Maybe you’re one of those who feel positive sensations when walking into a clean, orderly, immaculate home. Perhaps orderliness gives you a sense of tranquility. Many people strive for a home they are proud to show to others. As for me, when I was younger, an orderly home was not high on my list of priorities. In fact, I subconsciously associated it with an uncomfortable, uptight personality. I prided myself and strive for a relaxed, easygoing home. Museums are for visiting, not for living in.
Fourteen years and several children later, my views have changed. Let me tell you why.
Growing up, our home was relatively neat and clean. My mother kept it at a nice level of hygienic tidiness. I’m sure she must have cleaned it weekly. But it wasn’t an issue. She never discussed cleaning techniques or closet organization. She must have done it quietly in between more interesting things, like family outings, holiday get-togethers or her work. Maybe when we were sleeping. In our home, we valued things like schooling and social interactions. Cleanliness was there but not a matter to be contemplated or conversed about.
When I got married, my homemaking dreams did not include cleaning and organizing. I must have realized that part of a woman’s role as homemaker is the mundane duty of cleaning. I surely went out and bought the basic cleaning supplies every home needs. But whether or not I understood how much time and planning home upkeep takes, I’m not so sure. Sure, everyone cleans their home for Shabbos. But how long does that take? Half an hour? An hour?
Back then that was probably enough time to do a basic cleaning. My home was definitely not dirty or a wreck. I had enough skills and common sense to keep it at an unembarrassing level of orderliness.
But as we began having children, a new realization hit me like a ton of Megablocks. Children are not just cute little cherubs. They don’t just play nicely with their Legos and put them away neatly. They do not just eat their meal, say thank you, and go nicely into the bath. They don’t just wake up in the morning, get dressed, play, eat and go to sleep. A favorite activity of most normal children is…making a huge mess.
Children love to pour out their toys—all of them, if they can. And they don’t run so fast to pick them up. They love to smear finger paints not only on the paper. The table, chairs and wall are much more exciting. So is Mommy’s reaction when she sees Chaim’s lovely artwork. Children like taking things out of the cabinet and scattering them all over the kitchen floor. And they absolutely adore splashing in the puddles outside, stomping in the mud, and tracking it into the house.
It’s not that they are trying to make their mothers’ lives miserable as they throw their candy packages on the floor or fill their cup to the top and walk around the house with it. They are not trying to drive us crazy as they throw their coats and backpacks on the couch when they come home from school. Cleanliness is just not on their agenda. It is not in their dictionary.
Admittedly, there are a few young children born with a love for order. They’ll put their plate in the sink as soon as they finish, or put an empty package in the trash. But that’s a rare bird. Children are born self-focused. They do not seem to even see the things we adults notice. It doesn’t dawn on them that if they take out the milk from the fridge, it won’t automatically get put back in, and the fridge will not be closed if they don’t do it. It just does not enter their realm of thinking.
Cleaning up after children can be annoying, frustrating, and overwhelming. But besides all the emotions that come with it, one point is clear—it’s time-consuming. Even if we train our children to clean up after themselves (and we should!), much of the burden of tidying up rests on the shoulders of –who else-their mother. Children are simply incapable of cleaning up every mess they make. We try to train them. And with time and age, they improve. But ultimately, the mother is generally the one who notices and cares about the tidiness of the home. Her home is her palace. Unless she has her own ladies in waiting running to soak up every spill, she—the queen—is the one who must see to it.
Should she run at every spill or not? How hard must she work to keep her home in tip-top condition? What is better for the children—an easygoing, comfortable (read sloppy) home or a picture-perfect abode straight out of Good Housekeeping? How much effort should she put into what sometimes seems an unappreciated, futile labor?
Every homemaker must face these questions. And everyone’s answer will be different. Taking into account such factors as: her husband’s preference (top of the list), the size of her home, cleaning help, her children’s temperament and family structure, she will have to figure out what works for her.
But no matter who and what, cleanliness and orderliness are standards that should not be undervalued. On the one hand, they should not become obsessions. We have many more important things to do than shine the mirrors, clean windows, and organize sock drawers. But in the name of prioritization, some women throw up their hands and give up on any sense of order. Do we need to go to such an extreme?
The importance of cleanliness is first of all, of course, hygiene. As the family grows, and the children are coming home from their playgroups, kindergartens, schools and yeshivas, germs become a real issue. Not to mention the germs and insects that tend to congregate around spills and unclean counters. Maintaining basic hygiene requires cleaning. If the thought of tedious cleaning leaves you feeling uninspired, try connecting the mundane tasks of sweeping and scrubbing with acts of chessed. Each time you scour the kitchen sink, you are creating a safe, hygienic environment for your family.
As far as organizing goes, an orderly home creates a calm atmosphere and simply makes things run more smoothly. When a child wakes up late and can’t find a new notebook to bring to school, he may enter a state of panic, worried to face the teacher who sternly warned him not to bother coming to school if he doesn’t have a notebook. If only the mother had one little shelf for new notebooks, a dismal morning scene could be avoided. A home with order will see fewer fights and frustrations about where things are.
Another advantage of an orderly home is that it teaches the children to be orderly. This helps them develop good habits, which may even eliminate marital disputes in the future. Also, order tends to breed order, and mess tends to breed mess, as the children feel why bother putting things away or hanging up a jacket, when the living room floor is covered from one end to the other anyway. A neat home also instills in children an orderly way of thinking, which can help them in their learning.
When we first moved to Israel, I had a hard time understanding why Israeli homemakers devote so much time to the upkeep of their home. Don’t they have anything better to do? True, some women take it too far, ignoring their children for the sake of a shiny floor. But with time, I have come to respect and admire the dedication they have to tidiness. As long as a woman keeps the right balance, remembering that people come before things, a clean home is a correct goal. Not for its own sake, but for the ambiance it creates.
Homemaking has been compared to the cleaning the kohanim did in the Bais Hamikdash. Since a Jewish home is referred to as “mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary,” this comparison is not an exaggeration. Let us raise back up the flag of devoted homemaking and pick up our sponges and brooms—with a sense of pride.
The author is a freelance writer, editor and translator living in Israel. She is a wife and mother doing her best to keep her home tip-top, but more importantly, her family tip-top.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.