On the first-ever day my house was cleaned by a cleaning lady, I came home from work, opened the front door, took in the near-perfect lack of dust, inhaled crisp lemony Pine Sol and thought to myself, This must be like smoking crack. Now, I've never even seen crack, so I'm technically unqualified to compare its addictive quality with that of paying someone to disinfect your toilet. But in that moment, I couldn't imagine a time when I'd want to mop or dust or scrub my own bathtub ever again.
I was hooked.
But times and people change, and now, 14 years later, I've conquered my addiction and am "clean" again. The question is, will my house be clean, too?
Growing up, I'd never even heard the term "cleaning lady." The oldest girl with one younger brother, I lived with my divorced mom who sometimes worked two full-time jobs to keep us fed and pay the mortgage. Looking back, dusting and vacuuming seemed like as large a part of my world as the Disney Channel is of my daughter's.
When my husband and I hired Evelyn*, our first-born was an infant and I was working three days a week. She could get the job done about 10 times faster than we could, and to us, the expense was completely worth it. I stayed hooked after becoming a freelancer, through my eventual stay-at-home momhood and even Evelyn's retirement. (Enter Nora*, cleaning lady #2.)
Then, last year, I started to see my life differently, abandoning my acceptance of the humdrum day to day in exchange for a razor focus on my goals and dreams. Dreams to travel. Dreams to become a really good writer. And other dreams, too.
It's a wonder what a sense of purpose can do to your priorities.
When I finally made up my mind that what I truly wanted was possible, it became easy to identify things I didn't need that could be standing in my way. Once a new dress or magazine or Starbucks coffee gets the "unnecessary" label, I can usually turn away from it without regret.
Of course the lifestyle difference between having and not having a cleaning lady is much greater than the shift involved in saying ciao to the barista. But my husband and I had started to talk about making larger sacrifices. To my surprise, and probably his, I was the first to suggest we let Nora go. Each time I withdrew her payment from the bank, the idea grew in strength.
Could I have gone on the wagon and put myself in cleaning lady detox when my kids were younger? Well, perhaps. If I had been as inspired then to go after my dreams as I am now.
But I wasn't.
So I didn't.
But now I have not only dreams but two able-bodied youngsters, ages 14 and 11. I don't want them to feel as responsible for housekeeping as I did when I was their age, but I do want them to develop a sense of ownership of their immediate environment. When they call home from their future apartments, I'd rather talk about how their lives are going than the importance of vacuuming before you mop.
It also occurred to me that the four of us had never set out to accomplish any task as a family -- ever. Maybe the challenge of working together could help us develop a team-like bond.
Ooh, this was starting to feel like a great decision.
At least from the parental POV.
We broke the news to our kids a week ahead of time, warning them that the four of us would be cleaning together every Saturday. We would split the house in half, alternating each weekend between the upstairs and downstairs.
My husband and I knew we were asking more of our kids than we had in the past and expected some backlash. I also worried -- honestly expected -- that I would involuntarily trail them and my husband, perfecting their work.
So how did it go? Here are the big takeaways:
Hey! I surprised myself by being un-neurotic from the get-go, content to let the cleanliness levels my family managed on the floors and rugs and tables be sufficient (for the most part).
I remembered how much I enjoy cleaning. During my addict phase, I did clean my house occasionally. But supervising the entire workload, moving my body to scrub and mop, woke up some housework-induced endorphins that had been latent over the past 14 years.
As expected, my kids waged a counterattack. At one point (or three or eight), my daughter said, "I wish I wasn't born," and my son, upon being asked to mop the office floor, declared, "It's not sticky and there's no visible dirt," more than once. He was right.
But he mopped it anyway. And my daughter admitted she was proud of the shine on the living room furniture she polished.
In spite of these little victories, do I think our Cleaning Day was worthwhile, using a time-is-money sort of analysis?
Honestly, no. But even if we're "spending" more of our time than we would our money, I want those thousands of dollars in my own pocket.
And I want my kids to learn the value of working together to make our home comfortable and inviting, and to understand that luxury is not to be taken for granted. At least not in this family.
Am I looking forward to the next Cleaning Day? Uh-huh. It's worth about one-sixth the price of an airline ticket, one-third an overnight hotel stay or one-tenth the cost of a writing course.
And its value in teaching my kids some lessons in responsibility and in bringing our family together will be, I hope, priceless.
But for me, the greatest reward from Cleaning Day is its power to reaffirm my commitment to my goals and dreams. Each step I take invites further steps. Even the ones I take while pushing a vacuum cleaner.
*Not their real names.
This post was previously published by the author as "Cleaning Day: Mostly Different From 'Training Day,'" at www.myidealworldblog.com.