Homemaker: 'everyone's maid' or household manager?
''While I may have daydreamed during my childhood about having a maid, I never planned on being one,'' says Janet Dittmer, a mother of four who lectures on home management near Washington, D.C.
During days that are clogged with tasks like picking up socks and scrubbing sinks, homemakers may feel like just that - Everyone's Maid, and an unpaid one to boot. Yet the job is much more akin to that of manager, Mrs. Dittmer believes.
Running a home, she points out, involves knowing (often deciding) what things need to be done and scheduling how they are to be accomplished. And unlike a maid, whose primary responsibility is over ''things'' (getting ''things'' cleaned), the home manager ''runs a team, and people are her top priority.''
''If you feel like a maid, others will view you that way,'' says Pat Cundick, mother of five and a time-management specialist, also in the Washington area. ''Yet most homemakers will not tell you they're staying home to get the laundry done; they stay home for the people.''
Gretchen Hirsch, author of ''Womanhours'' (St. Martin's Press, $4.95), recommends that homemakers try redefining their job without mentioning its tasks. ''To help my clients,'' writes this time-management specialist, ''I ask them to toss out all of their previously held assumptions about what women should do, and to write a simple statement defining their own idea of the essence of their role. It must be positive and it must contain no tasks,'' she says. Using this method, one homemaker defined herself as the person who focuses on order and harmony in the home.
Another method for getting a task-free definition is to list all the jobs that fall under the category of homemaking, then eliminate as many as possible by asking, ''Could I drop this task and still be a good homemaker?'' Once you've narrowed it down to as few tasks as possible, look for the relationship among those that remain. ''Those are, for you, the essence of your role,'' she says. If you build a ''mission statement'' around these tasks, she believes, it will help you carry out your mission - not just pick up socks and scrub bathtubs.
One person's homemaking mission - and home - will not and probably should not compare with another's, says Mrs. Dittmer. ''We tend to compare ourselves with others and say, Oh, her home is always spotless.
''But we don't compare ourselves with how well someone else can play the piano, or write, or do anything else. And each person's situation is unique - she may have fewer children, or a husband who helps, or a different type of house,'' she continues.
What homemakers should do, Mrs. Dittmer recommends, is to decide ''what's comfortable for you - how would you like your house to function?''
To that end, there are a myriad of systems designed to help the smooth functioning of a household. ''I don't advise which system to use,'' says Mrs. Dittmer, ''but I do talk about principles.''
Her first principle has to do with habits, good and bad. ''It takes just as much effort to establish a bad habit as a good one,'' she believes, ''so you may as well train children early to get into good habits.''
She also thinks that bad habits can't be eliminated - they can only be replaced by good habits. ''Don't say, I want to do a better job with the laundry. Say, 'I'm going to sort the laundry every other day in the afternoon,' or whatever system suits you best.''
Her second principle has to do with timing: ''You can do traditional activities at untraditional times,'' says Mrs. Dittmer
''I used to make dinner at 5 when the kids were fussy, and I finally said to myself one day, 'This is a dumb time to make dinner.' So now, while the children eat lunch, I make the main portion of the meal. Then at 5 I can pop it in the oven, and we can all go read a book.''
Mrs. Dittmer thinks the key to homemaking is ''consistency,'' her final principle. ''You can either let things pile up until it takes three days to dig your way out, or you can get things going on a system and take just a few minutes each day to keep on top of it,'' she says.
Crisis management can become a way of life to the homemaker if she's not careful, warns Mrs. Cundick.
''There's a feeling that Mom is always there and can work anything into her schedule - kids think this, neighbors think this, and women delude themselves with this as well.'' She gives the example of a friend who calls at an inconvenient time to chat - ''you never call someone at the office to chat, because their time is promised to their employer,'' she points out.
But the biggest offenders tend to be other family members, she thinks. ''I have a friend who makes up a weekly plan with her teen-agers.
''Then when they say, Gee, I have to get this or do that before tomorrow for school or soccer or whatever, she's become quite firm about telling them, I'm sorry, it's not on the plan and we just don't have time to do it,'' she says.
Still, most homemakers recognize that their job entails a certain number of unexpecteds - the dog jumps the fence, the refrigerator quits, a child needs special attention - and the homemaker must act as the support system in these instances.
''It's true that every day is different from every other at home,'' says Mrs. Dittmer, ''but that's a plus. This is a wonderfully flexible career.''