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Sweeping away housework: Have American cleaning standards dropped too low?

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Whenever Pam McCarthy hears tunes from West Side Story or The Sound of Music, she imagines the scent of Pine-Sol. The music takes her back to childhood Saturday mornings, when she, her brother and sister would help their mother clean the house from trim to baseboards - all the while listening to Broadway-musical soundtracks.

Nowadays, four children, a husband and a houseful of busy schedules preclude Mrs. McCarthy from echoing her mother's spotless standards.

"Gosh, no!" she says. "My mom would run a toothpick along the edge of the stove between the tile and the counter top - every day [to clean out accumulated crud]! That's not on my agenda."

Such meticulous cleaning seems to be sliding farther down many of our must-do lists. In 1965, according to University of Maryland research, women spent 30 hours a week on housework. In 1995, the number had dropped to 17.5.

One reason is demographics. Women today are more likely to work outside the home, less likely to be married, more likely to have fewer children than did their own mothers. But that accounts for only about half the reason for the decline, says sociology professor Suzanne Bianchi, co-author of the research project. The rest is anyone's guess.

"My suspicion is that, given the number of things women - and men, too, but mostly women - have to do . . . that ideally, they might want a cleaner house. But that's one of the things that gives," Dr. Bianchi says. "We only have so much time. You prioritize what it is you have to attend to, and housework may be one of those you let slide."

People arrive home from work tired, plus they haven't developed efficient ways of cleaning house - a double whammy, says Alan Hedge of Cornell University. And while washing machines, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners certainly make life easier, housework still is hard.

"Bathrooms are rated as very tiring," says Dr. Hedge, who, along with a graduate student, conducted a study of household work. "There are difficult designs to clean and maintain. It's awkward space, and restricted."

His deduction: Changes should be made in houses, as they are in business settings, that so furnishings and fixtures are more ergonomically efficient. Or, in laymen's terms, so that you don't have to be a contortionist to clean behind the toilet.

For many years, Armenia Jacobsen taught what used to be called home economics. Girls learned specific household cleaning skills. Now, Dr. Jacobsen says, "Family and Consumer Science" classes teach students how to make the best use of their resources: time, energy, money.

"Rather than assuming you'll do all the things your grandmother taught you, you learn how to do them in the most efficient way," says Dr. Jacobsen, associate professor of development and family studies at the University of North Texas.

"I don't know too many people who worry about [having a clean house]," Dr. Jacobsen says. "They have so many demands. When they come home, they want home to be a pleasant place where they can let down, relax. It's a space for their comfort, not a showplace."

On the other hand, all the books available about housekeeping indicate that we're at least interested in learning about it. As of last Thursday, Cheryl Mendelson's 889-page tome Home Comforts (Scribner, $35) ranked No. 71 on Amazon.com's best-seller list.

"Reading a book about it and doing it are two different things," Dr. Bianchi says. "I read books about organizing my closet, and never do it."

Still, readers tell Ms. Mendelson they're using her well-researched knowledge on everything from scheduling specific chores for specific days to figuring the chemistry of cleaning products.

The book is intriguing, thought-provoking, a bit mesmerizing. It's part practical (even including a how-to drawing of sweeping a pile of dirt into a dustpan), part psychological.

"Inadequate housekeeping is part of an unfortunate cycle," writes Ms. Mendelson, a wife, mother and attorney with a Ph.D. in philosophy. "As people turn more and more to outside institutions to have their needs met [for food, comfort, clean laundry, relaxation, entertainment, society, rest], domestic skills and expectations further diminish, in turn decreasing the chance that people's homes can satisfy their needs. The result is far too many people who long for home even though they seem to have one."

Heavy? As a wet load of blue jeans. But a bit liberating, too. She makes it OK to enjoy housework.

"It's important to look at this, not just in terms of duty, but that this will make you feel good in life and let you lead your fullest and best life," Ms. Mendelson says from her New York apartment.

Finding a balance

Which doesn't mean she's a stickler for cleaning. Overdoing it, she says, destroys what you're trying to achieve. The key is finding a balance.

"The more skills you have, the easier it is to provide it," Ms. Mendelson says. "The faster you can do it and the more deeply you understand what you're up to, the better you can set priorities, cut corners, skip things."

Judging by sales of the book, with 200,000 copies in print, she is hopeful that the pendulum is swinging back to pride in keeping house.

For some people, that pride - and the love for achieving it - never left.

"I like to get in here, pull out all the furniture and vacuum," says Ginger Rater, a 50-ish cosmetologist and singer in Paris, Texas. "April is my favorite time of year. That's when I want to get up and get everything done. I enjoy it. It's a sense of accomplishment, and you know everything is absolutely spotless and clean."

When Rachael Johnson Mercer, 22, moved out of her childhood home, she began to take more pride in housecleaning.

"I love to clean, and once it's clean, everything's right with the world," says Ms. Mercer, a Bedford resident. When she begins her weekly cleaning binges, her husband of six months - who's usually watching TV at the time - encourages her to relax. Replies Ms. Mercer: "I AM relaxing!"

(Her husband, by the way, does all the ironing for both of them.)

Kathy Adam, for the most part, detests cleaning house. Unless she's stressed out.

"When I'm upset or frustrated, my house is cleaner by far than when I'm happy," says Ms. Adam, 40. "I take out my aggressions scrubbing the kitchen floor on my hands and knees, or vacuuming the heck out of everything. And I always feel better afterwards!"

She inherited at least one of her mother's techniques. It doesn't, however, exactly involve cleaning.

Stashing the mess

"Back in the days when Mom was raising two teenagers, when people would show up at a moment's notice, dirty pots and pans ended up in the oven," says Ms. Adam, who lives in Irving. "My downfall is my den. When I clean up the 'visible' rooms, I tend to dump everything in the den. Then I close the doors to it when I have folks over."

Ah, the knowledge our parents impart - and, even scarier, what we'll impart to our own kids. If we're not cleaning . . . or cooking . . . or washing clothes . . . then who is going to teach these skills to the next generation?

Research shows that kids' schedules are so booked, they're not helping out much at home. Some have discovered that key words - such as "homework" or "test tomorrow" - can keep them chore-free. But as a result, writes Illinois columnist Karen Stephens,"Too many kids remain in an unnecessary state of helplessness. They get used to having someone take care of their needs and whims."

Patsy Beasley of Tyler taught her young sons how to wash clothes (without fading colors), fix a broken zipper, sew on a button and iron their clothes.

"I wanted them to be self-sufficient, which makes them self-confident," she says. "I also wanted them to choose a wife because they wanted her and not because they needed her to survive."

As Ms. Mendelson, the author, takes care of her home, she shows her 8-year-old son how.

"It's great for kids to have competence," Ms. Mendelson says. "I'll say, "C'mon over. I want to show you how I separated these clothes into colors.' Kids are overbooked. There's no schmooze time built in. But down time counts so much to keeping them calm, and they're learning. I find when they're doing things with you like that, they talk to you more."

Ms. Rater of Paris still remembers the enjoyment she felt in helping her mother clean house.

"Mama made things fun," she says. "It was not work. Mama whistled as she worked. When I do this, I'm just a-singing at the top of my voice."

Something else to know about Ms. Rater - particularly for those of us who leap on any excuse not to clean house: She is legally blind.
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