When it comes to housework, several paradoxes lie beneath the dusty surfaces of our lifestyles.
We have reduced the time we spend on our homes, yet we spend countless hours thinking about them. We have the Home and Garden cable channel devoted to them. We devour magazines about making our homes cleaner and more beautiful. We read endless quantities of published advice - including all the “Hints From Heloise” and the ever-popular speed-cleaning articles (Recite after me: Keep all your tools in one bucket and work from the top down).
And we worship the goddess of the hearth, Martha Stewart. She elevated homemaking to an art - and makes a fortune by making the rest of us look bad - and you can watch her do it at noon Monday through Saturday on her own show on Lifetime cable channel. She’s also a regular visitor on CBS’ “This Morning.”
We seem to have perfected the art of housework denial. A majority of American women told researchers at the University of Maryland last year that their houses are cleaner than the average. Sorry, but everybody can’t be better than average; numbers don’t work that way.
The movement of women from home to workplace explains our new slobbiness, but only in part. Housewives also cut back on domestic work by about 10 hours, from a high of 34 hours a week in 1965.
Another surprise: More housework doesn’t add up to more satisfaction. The Maryland researchers compared last year’s survey of women’s attitudes toward housekeeping to a survey conducted in 1975. The same proportion - a little more than half - said their homes were satisfactory in both years, even though they cleaned them more in 1975. Why bother?
Another puzzler is the fact that modern conveniences do not subtract from housework time. American housewives in the ‘60s, armed with vacuum cleaners and other machinery, spent more time doing housework than they did in the ‘20s. They even spent as much time as women in some countries without running water.
Today, modern conveniences still don’t do much for us. The Maryland researchers report that those with washing machines spend more time doing laundry. Those with dishwashers save less than five minutes a day. It’s hard to believe, but the same goes for those with microwave ovens, on average.
Apparently, we take the labor saved and squander it on rising standards: We’ll wash clothes after one wearing, when we used to wear them several times. If we have a dishwasher, we use more dishes. If we have a microwave, we don’t bother defrosting the steak ahead of time. And we spend some of the time we save because of modern appliances getting them repaired.
And yet, we’re gluttons for punishment as we take on more to clean. The average American house has grown from 1,500 square feet in the early 1970s to more than 2,100 square feet today. And much of the added space is in heavy-mess areas - kitchens and bathrooms.
It’s enough to make you throw in the towel - along with the mop.