Making Family Work….Work

There are few things more frustrating to a new mother than the amount of housework that comes with a new baby. The big messes produced by little infants can be overwhelming to say the least.

Then, just when a new mother thinks it can’t get any worse, Baby becomes mobile and learns how to “drag and drop” everything within reach. Surely this is the pinnacle of messiness, right? Maybe, until a new mess maker is born and, along with the love, the housework starts to grow exponentially.

Fast forward through a few more children and a whole lot more stuff and you’ve got yourself a bona fide disaster zone.

As the saying goes, “a mother’s work is never done”, and never is this more true than in a home with several small children. Just when you “finish” the laundry, another pair of dirty socks appears. Right after your “finish” the dishes, it’s time to make another meal. And while you’re cleaning up one area of the home, your little cherubs are tearing up another! Erma Bombeck summarized this dilemma perfectly when she said, “Cleaning the house while the children are growing is like shoveling snow while it’s still snowing.”

Yep, there’s no way around it. Whether you like it or not, whether you’re good at it or not, every mother has to deal with the realities of housework. And make no mistake about it, the physical care of the home is an important part of mothering our children. Many things affect our ability to do this part of mothering well: previous experience and “training”, natural aptitude and interest in cleaning, number and space between children, financial ability to hire extra help, home size (this can work both for or against you), current stage of motherhood, commitments outside of the home, spousal help (or lack of), physical or mental illness in the mother or another family member, or just life stresses and challenges that demand time and energy.

Keeping all of these variables in mind, we need to commit as women and mothers to stop judging each other based on our own definition of a clean home, because a perfectly clean home does not a perfect mother make. In fact, I dare say that a perfectly clean home full of small children might suggest Mom needs to lighten up a little bit! In my humble and sometimes messy opinion, it’s probably more important to focus on how your home feels rather than how it looks, and housework should be more about the process, not the end result.

That being said, there are some basic things that need to happen in every home on a regular basis, and you can either ignore them and live in the chaos, do it yourself, or train and work with the more capable members of your family. (Go with option three!) One of the first things I remember hearing as a Family Science major over 20 years ago was the phrase “the purpose of the task is to strengthen the relationship”. Translation: clean as a family and bond in the process.

I have always been a big believer of this in theory, but in practice I am only a recent convert. For far too many years I was convinced my children were too young to help, that it was my job to keep up the house, and that it was just easier to do it myself anyway. (Never mind the resentment and guilt trips that followed! How many times have you spent that last and only two quiet hours of the day cleaning up after everyone else? No more!)

But as my children get older and life gets busier, there just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do all the housework by myself. And why should I? I have able bodied children who create a lot of that work, and they need to learn personal responsibility as well as how to care for a home of their own someday. The last thing I want to do is raise lazy, self-centered children that think mommy will always clean up after them!

So what do I suggest? Considering your own personal circumstances, you can take the following organizational suggestions with a grain of salt and add your own suggestions in the comments section below.

  1. Make a list of the jobs that need to be done on a routine basis.
  2. Decide which jobs can by done by which family members based on age and time constraints. (My seven-year-old can clean toilets, vacuum, and take out the trash, so don’t underestimate what your children can do!)
  3. Have a little family meeting and explain to everyone that you’re starting a new family work plan and everyone will be participating. (Make it positive and make no apologies. Your days of being a one woman show are coming to an end, and that’s a good thing.)
  4. Create a plan together of who will do what and when, and then post it in a place where everyone can see it.
  5. Work your plan. (This is the hardest part.)

To give you an idea of what this might look like, I can only tell you how we do it at our house. My oldest three children (14, 10, 7) are capable of doing pretty much everything, so each of them have two jobs they are responsible for a month at a time. A month gives them long enough to learn how to do the job well, and also prevents confusion about who is doing what if jobs were to rotate on a more frequent basis. I post a sheet on the fridge with the month at the top, their names down the side, and the two areas of responsibility they are assigned for the month. That’s it!

The jobs include trash duty, kitchen clean up, dusting, cleaning the floors, keeping the bathrooms clean, and helping with laundry. Some areas need more attention than others on a daily basis, and some children have less time to do their jobs during the week than others, but in a perfect world everything gets a more thorough cleaning on Saturdays. Flexibility is your friend when it comes to family cleaning schedules. Remember, it’s more about the process. Just keep trying!

Of course, in order to be really successful, you have to be willing to get in there alongside your children and train them, as well as make sure they stay on task. Children don’t inherently know how to do housework and are usually only as disciplined and hard working as their parents. Not one of my children ever comes running in the door after school shouting, “Can I start on my jobs, Mom?” And putting a chart on the fridge doesn’t magically make them willing workers either. It’s my job as the mom–with the help of my husband when he’s home–to train, remind, and enforce the family work plan. (Note to self: This is not the “fun” part of motherhood.)

Take last week for example. I had a lot of extra stuff going on so I wasn’t enforcing our family work plan as much as usual, and guess what? The kids didn’t really do their jobs. But if I’m in there helping/guiding/supporting, and I’m adamant that they can’t go outside with their friends or play a video game until their jobs are done, well, that’s a different story. (FYI – we do have a money system in place at our house as well, but I do not pay my children for helping around the house. That’s just part of being a member of our family.)

It may seem like a lot of work to get your family to work, but the alternatives aren’t really desirable. And once your children know how to do housework after months and years of practice, not only will they become an invaluable help to you, but their confidence will grow in their ability to do “grown up” work as well as their ability to make a valuable contribution to the family. I’ve seen this over and over again in the eyes of my children–even while they are grumbling about it! No doubt about it, it’s always worth the effort to at least give a family work plan a try. Good luck!

QUESTION: What’s your family work plan?

CHALLENGE: If you don’t have one in place, make one today!
Photo by April Perry


  1. Dawn Wessman says

    We have a “zone” assigned to each child each week, and daily there are two jobs that must be done within the zone. We have it up on a Mon-Sat calendar. I drew pictures for my three yaer-old. I stole the idea of “certifying” the kids in certain chores from Shawnee. The girls like it. The first weeks it was a bit slow as I spent the time teaching the children (7,5,3) how to do the jobs. They get a “point” or strip of paper when do both jobs, and then put their points in our bank (a mason jar.) My little boy puts in puff-balls. They exchange the points for dates out, lessons, a new book, dinero.

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