Polishing up a dusty image. Or -- must housecleaning be a dirty word?

When I was growing up in the Midwest during the '50s, the women in our neighborhood -- almost none of whom worked, almost all of whom kept spotless houses -- devised a shorthand description for those whose cleaning skills didn't match theirs. ``She's not very domestic,'' they would say simply. This was usually followed by an equally simple explanation: ``She's a career gal, you know.''

We had only one ``career gal'' on our block -- a cheerful mother of five who worked part time in her husband's printing business. Everybody liked Betty, but the perfectionists in our midst sometimes wondered privately how her husband could stand the mess -- the piles of folded laundry on the dining-room table, the half-empty cereal bowls in the sink, the clutter everywhere. (This, remember, was before anyone dared to suggest that perhaps husbands should help.)

For many of the daughters in that neighborhood, the contrast between Betty's house and their own sent a powerful message that being ``domestic'' was good and being ``not very domestic'' was, well, pretty chaotic.

Today Betty would have lots of company. Now that ``career gals'' have multiplied like rabbits, so have the dust bunnies under their furniture. These overextended women may think wistfully about the well-ordered homes of their childhood, but in trading aprons for attach'e cases and scouring pads for steno pads, they have learned to step over toys and ignore dirt as they race out the door to work.

It wasn't always thus. In the early years of women's mass entry into the work force, when everyone still pretended that Superwoman existed, many of us tried valiantly to maintain our previous standards. We waxed floors at midnight. We did laundry at 5 a.m. We polished silver before a big dinner party (in those days we still gave dinner parties as further proof of our competence in balancing multiple roles). No one -- not our husbands, certainly not our mothers -- would be able to accuse us of ``letting things go.''

Now, apparently, the pretense is over. Cleaning is out, clutter is in, and everyone is claiming that sloppy is chic.

Well, not everyone. But at least a few brave souls are coming clean about their not-so-clean houses, admitting publicly -- in print, and with pride! -- that they're too busy for housework. Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times -- the latter complete with pictures of messy rooms -- have outlined the new wisdom on a very old subject. ``We have our priorities,'' the revisionists sniff, ``and dusting isn't one of them.''

Even no less a domestic authority than Mary Ellen, the Minnesota-based author of four books of household hints, recently admitted one of her own dirty little secrets during a radio interview. People associate the smell of Pine-Sol with a clean house, she says, so when there's no time to scrub floors before a party, just wet a cloth with the liquid, flick your wrist a few times to disperse the droplets, and presto! -- ``your guests will think you've been cleaning all day.''

Today we live in the Age of the Shortcut. The women's movement has probably been aided as much by no-wax floors, self-cleaning ovens, and permanent press as it has by day-care centers, affirmative action, and ``supportive'' husbands. A new domestic freedom is abroad in the land, and few women are trying for a ``10'' anymore, at least at home.

What would the perfectionists of the '50s say? That was the era, remember, of morning kaffeeklatsches, when friends could personally inspect your floors for yellow waxy buildup. It was also the time when laundry still hung on backyard clotheslines, giving neighbors a chance to rate whiter-than-whites and cleaner-than-cleans.

Nobody would want to return to those days when everyone lived like the mad purist in a TV detergent commercial. But has the pendulum -- the unpolished pendulum in your very dusty grandfather clock -- swung too far? Is there no middle position between the command ``Spit and polish!'' and the cry ``Help! Call the sanitation department!''?

Americans have reordered many priorities in the past two decades, some for the better, some for the worse. We have, among other things, glorified paid work, no matter how modest the job or the wages, and we have devalued unpaid work, regardless of its worth. In the process homemaking -- making a home -- has become one of the least honorable occupations. Most husbands and children avoid it like a punishment.

We have been badly beguiled by our double standard here. Yes, housework is solitary, repetitive, and never finished. But isn't a lot of office work, too? Is interfacing with a computer all that different from interfacing with a vacuum?

Our low valuation of housework reveals shamefully how money has become our measure of worth. What a price -- more than monetary -- we have paid in confusion! Until we got polarized in the false home-vs.-career debate, we sensed that outer order bore some relation to inner order -- that ``sanity'' and ``sanitation'' derive from the same root. In an earlier time we understood that the well-kept home was a minor art.

The gleam of a polished table in a shaft of sunlight, fresh-cut flowers in a vase, the look of newly brushed velvet in a reading chair -- these are surely more than matters of drudge labor.

But who can keep the proverbial home fires burning -- and the hearth clean -- when no one is home all day?

If there are, alas, no simple solutions, the problem cannot be ignored as blithely as we are now tempted to ignore it. Ironically, a need for an orderly oasis, a quiet retreat, has probably never been greater. In a society where stress has become a status symbol, where ``fast track'' serves as the favorite term to describe careers, and where family members lead separate, often fragmented lives, home becomes a vital haven and refuge, a port in the storm after the multiple demands of a busy day.

Our mothers were right. ``Domestic'' is not a dirty word -- any more than ``career gal.'' So now we have two messages to pass along to the daughters of the '80s. Maybe in the '90s someone will figure out how to manage both.

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