Auntie SparkNotes: My Family Are Slobs
I live with my dad, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my four-month old adorable nephew (I'm an auntie, too!). We all get along really well and are supporting each other through our tough financial situations. Right now my role in the house is kind of a live-in nanny. I pay my own rent, and my sister and brother-in-law pay me to watch my nephew when they go to work. Along with watching him, I try to keep the house clean while they're out so I'm not just getting paid to sit around all day and coo at the (currently immobile) baby.
My problem is that they making keeping the house clean incredibly hard for me. They are some of the biggest slobs I have ever lived with. My room is never sparkling clean either, but at least I keep my mess completely confined to my own personal space that they don't have to live in.
The bathroom right now is covered in everyone else's clothes and toiletries. They never clean after they cook and eat dinner, leaving piles of dishes and pots and pans lying around for days.They leave empty beer cans scattered throughout the living room. About every weekend when my sister finally has time off work, she does a deep clean of the house that leaves her exhausted. I wish I could get them to see that doing a little cleaning each day would help so much.
I understand that I am in the most opportune position to clean the house, I'm in it with the baby all day. It's just really hard to compete against three other people who don't really clean up after themselves. Also, I can't really get anything done until the baby sleeps.
I'm afraid to bring it up because everyone is super stressed over their jobs and finances, and I feel like I'm already mooching off them for certain reasons (I had an incredibly expensive car repair that I couldn't pay for; my family helped me out). If I were to talk to them, how should I go about it, and do you think it would be a reasonable request to ask them to clean up more? I feel like we would all feel better and less on edge if the house weren't such a disaster all the time.
I'll give you this much, Sparkler: Taken at face value, I'm sure that statement is true. Given the option between living in a complete chaos of dirty dishes and strewn-about underwear versus living in a well-kept, litter-free home, most people would prefer the latter.
The problem is, a clean house isn't just a question of preference. It's also a question of work, which somebody has to do. And when you ask if it would be reasonable to ask your family to do more cleaning, based on your description of the current dynamic in your household, I'm afraid the answer—at least as far as they're concerned—is probably not. For one thing, there's the question of whether you really have the standing to make that request; most people are going to balk at coming home from an eight-hour workday and being harangued to do chores by the one family member who isn't working full-time outside the home (particularly when they're arguably paying that person to do at least some of those chores herself.) But more than that, it sounds like the division of labor in your house already leaves your sister holding the domestic duties bag the vast majority of the time, which means that when you talk about asking them to clean more, the person you'll really be asking is her. You know, that exhausted, sleep-deprived person who is back at work after giving birth to a live human being four months ago? The one who is currently giving up her rare and precious leisure time on the weekend to deep-clean the entire family's messes, including yours, because nobody else is stepping up to do what needs to be done?
I have to gently suggest, sweet pea, that you do not want to tell that person how much easier life would be if she'd just do more work every day. (I'm also sincerely hoping you haven't done that already, because seriously, it's a bad idea…. and in some U.S. states, possibly even grounds for justifiable homicide.)
Instead, here is what I'd like you to try: a change of perspective and a course of action that'll get you a less-chaotic house without alienating your family members, beginning with the part where you start seeing the housework as your job—one you'll do to the best of your abilities on a daily basis, even if "the best of your abilities" sometimes translates to "took out the garbage and washed one dish before the baby puked on the cat." First thing in the morning, strap your nephew into a sling or baby carrier, or put him in a bouncer or playpen, and aim to spend ten minutes cleaning up whatever you hate looking at the most (the beer cans? The dishes? The clothes on the bathroom floor?). And hey, sometimes you won't get a full ten minutes because the little guy starts screaming, or pooping, or screaming and pooping all at the same time—but sometimes he'll fall asleep or be contentedly quiet, and you'll get fifteen, or even thirty.
And if you do this three times a day—once in the morning, once at midday, and once in the afternoon? Maybe the place won't be in Mary-Poppins-was-here condition, but it'll be better… until your family comes home and messes it up, of course, but that's where the shift in perspective comes in. You're right that the existence of other people in your household make keeping it clean incredibly hard; where you're wrong is in thinking that this plight is somehow unique to you or your family. What you describe is the essential nature of housework (and the reason why Simone de Beauvoir famously compared it to a Sisyphean torture).
And look: I know this probably seems really unfair, especially when you're keeping your own mess largely confined to your own room while everyone else is letting it all hang out. But being able to grasp this concept—that there's a difference between an equal division of labor and an equitable one—is basically the difference between being a kid and being an adult. Adults clean up messes they didn't necessarily make themselves, because they have the time and ability and bandwidth to pick up that slack where others don't, and because, hey, they're not immune from having their own slack picked up from time to time. You mentioned your family footing the bill for your car repair, which is a good example and something I'm glad you're aware of. But you might want to think, too, about who's stocking the pantry and cooking those family dinners which you presumably eat; or about who performs or pays for repairs on the home you live in; or about how much it would cost you to rent a room in a house where your roommates might be just as sloppy as your family but also don't love you, don't care about you, and don't give you cash to hang out with a baby all day. Is picking up the slack on the housework a fair trade for all you get in return? That's your question to answer, but from here, it certainly sounds like it.
With that said, here's one last thing: if you take it upon yourself to do this work, you also put yourself in a much better position to ask others to do a little bit more—not in a "Hey, you need to pick up your clothes" way, but in a "Hey, I'm gonna go wash the dishes; does someone want to help out and dry them?" way. (Also recommended: directing these requests at the non-parent of a newborn first, so that your sister and brother-in-law and nephew can enjoy a little downtime as a family.) Leading by example is your best hope of getting what you want here, in every regard. Give it a try and see what happens.
Got something to say? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at email@example.com.
Want more info about how this column works? Check out the Auntie SparkNotes FAQ.