I Never Learned How to Clean (And It's Not As Fun As It Sounds)

My boyfriend and I really only fight about two things: money and cleaning the house.

Oct 21, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

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My boyfriend and I really only fight about two things: money and cleaning the house. I am told these, along with parenting decisions, are two things that many couples fight about.

In a script-flip of the stereotypical gender roles in a relationship, I am the one who causes most of these housecleaning fights, by, well, just not doing it mostly. But also by leaving coffee rings on the counter or hair dye splotches on the bathroom counter or a sink full of dirty dishes.

It's hard to explain this without sounding like I am making excuses, but the truth is that I actually don't see messes the same way other people seem to.

The reason is most likely that I grew up in a house that was, apologies to Mom and Dad, filthy. Despite the fact that we lived in a decade-old suburban home, everything was old, peeling and falling apart, like we'd lived in it too hard. It wasn't just clutter, it was unsanitary -- bathroom and kitchen surfaces that never saw a good scrubbing, a roach army spreading out from their home base in the dishwasher, a fish tank full of scum and dead fish that continued to fester for 6 months after their untimely demise. My mother had at some point pulled up the stained carpet for a home-improvement project never completed, so our living and dining room had homey cement floors.  My brother and I literally discarded garbage behind the living room couch.

My room was its own horror show -- I was a nightly bedwetter who rarely changed the sheets, and a negligent cat owner, who rarely cleaned my pet's litter box and instead just grew used to the smell of cat feces and urine smells commingled with my human variety. I had white carpet, an unfortunate choice that only showcased the disgusting and unidentifiable stains that marred it all over. Trash and clothes were piled a foot high on my floor, so that I had to jump from my doorway onto the bed. I think I may have actually blacked out what had to be the horrifying experience of cleaning out from under my bed when I went to college.

I felt a lot of shame about our dirty house as a child; I spent time at the homes of other neighborhood kids and marveled at how their houses always seemed to stay clean -- not because they'd desparately overhauled the whole place starting a week in advance of known company, but because it just looked that way, pretty much all the time. I couldn't have those same friends over to my house; in fact, I barely cracked the door when someone came by to make sure no one could see inside.

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I went off to college and gratefully have never had to live like that again. Not that I exactly became a neat freak. If there's no rotting food or bodily fluids anywhere, I tend to feel pretty proud of myself.

And then, of course, I spent the next half-decade of my life learning everything about how to party and basically nothing about how to handle the daily minutiae of being a functioning human in the world.

When I got sober, I didn't know how to pay my bills, plan and execute meals, listen to my voicemails or get to work on time. Some of these things I have learned how to do (I'm a pro voice-mail listener now and no longer break out into cold sweats when I have to use the phone to talk to strangers, ala scheduling a doctor's appointment). Some of those things I am still learning. Cleaning is one of those things.

Most of the time the mistakes I make are a result of things that never even occurred to me. I may toss out a half-full container of ice cream without washing it out first, so that it then drips through the garbage bag into the trash can, then on to the floor. Then I feel caught like a deer in headlights, exposed as that shame-filled little girl who peed her bed and slept in it night after night, and who once flipped the kitchen light on during a sleepover only to have her friends gasp as a legion of roaches scattered everywhere.

I screw up all the time. I direct your attention to the great juice debacle of last week, when I decided I would make my pressed juices last longer by freezing them, but didn't take into account the fact that they would expand in their bottles and begin to bubble through the seals. I try not to be too hard on myself, because a) making mistakes is a great way to learn how not to do something and b) I'm doing my best with the tools that I have. There's no shame in not knowing to do something you were never taught how to do.

But it's not even the major fauxpas that are the real problem. It's the things I just don't notice, the obliviousness that could be interpreted as carelessness and that I don't know how to fix. I might apply my lipstick, get some on my hands, then turn off the light, leaving red stains all over the wall and switch. I'd be happy to clean it up if I would ever in a million years notice it, or any of the other little stains and spills and messes I leave in my wake constantly.

My progress is slow, and sometimes I get frustrated. But I also don't know how to learn any faster, how to train myself to see a mess, to stop feeling completely ambushed by obvious things. And yet, I've learned how to clean the bathroom, after a step-by-step tutorial. I've learned how to dress appropriately for the weather, and carry an umbrella when it looks like rain. I know what a head of lettuce looks like, which I am embarrassed to say is a fairly recent development following a confused grocery-store visit in which I wandered around looking for lettuce as it looks in a salad. And I recently learned that gently disentangling an article of clothing from the hanger, as opposed to just jerking it off by the sleeve, is much less likely to result in ripped clothing.

They say there's no use crying over spilled milk, but I do sometimes. And then I clean it up and try again.