I’ve never had anyone, except maybe my mom, clean my house. Ironically, I never thought my house was clean enough to invite — and by “invite,” of course I mean “pay” — someone to clean it. But my hesitation also stemmed from a long heritage of women who clean their own homes.
I have vivid memories of my mom scrubbing the toilets and kitchen sink while my Navy dad was deployed. As I remember it, she did these things at odd times: late at night or early in the morning. Or maybe I just slept too much. Either way, I can still hear the way the sponge squeaked across the porcelain toilet bowl and the fumes (sorry, this was pre-green revolution) billowed out of the bathroom.
For the 12 years Dustin and I have been married, I’ve set aside one day every other week to clean our house, or, back in the day, apartment. Sometimes I do a big, deep clean. Sometimes I busy myself in the basement and act like I’m scrubbing the floors when actually I’m enjoying some peace and quiet and sipping a Diet Dr. Pepper.
What all this means: Dustin has not cleaned a toilet or bathtub in 12 years.
Our 800-square-foot apartment in San Diego, Ca. — the rent for which was more than our first mortgage — was easy to clean. There were only two rooms. We didn’t have any children. With each military move and new child, however, my cleaning routine became more complicated, my hide-in-the-basement charade more necessary. But I always had Dustin to take away the kids while I was busy cleaning — or not cleaning. And when he wasn’t there during his first deployments, our kids were small and not very messy.
This time, Dustin has left me with three boys who seem to go out of their way to step in mud. They wipe their hands on the front of their shirts. They are fascinated by the faces they can make while pressing their nose against the clean glass of our front windows.
Also, I’m in graduate school, we have a new puppy and I work.
The cleaning-every-other-week thing is not going so well.
One night, I noticed the bottom of the kids’ white socks were almost black. They hadn’t been outside. It was from our floor. The next day, a piece of paper was stuck to the kitchen table by a puddle of dried pancake syrup.
In a moment of desperation, I called around for referrals and hired someone to clean my house. I didn’t tell Dustin. Or my mom.
The children didn’t know what to make of this whole someone-else-cleaning-the-house-while-we’re-not-home business.
“What if the person plays with our Star Wars action figures?” one of them asked.
“I promise you she won’t.”
“What if she puts all my books in the wrong place?”
“She won’t because you’re going to pick them up the night before she gets here.”
Now the boys were really confused: We have to clean before someone comes into our house to… clean?
Ford, who is a miniature walking, talking Dustin, rejected the idea of a house cleaner on the grounds that it is unnecessary and expensive. But I don’t get manicures, I seldom go out to dinner and I buy my clothes on clearance. So Ford would have to make like his dad and pretend not to notice or care. He could roll his eyes and noisily exhale later from the comfort of a couch he didn’t have to vacuum.
I was nervous the day the house cleaner came. Would she think we live like slobs? Would she be repulsed by the boys’ bathroom? Would the bottom of her socks turn black?
It felt strange to have someone in our house while we weren’t there. But my worst fear was this: What if she forgot to come?
I walked up the sidewalk that afternoon like a kid coming downstairs on Christmas morning. Did Santa come? What did he bring me?
I opened the door and the smell of wood and floor cleaner filled my nose. It was so much more pleasant than the smell of dog and boys’ feet. I set down my books and got on my knees to hug the floor. It was so clean and shiny. I thought I would weep. The fingerprints on the windows were gone. The kitchen table was clean. She had even changed the bed sheets.
For the first time this deployment, I felt relaxed. When the boys came home I was free to visit with them. I went to bed on clean sheets.
As I falling asleep that night, cradled by the housework that someone else had done for me, I knew I had made a good decision. I felt liberated. Relaxed. Cared for. Come to think of it, I felt a lot like Dustin has probably felt every night for the last 12 years.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.