What cleaning our homes is really all about
By Elissa Strauss






I like housework and I find it satisfying. I get a frisson of joy from fluffing my pillows, or watching the bottom of the bathtub gleam like a pearl. Making the bed is a more powerful stimulant than my morning tea, and freshly vacuumed carpets can significantly alter the dimensions of the room.

These are daring statements for a woman today, and they have gotten me in trouble before. Contemporary feminists have appropriated much that is feminine or girly, including six-inch heels and needlepoint, but the image of a woman marveling over a clean countertop is still pathetically retro and utterly taboo.

Growing up, the ultimate honor, the one that provided me with more pride than winning the spelling bee or lighting up the soccer field, was to be called balabuste by my grandmother. Balabuste directly translates to homemaker, but in my ears it rang as capable and strong.

At seven I wasn’t particularly concerned about gendered division of labor or Betty Friedan’s running-on-empty housewives. (To be fair, my grandmother would also bestow the coveted title of balabuste on my older brother, which was very third wave feminist of her, looking back.) No, I wanted to achieve streakless windows and intuitively organized cupboards. I loved shepherding my family into a life where pretzels and peanut butter could easily be located, where everything was in its natural home.

I know. I know. This all sounds backward. Yes, I feel a little ashamed. Trust me, this isn’t an easy admission. Still: Oh, how I love a clean house. Even just the phrase itself has a satisfying metallic ring, a promise not just of order by way of separation and division, but a discharge of all that was soiled and unpredictable.

But this purging doesn’t signal the end, nor is it the real reason we clean. No, we clean to see what is there after the dust and chaos is gone. We clean for the moment when we can confront our stripped surroundings and see how, and if, we fit.

I can’t say for certain – it’s so easy to overstate our intelligence and intuition as children – but I think I knew this as a kid. My balabuste-inspired cleaning was a test, a chance to see what my family looked like in a streakless mirror and how we behaved when pretzels and peanut butter where were they belong.

A newly clean house is not an immediate source of comfort. It is a pine-scented moment of truth when you must reconcile what your life looks like without any physical evidence of destruction or decay. It is the moment in this Leviticus storywhen the priest not only declares the house clean, but healed.

When housecleaning goes right I am left, if only for one crisp afternoon, with this same sentiment. On top of my fluffed pillows, with daylight shining through my gleaming windows, I feel healed.