Mere days before Christmas, a friend from church was mopping the floor in her house. This seemingly routine activity yielded results that were anything but routine. She slipped and fell, injuring one leg so severely that a previously scheduled knee replacement on the other leg had to be postponed indefinitely. Had this been an isolated incident, I would not have thought further of it, other than feeling sad for my friend. But as it happens, another friend had a similar injury this past summer—and from the same activity. What if housekeeping, and especially cleaning, is more dangerous than we think?

As it happens, real data exist on this issue. In 2011, an extensive study of spring-cleaning practices in Iran concluded that:

The incidence of spring cleaning related injuries is high enough to raise concern in health system authorities. It could be estimated that about 23,927 to 38,283 persons get injured during the spring cleaning in Tehran at the beginning of every Persian new year. In addition, about 8,773-18,344 of these cases are expected to be severe enough to lead to medical attention (considering 7,975,679 as the population of Tehran at the time of study). Improving awareness of families, especially young women, regarding the scope and importance of spring cleaning safety can be suggested as the first population-based strategy to decrease the incidence of these injuries.

Housekeeping, it seems, whether done in preparation for Christmas or the coming of spring or mid-summer, is dangerous. Really, in any season, housekeeping as an activity tends to verge on unhinged—both in its aims of restoring order in the chaotic world and in encouraging otherwise perfectly reasonable people to engage in such unreasonable activities as climbing the roof to sweep it or hang Christmas decorations, standing on precarious ladders to dust chandeliers that hang many feet off the ground, cleaning base boards that no one would ever examine up close, and washing floors so thoroughly as to make them shine—and turn them into ice skating rinks in the process to boot. Unhinged, for sure.

Perhaps Marilynne Robinson got it right in her novel by this very title—Housekeeping. There, we follow generations of women in the same family unraveling, becoming more and more unhinged. Over the course of the novel, we see their mental slipping through their daily acts of keeping house. Is it just a saga of one family’s struggles with poverty, depression, and mental illness? Or could housekeeping have the potential to bring out the same instability from any of us, given the right circumstances, the right cleaning supplies, and just enough free time or Instagram inspiration to think up elaborate cleaning schemes?

An activity that fosters the strange, the bizarre, the mentally not-all-there, I contend that taking care of the home, day in, day out, is the aspect of creation care most likely to bring out the bizarre tendencies in us all. Perhaps it is because this is an aspect of creation care that is not quite creation care, even as we deceive ourselves thinking that it sort of is. We almost forget, while dusting, mopping, scraping, that while God created the natural world, He did not create our modern homes and lifestyles—we have done that to ourselves, using materials from the natural world or inspired by it. In taking care of our homes, molding them by daily care into the perfectly sanitized bubbles of magazine-cover perfection that we would like them to be, we’re playing at a kind of creation care that is entirely false. We are as deceived as the spiders who desperately try to move into the our nooks and crannies, mistaking our homes for the environment in which they were originally meant to dwell.

Still, on we go, the rhythms of housekeeping rolling as they will. Sweep the floor. Throw in a load of laundry. Unload the dishwasher. Make breakfast. Clean up breakfast. The snack requests just keep coming. Trip over a toy someone (I know who you are!) left on the floor, and narrowly avoid injury by falling awkwardly on the hardwood, slick under the gripless tread of sock feet. Could be worse. Decades ago, my mother stepped on the debris from a toy car that someone (she knew who it was too!) had thoughtfully disassembled and left on the floor. The metal axle that used to hold the tiny wheels together punctured her foot all the way through like a nail. Crucifixion of sorts, it seems, can be the result of parenting small children and of carrying out the daily work of housekeeping associated with that.

For a variety of reasons, housekeeping is increasingly politicized as stay-at-home mothers are often looked down upon. Only someone unhinged would stay home and embrace such housekeeping full time, right? Such has been the assumption behind the proposals from legislators like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, in advocating for childcare subsidies that would allow both parents in each family to work full-time instead of caring for young children. Ivana D. Greco, former attorney and writer on the history and policy of homemaking, has pointed out that these policies leave out the possibility of parents caring for their own children.

Forget housekeeping, such measures shout. You can do it on the weekends or in the rare margins of your days. It’s all optional anyway. Besides, not like you’re ever at your house to do any of this said housekeeping if you are working full-time outside the home and then chauffeuring kids to activity after activity all afternoon and evening. As I imagine that alternate life my family could have, I am reminded that sometimes it is in considering the absence of something that we see its true value. Housekeeping presumes having a house to keep, and that is a gift.

As I contemplate that possibility of missing the Daily Unhinged™ in all of its wildness, I feel overcome with emotion. It could be the post-holidays blues or the typical parental sleep deprivation talking, but I think it’s more. It’s the tug of heart at beholding this little girl, lying on the living room floor, coloring a book. This elementary schooler, listening to an audiobook while working on a puzzle, taking up the half of the living room floor that his sister has left uncluttered so far today. Yes, there are cheerios all over the kitchen floor, because the two cannot eat a bowl of them for breakfast without scattering some everywhere. I guess it’s time to sweep. Again. And then again. But at least I’m wiser now, having learned from the examples of friends. No more mopping. We can embrace the gentler side of housekeeping. Besides, if you leave be those spiders in the corners, they might yet catch some other bugs for you, performing an essential service.

But I still hate unloading the dishwasher.

Image credit: Katsushika Hokusai

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Nadya Williams
Nadya Williams grew up in Russia and Israel, and after thirteen years in Georgia is now a resident of Ohio. She is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church (Zondervan Academic, 2023) and Mothers, Children, and the Body Politic: Ancient Christianity and the Recovery of Human Dignity (forthcoming IVP Academic, October 2024). Her newest book project, Christians Reading Pagans, a guide for Christians on reading the pagan Greco-Roman Classics, is under contract at Zondervan Academic. Along with her husband, Dan, she gets to experience the joys, frustrations, and tribulations of homeschooling their children.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this for this thoughtful piece. I’m 67, and our children have been gone for twenty years and still the housework does not seem to have diminished much. The older I get, the more I resent it for keeping me away from my painting/drawing practice. That being said, for me it is not so much about cleanliness, but rather Beauty (see Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space”). The beauty of a well-kept space can make the difference between a place where we park our bodies and a place that is a sanctuary for body and psyche. I think that your idea of not mopping anymore (or hardly ever) would fit in with the work of keeping Beauty alive without too much unnecessary toil.

  2. This was lovely, and so gently encouraging. When I was working full-time as a librarian (which I loved!) I would daydream about vacuuming and making zucchini bread. Now that that’s my reality (when not homeschooling four kids), I need reminders that this is chosen and beautiful and right, at least for this season. Thank you.

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