These types of images always make me laugh. I NEVER look that cute and happy when I work around the house, and I hardly ever iron (One day, I brought out the ironing board, and my six-year-old exclaimed, “What is THAT? Can I lay on it?”), but I truly value the work that takes place in our homes.
There’s a common misconception that housework is terrible, mundane drudgery that needs to be accomplished as quickly as possible (or avoided at all costs) so we can move on to the “more important” things in life. I don’t love scrubbing bathtubs or mopping floors, necessarily, but here are a few experiences from my life that have helped me to see the meaning, joy, and purpose in the work required to sustain a family.
(1) Housework is a way to show love. I had four challenging surgeries last year, and I spent months in bed recovering. On days that were really hard, my children would send me to bed, and they would clean the whole downstairs for me. My 6-year-old likes to polish the wood table with Pledge, my 7-year-old can do the dishes without gagging (she’s the only one who can do that), and my 10-year-old can manage the other two children, take out trash, and put things in their places. They would always run upstairs and say, “Mom, will you come down and clean up the house? It’s a mess!” (But I would see their little smiles hiding behind their mock-concern.) I would go downstairs and say, “Oh! How did the house get so clean?” And then they would walk me around, showing me everything they did. It brings tears to my eyes just to think about it.
We also have a sack where stray toys go, and each child has to do a household job to earn a toy back. My 6-year-old son was on the verge of tears one day because he had 15 toys in there. Alia (10) didn’t have any confiscated items. She whispered to me, “Can I do Ethan’s 15 jobs to earn his toys back?” I said that would be fine, so she worked the whole evening and then presented her delighted brother with a whole pile of toys.
(2) Housework brings us together. We’ve divided our dishwasher jobs into four parts, and we all unload it together each morning. My two-year-old can sort silverware now, so he helps Ethan, who HATES the silverware job. We all gather around when I call out, “Dishwasher jobs!” and we talk about our day while we work. While my children don’t jump up and down when it’s time to unload the dishwasher, they don’t complain. It’s just another meaningful event in our day of togetherness.
I’ve noticed that my children don’t care particularly about WHAT we’re doing, as long as we’re doing it together. They like to organize closets with me, clean out the pantry, trim the roses, de-junk the toy closet, rearrange the furniture, make new recipes, fold laundry…even as I list these “chores,” my mind is flooded with sweet memories of the hours we’ve spent working together to make our home a place we love. Someday I’m going to miss the “choo-choo trains” they make out of kitchen chairs while I mop. I’ll miss the squeals of excitement when I pull out old toys in the closet they haven’t played with for a long time. I’ll also miss all the conversations we have about how roses bloom, how Ethan grew out of his new jeans SO fast, and how excited we are that our pantry is finally starting to feel healthy (we just purged all the sugary stuff together). Work in the home is a social, beautiful experience.
(3) Housework provides the backdrop for necessary conversations. The great thing about mundane jobs is that it allows your mind to be actively participating in conversations with your family members. One such conversation took place when Alia was almost 3. She had been admitted to the hospital for a couple of days because she’d gotten a terrible flu and suffered from dehydration. Every single morning for the next two weeks, she would sit next to me in the kitchen while I washed dishes (I was pregnant with Ethan and so sick, and we didn’t have a dishwasher). Alia would say the same thing every morning: “Why did I have to go to the hospital?” I would tell her the same thing every day and help her to understand the trauma of the ER, the IV, and the hours in bed. After a few weeks, she stopped asking about it, and we moved on to other topics, but I could see how these morning talks over the dishes were helping this little toddler cope with a very scary experience.
Housework is constant. It doesn’t stop when you’re having a bad day. It doesn’t always feel “fun.” It doesn’t always result in Hallmark moments. However, if we look at housework as “family work,” and focus on how it encourages love, togetherness, and essential opportunities for meaningful conversations, we’ll find SO much more joy in this process of motherhood.
CHALLENGE: Next time you have a household task to tackle, try to involve one of your children in a positive way, and then come back and comment on this post to share your success.
QUESTION: What has been one meaningful experience YOU have had with family work?
Originally published on April 30, 2010.
Shannon S. says
I almost cried reading this article because it speaks to me… to where I WANT to be! And tonight, I had a wonderful time, making dinner with my 3 year old helper… she also set the entire table carefully. Then eat daughter (3 out of 4) washed their own dish and I actually finished cleaning up right after dinner –> something extremely rare in my 7 years of marriage. I own it. Then we made cookies. It felt SO GOOD. Thank you for writing this and helping my perspective because I struggle so much with housework it’s unreal. THANK YOU!
Oh I love your perspective! Thank you! I have been so tickled lately when my little 3 year old has taken the initiative to help me put away groceries and load and empty the dishwasher. I had thought he was too little to help, but that was definitely not the case and he was so proud and happy to see how proud and happy I was to have him help. Thanks to this article I am going to start thinking of housework as an important part of our day, not just something that has to be done to get on with our day.
I have a paper grocery bag on the top of my fridge that holds all of the toys that are left out when they go to bed. I do make them earn them back but I give them a limited amount of time to do so, like a week. The ones left over go into our yard sale stash.
I have found that they aren’t as concerned about loosing stuff as what I am. Maybe, because I paid for it…or maybe because they have too much stuff. Either too much in the sense that they don’t care because they have other things or too much stuff in the physical sense that they are not capable of managing their things. Either way “The Bag” is an effective way to see what’s worth keeping and what’s worth passing on to someone else.
Oh! I forgot to mention that my kids love it when I give them their own bags to race to see who picks up the most. I set the time for 5-10 minutes and the kiddos go nuts. Sometimes they even argue about who gets to pick up the bigger things. Take away the timer and the bags and they look at me like I’m speaking a foreign language when I ask them to pick up!
April Perry says
Thanks for your nice comments! I love that idea with the bag. Little systems like that make life so much easier. Thank you for sharing!
I have been procrastinating cleaning lately because sometimes I feel guilty not attending or playing with my sweet 5 month old! I mean peek a boo and cooing is way more fun than chores. I think if I get into a routine, I can get done quicker so that I can spend more time with her. What do you all think? Kristine, could you share your chicken noodle soup recipe with us? It sounds delish!! I’ve been trying to find a good one to try. 🙂
April Perry says
Chrystal, I can totally relate to wanting to play with your baby instead of do housework. My suggestion to you would be to play with your baby WHILE you do your housework. I would sit my baby down right next to me while I folded laundry, put her in the bouncy seat while I did the dishes, hold her in one arm while I tidied up . . .. When you take your baby with you (in your arms, on your back, next to you, etc.) it becomes a little more fun! Good luck, and let me know how it goes.
Thank you for your kind note. I will try to think of ways to incorporate my baby into what I’m doing this week! Thanks for the practical suggestions. The bouncy seat is one of the best baby “things” to have. I love all the ideas on how to have quality time with children.
Thanks for all the great ideas! Here are some ideas I got from one of my more experienced mom friends for incorporating a baby into your routine: When my 14 month old son was a smaller baby, I would put him into an Ergo carrier while I did housework. It was the best of both worlds! All the close snuggling I could want, and getting something done, to boot. Now that he’s bigger, and likes to move, I try to let him “parallel play” during my chores. For example, I give him a mini broom and dustpan while I sweep the floor with the big broom. Or when I rake leaves, I give him a plastic toy rake to use while sitting on the ground next to me. He’s too young to “help”, but not too young to notice the similarities in what we are doing. And in trying to build a future helper, I let him “experiment” with various chores: for example, after I empty the dishwasher at night (when he’s gone to bed), I put in a few random tupperware bowls and some non-sharp silverware. In the morning, I let him take them out, throw them on floor, put them back in- whatever he wants, basically, so he thinks it’s fun. My hope is that as he gets older, I’ll be able to let him empty some things from the dishwasher for real. For now, though, I just put up with the extra mess…:)
April Perry says
I love those ideas, Joanna! Parallel play is wonderful, and it’s fun to just be together. I will be sad someday when I have to clean without an audience 🙂
Thanks for your comment!
Laura Breksa says
I love the way my children have developed a sense of self and I’ve been able to verbally praise them and/or point out their strengths through house work. For example, my 13 year-old daughter knows she is good at organizing/fitting things in because of her putting away the refrigerator foods and food storage cans.
Chrystal: Hold her and play with her while she is awake and do housework like mad when she sleeps!
I love the idea of getting the children to be involved in doing the housework and would very much like to do it too. However, sometimes I find that getting them involve is more tiring then I do it myself because they seems to be playing and making a mess than helping up. Forget to mention, he is 3 years old. How can I iprove such situation? Thanks
April Perry says
Carina, I can feel your pain! Three-year-olds can be great helpers, but it takes a lot of creativity and patience to involve them. One thing that helps me is to have very specific jobs to give them (like using a wet wash cloth to wipe the walls, banister, etc., helping to spray the cleanser, taking everything out of a drawer for me, loading things into the washer, bringing the trash cans to one central location of the home so I can empty them, dusting alongside me with a feather duster, vacuuming using the “Shark” (LOVE that tool, and three-year-olds can totally use it), unloading the plastic dishes, putting dirty silverware into the dishwasher, etc. I could go on and on. There are tons of little jobs that are so doable. However, it’s also great to give them some sets of toys to play with in the area where you’re cleaning, so if you have more to do than they have interest in helping with, they can still be near you, but doing something else (like refrigerator magnets that only come out at a certain time, a basket of fun bath toys to play with in the sink before you mop, sets of puzzles, etc.). Hope that helps! If you have more specific questions, let me know. A lot of it is trial and error, but if you consistently look for ways to involve your son, you’ll find some sweet moments start to happen. My four-year-old boy is now such a great helper. He cleans his room on his own, asks to take out the trash, etc. He also makes HUGE messes, and I am constantly teaching him to clean, but it’s getting better! You can do it!
I like giving kids a Swiffer for hardwoods and tile floors. Also, I bought melamine, and later Corelle dishes for them to use and I put them in bottom cabinet they could easily reach. They learned to self-serve from this cabinet for anything, whether snacking or setting the table or putting away from the dishwasher. They really felt big.
I have a 23 year old daughter that still lives with me. I run my own home based business, and am super busy…Pay all the bills, provide everything…period…My Daughter will not do anything…She won’t rinse a dish, clean her own bathroom, NOTHING! She actually puts her dirty dishes outside her bedroom door like “room service”….I love her but this is ruining our relationship….I am even finding myself resenting her! That makes me feel terrible…She buys clothing and her personal items that I can’t afford to buy for myself. I supply everything that is necessary. I can’t touch “her” stuff..However, everything else in the home is “ours”…..I have had so many people give me tough love advise and I have tried everything….She can’t make it on her own..But seems to think she has a right to be here and taken care of…She lives as an adult outside the walls of our home, but like a child here…What do I do? Chances are, I have probably heard it before! But, maybe someone has an idea that will really WORK and not completely destroy the Mother daughter “relationship”
April Perry says
Thank you for sharing your heart! So sorry for the challenges. This link is the best information I know on the topic: http://powerofmoms.com/family-systems-online-training/ xo
I will pray for you both for the whole situation. For your words to her and for her to be receptive to them. My mom kicked me out at 24 with the attitude of I’ll either succeed or fail. I had two children at the time and guess what? I landed squarely on my feet. Sometimes all a young adult needs is a push towards their future. I know as a mother myself, who has been not so messily in your daughters shoes but having been an unintentional burden on my parents that sometimes a kick in the pants to go out and try sometimes makes all the difference. I am so proud of myself now and maybe all she needs is to be challenged. Best wishes!
I totally teared up thinking of your lil one doing chores to free her brother’s toys 🙂 I Love this!! Thank you!
“Family work” is also what we now call household chores: the things that need to be done so that we can function as a family. Here’s how the conversation started: my husband was on a week of paternity leave with the arrival of our baby girl from Korea. I asked him to do some mundane household chore and he replied, “What?! I’m on vacation!” As the weeks went on, and taking care of a little one took precedence over chores, it was a relief to now that when my husband got home, he could help with the family work. Now, 22 years later, I am on a 4-day retreat and all I have to worry about is me! We went over the schedule for the two sons at home, discussed what food was available for meals, and I was all set to leave. I didn’t need to finish the laundry, clean the house, grocery shop, or do anything extra to get ready to go. I knew that I was leaving the family in good shape. If anyone needed clean clothes, they know how to run the machines. If they’re hungry there’s plenty of food for them to prepare. The reality is that I still stress about it sometimes. In fact, I told my husband Wednesday night that I still had to do some laundry before I left. He said just do what you need, the boys and I will do our own laundry. Yes, family work, works for our family!
It is so true that the jobs around the house are a great way to spend time and talk with your kids. I have three boys, 9, 6, 5 and they will resist ‘cleaning up’ but what I found works is I set the timer for 10 minutes and we do a ‘power clean’. They race around for 10 minutes and then (as long as they were giving it a good effort) they can stop. I usually assign each one an area to focus on so that they aren’t fighting over the jobs. It’s a great way to clean up before supper and gets us back to a managable house.
Boy I needed to read this post! I struggle with the modern concept that housework is “menial” work. I was raised to have a career-woman mentality, but as a stay-at-hom Army wife and mother to 6 kids, my life is quite different than I had ever pictured. I struggle every day with feeling that my work is somehow less than meaningful (even though I KNOW it is, somehow I am struggling to overcome decades of a “feminist” mentality). Thank you for sharing this article!
I would love to implement the “toys that are left out” confiscation sack for my 4- and 6-year-olds, but the 6-year-old had a good question–what to do when one sister is playing with and leaves out the others toy. Advice on this scenario would be appreciated…thanks!
April Perry says
Good question! I think this depends on your parenting philosophy, but I personally would require that the child who left the other child’s toy out do a job immediately to help give it back. (Our kids are older now, so we don’t use this same system, but the main point is that we never make the housework sound like a punishment. It’s always done in a really positive way…) Good luck!