Finding the Joy in Cleaning

I stare down at the clothes on the floor. The clean clothes that I’ve just finished washing, drying, folding, and stacking in neat piles on the bed. I was out of the room for three minutes, and returned to find them scattered on the carpet like confetti.

The muscles across my shoulders tense, and I force myself to take a couple of deep breaths before I look at 4-year-old Big Brother. He’s smiling proudly at me. “Look, Mum! Now you get to start all over again!”

I bite back the first few retorts that threaten to spew from my mouth. I take a couple more deep breaths. And when I’m sure that my answer isn’t going to contain any obscenities, I speak. “I just finished folding that washing, Big Brother. I really didn’t want to start all over again.”

His smile fades slowly, reminding me of the disappearing grin of the Cheshire Cat. “But you like cleaning,” he says, a plaintive note in his voice now.

“No,” I say with a weary smile. “I really don’t.”

I start picking up clothes and putting them back on the bed to be re-folded.

Big Brother thinks about this for a minute, a variety of expressions flickering across his little face. Finally he settles on confusion. “But you’re always cleaning,” he says.

I give him a smile and ruffle his hair. “Sometimes grown-ups have to do things we don’t like doing.”

He frowns even harder. “Why?”

Why? Why? Why? The question reverberates through my mind as I try to frame an answer that will make sense to him. While I’d like to answer with my own mother’s favourite go-to answer (“Just because.”) I remember how unfulfilling that was when I all I wanted to do was understand the world around me. So I cast about desperately for the answer.

Because someone has to do it. Because cleaning is important. Because the cleaning has to be done. Because… Because… Because…

Every answer I come up with is the truth, but also inherently flawed. I realise I don’t really have an answer. Yes, clothes need to be washed. But they’re still clean if you throw them into the drawer unfolded. So why do I spend so much time folding and ironing? And how do I explain my reasons to a 4-year-old boy who thinks mud is the latest in fashion?

So I don’t answer. I say, “I don’t know. I’ll think about it and then let you know.”

He’s satisfied with this answer for the moment, and runs off to cause havoc elsewhere, while I ponder the question. I carefully fold and stack the clothes, and then put them away in their respective places. Then I go outside to sweep the back deck and footpaths.

Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.

The gentle rhythm of the broom brushing back and forth lulls me into an almost meditative state. I hear the bird calls from the trees around the house. I feel the breeze through my hair and the sun on my skin. I relax into the repetitive motion.

Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.

And it occurs to me that I’m enjoying the moment. I’m enjoying the brief respite from my son’s chattering and my baby’s crying. I’m enjoying the great outdoors. I’m enjoying the simple exercise. I’m enjoying the sense of accomplishment and completion that comes with a job well done.

I feel that same sense of accomplishment and pleasure when I turn a pile of tangled, dirty, smelly fabric into a neat pile of lavender-scented clothing. And when I turn a haphazard mess of empty, food-marked dishes into neatly stacked cutlery, crockery and glassware. And when I survey the chaos of half a dozen upended toy-boxes, and turn the mess into a neatly ordered array of toys, ready for the next day’s assault.

It’s a bit like magic. (Look, there’s nothing up my sleeve!)

It’s a bit like…

It’s a bit like…. I like cleaning.

Just a bit.

I like the simple task of turning chaos into order, mess into magnificence, dirty into clean. I like the rhythmic nature of cleaning that lets my mind wander away from reality and dwell in a happy place where problems are made of cotton candy and money grows on trees. I like the sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of a day’s work, and the pleasure I get in knowing that I’ve done something important — even if it’s only important to me.

Now, let me make one thing clear. The sight of a pile of dirty dishes, or mud-stained underwear (it’s definitely mud, right?), or building blocks throughout the house does not fill me with joy. But….


But if I choose to stop hating the housework; If I choose to find the pleasure hidden behind the mundanity, then I can find the joy in cleaning.

My sweeping is done.

My broom is silent.

I go back to my son, and I say to him, “Sometimes I do like cleaning. But sometimes I like to do other things, too.”

And he nods and smiles at me, as though I’ve just understood the secret to the universe.

Something he was clearly born knowing.


Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

13 responses to “Finding the Joy in Cleaning

  1. I love cleaning. I love the satisfaction it gives me. I love that my husband is goign to come home to good smells and calmness and anyone can stop by unexpectedly and though I may look like hell my house looks perfect.

  2. Momma Be Thy Name

    I like cleaning, too. Shhh. Don’t tell anybody.

  3. “He’s satisfied with this answer for the moment, and runs off to cause havoc elsewhere”

    Hey, I used that phrase (or one very much like it) myself in a story: “Ron had gone off to wreak havoc somewhere else.”

    Ron is female and older (12), but I guess it’s a pretty universal feeling about children when we can’t see what they’re getting up to. 🙂

    (And, no, I don’t like cleaning.)

    • Yeah, pretty much. Although after reading what I have of Ron, I can’t really imagine her causing too much havoc. She seems so sensible.

      • You’re right. she is sensible (far more than most kids her age), but she gives the appearance of being feral, and that phrase comes from the story right after she was adopted, when her new parents didn’t know her very well yet (and, actually, she doesn’t go off at all; she sticks around, in hiding, because she knows they’ll need her soon — which illustrates your point).

  4. For me its all about control in an uncertain time. You capture the mayhem and mangle it into order. The achievement may only last a fleeting moment but it feels good. I don’t like the way housework saps up time. But there is nothing as satisfying as looking at a job well done. Thats the thing about housework its very visible (to you maybe not the hubster and kids) A lot of paid work does not give any sense of satisfaction finishing a report does not have the whiff of wood polish.

    • “Thats the thing about housework its very visible (to you maybe not the hubster and kids)”

      That is so true. I love looking around and seeing how much I’ve done, even though it often seems like I’m the only person in the world who appreciates, or notices, that there is no dust on the bookshelves.

  5. This is so true. All of it. And I love how you always explain everything to Big Brother…..I’ve done that with the twins since they were supposedly too little to understand. I love cleaning. I love the sight of cleanliness. I just sometimes would rather be doing something else. Perfect.

  6. Love this, Jo. I’ve had similar moments with my 4-year-old after she has gleefully tossed my folded piles on the floor. I hope to channel some of your cleaning zen today when I try, yet again, to make sense out of our living room, which didn’t fare very well in the pre-bedtime hours last night.

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