Home Comforts -- a rant/review

There are several things in life that I am just not cut out for. That, to say the least, do not come naturally to me, that are a constant struggle for me, and that I find sometimes difficult and the rest of the time defeating. One of these things is motherhood, and another is housekeeping. My deficiencies in motherhood, I am sure, will be the subject of many future Thoughts for Thursday posts (just skip Thursdays, there's a thought for ya,) but today I have a book to review for you.

Let me tell you how this went down. I was ordering some Weet-bix online. American cereal manufacturers seem to only be able to produce cereals that are 99% sugar or 99% cardboard, and nothing in between. Weet-bix is one of the most perfect breakfast cereals ever. You can eat it crunchy, mushy, hot, cold, sweet, as-a-snack-with-butter...it's an ideal baby food mushed up with a bit of warm milk. In Australia, you can get it in nice big kilo boxes, in several different brands, and it's one of the most economical cereals out there.

Here, you can sometimes get Weet-bix in the natural-foods section of some stores, for somewhere between $5 - 6 a box (1 lb).

I searched Amazon, and found a six-pack of boxes for the relatively cheap price of $3.90 per box, which was close to-- but not quite --getting me free shipping. So, I decided to order a book to push me over that free-shipping cost line.

I saw this book, Home Comforts, by Cheryl Mendelson, briefly discussed in positive terms on someone else's blog. A blog I like to read. Which I can't find now, so if you have seen it, and know which blog I'm talking about, please remind me.

I admit, I was suckered in by the title. Home Comforts. Because that is a big area of confusion for me. I want to have a comfortable, homey, nurturing home. Which is clean and orderly and organized. But I can't seem to make the two ideals co-exist to my satisfaction. So, knowing from the blog that this was a book about keeping house, and presuming from the title of the book, that it was keeping house in such a way as to provide Comforts, well...I bought it.

I've tried a lot of different home cleaning plans, such as Flylady and others. This is because I have no real idea of How Much Is Enough vs. How Much Is Expected vs. How Much Is Ideal vs. How Much Is Realistic With a Large Family vs. How Much More Work Does a Large Family Really Create vs. Do I Still Get to Do Anything Else or Is My Life Over; with a little of How Do You Clean That Anyway?

And, okay, I have six children including a newborn who are home 24/7, and amongst other things, need to be fed, clothed, and schooled. By me. In a very large and slightly broken house with a very large and slightly out-of-control yard. I realize this would be challenging for most people; at least I hope so, and don't burst my bubble if you don't agree, because I am fragile here, okay.

So, the book. Started out great. Written by a lawyer with slightly feminist leanings who was raised in a big family on a farm. And who now (and I should have realized at this point that things were about to go awry) lives in New York with her second husband, (who, unlike Husband #1, is able to put up with her domestic excesses) and her one non-homeschooled-child in her fully-mod-conned apartment. Ahem. (Put the book DOWN, Moey, put it DOWN...) Okay, so I gave her the benefit of the initial doubt because she works. And that puts her out of the house for a good portion of her day, which necessitates that she provides Home Comforts in the time that she has at home, which I thought probably evens the playing field between us. Right?

In the introduction, Ms Mendelson makes some excellent points and observations. Here she summarizes what I assumed she would be addressing in this book:

This sense of being at home is important to everyone's well-being. If you do not get enough of it, your happiness, resilience, energy, humor, and courage will decrease. It is a complex thing, an amalgam. In part, it is a sense of having special rights, dignities, and entitlements -- and these are legal realities, not just emotional states. It includes familiarity, warmth, affection, and a conviction of security. Being at home feels safe; you have a sense of relief whenever you come home and close the door behind you, reduced fear of social and emotional dangers as well as of physical ones. When you are home, you can let down your guard and take off your mask. Home is the one place in the world where you are safe from feeling put down or out, unentitled, or unwanted. It's where you belong, or, as the poet said, the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Coming home is your major restorative in life.

So, her prescription for accomplishing the "sense of home" is laid out a few paragraphs later, thusly:

What really does work to increase the feeling of having a home and its comforts is housekeeping. Housekeeping creates cleanliness, order, regularity, beauty, the conditions for health and safety, and a good place to do and feel all the things you wish and need to do and feel in your home.

And her views on the defense and rigors of housekeeping:

No one is too superior or intelligent to care for hearth and home. Domesticity does not take time or effort but helps save both. It is just an orientation that gives you a sixth sense about the place you live in, and helps you keep it running with the same kind of unconscious and effortless actions that keep you from falling when you walk down stairs.
Seen from the outside, housework can look like a Sisyphean task that gives you no sense of reward or completion. Yet housekeeping actually offers more opportunities for savoring achievement than almost any other work I can think of.
Housekeeping requires knowledge and intelligence as well, the kind that is complex, not simple, and combines intellect, intuition, and feelings....The ability to split your attention in several ways and stay calm is essential. You need to exercise creative intelligence to solve problems and devise solutions: efficiency measures that save money or time; psychological or social measures to improve cooperation; steps to improve physical comfort; analyses of why and how some routines break down. Housekeeping comprises the ability to find, evaluate, and use information about nutrition, cooking, chemistry and biology, health, comfort, laundry, cleaning and safety. Above all, housekeeping must be intelligent so that it can be empathetic, for empathy is the form of intelligence that creates the feeling of home.

All good, yes? We'd agree that yes, housekeeping looks like a Sisyphean task "from the outside," (and from the inside too, from my perspective, but I expect at this point that our intelligent, educated, sympathetic author is going to anticipate and remedy this perspective in the following chapters.) We would also agree that housekeeping could be the primary way in which we create the environment for ourselves and our families; and naturally, especially for those of us who are thoroughly bounded by our home duties, we like to feel that the activities which require all of our time and energy also afford us the dignity of the acknowledgment of some intelligence. True?

Warning flags should have popped up, then, at this point in the introduction:

At a minimum, we should avoid thinking that time spent on our homes is wasted time, or that our goal should always be to reduce the time and effort we spend on them. Much housework is discretionary, but not all housework is. Minimum standards of cleanliness and order are inescapable necessities for health and happiness. It is up to each of us how to choose the dimensions of "necessary" in our own case.

Now, I do need to clarify at this point that I have only read the first, oh, tenth of this 850-page manual. There is only so much angst one can have in one day, and there are only so many days in one's natural lifespan, so, this book may just have too many pages for me to be able to read it all *and* deal with the consequences, before I die.

A few pages into the second chapter, this little paragraph jumped out at me:

In my experience, the most common cause of dislike of housework is the feeling that the work is never done, that it never gives a sense of satisfaction, completion, and repose.

Yes, yes! Exactly. There is never the reward of a job well done. Even if your paid job is ongoing, at some point in the day, you pack up and go home. At some point, even if your employer doesn't sing your praises, your time spent is validated with a paycheck. There is a stopping point, and there is a reward system built into paid employment. Generally, there is also laid out for you a certain set of expectations, for which you will be respected if you overachieve, rewarded with a paycheck if you meet, and be corrected (or fired) if you fail. If the expectations are too high for the rewards, you look for other employment -- that's your prerogative.

No one in their right mind fires the mother housekeeper, and goodness knows, she can't quit.

It's said that defining the problem is half the solution. So Ms Mendolson has half the solution in the first 15 pages, and can't find the other half in the remaining 840+ (judging from the chapters I've read so far). I began to realize this was the case when I read the following sentence:

You need different goals for ordinary times and times of illness, stress, company, new babies, long working hours, or other interruptions of your home routine. People with large houses, many children or guests, active households, or invalid parents will have to spread themselves more thinly and should not expect to be able to keep house like the Joneses [or the Mendelsons]. Also, the fewer your resources of all kinds -- money, help, appliances, skills, time -- the more modest will be the level of housekeeping you can realistically hope for.

All at once I realized that Mendelson's "ordinary times" are nothing, and in no way, like the "ordinary times" I experience. In a (large) house filled with eight people, half of which were born in the last five years, what are the chances that I will experience any length of time at all without a baby, (plus a toddler, preschooler, kindergartner, and two middle schoolers), or without being ill myself or needing to take care of an ill person, or have a house size that is managable, or looking after 8 sets of personal belongings, endless dishes and laundry, school supplies, shopping, storage, etc? These aren't the interruptions to my routine, they ARE my routine. And these "interruptions" are the very ones I'm trying my darndest to make Home Comforts FOR.


Well, having given her the benefit of the doubt so far, I thought I would at least see what she suggested adding into a housekeeping routine, since it is so important and a foundation for the book itself.

Her Daily list was nothing too much out of the ordinary, with the exception that I would switch out her suggestion of "cleaning sinks and tubs after use (including drains and traps)" with "wash, dry, fold, and put away several loads of laundry and keep up with the ironing or you'll be doing it in an 8-hour session like last time" and "oversee schooling for four children while breastfeeding the baby and keeping the toddler from climbing the bookshelves" and "clean the high chair, the floor around the high chair, and the walls behind the high chair after each meal."

It's the weekly list that I take issue with. Changing the bed linens twice weekly? For eight? Vacuum the upholstered furniture and lampshades? Wipe the fingerprints and smears off everything (weekly is not enough for this in our house). Wash all washable floors (ditto). Wash down entire bathroom: toilet, sink, tub, wall tiles, toothbrush holders and all fixtures, cabinets, mirror, floor (again: we have four fully-utilized bathrooms so this is a full day's work right here, plus, we wipe down the toilets and sinks daily anyhow.) Clean air-conditioner filters and humidifiers according to manufacturer's recommendations. (no humidifiers, and what is an air-conditioning filter, where is it, and why clean it weekly, exactly?)

Here is a telling statement:

In many respects, the old routine no longer makes much sense. Sewing and baking are anachronisms. Those of us who still bake and sew do it for fun and count it as a leisure activity. Many people do little or no ironing. The number of major household chores [referring to laundering, ironing, sewing, marketing, cleaning and baking] has been reduced to three, perhaps three and a half, and some of these, especially laundering, do not take anywhere near the time or effort they used to.

Begging your pardon, Ms Mendelson, but many of us out there do, indeed, bake, sew, and iron, and we do it not for reasons of enjoyment but for health and economy and because we have eight mouths to feed, and eight bodies to clothe, seven of whom are home all day, every day, making all sorts of messes while we are doing it. If I did laundry once weekly, as you suggest, I would indeed spend the entire day doing it. Ditto the ironing, ditto everything else. Add in schooling, and you have a housework schedule that either needs simplifying (which you dis-recommended earlier) or is not humanly able to be accomplished.

The rest of the book, not to overly summarize, but because I really really have to go do other things and not keep sitting here blogging; is how to do every chore you've ever thought of, and some you haven't, and to emphasize the dire importance of it all, and somehow still remain almost entirely irrelevant to the challenges I and most of the women I know, face as mothers trying to create a HOME and still have time to enjoy it and feel fulfilled in doing it, since there isn't time nor option for anything else.

My big question now: is this book merely physical and mental clutter or is there enough good reference info in the remaining hundreds of pages to justify the space it takes on my shelf, that could be utilized for school books? Will I ever find out? And who was the crazy blogger who posted about it previously? I need to make a comment!

And excerpts from a much better review (with a different perspective) than I have just given you, amongst others, is from the Amazon review section, by "A Customer" -- There's A Difference Between Homemaking and Housekeeping:

Basically, this is a book on how to do the work of a full-time housewife with the income from two prestigious, demanding careers. I think this shows that the author - not her dissatisfied readers - has some leftover feminist issues. All her disclaimers notwithstanding, the sheer heft and excessive wordiness of the book show that only major projects meet her standards for dignified work. She dismisses as frivolous any notion that creative activities, rather than cleaning and organizing, could form the fundamental basis of home life. Such mere "hobbies" as sewing and baking, she sniffs, can never substitute for gleaming floors and sanitized countertops. (Apparently while she was working on that philosophy degree she never came across a book called "Leisure, the Basis of Culture.") Several readers have rightly commented that her standards of cleanliness seem more appropriate for institutions than for a house. Indeed, the book's unspoken message seems to be that we should bring the level of organization and energy found in professional workplaces into the privacy of our homes. Sadly, the very structure of the book is a confession, painful to witness, of the author's unfinished business in the professional realm. Apparently she didn't quite cut it in her original academic vocation, so at this late date she makes up for it by weaving philosophical ramblings into her book on housekeeping, where they just take up space, offend some readers, and make the real info hard to find. Similarly with the legal profession and the several mostly irrelevant chapters on "legal issues" at the end of the book.

And that ends my Thoughts for this Thursday. Got guests coming in an hour, gotta go.
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