Spring cleaning: Cleaning isn’t just about cleanliness. It’s about making a house a home.

In defense of homemakers.

In the penultimate post to this series, I warned that perfect cleanliness should not be “the point” of spring cleaning—far better to embrace the two-steps forward, one-step back reality of entropy in housekeeping than to attempt foolishly to overcome it. But if not a state of bleach-scented transcendence, what, then, is the point of all this work? Why clean, in the spring or otherwise?

To answer that question, we need to zoom out a bit from individual issues like closets and surfaces to see cleaning’s more general function in our relationships to our living spaces. Luckily, there’s a somewhat old-fashioned term that neatly says it all: homemaking. Forget for a moment the unfortunately sexist overtones that word has accrued in the last half-century, and consider what it really means. When we clean or perform the various other chores it takes to keep a house running, we are quite literally making home, conjuring it in our individual houses through our efforts and attentions. In fact, we can’t really help doing this—all of us are in a sense homemakers whether we like it or not. It’s just the kind of home being made that differs. Happily attended homes feel confident and gracious—they revive and nurture. Neglected ones feel unsettled and indifferent—they make us anxious and drain more energy than they restore.

This isn’t to elevate one type of homemaker over another in a moral sense, but merely to point out that the work we do or don’t do in our homes has more of an impact on our well-being than we often like to admit. My favorite illustration for this connection comes from Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl. In one interview, a woman captures the trauma the near-constant torrents of dust—and the inability to clean them—wrought on homemakers across the affected region:

My mother was very clean. Her house was always clean, and she would try to keep us kids clean. She would take all her curtains down one day, and wash them, and hang them back up. Then a dirt storm would come in that night, and they’d be just like they were before she washed them. And that went on day after day after day. And once in a while, you’d hear of some woman who just couldn’t take it anymore, and she’d commit suicide.

Obviously, the Dust Bowl is an extreme circumstance, and these instances of extreme despair were no doubt brought on by a host of factors, the inability of mothers and wives to care for their families chief among them. But the interviewee’s attribution of at least some of the blame to cleaning—or more precisely, the inability to keep even somewhat clean, to enjoy even the briefest respite as invasive dust coats and recoats one’s entire house—is telling. After all, we’re not just talking about dirty curtains here; we’re talking about the literal impossibility of making home. To be so violently kept from that—from safety, comfort, purpose, pride, and all the other salubrious feelings that a well-made home enables—would test the endurance, even the sanity, of the best of us.

While giving up on cleaning rarely ends in actual human tragedy, it always represents a kind of death—the passing into dormancy or outright decay of a house that is no longer a home. Or, put another way, cleaning is a proof of life; it’s how we show ourselves and others that we are living and moving and striving in the world, making and maintaining our homes around us as we go. I do not think it is too much to say that when we clean, we are negotiating with our mortality—we may ultimately return to dust, but there’s something enlivening and fundamentally human in attempting to control the rate of dissolution for as long as we can.

If it sounds like I’m taking cleaning too seriously, that’s because we need to push back against what Cheryl Mendelson calls “the error of playing house instead of keeping house.” She contrasts “playing house,” the all-too-common mistake especially popular among millenials of approaching chores and other housework as a kind of ironic, retro-fetish game (Look at me being all domestic with my canning tongs!) with sensibility-based housekeeping, the doing of housework as a natural and necessary part of a well-lived life.

My hope is that this series has gone a little way toward revivifying the latter approach. Despite having lost its original necessity, spring cleaning offers many gifts to those who choose to undertake it, and the best of these are far more meaningful than an organized closet or a scrubbed floor. A clean house is by nature ephemeral, a constantly moving target. But a well-made home, one that you have willed into existence through your loving efforts? That can last forever—or at least as long as you are willing to pick up a sponge.