Cleanliness is godliness! This mantra taunts me from the side of a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap as I lie in the bath. I submerge myself in the water; at least I’m clean, I think. But a wave of guilt washes over me. I know the rest of my apartment is a mess that needs cleaning.
As much as I want to keep clean, tidiness evades me. When I was growing up, my mother (basically a Canadian Marie Kondo) would preach the benefits of a spotless home: If I kept tidy, I’d be able to find things easier. I’d be less distracted! I wouldn’t get mice! But I didn’t listen. Instead, I would pile clothes and books between my bed and the far wall of my room, hidden from view from the hallway. I can’t remember feeling guilty about being messy when I was a child — that came later in life.
Living alone, I can put off household chores for as long as I can stand the mess: Well-intentioned, I might fill up my sink with water to do the dishes. I feel the false sense of accomplishment, having hidden my dirty plates with suds. Sometimes I repeat this process for two or three days until I finally need a fork and am forced to do the thankless task of washing the dishes. My underwear drawer pulls out with suspicious ease — there’s nothing in the drawer. Begrudgingly, I acknowledge that today must be laundry day. If I’m lucky, I’ll remember to Windex the mirrors before guests arrive.
I have a maxim I repeat to myself, inspired by Simone de Beauvoir, when I get frustrated with the task of cleaning: Housework is the worst kind of work because it undoes itself. “Few tasks are more similar to the torment of Sisyphus than those of the housewife; day after day, one must wash dishes, dust furniture, mend clothes that will be dirty, dusty, and torn again,” writes de Beauvoir in her 1949 feminist tome The Second Sex. She continues: “The housewife wears herself out running on the spot; she does nothing; she only perpetuates the present; she never gains the sense that she is conquering a positive Good, but struggles indefinitely against Evil.”
It takes only a day for the boulder of housework to fall back down the mountain, needing to be pushed back up again. One day my apartment is meticulous, worthy of an Apartment Therapy shoot, and the next day the chaos is back without my realizing it had started.
When I first moved into my apartment, I bought a magnetic whiteboard for the fridge with sections divided like piano keys for each day of the week. On Monday, I wrote: Laundry. Tuesday: Clean bathroom. Wednesday: Water plants. Thursday: Sweep. In an act of generosity, I gave myself the weekends off from cleaning. I kept to this schedule for a week, maybe two. And yet, I’ve kept the schedule on my fridge, a constant reminder of all the ways I’m falling behind.
It’s ironic that messiness coincides with the label of laziness. For me, the level of my mess is in direct correlation to productivity in other areas of my life. I work seven days a week to keep up with the demands I put on myself as a freelance writer. When I’m not at home writing, I’m working a second job at a local restaurant.
Outside my home, I appear neat and put together: I’m showered, I’m clean, I’m well-dressed — and I feel confident in this persona. Even my Instagram posts of my home are strategically angled to hide the mess. But I live with the constant anxiety that I’ll have an unexpected visitor and this façade will crumble.
At home, where there’s disorder everywhere, I feel distracted. I’m not able to fully focus on the task in front of me when I have the nagging sensation that I should be cleaning instead of working. It’s an uphill journey trying to erase the word should from my vocabulary — and to remind myself there’s no intrinsic evil in being messy.
As de Beauvoir notes, cleaning produces no tangible good. She’s partly right: I would rather write, read, or do any meaningful work other than tidying, scrubbing, and sweeping. Encouragingly, a recent study from the University of Minnesota found that a messy desk can promote creativity. And yet, the mess still accumulates around me — the mess still requires cleaning. Sometimes, I’ll go so long without cleaning that I’ll eventually lose an entire day to the Sisyphean task. That’s when I remember my mom telling me that it takes less time to clean up after yourself than to get to the overwhelming point where it distracts you from the work you’d rather be doing.
In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf writes of a gifted sister who is barred from attending school: “She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.” As a child, I read too much, apparently. Teachers would complain at parent-teacher conferences that I hid books under my desk, reading instead of listening to their lessons. I was a voracious reader at home, too. I wouldn’t leave my bedroom until the book I was reading was finished, racing through it in a day. That also meant I was slacking on chores.
Perhaps it’s impossible to do both: keep a constantly tidy home and cultivate your own creative projects. I live alone, without a partner pushing housekeeping on me; it seems as if I regress to a natural state of not having to keep face for anyone. From over my laptop screen, I scan my apartment for all the undone housework. But with more fulfilling things to do — write this essay, for example — I forfeit cleaning for now. I look at photos of de Beauvoir’s desk with its piles of books and papers. It’s not unlike my own.
Tatum Dooley is a writer from Toronto.