Originally published for Goodhousekeeping.com
Growing up, I noticed fairly quickly that my time spent "grounded" by my parents rarely ran full-term. I assumed it was due to my fantastic debating skills, but flash forward to when I had my own little ones and I realized it's because a child's punishment is often far more torturous on the parent. My kids are teenagers and I've often said to my family, "You don't realize how much I do around here. If I stopped, you wouldn't know how to manage!" However, I would never threaten something so horrendous as to actually stop cleaning, because that would only punish one person...me.
When GoodHousekeeping.com asked me to stop doing housework for two weeks, I was terrified. For starters, we're your typical, busy Midwestern family with two teenage sons and two dogs. My husband Alan is a tidy and fastidious civil engineer, and I am the proud owner of a Merry Maids office and the founder of the Don't Look Under the Rug blog. The two of us divide the chores (Alan washes dishes, cooks, and vacuums; while I handle laundry, grocery shopping, and monitoring general clutter) and the boys are expected to pick up after themselves. That said, I do feel I handle more than my fair share of housework after a day at the office.
I don't think my standards are unrealistic. I love things to be clean, but I also enjoy living in my home. We do have a mail pile and a "take it up the stairs" collection. So, eventually, I felt cautiously optimistic about taking a two-week hiatus from housework. My boys are well-behaved, helpful, and only slightly sloth-like when it comes to picking up after themselves — how bad could it be?
The Ground Rules
Going into this experiment, I decided that I didn't want to order the boys about the house. I was curious if they'd rise to the occasion. So, upfront, I decided to let things take a natural course with only minor "requests."
I also wanted my kids to start with a clean canvas, so before we started I went through the house and had it put together perfectly. I then gave everyone a refresher course on how to do laundry, use the dishwasher, the works. Andrew, my 15-year-old, created a sneaky laundry plan to "minimize" his workload. (He calculated that wearing each article of clothing two days in a row would keep him from having to use the washing machine.) Little things like that left me with a few concerns:
1. Stuff left in the front hallway
Alan cleans by relocating items rather than putting them away. After two weeks, I feared I would not be able to open the front door.
2. The bathrooms
Toothpaste residue on the sink is one of my biggest pet peeves, and I worried towels would be left on the floor.
3. Food in the boys' rooms
My sons have a bad habit of taking food upstairs and then leaving their plates there. I imagined not just clutter, but gross clutter.
I do the laundry because I need it to smell just right, be folded neatly, and put away immediately. This was my biggest pain point about the challenge.
Week 1: And So It Begins
The house was in order, the fridge was full, and dressers were packed with fresh clothes. But around day four and five, things began to build up. Andrew's tennis bag conspicuously lived by the front door. His logic was that leaving it there at 4 p.m. made total sense, since he'd return to tennis drills at 8 a.m.
Alan's first attempt at laundry was washing the blankets for our dogs, Louie and Ziggy. This, sadly, resulted in our washing machine being caked with enough beagle hair to knit a sweater. Luckily, Adam found the portavac and vacuumed it right out.
Our house was developing a fully lived-in look, and it was relaxing to not have to worry about monitoring it all. I began to wonder if I could get use to this somewhat cluttered, but relaxed state of living. But that feeling didn't last long.
The Worst Welcome Home
To wrap up our spring break, my boys and I spent a weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma for one of Andrew's tennis tournaments. The timing couldn't have been more perfect: The clutter and laundry piles were growing exponentially, so I needed a change of space.
Prior to heading out, Andrew decided to sort out his tennis bag. Unfortunately, he'd forgotten to pull his soaking wet gym clothes out of the grocery sacks he puts them in when he changes at the facility. I painfully watched as he dropped not one, not two, but three full bags to the floor and cut them open. An intense odor permeated the room. Thankfully, Andrew popped the offensive items into the washer, added soap and vinegar (a cleaning tip I had taught him) and started up the load. I asked my husband to please rotate the laundry while we were away.
Two days later I returned to what I'll call the "Welcome Home Fiasco." In our excitement to be home, we clamored through the laundry room and a large bag banged into the washer, popping the door open and revealing what had happened to Andrew's smelly clothes: For starters, I could tell Alan didn't put enough detergent and vinegar in the wash cycle. Worse, it had been sitting in a warm, airtight, moist space since we'd left. I have no words to describe the smell.
Once I got past my odorific entrance, I was happy to be home and thrilled when I entered the family room and saw Alan had folded the laundry from the dryer, giving the boys some clean clothes to wear to school on Monday — a definite plus.
Week 2: An Unfortunate Meltdown
Monday had us hitting the ground running. The boys had rinsed dishes and straightened their rooms slightly. I made a few cursory inspections of the bathrooms and discovered dirty clothes behind the door, but no toothpaste splatters so I happily noted it as manageable chaos.
Then came Tuesday. It was an exceptionally long day at work. It started early, ended late, and, quite frankly, I was tired. There was something about walking in the door and seeing the same mountain of laundry, bikes taking over the house, mail piling up, ten-day old clutter on the stairs, and boots by the foyer cabinet that just made me sad.
The laundry had infiltrated every room at this point. For a moment I wondered if the children even had clean clothes, or if they were walking around in a cloud of smell and dirt like Pig-Pen from Peanuts. I started to ponder if my kids were biding their time until I broke down and handled it for them. I felt overwhelmed with frustration and retreated to my room where I watched Billions while my brain worked out the dilemma.
I realized that going into this experiment, the cleaning duties I was most worried about were the ones that weren't out of hand — the toilet paper rolls were changed properly and the boys' bedrooms were surprisingly tidy. It was the things I usually tackle that were most out of control. Laundry is my thing, so nobody worried about the mountains of clothes in the common areas and only washed enough stuff to get by during the two-week period. They were leaving it for me to handle, which after all, was our family habit. Actually, when I thought about it, their usual responsibilities were in better shape than ever before.
The next day, I woke up with my nerves intact and had an epiphany: I loved not having to monitor my family's cleaning. Working full-time and having two teenagers in the house leaves less time than I would like for hanging out with them. Yes, I am lucky that I can frequently pick them up from school and we have nightly dinners together, but it's the rush and nagging that ruins many of our interactions. During the cleaning hiatus, I was able to relax and visit. Even if we were just watching a show in silence, we enjoyed each other's company.
As a result, the dynamic in the Bates home had changed — and I loved it. I was forced to allow myself some downtime. I survived a 3-foot-tall laundry pile. And as much as I had moments where I was disappointed in our home maintenance performance, I was also really proud of us. I now know if I give my kids clear expectations, they can deliver. Plus, I learned I want my Sunday nights back.
Will I let my home look like that again? No way. Will I let my children leave my nest feeling it is okay to completely walk past what they perceive to be someone else's chore pile without batting an eye? No way. But will I forego getting up in the middle of a family dinner to change the laundry in the future? Yes. And that was worth every single (messy) day.
Originally published for Goodhousekeeping.com