Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Keeping It Clean in 4 Easy (Enough) Steps

Micaela Darr, a fellow blogger over at California to Korea, inspired me to write this post. I happened on her lament "I NEED HELP MANAGING THE CHAOS!!!" while perusing through the 7 Quick Takes over at Jennifer Fulwiler's Conversion Diary last Friday. I started on a comment that grew longer and longer and longer. That comment found its final form here...

I know most people don't consider a clean house a necessity in their marriage. In fact, it is very likely not on anybody's radar when we mentally compile a list of issues contributing to marital stress, but people fight about cleanliness. They really do. I've learned, after years of pretending it wasn't so important, that it was vitally important in my own marriage and family life. After a few years experience, tons of prayer, and flying around with The Fly Lady, I've learned how to manage housework at a level that makes everyone happy, including me.

It hasn't been easy. I prefer a clean house but don't mind clutter. I will gladly scrub the toilet, sweep the floor, and wash the dishes, but as long as the pile of books by the bed is dusted, I'm content. I tend to pile things up instead of put them away. My husband can live with the grime as long as the books are back on the shelf. You get the picture. I tried to convince my husband that mine was the best method and he tried to convince me that his was the best method, sometimes nicely and sometimes not. Enter my son. He has Autism. He came along seven years ago and settled the question firmly and finally: our house shall be clean AND orderly, not either or.

Sensory overload is a moment by moment occurrence for those with Autism

Because of the Autism, neatness is vital to my son's ability to think clearly. His senses do not provide orderly input. His eyes see everything, all at once. His ears do the same. Imagine trying to think while hearing the fly buzzing like a chainsaw on the windowsill, the whine of the transmission of the car passing by, the cat breathing like Darth Vader in the corner, then imagine all this while smelling the perfume in mommy's deodorant and the dog's spit as he licks a paw and this all mixed in with the acrid stench of the soap heating up in the dishwasher as it cycles like thunder through a wash. There is no volume control; his experience of any one of his senses is almost unbearably intense. With visual order, he has more mental energy to spare. He can concentrate on filtering out the barrage of over stimulation from his other senses. Without my diligence in keeping order in my home, my son spends his energy not in play or learning but in keeping his world from spinning out of control.

Since I have scrabbled and clawed my way to a "Clean Enough" house through trial and error, let me spare you some of the effort and frustration I had to experience by sharing what I've learned and where I learned it.

1. Make a List of "Daily Dos"

 The only thing that worked for me was trial and error. For weeks on end I set a timer for an hour and cleaned everything up in the public rooms (the kitchen, living room, and dining room). I wrote down what I did, monitored my son's reaction during the day, and checked in with my husband at night. "How's this level of clean? What do you notice?" I went through the room with him with my list in hand. If he noticed a job was done, I put a check by it and kept it on my Daily Dos. If he didn't notice, I pointed out the job, asking, "Do you care that this was clean?" If the answer was, "No," that job came off the daily list and was added to a Weekly Dos. If the answer was, "No, but thank you!" it stayed on. From this process we created our list of the absolute essential, do-every-day-or-annoy-my-husband chores. It's posted on our bulletin board in pencil in case any adult needs to add to it or erase from it. Like the title Daily Do implies, we do those same little jobs every stinking day.

To give you an idea of where to start making your list, I will share with you my hard-won list and refer you to the Fly Lady Page which was the inspiration for my family's list. She has her own system and lists ready made and I highly recommend reading her philosophy on cleanliness and using her system to get the house out of chaos and into order! We started there a few years ago but had to adapt that method to our family: we needed some jobs done more frequently due to the size and needs of our family.

My Daily Dos

We start with #2 as soon as our main meal (breakfast) is done. Everybody has their list of jobs to do and everyone has 45 minutes to do it in. This list keeps our house in enough order each day that everyone is relatively happy.

1.   Come to breakfast dressed and brushed (hair and teeth)
2.   Dirty dishes to the counter
3.   Wipe table
4.   Sweep under table and wipe any spills (chairs and floor)
5.   Straighten bedrooms (make beds, sweep rooms, put away toys)
6.   Sweep every floor
7.   Vacuum living room rug
8.   Wipe down bathroom
9.   Dust a room (every room gets hit eventually, including bedrooms)
10. Breakfast dishes

Just in case you think I have my act really together,
this is the actual list, torn edges and all.

In addition to this 45 minute mad morning dash, we have two 10 minute straighten ups during the day. The kids put away all their games and toys while I fold laundry or tackle my clutter spots. Anything not picked up in that 10 minutes goes into Mommy's Basket and does not come out again until Sunday or I remember, whichever comes last.

Which brings us to tomorrow's post...

Consequences: Bad and Good.

Stay tuned for that tomorrow. For today, focus on getting your list of Must Dos together before you start thinking of all the problems that get between you and the smoothly running machine you are trying to invent!

2. Divvy It up

Dividing up the chores takes some doing and the divvy list is always flexing for several reasons: kids need to learn how to do all the jobs by the time they are ready to move out on their own and Mommy needs to do every job periodically to ensure that an "adult level of clean" is attained at least weekly. We found in the process that we had to make or buy some child-sized tools (we cut a broom down to a child's shoulder height until a Godmother bought us a real, usable child's sized broom as a gift). We also found that some tools were essential to invest in and some were not worth it. Our house has one carpet in the living room and hardwood or laminate flooring everywhere else, so we invested in brooms and floor dusters and skimped on the vacuum.

Age and Ability Guidelines
A toddler can be given a basket and with some supervision play "Put That Away" games with the toys spread on the living room floor. (Mommy or an older child can be responsible for emptying the toddler basket and putting the toys where they live.) A three year old will be able to clear the table of silverware and unbreakable plates. A four year old can dust anything that is within reach. Five-year-olds can use a dust pan and even stand on a kitchen stool to scrape food scraps off the dishes before someone older loads the dishwasher. A six year old can manage a child sized broom to sweep a room (at least as long as Mommy gets in to sweep the corners out each week). A seven year old can be trusted with a nontoxic cleaner (like vinegar and water) to wipe down counter tops and doorknobs. An eight year old can plug in and run a vacuum. A nine year old can be trusted to feed and water household pets (with supervision) and even to clean up pet related messes indoors and out.

A special note on special needs
My son with Autism has his jobs, though he requires a longer learning curve and more supervision than another child his age might. My 45 minutes of work includes working with him and his jobs. He is no different than my four other children. He will one day need to run his house, too, and every human being thrives with a healthy balance of work and leisure. Please don't forget anyone and their need to work. Work and a sense of purpose is essential to our sense of belonging and well being. Even in the Garden, Adam had his work (Genesis 2). Don't leave anyone out, no matter how much work it costs you to include them!

Get started!
I work with a child who is given a new job to show them how to do it and to put some fun into it. The first time my four year old was assigned to dust my bedroom, she was filled with stories of the objects she was dusting. In particular, my husband has a picture of his deceased sister and I have a picture of my deceased brother on our respective nightstands. As we dusted, she heard about her aunt and uncle in Heaven; she asked questions and was answered. We discovered in doing this that our daughter considered the moment a rite of passage. For the first time ever, she was allowed to touch those and other treasures. The other rooms are "kid proofed" and much less interesting for that reason, but it gives you an idea of the fruits these little labors can produce.

3. Set a Timer for 45 Minutes

The kids have their lists (which are assigned weekly) and I have mine and nothing...nothing at all...happens until those things are done. No snacks, no toys, no radio, no games, no TV time. Nothing. Nada. Zip. At the end of the time our Homeschool Day starts. If a child finishes ahead of time, that child's extra time is "Free Time" to do whatever he or she wants. Most days, after about 6 weeks or so on the learning curve, my children are done before I am and are called from leisure tasks rather than a work task to begin our Homeschool Day.
Remember that the entire list of jobs should take no more than 45 minutes or so for Mommy to do, so none of the individual jobs should take a child that long unless they want it to. A toddler should have one job to do. A three year old one or two. A four and five year old two or three. Nothing in combination should take a child the entire 45 minutes to do once the job is learned and done diligently. In fact, my rule of thumb is no more work than 20 minutes worth for my oldest, who is nine. My list began with what it takes me 45 minutes to do uninterrupted on my own, so in the worst of days, and these will happen on occasion, I banish everyone to their rooms with a book and do the whole list myself. Trust me, that's a treat and a break for everyone, especially Mom!

As I mentioned before, in addition to the 45 minutes in the morning, there are the two 10 minute straighten up sessions that happen each day. Ours are done before dinner and before bedtime. Mommy sets the timer and all is cleaned up or it goes into Mommy's Basket and disappears. Whichever way it happens, the mess is cleaned!

And just in case some of you noticed, I've not mentioned my husband in the chore list. My husband is the kind of person who putters constantly. The trick to get him to function at a reasonable level, is to keep him from working himself until he is worn out. When I do my jobs right, he only does his.

4. Do It Daily

This is the big part of the job, the diligence. We do this every day between breakfast and the start of our school day. The only exception is Sunday, the Lord's Day. I get these jobs done even when I am sick as a dog. Frankly, I don't want to spend my recovery trying to dig out from under the piles of undone work, so it's worth spending a little under a half hour* in the morning exerting myself when I have the flu. I make exceptions for the kids during their illnesses, but since they have to lay in bed while we clean, it is the rare Martin child who wants to be left alone for that length of time unless they are sick enough to need the sleep.

*It takes significantly less time to do this on my sick days because the kids are appealed to cut the shenanigans for the sake of their poor, sick Mother, and I do more and supervise less just to get it over with!

The system isn't perfect, but it works when we work. The house still has a few clutter spots, but I try to ensure those stay out of sight. My messy desk is purposefully located in a cubby with doors I can shut when I walk away. My pile of books by my bed now lives in the bed stand that has a door to shut them behind. Since all the jobs don't take all the time we assign to them, I can tackle problem spots each day until the problem is fixed. I don't try to do everything at once and I don't try to start with a clean slate. We started where we were with the hope and the promise of improvement over time. I can promise you, from experience, that that promise proved out. The cleanliness level has improved and is improving as we go. We're at five children now and the house is kept cleaner now than it was when we had no children. The work got harder and the job bigger, but I got smarter and more diligent.

Virtue is a merely a habit of being good. My virtue has become wrapped up in my habits of serving my family and husband in lieu of myself. Cleaning at a level I do not prefer has been my call and my cross, so for me, cleanliness really is next to Godliness. Sometimes it takes everything I can give and more.

God is where I go to find more.


This has been a Wifey Wednesday Post. To have an even more Wifey Wednesday visit Sheila Wray Gregoire at To Love Honor and Vacuum.


  1. Wow wow wow! This is so helpful, Christie. I am really truly grateful you took the time to hammer all this out and then subsequently answer my call and write it all down. You are an angel. I'm going to work on my lists over the next few days and will check back.

    P.S. Your memes had me cracking up the whole way down.

  2. Inspiring post...and a great reminder with HOPE mixed in. I actually have The Fly Lady's book, but it's collecting dust on my shelf! Thanks for breaking it all down and sharing your list!