Housekeeping: dignity not drudgery

Cheryl Mendelson has spent countless hours studying the minutiae of housekeeping.

As a wife and mother trained as a lawyer, she doesn't seem the most logical candidate to be fascinated by "lowly" housework.

But Ms. Mendelson doesn't see it that way. In fact, she devoted about eight years to writing a book that so dignifies housework that it has attracted nationwide attention.

Some have mistakenly assumed the model for her 884-page "Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House" (Scribner) is the kitchen classic, "Joy of Cooking."

"It wasn't; I never dreamed of that," she says.

Though complimented by the comparison, and acknowledging some similarities - in thickness, thoroughness, and typography - Mendelson says her real models were much older housekeeping manuals, which she collects.

"I wanted to do it the way they did it in the 19th century," she says of "Home Comforts."

The result is decidedly different from many modern cleaning and organizing books, which are often loaded with tips, but thin on breadth and authority.

And few if any books begin with such a thoughtful discussion about the far-reaching significance of housekeeping.

There's certainly inspiration to be found in conclusions like: "The act of taking care of our homes brings comfort and consolation both in the enjoyment of the fruits of our labor and in the increasingly rare freedom to engage in worthwhile, unalienated, honorable work."

To understand Mendelson's motivation in writing this book, a little background is required.

Until she was 13, she lived in the Appalachian southwest corner of Pennsylvania. There, despite different approaches preached by two grandmothers, she received from them an old-fashioned domestic education.

She looked forward to someday keeping her own house. But as a young adult, societal attitudes momentarily sidetracked her. Convinced that the world no longer "admired girls who sewed and cooked," she turned to academic pursuits.

But, after what she calls a year or two of antidomestic posturing, her true nature reemerged. Divorce from a man with a dislike of domestic life followed, and in its aftermath she entered law school and created "a cozy, orderly little nest for myself."

Upon graduating, she found job demands so great she temporarily neglected her home again until a second awakening occurred.

Today she lives with her second husband and their eight-year-old son in an apartment on New York's Upper West Side.

The book, which grew out of Mendelson's attempt to decipher garment-care labels, has struck a chord with others. Not everyone, though, will be pleased to see housekeeping's status elevated. She realized that it would be hard to make the point without appearing to suggest women give up their hard-earned gains in the workplace to spend more time with a mop and broom.

"It's a very hard time right now for a lot of families," she readily acknowledges. Still, she says, the time has passed for treating housekeeping as a taboo.

"I was upset to see the devaluation of the home part of life, and I didn't think it had to be the consequence of women working," she says. "Certainly we could have a better balance between jobs and home life than we've managed so far."

The decline of housekeeping is partly documented in a recent University of Maryland study, which finds women spending less time on housework than ever before, 17.5 hours a week, and men not picking up the slack with 10 hours a week. The definition of housework includes cooking, cleaning, laundering, repairs, outdoor work, and bill-paying.

The time has come, however, Mendelson believes, for a housekeeping revival, and one that doesn't rest simply on women's shoulders.

"If women have a stronger interest in it, well and good," she says. "Who cares which sex has the stronger interest? There are men who are extremely domestic, and they should feel comfortable being so. Everybody should. It brings so much to life."

In her own home and those of friends, she finds men "doing lots, and they don't think of it as the woman's job."

Cleaning, she believes, has gotten a bad name. "I think it feels like drudgery to people who are made to do it, or remember the status given to it in an older day. I simply, profoundly disagree with that."

In her home, Mendelson says her husband is much neater and a better organizer, so he takes the lead in those areas. He also washes the dishes, which he enjoys but she doesn't.

She, on the other hand, likes ironing, vacuuming, and scrubbing. Clean floors are a priority.

But how does Mendelson lift the burden from housework?

"If you have a system and cleaning is done at certain times, then there is an end to it," Mendelson explains. "It comes in cycles. It's when you don't have a cycle or schedule that it's always shouting at you that it needs to be done. That means you have no sense of repose, no peace of mind. That's where some of those bad attitudes come from."

Children, Mendelson believes, can be brought into the housekeeping circle. They are often eager to imitate the very routines that adults consider work - be it sweeping or cooking. This enthusiasm shouldn't be stifled. "It takes patience, and you have to tolerate some messiness and being ineffectual," she says.

Beyond a willingness to let children take part, though, she believes parents themselves must approach the work with an unlabored sense. "If your children see that you respect and are cheerful about [housework], they are going to say, 'This is pretty good stuff.' My son respects it."

Mendelson expresses concern about households where working parents tuck day-care-raised children in bed but do little else, while attempting to make a better life for their families by working.

"What is [the point of] that job?" she asks. "The consummatory experiences are in the home - the affection, the reward, the contemplation, the education. If you want to have a public life that is good and respects people, you have to have a private life that preserves the sources of that."

In fact, while she's not opposed to getting outside help, too little involvement of one's own impersonalizes the environment, making it feel more "hotel-like." The home can feel deserted, and tossing soft cushions on overstuffed furniture doesn't make it feel any warmer.

"A lot of people who are very hungry for a feeling of home," she says, "try to go for it by buying country furniture or by doing crafts." Up to a point, she says, those are fine, but they don't substitute for a real sense of home.

So, what conveys that feeling?

"A lived-in quality," Mendelson says. "The sense that activities are going on, that people are reading, making music, playing games, cooking meals, having friends in. These things leave their traces. There's an orderliness with signs of live action. That seems like a vibrant home feeling to me."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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