Last summer we taught our kids how to cook. This summer, I’m teaching them how to clean.
We’ve been away from home for four weeks. We camped, we visited family in Georgia and Florida, we vacationed on a Gulf beach, and the kids and I traveled north to Charlottesville to visit my childhood girlfriends and their kids. In the middle of all of this, I interviewed for a dream job, was asked to perform a sample project, and will be continuing the interview process over the next few weeks.
And what have I been thinking about the whole time? Our entire vacation I wondered: How am I going to clean the house if I’m working full-time?
When I first started thinking about re-entering the workforce, I started tracking my hours in my role as stay-at-home mom. I discovered I spend about 15-18 hours a week on writing and my blogs and about 30 hours a week on my job as CEO of the household. If I add 40 hours a week for a job, plus time for sleeping, eating, showering, and relaxing with the family, my brain short circuits and I start doing robot arms: Does not compute! Does not compute!
On vacation, I spent a lot of time strategizing how to make it work. My mental health requires a clean home. In college I could not study until my room was spotless, and I know that in order to focus on my work I will need a tidy, clean workspace. My first thought was to hire a housekeeper, but then my husband said, “Why don’t we pay the kids?”
As (I’ve heard) Sheryl Sandberg suggests in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, it takes teamwork for women to succeed in the work force. Just as traditionally it took a spouse at home taking care of the household for men to succeed in their careers, it takes a supportive spouse – and family – for women to succeed as well. None of us can do it alone. So after my husband volunteered the kids (and himself) to help take on the jobs that were once mine, I formulated a plan:
I first made a list of all the chores:
- meal planning, grocery shopping
- budget, paying bills, reconciling bank account
- clean kitchen (every other week)
- laundry Monday & Thursday
- empty bathroom and kitchen garbage cans
- take trash to curb on Thursdays
- take recycling to bin periodically
- take recycling to curb on Thursdays
- sweep and mop
- clean mirrors and windows
- clean bathrooms
- change and launder linens
- sweep & weed back deck
I assigned permanent jobs to each of us according to our physical locations (I hope to be working from home so laundry is mine), mental or physical ability (the kids can’t manage the budget, and our vacuum is too heavy for them), and time constraints (garbage duties are quick for the kids when school and sports are in session) and then split the remaining chores among the four of us on a rotating schedule. For example, my chores this week are to change sheets and towels and to sweep the back deck. Next week my chore will be to sweep and mop.
When we talked to the kids about how we’d need help with housework if I re-enter the workforce, and especially when we told them that when I start earning again, they will start earning, too – they will get a bump in allowance – they were all about me getting a job. Surprisingly, they were all about the extra chores, too. As our 10 year-old son and I bobbed in the Gulf of Mexico, talking about financial planning and matching funds if they chose to put money in long-term savings, he asked “Hey Mom? Do you think sometimes we could do extra chores to earn screen time instead of money? If I buy a new game it’s always sad that I don’t have much time to play it.”
Great idea, little dude. Productivity deserves rewards. Besides, that’s one more opportunity to free up time for their Dad and me, and one more chance to teach the kids how to manage a household.
On our drive home from Florida, I scribbled notes in my composition book: how to scrub a toilet, how to sweep, how to mop a floor, how to sort and wash laundry. When we returned home, while sandy shorts and tee-shirts tumbled in the dryer, I wrote a housekeeping manual. I punched holes in the tutorials and put the pages in a leftover school folder. And on the one full day at home between Florida and Charlottesville, I told the kids, “Grab those cleaning caddies from the laundry room and bring them up to our bathroom. With cleaning, we start at the top and move down.”
Our son said, “I’ve got bathrooms the first week, so can you show me how to do that?”
He read the instructions out loud then started with one bathroom while our daughter started with another. They scrubbed and sprayed and wiped and rinsed while I stood by to answer questions and demonstrate technique. They fought over who got to try laundry first, and took turns with the glass cleaner so they’d both get an opportunity to squirt mirrors and windows. They struggled with carrying the mop bucket up and down the stairs and with keeping the mop over the bucket while they wrung it out, but they did it all, and our house was clean when they finished. They studied the chart, smiling over all the chores they now knew how to do, checking the *asterisked parent chores to see what extra jobs they could do to earn screen time.
The next day, before we left for Charlottesville, when the sun was shining and the kids were bored, our daughter came up to me and asked, “Hey Mom? Can I wash your car?”
And I said, Yes ma’am, you sure can. I’ll be over here at the beer table. Reveling.
The cleaning caddy is one of my happiness containers, especially now that our kids are carrying it.