to SHEs who also work outside the home, and it’s this double standard that makes me angry. Both men and women want to live in peaceful, harmonious, elegant homes. But implicit in the Flylady world is the harsh polemic that men don’t and shouldn’t have to do any of the work to get the nice home they want. Grateful and clueless husbands stumble periodically though Flylady’s pages, and the frumpy pictures and acronyms reinforce the implicit message, but for a more explicit slap in the face, you don’t have to look any farther than Flylady’s FAQ, where she answers the SHE’s plaintive question, “Why do I have to get up 15 minutes earlier than the rest of my family?

Hey, I can tell you why faster than she can: Because you’re a prisoner of the patriarchy, honey, that’s why.

If you’re going to use the Flylady system, don’t make anybody get up early. We cut our Flylady with a little Carol Channing in this house and you can, too. You remember, don’t you?
“Your mommy hates housework. Your daddy hates housework. I hate housework, too! So the best way to do housework, is to do it together.”

Make it your mantra. When it comes to housework, everybody pays, and everybody plays.

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One response

22 07 2009
StaciM

The only time I can see with the use of internet, a cleaner being needed is if you don’t have many able friends, and are blind. My great grand mother went blind due to some bad surgeries, in her old age, so her friends weren’t quite able to help her clean, and her children were busy and my mother was a young child. The chemicals were a good reason to hire a cleaner in the past(But now, with the internet, we can find natural cleaning solutions!), and I can see the use of a cleaner for spring cleaning if one is really busy. I’ll check out the website. In general though, a little bit of dirt is harmless in a home. I don’t think being a homemaker is needed to keep a clean home though. It’s a really short amount of time, and very few people work on the weekends.

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