Messy homes mess up lives

Housework is the focus of an international conference in London today.
Aggie MacKenzie | Mar 17 2011 | comment  

Feeling guilty about the dishes you left in the sink this morning? The cupboards you never get around to cleaning out? The dust piling up under the bed that is difficult to move? Maybe you need to tune into a conference on professional approaches to housework opening in London today (March 17) and listen to famous British Dirt Detective Aggie MacKenzie talking about the dark underbelly of 21st century housekeeping -- and what to do about it.

But first you can read Aggie’s interview with MercatorNet, in which the presenter of the internationally popular UK television series, How Clean Is Your House, discusses the importance of a clean and tidy home to the self-esteem of adults and the security of children.

The conference, Sustainable Living: Professional Approaches to Housework, is the third in a series organised by the Home Renaissance Foundation and aimed at renewing the culture of the home. You can follow it on CoveritLive or on Twitter: @HRFLondon.

* * * * *

MercatorNet: Isn’t cleanliness a bourgeois value that we got rid of in the 1960s? Don’t we have better things to do today than keep our houses spic and span?

Aggie MacKenzie: There are many important things we have to do today and we should not get obsessed with housework. But keeping a clean and tidy house is certainly not bourgeois. In days gone by dirt was a social taboo among working class families, especially in Scotland where I come from. My goodness, if you didn’t have your washing on the line by noon you were regarded as a trollop. There was a lot of social pressure involved and a fear of criticism, however, which could make things uncomfortable at home. We have to strike a balance between what makes a home both healthy and happy.

The homes we dealt with on our TV show were at the other extreme. Some would not have been touched for years, decades even, and were full of harmful bacteria -- listeria in the fridge, grime everywhere. There were people with permanent coughs, skin infections. On the whole, the people living in these houses had built up an immunity to the bacteria, but it was very dangerous for anyone visiting. We had a microbiologist with us on site who warned us that we should all be wearing masks. After cleaning one house -- it was filled with junk brought home from a landfill -- we were all ill and on antibiotics.

How do people get into such a state?

Basically it reflects people’s psychological state. These are often people who have been emotionally deprived in childhood and have a sense that they don’t deserve anything better. In other cases things spiral down because of bereavement, debt, bankruptcy and other circumstances. Inside these people are a mess and this expresses itself in the disorder around them.

It comes to the point where, although they hate what is happening and want to make a move, they are simply incapable of doing it by themselves. That is why people were willing to volunteer for our show, sometimes at the prompting of relatives or friends.

There was a mother of three children, for example, who was always out doing charity work because she could not bear the state of her house. But after we went in she began to see how she could bring order into it again. She got everyone organised, joined a slimming club and started a college course, and she told us that everyone at home was much happier.

Is this a problem of the poor, or does it affect middleclass people too?

Absolutely it affects the middleclass. It is not gender specific either. It is much more about what is in the head than what is in their bank account. Middleclass people, however, may be better at hiding what is going on at home. The fact that a person is well groomed, shoes polished and confident looking does not necessarily tell you what is going on behind their door.

Has it always been like this, with a minority of people losing their grip, or has there been a general slide in standards of cleanliness -- and if so, why?

I think there has been a cultural change that we haven’t quite come to terms with. In my mother’s day, looking after the house was her job -- keeping it clean, putting wholesome food on the table. Now, because women -- including myself -- want to have jobs outside the home, and because the cost of housing pretty well makes it necessary for them to have a paid job, we have new priorities: jobs, families, social life, getting food on the table… and something has to give, often housework. And because we feel a residual guilt about not being at home, we would rather leave it to the cleaner who comes in once a week than nag the children about doing jobs around the house.

But then we set off a cycle whereby children are growing up not knowing anything about these domestic skills. We have got to start kids very young learning the benefits of being well organised and having pride in a home that is clean and well ordered. And they should learn that everyone in the house needs to muck in, so to speak!

Children do like order, don’t they?

Oh, definitely. It’s one thing children really need in order to feel safe and happy. My mother was probably too clean and tidy, but we certainly had that sense of security that comes from knowing where things are and when things are going to happen -- that plus a warm house, good home-cooked food and clean clothes to put on in the morning.

A friend who is a social worker was trying to help a single mother with two children. Their house was in chaos and their lives unstructured in every way. When she asked the eight-year-old girl, How would you like your life to be? She answered, I would like Kim (my co-presenter) and Aggie to come here and sort us out.

A chaotic home not only makes children feel insecure, it also isolates them from other children. They might sleep over at a friend’s home but they can’t reciprocate. They see how other homes are and they are ashamed to bring anyone to their place. They can carry around a sense of shame at being part of that family.

So what is the key to getting the right balance between having things ship-shape and being able to relax at home?

I think one factor is having interests outside the home, so that you don’t get fanatical about having everything just-so and resent people coming in and messing it up. Also, everyone in the home needs to be involved in looking after it, and everyone should feel they can invite their friends in -- there will be a relaxed atmosphere and a bit of food in the cupboard. The door will be open and it will be somewhere people want to come.

All this is something people have to learn in the family. Without family life everything falls apart. And the more you give the children when they are young the more they will carry with them through their lives. I can’t say that I have always done it well, but that is what I have learned.

Aggie MacKenzie was interviewed by Carolyn Moynihan.

This article is published by Aggie MacKenzie and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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