My 11-month-old son doesn’t use a pacifier anymore; he prefers to suck his thumb. I don’t blame him, and nor am I surprised. I, myself, was a voracious thumb sucker. In fact, I loved it so much that at eight years old, I was threatened with a metal torture device disguised as orthodontia aptly called, “a crib.” It’s a metal bar with spikes cemented behind your front teeth, designed to make it impossible to comfortably suck your thumb. Terrified at the thought, I chose a different, quieter sort of psychological pain to kick this dental nightmare. I developed anxiety around over washing my hands by convincing myself that they were always dirty. While I did stop sucking my thumb, I also picked up some strange anxieties and habits around cleanliness.
I now am a person who owns two Dyson vacuums. Somewhere between my childhood room and owning a home, I cultivated a productive habit of putting things away at night, never leaving dishes in the sink, and regularly deep cleaning.
Six and a half years ago, I moved in with my now-husband — a guy who slept next to a giant cardboard cutout of a popsicle and an obstacle course of stuff to navigate on the way to the bathroom. I don’t like to label that I’m “clean” and he is “messy.” I believe we have different tolerance levels for clutter and mess, broad strokes and detail. This is why we have an agreement that plays into our strengths: I’m in charge of everyday cleaning and maintenance, he is in charge of handling home improvement projects. This way we both make equitable contributions to household upkeep.
Then we adopted two cats. (So much fur and litter!) Then I gave birth to a human baby. (So much laundry!) Then there was a pandemic. (So much EVERYTHING!)
I’ve heard competitive athletes describe running as a way to clear their mind, leaving them feeling balanced. That’s how cleaning feels for me. I’m basically a marathon runner. I put in my headphones, turn on music or a podcast, get in the zone, and go non-stop for, like, three hours straight with my husband and child cheering me on from the sidelines of the living room. The first time in my adult life I hired a professional house cleaner was days before I gave birth when I physically could no longer perform the work. I quickly realized that with a newborn, I still needed help. I continued to enjoy this luxury once a month, even though it took every fiber inside me to not pick up a rag and join them.
I don’t say this with a sense of superiority; quite the opposite. Cleaning is how I manage my anxiety. It’s how I create order in my environment to feel secure and in control. I can’t fix a tough work situation, but I can scrub this stovetop. I can’t take back looking away for a second when my son busted his lip on the kitchen tile, but I can vigorously vacuum the rug.
Life is meant to be full of stress and mess. It’s what I signed up for. But, recently, it’s all been a bit…much. If cleaning is my anti-depressant, I think I’ve hit the maximum dosage.
With pandemic precautions, we have not felt comfortable hiring professional cleaning help since early March. At first, I reveled in reclaiming the deep clean, getting my old Lysol legs back after being adrift at baby sea. But as the months pass even me — a person who can readily be found crouched on the floor collecting clumps of cat hair — is feeling burnt out on cleaning. At the end of every day, after I’ve cleaned the kitchen and put the toys away, I wonder, how will I get up and do it all again tomorrow? Somehow, after the cats have woken me up at 5 am, I do.
The very thing that has always held me together is now breaking me down one sweep at a time. You’d think I’d let some of the mess fester, go a little easier on myself, and allow things to slide. But I’ve only clung to it tighter and more fiercely. Some days, it feels like cleaning is all I have to help me fill the day with purpose. On catchups with friends and family, they ask how I’m doing, but I’m not doing anything, I want to tell them. I’m cleaning.
I am vacuuming with a 20-pound weight on my hip. I’m preparing, feeding and cleaning up after a human who’s learning to eat four times a day. I’m making bottles. Cleaning bottles. Presenting toys. Putting toys away. Cleaning the litter box. Changing the litter box. Changing a diaper. Wiping a butt. Wiping my hand because it got dirty wiping the butt. Refilling the diapers. Sorting the clothes. Washing the clothes. Drying the sheets. Forgetting about the towels in the dryer for two days. Folding tiny socks. Removing postpartum hair from furniture.
And this is just an everyday to-do list. Layered on top of this exhaustive routine is pandemic related cleaning like sanitizing hands, wiping all the groceries in an elaborate assembly line before they enter the home, questioning whether or not I need to even conduct this strange choreography with the groceries, gingerly opening the mail, washing hands, washing clothes, and wiping, wiping, wiping.
A friend and I recently lamented that this pandemic has stolen our shared love of wearing bold lipstick. She says she started wearing it around the house for fun. I tell her I’d do the same, except it would only end up all over the baby and I literally cannot bear the thought of cleaning another thing.
I’ve been doing all of this without any help, aside from my partner, for almost half of my baby’s life. It’s no wonder I’ve had a difficult time discerning what is a byproduct of being a new parent and the pandemic. Surely, there is an overlap between the two in an uptick of surfaces to wipe, laundry to wash, and sheer monotony of days bleeding together, one nap and dishwasher cycle at a time.
We’re not just parenting, which is difficult in and of itself, we’re parenting during a pandemic. From what I can tell in my limited experience with both, the stark difference is community.
While I fully recognize the gift my son has been given to have both of his parents as his primary caregivers for the first year of life (and potentially beyond), the collective we are not meant to raise our children alone — especially when both parents are simultaneously trying to find time to earn a living. Especially when one parent can’t relax until every dish is out of the sink, and all the laundry is folded.
All the buzzing group texts, Zoom meetings, and Instagram DM convos don’t hide that fact that I feel lonely. All the major milestones and minor moments are grieved on a weekly basis. No first birthday party. No swim classes. No over tipping our server to apologize for the mess our baby made at the table. No interaction with other babies. Limited family visits and outdoor waves of hello don’t replace hugs, human touch, and the joy and relief of seeing your baby held by someone else. No babysitters. No daycare. No one to help.
Every moment the baby is sleeping is packed with work, laundry, and cleaning up. There is no end. I am not doing. I am surviving and cleaning up everything in my wake.
But, I have immense privilege. I have a healthy family. I have (a reduced) income. I have a house to clean. I have clothes to wash. I have a happy baby to care for. There is room to be both unfathomably grateful for my circumstance and still be so very tired of cleaning.