Another month is here, which means it is time for a new post on Real Simple. (Longtime readers know I have a thing with this magazine. I believe it perfectly captures the modern, upper-middle-class 35- to 45-year-old woman zeitgeist. However, I often find this zeitgeist incredibly funny).
The article for discussion this month is called “How to live with a messy person and not go insane.” There is a little line noting that one could add “or a neat freak” — as in how one might live with a neat freak and not go insane. But it is assumed that the reader of Real Simple is the neat one in her relationship. Indeed, editor Kristin van Ogtrop discusses this in her monthly editor note, which specifies that “it takes a certain kind of neat freak…to work at Real Simple.” They have discussions about husbands who do not put the top back on the toothpaste because “we at Real Simple know that whether a husband puts the cap back on the toothpaste often has a disproportionately big impact on our day-to-day. Because a toothpaste cap left lying next to the tube leads to a feeling, and that feeling might be that your whole life is out of control.”
Um, OK. I do not have this feeling. I have posted before that I do not believe my cupboard is a metaphor for life. However, that philosophy is out there, and writer Jancee Dunn explores it at length in an article on how she and her husband have tried to navigate their differences of opinion on housekeeping.
Thankfully, Real Simple had hubby Tom annotate the article. I quite liked Tom. Jancee writes that if it were up to her, she would “live in a pristine, minimalist dwelling.” Tom notes that there is an easy way to achieve that dream: “By committing a crime and going to live in a jail cell.” Jancee frets that she is “the sort of twitchy person who leaps up before dinner is over to start cleaning.” She cannot fall asleep until she feels that the house is perfect. Tom notes that “I have a pretty low bar for the house being perfect: The carbon monoxide alarm is quiet,” and nothing is making him itch.
Indeed, as the article went on, my sympathy for Tom grew. Jancee patrolled their apartment looking for anything in the waste baskets so she could empty them. Tom does the laundry, but not as frequently as Jancee would like, which I imagine would be hourly. The organization experts have to convince her that it is no crime that her husband has stacks of paper on his desk. It is his desk, his organization system.
The good news is that Jancee comes to see that this philosophy toward life, “let it soak,” is not a bad one. I would venture that it may be one of the lesser-sung secrets of the most productive people. In I Know How She Does It, the range of hours spent on housekeeping and errands was 2 to 25. This is quite a difference. In an extra 23 hours a week, you can work more (and thus advance your career), and spend more time interacting with your kids, exercise, read, volunteer, mentor worthy people, and generally enjoy yourself.
But it is not just about productivity. I think there is an important point here on gender relations and housework, which I have been thinking about since writing my Fast Company article on The Second Shift (please go read and share this essay if you have not yet — my ability to keep writing such pieces hinges on people reading them, and this one is on the low side right now).
A 2008 analysis of how married parents spend their time found that in 2-income couples, mom does 0.69 hours more of housework daily. That is about 42 minutes. I am quite sure that Jancee was doing at least 42 more minutes of housework daily than Tom. But is that a second shift she should feel indignant about, or is that preference? After all, Tom was doing the laundry. He was doing the dishes — just in a longer time frame than his wife wanted. If Jancee is patrolling the house, looking for anything in the wastebaskets, while Tom is watching TV, is that because he is a lazy man shirking the second shift, or is something else going on? Not all housework needs to be done. Sometimes the solution to the second shift is not that the guy should start doing more.
In my speeches, I have a line that always gets a laugh. I talk about ignoring, minimizing, and outsourcing. “People say Laura, it costs money to outsource household chores! Which is true. But it does not cost anything to lower your standards.”
My husband and I have not reached what I would say is a satisfied equilibrium on the childcare front. However, I generally do not feel like I am doing a lot more housework than he is. We outsource a lot of it, a privilege to be sure, but something most Real Simple readers could do. My motto: If you can afford $400 linen pants, you can afford a housekeeper. But also, I am fine with doing something fun even if the house is messy. I do not twitch. Sure, I would like to have a clean house, and often I do. But I will not make relaxing and enjoying myself contingent on that happening. Housework does not keep me from having leisure time because I prioritize leisure time. I think that is often as much the solution to the second shift as anything else.
In other news: I am writing a piece on “successful people who work 40 hours a week.” I would love to hear from people who work reasonable hours in unreasonable fields. As always, you can email me: lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.