It's Time to Let Go of the Myth of the Eternally Clean House
Let's get a reality check about how much cleaning we're all doing.
A few weekends ago, I was looking forward to (another) quiet Saturday at home. Like a lot of us, I've been pretty worn down recently. The reality of a full year of pandemic living is weighing on me, like it is on so many, and I was hoping to intentionally engage in some activities that would help me feel a tiny bit renewed on Monday morning: a very long, very hot shower, an afternoon spent on my couch with an absorbing novel, a glass of wine with an indulgent takeout meal. I knew what I could do to help restore myself a little: Instead, I spent the weekend cleaning.
It started with what was supposed to be a quick straightening up of the kitchen before I settled onto the couch. Before I knew it, I was vacuuming, mopping, doing endless loads of laundry, feverishly wiping down dusty walls — the tasks that needed to be completed before I could actually relax seemed to stretch on endlessly. Hours later, as evening fell outside, I looked around my house and felt unsatisfied, frustrated, and even more anxious than before.
I hate to admit it, but I suspect part of why I struggled to relax that Saturday was because I had an idea floating around in my head of what my relaxation should look like: sun-soaked, minimalist, and perfectly styled like a Sunday afternoon Instagram post. I've seen this with friends, as well; everyone seems to be online, lusting over more beautiful homes than their own. When we look up from our phones, it's hard to see beyond the detritus of life and we continue to clean. But we also all know that's not real, right?
"We know that cleaning can be a coping mechanism," said Dr. Markesha Miller, a licensed and nationally certified psycho-therapist, consultant, mental health media expert, and host of "On the Mark with Dr. Markesha Miller. "We see it especially in women. It tends to be a coping mechanism because it redirects energy and gives a temporary — heavy on temporary — sense of control."
The reason so many of us find ourselves craving control to ease our anxiety is hardly a mystery. But for me, and for many people I know, the use of cleaning as a coping mechanism has taken a more toxic turn over the last year. Part of it is functional: I'm in my house all the time, which generates a lot more mess than normal. As my kitchen has morphed into an office, coffee shop, restaurant, bar, and so many other functions, there simply is a lot of cleaning to do.
But as I leaned further into cleaning as a coping mechanism, I noticed that it became a source of anxiety in itself. In moments where I really needed to be doing something else like, say, working, I would feel physically uneasy at the sight of dishes near the sink, or when I remembered the decidedly un-photo worthy state of my closet. One Tuesday at 2 p.m., I stomped around the house, crankily asking my boyfriend to do the dishes, please, and he pointed out that it was the middle of the day. "Why couldn't it wait?" he very reasonably asked. His reasonable-ness shook me out of my anxiety spiral. The mess, which was really not so much of a mess as it was the normal debris of two people living in an apartment, should not have been bothering me so much.
That shift from cleaning relieving anxiety to becoming a source of anxiety, is not uncommon, Dr. Miller told me. It's a shift from coping to obsessing that she says she has seen pop up in patients over the last year. The giveaway, she explained, is whether there's a clear boundary. There's a huge difference, as she said, between having a daily or weekly routine, and the type of cleaning that swallowed up my Saturday or set me off on a Tuesday afternoon — the type of cleaning that gets in the way of life.
Miller's advice inspired me to put up clearer boundaries around my cleaning. Instead of tasking myself with cleaning the living room, I'll set a timer for ten minutes and do what I can in that time, then return to the activities that I actually want (or need) to do. In a time with so little joy, it's a gift I'm giving myself: A reminder that my life is more than paying bills and cleaning the kitchen.