Ditch the Life Coach and Do the Daily Chores

july garden 005

“When I was thirty five, I looked up one day and realized that I hadn’t had a life. … I had a hint of what I’d been missing. Laundry. And not just laundry, but what laundry gives us: an honest encounter with ourselves before we’re freshened and fluffed and sanitized. Before we have ourselves put together again.” – Karen Maezen Miller

When I quit my job to work at home, I was perplexed by the chores that swelled up to fill my every waking moment. “I can be on my feet every second, never stopping, and still the house is a disaster,” another mom lamented to me. I nodded. My boys are gifted at making messes. Recently, when I left the room for thirty seconds, they managed to cover every inch of the living room with a couple of board games — tiny tokens and piles of cards and fake money strewn everywhere. When I first started at this mothering thing, it was tempting to dream about hiring a housekeeper or paring down our wardrobes to two pairs each or replacing all of the dishes with disposables. But soon I realized that the chores were like any other problem. What they needed was my attention.

My feelings about the daily chores have transformed remarkably over the years. They’re messy and monotonous and always there like a gnat buzzing around your head. But as Karen Maezen Miller so beautifully points out in Hand Wash Cold, they are life. And they are incredible life coaches. It would be silly to trek across the world in search of the meaning of it all or to hire an expensive life coach when we can likely find all of the answers we need right here in the dishes and laundry. Here are just a few of the things I’ve learned from the daily chores:

It’s impossible to do anything well if you can’t focus on one thing at a time.

I used to do a few dishes and then wander over to the washing machine and start filling it and then start making a bed and then head back to the dishes for a few minutes and on and on like that all morning long. Then I realized that I felt distracted and frenzied, and nothing at all actually got done.

So I started making a simple checklist. I forced myself to do one thing all the way until the end, crossed it out, and began the next thing. Sometimes this was not easy. Everything in me told me to walk away from the sink. But I stayed. I washed every single dish. I put them away. And then I moved on to laundry. The chores whipped my distracted mind into shape. I probably don’t have to tell you that this focus and discipline transformed my work and every other aspect of my life.

It’s therapeutic to work with your hands.

I like doing the dishes. There, I said it. I do them after every meal and every snack. It’s easier to stay caught up. But in the winter, when the house is cold, I also gravitate toward the warm, sudsy water. Combined with the meditative work of dish washing, it feels, well, healing. My two year old seems to know this. He can spend all day perched at the sink “washing dishes”.

In Lifting Depression, Dr. Kelly Lambert says that when we use our hands and see tangible results from our efforts, our brains are bathed in fell-good chemicals. In this way, all of the daily chores can be as therapeutic as the dishes – making beds, sweeping, folding laundry. We’re using our own two hands to transform our world and make it more beautiful. There’s power in that.

It feels good to do things for other people.

My husband and I used to never fold each other’s laundry. I’d fold and put away my own and the kids’ and leave my husband’s in a basket for him. He said he preferred it that way. Then he got really behind for quite a few weeks, so I folded and put away his laundry for him and discovered something surprising. It made me happy. I felt great to help my husband. He works hard for our family, and here was something I could do to make his life easier.

It probably shouldn’t have surprised me. Helping people makes us happy. A number of studies show that people who give time, money, or support to others are themselves happier and more satisfied. Chores are an act of giving and serving each other. And oh how grateful I am when my husband makes dinner and does countless other chores every day.

Happiness is not something we find, it’s something we make.

There’s no doubt, the chores can be miserable. I’ve spent enough resentment-packed afternoons cleaning the house to know that. But they can also be a lot of fun. When I was a kid, I regularly ate breakfast at my best friend’s house. Her parents made hearty, delicious breakfasts, but what I loved was what happened after breakfast. They turned on music and the entire family cleaned up together. We had a blast talking, singing, dancing and cleaning together, and by the time we left for school, the entire house was spotless. That’s when I realized how magical chores can be. My boys aren’t quite old enough to be real helpers yet. But music or a good podcast are wonderful at transforming the chores into something I look forward to. After all, it’s up to me to make the chores into something that adds to my life.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to life.

Housework may seem innocuous and unassuming, but just beneath it lurks a minefield of gender politics. Many an online forum and a kitchen table have exploded over who should take care of the children and do the housework. And most of us probably carry around scars and baggage from those feuds.

But the chores have to get done. We have to figure out what works, not for politicians or activists, but for us, for our marriages, for our kids, and for our families. And in doing that hard work, the chores can offer us a profound lesson in looking inward and negotiating the sort of lives we want.

What lessons have you learned from the daily chores? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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About Abby Quillen

Abby Quillen writes fiction and magazine articles. Her articles and essays have appeared in YES! Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Colorado Central Magazine, and on Common Dreams, Nation of Change, Reader Supported News, The Daily Good, Truthout, and Shareable.net. You can find more of her writing at http://abbyquillen.com.

Comments

  1. Abby –
    I knew your dad because my dad enjoyed his articles – – I found you through WordPress and have enjoyed each and every post for the past few years – – this comes first, because I want to share with you a realization I had as I read your post and not sure how it will land – –

    I find household chores to be my saving grace ever since I learned of the concept “walking meditation” – the act of fully immersing yourself in an activity to the betterment of your peace of mind – –

    But I have to say I paused over your words:
    “My husband and I used to never fold each others’ laundry. I’d fold and put away my own and the kids’ and leave my husband’s in a basket for him. He said he preferred it that way. Then he got really behind for quite a few weeks, so I folded and put away his laundry for him and discovered something surprising. It made me happy. ”

    I have no doubt of the joy you felt – what gave me pause was that the actions you participated in during what seems like a happy/joyous marriage “My husband and I used to never fold each other’s laundry” was the very activities that only started in my house when my marriage was falling apart.

    I folded his and he folded mine when circumstances meant long hours for me and he was asked to help out – until other issues drove us apart – – I only comment because I’m intrigued – – is this a generational thing? Was I born too close to Civil Rights and Women’s Lib to be raised to envision a life where a husband folded my laundry or we each did our own and that was okay?!?

    It so shocked me to learn that what is taken as ‘status quo’ in your house was the thing that deteriorated in mine once we no longer loved one another – – Do not take this as an indictment on your way of doing things – it just never occurred to me that I wouldn’t fold ALL the laundry unless I was torqued off at my better half – –

    :)

    I probably sound like a hold-over from the 50’s – I swear, I do not bathe and put the children to bed in time to deck myself in pearls/heels and serve my hubby a martini when he comes home from work (but I would have, had he been interested in taking care of us….)

    I just realized that no matter how much we try to educate/better ourselves, there is always a different way of doing things that is so foreign to our way of thinking – –

    And I wonder – is it an evolution in us as a species? A change in our culture carried by new generations? Or a regional tradition that has gained traction because it works – – – It really doesn’t matter what it is – you opened my eyes to a different way of looking at things – – thank you.

    :)

    • Hi Tamrah Jo – Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. Yes, isn’t it so strange how what feels normal to us can feel so foreign to others? My husband and I were together for quite a few years before we had kids, and during all of that time, both of us worked outside the home every day. Having kids changed everything when it came to the division of chores! But I think you’re right that the chores can be like love letters to each other, and if we’re feeling resentful about them or not wanting to do them for each other, maybe there are some deeper issues at work. In this case, I think we were just clinging to an old system that no longer worked for our family.

  2. Thank you for all of the wisdom and inspiration you share here–I always am glad I’ve stopped by to read your latest post.

    The chores and I are still trying to make peace, but this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve been trying to think of chores as my gift to the family–since I am the person in the position to do most of them. Not that we don’t expect our kids to contribute–we do. I want to pass on the feeling of contentment and inspiration that comes from living in a semi-well-ordered and semi-clean environment; instead of feeling resentment towards those family members who may not seem to appreciate my efforts, or track mud on the floor 2 minutes after I vacuum, I just keep trying to remind myself that I am giving a gift, and to “Give without expectation”.

  3. Yes to all of it. Doing one thing at a time, doing them out of kindness, working with our hands, and finding the fun in it—-entirely true for nearly every other aspect of our lives too. You’ve illuminated yet another often overlooked aspect of life.

    I’ve learned more from daily chores than I imagined possible. Here’s a meditation on what laundry is teaching me: http://lauragraceweldon.com/2011/08/15/meaning-of-life-according-to-a-laundry-wench/

    • Laura, I love that post! The heater element on our dryer broke at the beginning of the summer, and I also felt so grateful that it forced me outside to hang the clothes every day. When we got it fixed in September, I was equally grateful to pull warm towels from it again. What decadence!

  4. Excellent Abby :) Loved this post. I also like Wendy’s comment :) Well said.
    xo

  5. Shirley West says:

    This is the first of your blog I’ve read, Abby, and I’m so impressed with your wisdom. I am such the flitter. I plan to focus on one chore at a time and see what happens.

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