Is cleaning help a necessity?

 >>So… 5 kids, oldest is almost 7 and youngest is 4 months. Trying very hard to homeschool.  My resources are extremely limited, from finances to actual help from other people, included family. I spoke to a friend last Thursday who called me out of the blue to see how I was doing. She asked if I had cleaning help, I told her no, (I’ve had cleaning help on and off since my 3rd was 6 months old, depending on finances). Friday she sent me cleaning help as a gift for having my baby. I was so grateful that I was in tears when they came. I was sick most of last week and I know it’s from over-exertion and stress. I was so extremely thankful for the cleaning help, it’s truly what i needed to enter shabbos with a clear mind. This friend, also while doing something very generous for me, also made me feel quite guilty for not having cleaning help and the consequences it will have on my kids for not getting help(like having this stressed out mommy who is always trying to clean and do everything else, expecting the kids to help beyond what they’re capable of). I told her it’s not my thing to live so above my means and I can’t justify paying for it when I have debts and trying to budget for necessities (we do the best we can). She then told me that cleaning help is a necessity, that it should be up there with food and a home.

I know there is no right or wrong way, but choosing a way that works best for us. And I’m not asking you if I should or shouldn’t spend the money on cleaning help, that decision is up to me and my husband. But I was hoping you could give me some guidance.<<

I can relate to the many demands you’re feeling: a number of young children who are home all day, the responsibility of homeschooling, a husband who is away for work a lot and consequently not very available to help out and no extra money to ease the situation.  This is exactly my situation for a long time.  

As anyone who’s been reading for long enough knows, I think it’s really important that kids learn to help out.  The house isn’t just the mother’s responsibility; everyone lives in it and everyone should be contributing something.  That means teaching your kids to help out, and this itself is a job.  My dd15 took over running the house while Yirmiyahu was in the NICU, and she told me then that when she was younger and I told her she needed to help with chores not because it was easier for me but because it was important for her she didn’t believe me at all.  Then she tried to get the younger kids to help out, experienced firsthand spending a long time getting a younger child to do a job that would literally take her two minutes, and suddenly understood what I told her all those years before.  In the short term it takes a lot of time and energy to teach your kids to help.  It’s mostly in the long run that you see the payoff.

Having said that, even if your kids are helpful, we have to be realistic about how much to ask of them.  With your kids the ages they are, you’re at the very beginning of the path of teaching them; they aren’t able to help significantly and you’re going to have a lot of mess.  That means we have to have a reasonable expectation of what our home is going to look like.  Dr. Sarah Chana Radcliffe once wrote (quoting by memory so this isn’t exact), “There are very few women who can balance ‘clean and shiny’ with ‘scream and whiny’!” and I agree with this.  I like a really clean home.  But I know that I can’t have that level of clean without being a lot more demanding of my family and myself.  I can’t have my kids home all day and be a reasonably pleasant mother and also keep everything looking as if no one lives here.  It’s just not going to happen unless I decide that a clean house is a top priority – which it isn’t.  My kids and husband are my top priority.

It’s a problem – our culture paints pictures of what a home should look like that are simply not realistic for the vast majority of people, and then we stress out and feel inadequate because we can’t meet that picture.  It’s like pictures of models that have been airbrushed and then women compare themselves to them- even the models don’t look like their pictures so why should anyone be trying to meet a standard that doesn’t exist in real life?  Similarly, it’s unlikely that most people homeschooling five kids under the age of 7 have a sparkling house without cleaning help.  Actually, when I spoke to a good friend about this several years ago, she provided a reality check and said told me she doesn’t know anyone who isn’t homeschooling who has that ‘magazine’ clean without cleaning help!

An older friend who is no longer alive and was herself the mother of ten children once said to me, “Avivah, a factory that is in operation is going to be a mess.  When a factory is clean, it’s not in business.”  I took my kids to the Herrs’ potato chip factory a couple of times and though it seems so much is automated that a mess can’t happen, we saw a couple of large spills of chips in different sections of the factory – even factories with all their machinery and automation and paid workers can’t make it look sterile and perfect all the time.  Her point was that our homes are in use and constant messes are just par for the course, and this is not only tolerable but something beautiful – our kids are living here!  We’re doing things with them!  They feel safe enough to make messes!

One time I hosted a women’s event at my home and several women were commenting, “Your house is so spotless, it’s so quiet, how did you get your kids to sleep?”  I laughed and told them, of course it’s neat, it’s the end of the day and I knew people were coming so we cleaned up and got everyone to bed earlier than usual!  I assured them that two hours before that it looked quite different!  Isn’t it strange how we know what we have to do to make our house look good and that sometimes we scramble to pull it off, but assume when we go to someone else’s house that she did it effortlessly and it always looks like that?

People are very different in their needs and how they deal with not having things the way they want them to be.  I never had cleaning help and worked on having realistic expectations of myself and my kids, in addition to having systems in place to make things run as smoothly as possible (ie meal plans, chore charts, daily schedules).  I have a good friend who is in a financially tight situation who said she considers cleaning help critical and is sorry she didn’t get this help years ago.  For myself I have a really  hard time putting cleaning help up there as a necessity along with food and a place to live but for some people that’s what they need.  I have a strong value for staying out of debt and living within my means and it would be really hard for me to say, “I don’t have the money for this but I’m doing it anyway.”  If it was enough of a value for me I’d have found a way, just as my friend did.

So to sum up – I agree with your friend that being tense and expecting too much of your kids isn’t healthy.  Getting cleaning help is one way to address that.  But it’s not the only way.  Another is to let go of the tension and expectations.  Streamline what really needs to be done for the house to look reasonable – 80% of the cleanliness of your home will come from 20% of your efforts, so identify what the 20% effort you need to make is and focus on that.  For me it means clearing surfaces (this includes dishes) and and the floor – the little cluttery things build up and make everything look messy, so I try to keep that at bay.  An example of this approach for me is that I sweep several times a day to keep the floor clear but I only mop once a week (I spot clean if there’s a messy spill) – the extra level of shine is nice for Shabbos but doesn’t dramatically affect the look of the house on a daily basis.

Take the same approach to determining how to spend your effort homeschooling – you can easily get overwhelmed by all the subjects you think you need to cover, projects or trips you need to do – but 80% of your results are going to come from 20% of your efforts.  This is why I put my energies toward teaching the basics – the three Rs – and teaching my kids to become independent learners.  When you have extra time, then you can start doing the things that take 80 percent of your energy and only give you 20% of your results.

Let go of unrealistic expectations and do what you need to do to show yourself the love and care you deserve.  This may be getting cleaning help, it may be repaying debt…only you can know what’s right for you.  And remember – it does get easier as the kids get older!


17 thoughts on “Is cleaning help a necessity?

  1. This is a really good post; you gave great tips. For me, having 6 kids k’ah age 10 and under, all home with me, I can relate to a lot of what your questioner asked. I do have cleaning help, but only erev Shabbos. The rest of the week, its up to us to keep the house looking neat. I constantly remind myself that there are always people (and a lot of them) in the house so its not going to stay clean and neat all throughout the day. Like you, a clean house is not my top priority. We have set clean up times throughout the day (mainly once before lunch and once before dinner); this helps to keep the mess at bay. Another trick I use, especially in our playroom, is to put an empty laundry basket on the couch..then I walk around the room and anything that is not where it belongs, goes into the basket. After only a few minutes, the room is entirely clean except for the laundry basket. Visually its clean, and that means a lot. The laundry basket can be dealt with at any time. This has helped me keep my sanity, so many times. (I’ll do the same thing in kids bedrooms …one basket is a lot easier for little kids to handle then a whole room.)

    When you have time, would you please explain how you teach your kids to be ‘independent learners’?

    Thank you!

    1. Great suggestions, r! We do something similar with having two to three set times a day that we put things back in order, and I’m glad you mentioned the basket. It really does make it much easier when you can visually clear the area.

  2. one thing i have found helpful too is to make sure i don’t have too much “stuff” for my space. often when i was getting overwhelmed by mess when my kids were little, it was a sign that we had too many things gong on in that space, and getting rid of broken toys/ripped books in the play area, or unusable clothes in the bedroom, or sending old ratty towels into the rag bag or whatever would sometimes do a lot to calm down the mental overload. then a once in a while deep cleaning could accomplish a lot more. and hang in there- even though this stage seems endless, it really does seem like it was over way too quickly once your kids are older, and one of my biggest regrets is that i didn’t spend more time enjoying my family and less time micromanaging my house…

    1. Julie, I’m totally with you on the importance of keeping clutter at bay. Having said that, even with decluttering I felt there was still so much stuff and so many people using it all that it could get overwhelming.

      I appreciate you sharing your thoughts as you look back, it’s really helpful and encouraging for those still in the throes of living with young kids.

  3. I hope you don’t mind me, a reader who doesn’t know anything except my own experience, adding in my two cents!
    In line with Avivah’s tip on “streamlining”– a great tip I read was that every single item you own should have a home, and the home should make sense (I really recommend “It’s About Time”, an organizing book by Artscroll.) Something you use frequently throughout the day should be in a very easy spot, and less frequently used items can take a little more effort to access and put back. For example, we used to leave empty recyclable plastic containers and water bottles lying around forever because the recycling bin was jammed in the back of an overstuffed closet and so annoying to get to, but then after reading this tip I found a new spot really easy to access. (Funny how this simple point which seems so obvious honestly never occurred to me…) So when it comes to a designated clean-up time, such as before bedtime and erev shabbos, you don’t have to think about where stuff goes and if everybody helps a little it could be fast. Combined with decluttering (to limit the stuff in circulation) this has been really helpful for me…but a major, major, major work in progress!!!
    Another tip I would like to share is about toys. Maybe Avivah can chime in on this– I really think it’s fine to limit how many toys the kids have access to at once. If there are a lot of toys with a million pieces that take forever to clean up, let them play with one or two boxes at a time. I read a wonderful book called “Simplicity Parenting,” which posited the theory that children become more deeply engrossed in and appreciative of a given toy when they are allowed to focus on it. They will play for a long time with a box of wooden blocks and some stuffed animals when there aren’t a million other things distracting them. I don’t know if this is true for everyone but it works for us, for now at least.
    Thirdly, I don’t like visual clutter but grime/dirt has to be pretty bad to bother me. I’ve found that by taking 2 seconds to wipe down counters every night and then on Erev Shabbos (after clutter put away) just doing a little anit-dirt cleaning in every room and a quickie floor wash (I have a “miracle mop” that I’m obsessed with – it’s like a swiffer but just uses water) is good enough for me. I had a cleaning lady a few times but she spent 2 hours on a tiny bathroom and it just wasn’t worth it for me. But that’s just me :) It helps to have an easy to sweep floor that doesn’t need vacuuming. Maybe before Pesach I’ll hire someone to do a deep clean or do it myself ….or maybe not (assuming actual pesach cleaning requirements are taken care of) but that’s another story.

    HATZLACHAH and sending tons of chizuk your way. You are doing amazing!!! Enjoy your family :) Sorry for my long comment.

    1. Shuli, all I have to share on this blog is my own experience, and I welcome the experience of others! Your points were great and I especially like the one about limiting toys – thank you for sharing!

  4. thank you so much avivah for your response and for all the comments. it was very helpful.
    I went back and forth about this with my husband a lot these past few weeks and his bottom line was: when he’s away, he wants to know that there is someone here to help me. it doesn’t matter what they do to help, as long as they are here to help me. (he doesn’t like coming home to find me drained, overwhelmed and depressed- which i’ve been a lot lately.)
    I’ve tried to find reliable babysitters or mother’s helpers, all with lots of effort and very little success, and once i find someone they start to flake, move away, etc.
    i was walking to shul last week and bumped into my very first cleaning lady who helped me in our old apartment (i hired her when i had my 3rd baby and my oldest wasn’t even 2 1/2). i asked her to come by our house and give me a quote. she just came last week and gave me a reasonable quote- i like her, she cleans well, is honest and reliable. we will see how it goes and it doesn’t have to be a consistent thing. maybe here and there when i really need it so i dont absolutely fall apart 😉

  5. One thing I’ve picked up is 5 minute cleanups. Go into a room and spend exactly 5 minutes picking up, putting things away… you can actually accomplish lot like this and its not overwhelming.

  6. Thanx for some good tips you have here. I would like to stress the importance of being honest with where you are right now even if it’s not convenient. I have strong feelings about this because this took me a while to learn and has made a great difference in my life and that of my family. Although living within the budget is definitely an important value, there’s also a limited amount of years that the kids are all really young and it can bring great payoffs to get the help you need now. We’ve learned to ask, “how can we afford this?” instead of just saying “we can’t afford it.” (I think this is from Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert Kiyasaki ,a great book about finances for adults and teens, I think everyone should read it.) We’ve seen miracles happen when we think this way. HaShem has literally responded with checks in the mail. Especially when the budget is tight it can be much easier to push off our needs than figure out how to make it work.
    I went to a shiur on Shalom Bayis and the speaker who works with many couples spoke about how helpful this can be. A lot of times we can find time and energy to do what absolutely needs to be done like cleaning, caring for kids… but many times by the end of the day women are too tired to really be there with their husbands emotionally or physically. One of the first things that she recommends to people that come to her is to get help with childcare and cleaning help.
    My experience has been that cleaning help was actually cheaper than what I was doing to take care of the physical symptoms I was having from holding babies, cleaning, cooking, nursing…the whole day. like chiropractor, vitamins, massage…(At some points I was not able to function otherwise, these were not in the budget but ended becoming necessities.) Even though at first I didn’t want to get help because I enjoy housework, I don’t always like someone else in my space, budget, I didn’t want to admit that I needed someone else to care for something that wasn’t hard to do and just took time….
    Once I got even a little help I realized that I really should have done it earlier. One of the things that I figured out is how to maximize the help so a little can go a long way. As mentioned above, everyone has their things that if they’re clean the house is clean for them. Ie floors mopped, carpets vacuumed, laundry folded… I’ve also found that there’s usually something that’s a bigger deal to do for you to do (eether mentally or logistically or just because you don’t like doing it.) like two handed jobs when you are holding a baby or two a lot of the day, piles of laundry, dishes after a batch cooking session or just in general. So the concept is have a cleaning lady come for an hour and do those things that are big for you or priorities for you and you can get a ton taken care of this way. (I have someone wash dishes sometimes but not dry and put away, fold laundry but not put away… The money and help can go really far this way. I have a friend who found someone else’s lady to come and do this for half an hour and it was a HUGE help to her.
    I think you need to be careful that kids don’t become the cleaning help. Although I totally agree that children need to help out for their good and teach kids to do the same, I think you need to be in a space to be able to teach them that. I’ve seen especially girls being very resentful of their mothers because they felt like they worked them too hard. But there is sooo much to do….
    So now I think of it as preventative medicine. Even if you are eating nutritious food but you are stressed your body can’t really absorb it. And ditto for tons of vitamins. Know that its helping me be more present to myself and my family and get off the wheel a little of doing everything that needs to be done, and being a little more. While I don’t think it’s a necessity like food, its definitely something that can help improve a lot of areas for pretty low costs if used smartly.

  7. I really have enjoyed this thread because it’s something I think about a lot and I really liked everybody’s suggestions! So I want to add on top of my previous post, for the sake of full disclosure: I get a lot of childcare help while my preschool aged kids are home, and we decided to invest in 2 major forms of household “help”: a freezer chest immediately, and later on a dishwasher :) For me this is where I’d rather spend money than cleaning ladies which are personally not my thing, as I mentioned above, but I need these other forms of help for my mental health so they are worth it. So there’s no rules! If it’s something that would help your mental health and you can reasonably stretch the budget for it, then why not. Enjoy your family and hatzlachah with homeschooling and no reason not to feel good about all your choices!!

    1. Shuli, I like how you classified your freezer and dishwasher as household help. I was only thinking about paying a person to help but you’re right, these are also investments that can make life run much more smoothly. When you look at it with that, it opens lots of different possible kinds of assistance rather than just cleaning help.

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