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Ambushed by dust bunnies? Call in the maid brigade

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 1988

Housekeeping ain't no joke. -Louisa May Alcott, ``Little Women''

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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.