One morning at 6 AM, I tell Rebecca that she doesn’t have enough cat hair on her lollipop yet, and that I won’t wash it off (again) until she does. She’s not eating the lollipop, as far as I can tell, just using it to pick up cat hair.
Rebecca loves the drama of messes big and little, and she loves the idea that if you make a mess, it needs to be cleaned up. She pauses part way through finger-painting to wipe her hands off on a towel, then grabs the blue paint and rubs it into her smock.
Ted told me that Rebecca was playing with another toddler and tried to pour dirt in her hair. “No,” Ted said, “We don’t put dirt on other people’s heads. If you want to pour dirt on somebody’s head, it has to be your own head.” Rebecca spent the next fifteen minutes pouring dust over herself. “So her hair might be a little dirty,” he warned me.
We grinned at that story like we were getting away with something. Maybe we were, if parents are supposed to be the voice of broad social expectations–take a bath every day and so on. Some people are going to write us off as permissive parents, but we’re not going to enforce values that we don’t agree with. What’s going on here is that I’m trying to avoid making clean and unclean into part of a cosmic drama. I don’t want my horror to be what’s most interesting about making messes, and if Rebecca wants to play with the categories of good and bad, she can do it somewhere else.
When you make uncleanness the subject of horror, maybe kids get heartbroken when they fall in the mud. Maybe grownups get entrenched in fights against their houses, as if having a dirty house made them worse people. Now, it’s one thing to clean up because you enjoy the process, or because you’ve weighed your options and benefit from the results of order and sanitation enough to justify the time you spend. But it’s another thing when your sense of personal worth, or your ability to relax, or your ability to connect with other people depend on whether your house is clean and your clothes okay.
The problem is that no matter what you do, you and your house will keep getting dirty. Any sense of worth or control that you tie to your house’s cleanliness is constantly under threat, constantly in need of proving and shoring up. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in, and it disproportionately affects women. We’re more likely than men to feel that the state of our houses makes a statement about us. We’ve also been more carefully schooled in feeling vulnerable, and thus are more prone to anxiety when things fall out of order and control. Both lead to women doing more than their share of the housework, and resenting it–if cleaning is not really what they want to being doing with their time, but they have stakes in their house’s cleanliness that they can’t give up on. That’s what Laura Kipnis argues in The Female Thing, if I remember correctly. I read the book a little more than two years ago, back while I was pregnant with Rebecca and first starting to think hard about housework.
The idea that dirt is a symbolic hazard even more than a practical one is nothing new. I haven’t kept up on research about antibiotic resistant bacteria, allergies caused by exposure to too few germs, or health problems linked to artificial scents, but I’ve seen enough to think that women’s magazine standards of cleanliness may not be good for us.
And I’ve only done tangential reading in the history and anthropology of cleanliness, but I’ve seen enough to know that the symbolism around dirt is part of larger structures of meaning that help secure and naturalize class privilege: that being clean and presentable means being respectable, means being trustworthy and diligent and competent and nice, means having enough money to buy a big enough space to live clutter-free and to keep that space looking good. It’s also about control / shame of biological processes, turning what was three-dimensional and lively into a perfect two-dimensional photo shoot.
Nevertheless, when I read The Female Thing a couple years ago, I wondered about how Kipnis might be overstating some things, about whether most American women really feel all that anxious about dirt, or whether she might be over-relying on media imagery and missing other meaning systems in play on the ground. But now I’ve heard a lot more parents yelling about messes and dirt, and I can see how a toddler might gain a very deep sense that dirt and messes are Not Okay.
All of this is something I’d save my daughter from if I could.
That’s a tricky proposition, though. The simplest way to resist the dominant ideology would be simply refusing to clean, but that’s no good. As much as I don’t want Rebecca to develop a horror of dirt, she does need to have some values surrounding cleanliness. I don’t want her to be ostracized or infected by e. coli, and practically, we need to get her to limit her messes to what we can more or less clean up. Nor do I want to denounce cleaning as oppressive and unimportant work; I’ve already written about the dangers of denouncing our physicality and the work involved in supporting it. A lot of my life is given over to meeting our basic physical needs. If you count grocery shopping, cooking, and gardening as well as laundry and sweeping and picking up, I average 2-3 hours per day on housework, and often enough, it structures the whole day. If I devalue that, I’m going to get depressed.
So what do I do? I try to clean in a way that emphasizes process over end product. I put in my time and try not to worry too much about meeting standards I’ll resent. Focusing on the process instead of the result also helps me avoid getting into fights with Rebecca, because it means her messes aren’t setting me back from a particular goal, just giving me a new activity to work on.
But then, sooner or later, I find myself having an imaginary conversation with Ted, who’s complaining about the toys or other clutter on the floor–and often about things he wouldn’t really complain about–and I tell the imaginary Ted to bite me and to reassess the division of labor. (The amount of work I’m doing right now seems just about fair, but I think keeping the house to higher standards wouldn’t be.) Sooner or later, I find myself in real conversations with ugly undertones, when I suspect that people do think worse of me for not having a cleaner and better decorated house. And I spend much more time worrying about these things than I should, if I really thought the house weren’t a reflection of my worth as a woman and mother.
So who knows what I’m modeling for Rebecca. I’m not sure I’ve avoided teaching her a horror of mess, because I still use my parental power to make some things mandatory. Like washing your hair when there’s peanut butter in it: Getting the peanut butter out is more important than how Rebecca feels about it. On the other hand, if Rebecca at least doesn’t grow up with oppressively high standards of cleanliness, standards that will tax her heart or time or pocketbook or relationships with her housemates, then I’ve done my job well enough. Forget the clean rhetorical lines and ideological purity; real life is messier. Besides, even if Rebecca ultimately doesn’t share my values, maybe parenting her helps free me from the hegemonic voices that say I should keep the floor cleaner.
One afternoon in Rockefeller plaza, Rebecca dabs my face with red velvet cheesecake and Ted takes pictures of us like newlyweds. I wouldn’t say that messes are bad. I’d say that sometimes messes are exhilarating.