Housekeeping ain't no joke. -Louisa May Alcott, ``Little Women''
Spring cleaning, once an annual rite for a conscientious homemaker, is fast becoming as obsolete as a Bendix washer. In its place is a thoroughly modern (and seasonless) substitute - the lick-and-a-promise style of housekeeping, popularized by millions of working women who barely have time to make the beds, much less clean under them.
Still, there comes a moment when the warren of dust bunnies under the box springs forces even the most casual housekeeper, male or female, to a sobering realization: It's time to clean.
When that happens, a growing number of beleaguered householders are now turning to professional cleaning services for help. Operating under names that range from the strictly functional (A-1 Cleaning) to the fanciful - Domestic Bliss, Cleaner Living, Clean Sweep, Joy of Cleaning, You've Got It Maid - these firms offer systematic cleaning by teams of workers who are trained to ``not waste one motion,'' as Kris Kile, branch manager of McMaid Inc. in Boston, puts it. Services range from light housekeeping to heavy cleaning, allowing customers to choose the type and frequency of help that fits their needs and budgets.
``This time of year many people use us for just one good spring cleaning,'' says Mary Ann Tracy, owner of a Merry Maids franchise in Arlington, Mass.
Yet despite the growing popularity of these firms, many overextended women remain reluctant to seek outside help. One deterrent is financial: A regular weekly cleaning can cost between $35 and $60, depending on the size of the house and the amount of cleaning required.
Then there's the guilt factor, the little voice deep within the Superwoman psyche that whispers, ``You should be able to do it all yourself.''
``It's a real struggle to come to a good balance with that,'' Ms. Tracy admits. ``Women sometimes call me very hesitantly, and sometimes with guilt. But often they say, `I've had it.' The frustration level is so high.
``Unfortunately, we do that to ourselves as women. We wait until things get really bad before we give ourselves permission to seek help.
``I kid some women,'' she continues. ``I say, `We even save marriages. In this new '80s period you expect more from the male partner, but very often you don't get the cooperation you would like to have. The alternative is to pay somebody to come in and do the things you don't have time to do.'''
That lack of cooperation, even in two-career households, has been well documented. One of the latest pieces of evidence, a poll by Working Mother magazine, reports that 67 percent of working wives still do the vacuuming, and 92 percent take care of the laundry.
``Everybody is saying men are doing more work,'' says Don Aslett of Pocatello, Idaho, the author of six books on cleaning. ``I disagree with that. If anything, it's getting worse. With all the new cleaning `technology' coming out - no-wax floors, self-cleaning ovens, instant-wipe products - men think cleaning is automated. And how many kids know how to clean? Kids don't do chores.''
Mr. Kile believes the problem is exacerbated by men's and women's different standards about housework. Women are generally more concerned about the appearance of the house than men.
``There are exceptions, of course,'' Kile says. ``But usually it's just more of a stressful situation for her. If things are out of place, a man says, `No big deal, we'll get to it.' But a woman can't do that. Not that men are slobs. It's just a different perspective.''
For those who decide to hire a cleaning service, Mr. Aslett issues a cautionary note. ``There's tons of these people coming on the market,'' he says. ``It's being flooded. People are putting `professional' in front of their name when they're not professional. They have a good name and they look good, but after the second time they look shabby.''
The best indicator of a high-quality cleaning service, he notes, is the length of time it has been in existence. ``If a company has been in business two or three years, you can pretty well depend on some reliability.
``That may be harsh or cruel to the new ones,'' Aslett admits, ``but there's a 97 percent failure rate in cleaning businesses and a 300 percent turnover of people who go to work in the cleaning business.''
Mary Ann Tracy of Merry Maids also suggests that prospective customers ask questions before hiring a firm, such as:
How much do you charge?
What kind of people work for you?
Is it safe for me to give you a key?
What will you do if I'm not happy with the cleaning?
Are your employees covered by workers' compensation?
What if something gets broken?
Despite the obvious advantages of professional help, Aslett, calling himself ``the world's No. 1 cleaning expert,'' makes a case for a do-it-yourself approach. ``Probably in 15 minutes a day you can keep most houses up, if the house is in cleanable condition,'' he says. ``Add a few hours on Saturday, if you want to put a coat of wax on floors or clean windows.''
This is the same approach set forth by Geraldine Rhoads and Edna Paradis in their new book, ``The Woman's Day Help Book: The Complete How-to for the Busy Housekeeper'' (Viking, $19.95). To streamline housework, the authors outline a 15- to 20-minute basic cleanup called the ``Fast Daily Getaway.''
In living areas, for example, they suggest a three-step regimen: Pick up, put away, and straighten any accumulated clutter. Empty wastebaskets. Dust the top of furniture, straighten cushions, and fluff loose pillows. Time: 2 minutes, 15 seconds.
But even the most efficient system bogs down when a house is cluttered. Aslett preaches tirelessly about the importance of ``de-junking.'' To make his point, he ticks off statistics: Nearly 40 percent of all cleaning is related to junk.
At a time when a laissez faire attitude toward housework has become almost chic (``I'm too busy to clean''), Aslett believes the importance of order and cleanliness cannot be overstated. He goes so far as to make a connection between cleaning and character.
``Show me people who are down in life and have a lot of personal struggles, who think the whole world is against them, and probably 80 percent will be messy and dirty,'' he says. ``Most of those people have piles of junk, and they don't make the bed in the morning.
``Then show me the most successful people you know and I'll bet 90 percent are neat and clean at home, at their office, in their car.
``Cleaning,'' he emphasizes, ``is a form of control.''