The strengthening sun of March shines brightly through the living room window exposing a winter’s worth of grime on the glass, and casting a harsh light on floors dirtied and dulled by the steady trek of snowy boots and muddy paws. There is dust accumulating in every corner – along with sharp little pieces of road salt, all ready to gouge the parquet or poison the dog. Above this sad mess, long cobwebs hang from the ceiling; dusty banners of filth, they flap gently in every waft of warming air.
The house cries out for spring cleaning, but who is to perform the task? Certainly not the overburdened homeowners whose two careers barely leave them time for their book club and their TV habit, let alone their unwashed laundry and their unfiled papers. Clearly not their beautiful children who have proved themselves incapable of marshalling the armies of small plastic toys that have invaded their bedrooms. Probably not even the underpaid and overworked cleaning lady whose biweekly visits are hardly enough to keep the toilet scrubbed, the floors swept and the kitchen counter free of crumbs.
And so, the house waits, and waits.
Have we simply abandoned it, left the toys and papers to tidy themselves and the dirt and grime to magically disappear? Statistics Canada has run its white-gloved finger over the national mantlepiece and found some telltale signs. In 1998, 41 per cent of Canadians reported doing some unpaid housekeeping; in 2010, that percentage had fallen to 36. We don’t seem to have turned the job over to the professionals either: 2009 research by the polling company Environics estimated that 12 per cent of Canadians hire cleaners but Stats Can shows that our spending on cleaning services and cleaning products is dropping. Canadian households spent an average of $253 a year on domestic cleaning services in 2010; by 2012, that number had fallen to $208. Similarly, spending on cleaning supplies and equipment dropped from $230 to $208.
People who tidy for a living, or who research everybody else’s tidiness, caution that the drop in spending on products may reflect environmentally conscious consumers switching to baking soda and white vinegar, but they also agree that we seem to be letting our houses get dirtier. Of course, we don’t have time to clean, but more than that, we would rather be watching The Good Wife or checking Twitter than dusting chandeliers. Where once our grandmothers prided themselves on their spotless homes, we don’t much care if the house’s a mess – as long as nobody sees it.
“I don’t believe we don’t have the time,” says Jill Pollack, the home organizer who hosts Consumed, the Canadian TV show that intervenes in the lives of hapless hoarders. “It’s just we are not prioritizing it. We are trawling the Internet, we’re on Facebook, we are spending hours in front of the TV.”
Pollack believes our messy houses are symptoms of a disposable culture. “Long ago, you had a good toaster, you kept it. Now, you don’t clean out the crumbs, there’s a fire in it, it breaks … you get a new one – that matches the kitchen.”
Part of the issue is how we use our houses, and how we view women’s roles inside them, says Kristi Branham, a professor at the University of Western Kentucky who has studied the history of laundry. “The emphasis is more on family and entertainment, the idea of quality time, which is really defined as pleasure and play. The parlour has become the family room,” she says. It’s a theory that is partly born out by those spending stats: While we spend less on cleaning, our spending on cell phones, Internet access and computer equipment is rising.
Branham adds: “The fact is someone still has to clean that home.” She argues that the very intimate work of housekeeping is an expression of love, and good work to be doing. Still, like many feminist scholars, she feels divided between a desire to see domestic work valued and a hesitation to judge people for not keeping up with Martha Stewart. Few of us actually like doing housework – the making of beds, sweeping of floors and washing of dishes are existential tasks, completed only to be undone and then redone ad infinitum – and some speculate that a post-feminist generation may feel it has little value.
“They think they are beyond housework; they have a cleaning lady and it’s invisible to them,” says Mimi Choi, a Toronto researcher who has recently edited Home Sweat Home, a collection of essays about how housework is represented in popular culture from The Wind in the Willows to The Cosby Show.
Still, if we can’t be bothered to clean, we aren’t exactly proud of the result. Cleanliness, they used to say, is next to godliness. The connection between cleanliness and morality dates to the 19th-century and we have not entirely escaped that link, often associating clean and tidy houses with efficiency, beauty, calm and happiness. We are embarrassed enough by our dirty houses that we clean up if outsiders are going to see them.
“A lot of the time, a client’s public places are fine,” Pollack says. “Downstairs is lovely, tidy. Upstairs spaces are like a war zone … clothing on the bed, books and papers on the floor, laundry baskets stacked with things.”
Choi agrees we are anxious about being seen as dirty: “Housework and issues of cleanliness remain a marginalized topic,” she said. “Everyone cares about cleanliness but the way we cautiously talk about it is overlaid with these fears of being a failure, of being judged.” She notes that a book club meeting will typically end with a discussion of who is to host next and confessions that houses are too messy to welcome guests. “We aim to present a public face as really well put together, and that can be at odds with our domestic spaces. We will talk about it, but that is as far as it goes.”