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Cleaning Solutions

by Larissa Lee
Rahway NJ USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 3, May-June 2002, p. 84

With a new baby, or as a family grows, many mothers get that out-of-control feeling, as tasks that seemed effortless before children suddenly take longer-and all of a sudden, the house looks messier than it ever did before.

For Emily Mellgren of Rockville, Maryland, USA, trying to get out of the house after her second baby was born had become an ordeal. Just getting everyone dressed, fed, packing bags, and getting out the door was taking almost as long as the outing itself. And she didn't like the feeling of being out of control.

Mothers who have worked outside the home and then plan to stay home full-time sometimes have high expectations of how great the house will look once they are home. In fact, many new mothers discover that it's harder than ever to find time for the basics such as cooking, cleaning, or even taking a shower. When a new mother is home all day there is much more work to do than there was while she was employed-there are more meals to cook, more laundry to do, and more messes to clean up. Long, uninterrupted stretches of time to clean are no longer available. Adhering to a strict cleaning schedule can seem impossible to the mothers of breastfeeding infants.

On the other hand, a mother who is returning to work after the birth of a baby won't find the house gets very dirty during the day, but she will have to squeeze a lot of work into very few hours in the evenings and on the weekends. Making meals, getting laundry done, and basic cleaning might seem impossible to do when a mother returns home from work and wants to cuddle with the baby instead of doing more work.

Enter the so-called home organization experts. There are Web sites and dozens of books devoted to helping people get organized in order to have cleaner homes. Many of the authors have useful suggestions that can be tailored to meet individual families' needs. This article provides helpful housekeeping tips and information from the experts.

Discover the Cleaning Minimums

Cynthia Townley Ewer, the editor of, emphasizes that when you are the mother of a newborn baby it is not the time to take on major household projects or tackle all the clutter that has built up in your closets. Instead she says this is the time to do only "cleaning minimums-the rock bottom you have to do" just to keep the house functioning. She suggests that the absolute core tasks new mothers have to figure out how to do are their own hygiene, meals, and keeping up with the laundry.

But new mothers don't even have to do these tasks alone. Friends and family who offer to help can be asked to do a load of laundry, bring a casserole for dinner, or keep an eye on a sleeping baby so a new mother can take a shower. Fathers or older siblings can keep the clutter picked up, prepare meals, and do the laundry. New mothers shouldn't be afraid to ask for help because most people who offer help truly want to do something, and "experienced mothers know that you're lying if you say you don't need some help" in the early postpartum months, said Ewer.

Ewer also suggests that mothers won't be able to tackle Martha Stewart-inspired projects when their babies grow into toddlers, either. "Any time you have a toddler or infant, you are doing a massively important job" by nurturing another human being, she said, and mothers will still have to scale down expectations about how much they can accomplish with toddlers and preschoolers around.

The Web site has plenty of information on cleaning minimums, as well as how to clean more efficiently and how to keep a home organized, regardless of your family size or situation. Ewer said that just paying attention to the location of items in your home can yield dividends in terms of greater efficiency. For example, you probably need to keep your toaster on the kitchen counter for everyday use, but you may prefer to put away any other tools that you use infrequently because they clutter the kitchen counter and require cleaning. Keep cleaning supplies where you use them so that anytime you get a spare moment, you can take a swipe at the dirt without spending your precious free time searching for supplies.

Create a Routine That Works for You

"New mothers need new routines," commented Ewer, and learning a new cleaning system can be a smart investment in time because you can begin to clean more efficiently and effectively. Young adults may need to learn ways that work for them. Getting your home organized and decluttered will pay dividends as the children grow and life becomes more hectic. Bigger children make bigger messes, and having a system to keep up with the messes will make life more comfortable for everyone living in the home.

There are plenty of tips on cleaning and scheduling in Confessions of An Organized Homemaker (Available from LLLI, No. 38-7, $11.99) by Deniece Schoefield. The author, as the mother of five children, makes it clear that schedules need to be individualized because each family has different needs depending on the size of the home, the number of people in the house, and the family's lifestyle. Rather than trying to adjust your life to fit a schedule, Schoefield suggests that people develop their own schedules to meet their needs.

Ewer said that mothers shouldn't be discouraged by the spotless appearance of other people's homes when they're visiting or coming to attend an LLL meeting. "What you didn't see was that the person ran around for two days hiding all the clutter under the beds and in the closets." She also recommends that mothers of young children not compare their homes to the homes of parents who have grown children. Ewer explained that when young mothers come to her home and see the clean, white carpeting and neat house, she lets them know it is only because her children are grown and on their own. "A house with children is a house with life," said Ewer, and a house full of life isn't going to be perfect.

Judy Hain, LLL Leader and mother of five from Cape May Court House, New Jersey, USA, said that she is now at the point where she can invite people over without worrying about clutter in the house. She said it is so much easier now that her youngest child is eight because in the past most of her energy was spent on caring for babies and young children, which made it difficult to keep the house ready for visitors all the time. Hain stressed that if she were able to go back in time, she would be much more ruthless in getting rid of unnecessary things that only make home maintenance more difficult for young mothers.

Find Support

Ewer suggests that mothers who are struggling with balancing family care with housework find support from other mothers. Perhaps you can meet other mothers who are working on balancing housework with family needs at your local LLL Group, through a playgroup, or at the park. Online communities, said Ewer, can be wonderful sources of support because they allow you to find plenty of women who are in similar situations.

One source of online support comes from the Flylady-a Web site run by Marla Cilley. The Flylady system is based on the side-tracked home executives (SHE) system, as described in the book Sidetracked Home Executives by Pam Young and Peggy Jones. (This book is currently out of print but may be available in some LLL Group Libraries.)

The Flylady is on the Internet at and if you sign up for her list she sends you an introductory email describing the system. From then on you receive daily emails encouraging you to complete the tasks she has set out for you. If you are interested in the Flylady system but don't have email, Cilley has recently completed a book entitled Sink Reflections-Flylady's Baby Step Guide to Overcoming CHAOS. CHAOS is an acronym for "can't have anyone over syndrome" and is a problem that causes many people to seek out a cleaning system, Cilley said.

The first task on the Flylady system is keeping the kitchen sink clean and shiny. Cilley believes that people are often so overwhelmed with the thought of organizing their entire home that they don't know where to start, so she begins by urging them to keep the sink clean and shiny so that they feel a sense of accomplishment as their kitchen gradually takes shape. "Clean can be as contagious as clutter," Cilley commented, so having one part of the kitchen clean allows you to continue through the kitchen and gradually through the rest of the house.

The Flylady system also includes morning and evening routines. The morning routine encourages readiness for the coming day and evening routine is the key to getting the next day started on the right foot. Cilley insisted that her system is "not about cleaning all day" but rather it gets you to focus on a task for a very limited amount of time, usually about 10 to 15 minutes. Many women who join the Flylady system are "all-or-nothing" types who want the house completely clean and organized right away. Cilley stressed that it is important to take baby steps in organizing the house and to focus completely on one task so that you feel that you have made progress. She observed that people who decide to clean everything and start by doing 10 things at once tend to get overwhelmed and give up. Organizing an entire home is not something that can be done immediately. Instead it's "like learning a new dance or aerobic routine" which "you need to break down into small steps before moving onto the next section." Each small step probably only takes a few minutes.

Jodie Lucas, an LLL Leader and mother of two from Athens, Ohio, USA, said it wasn't difficult for her and her family to take 10-minute intervals throughout the day to put things away. Lucas said limiting each task to 10 minutes prevented her "from becoming obsessive" and "made a huge difference without seriously interfering with being an attached mother."

Cilley wants the people who use her system to "feel good about themselves," thus taking time for daily hygiene and getting completely dressed, including wearing shoes, each day makes people feel better. It also sends a "signal to your head that it's time to go to work," said Cilley. However, some people find that once they have worked out a system, they can find what works for them and leave the rest. Lucas says that now that her house is under control she is her own boss and the Flylady is only a "reminder system" to help her she keep it up.

Emily Mellgren, who had such trouble getting her children out the door, uses the Flylady system now and says she no longer struggles when she's trying to get her children ready to go out. Part of her evening routine involves getting everything packed for the next day. She even has time to prepare healthier meals and snacks because she no longer reaches for processed convenience foods as she rushes out the door. Mellgren adds that the Flylady system has become almost a game since there are 70,000 other people using the same cleaning system.

Part of the Flylady system is a focus on decluttering for about 15 minutes a day. There is an assignment of getting rid of 27 things, and you are supposed to work on decluttering until you have found 27 things you can get rid of. Cilley also said her system works very well if a pregnant woman begins using her system and gets a lot of decluttering done before the baby arrives. Then the new mother can focus on caring for her new baby, and housework can be accomplished through simple morning and evening routines without working around all the clutter in the house.

Other Resources

Decluttering is also a key aspect of the cleaning books written by Don Aslett. In Aslett's books, he says that clutter and junk in the home make it difficult to get anything clean because people have to expend so much energy maintaining, storing, and protecting things that they don't really need. Aslett's book Clutter's Last Stand will help you determine what is junk in your home and how to part with it. Doing the hard work of decluttering is also a way to teach children to value relationships instead of things.

In addition to decluttering advice, Aslett has a wealth of information on the most efficient way to clean a house, how to keep it clean longer, and even how to design a new house so that it will be easy to keep clean. His books, such as Do I Dust or Vacuum First? and Is There Life After Housework? are classics that explain cleaning in a simple, easy-to-read manner. Aslett is humorous and sympathetic to women who spend time cleaning up after other people.

Another system mothers have found helpful is described in the books written by Jeff Campbell and The Clean Team. Speed Cleaning describes detailed methods for cleaning efficiently and effectively. The routines should help people clean better in less time.

Mothers who are able to afford household help can hire help either on a regular basis or for the larger jobs that need to be done only a few times a year. Other mothers can afford to hire a teenager to work as a mother's helper so that they can concentrate on a few big projects that are difficult to complete with young children around.

Get Everyone Involved

Another valuable idea is to get partners and children involved in maintaining the house. Husbands may need help seeing what needs to be done. Children will need to be taught how to clean up after themselves. While it can take twice as long to do a cleaning chore with a child, there are big dividends in your time when the child recognizes that mother isn't the only person who is going to keep the house neat and organized. Jodie Lucas says she no longer asks her children and husband to "help her" do a task; instead she points out what needs to be done so that they can see that they all share the responsibility of completing chores.

Schoefield, in Confessions of an Organized Homemaker, also has ideas for including other people in home organization systems. Whether you have a packrat husband or children who don't see the need to pick up after themselves, Schoefield says you can get them involved in home organization. Her method includes setting an example, talking about the new system, trying to tradeoff chores, being understanding while your family adjusts, and pouring on the praise as you see improvement. (For more ideas about involving children in cleaning, see Chores Without Wars, reviewed in this issue.)

An additional tip that might help is hiring a professional organizer. Linda Stevens, a professional organizer from Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, said that a two-hour session with an organizer can give you an unbiased opinion on what you should concentrate on in order to get your home running more efficiently. A friend or relative, said Stevens, may be "equally helpful if they are gently honest" and help you see some of the problem spots in your home that you don't notice.

Remember, cleaning systems are tools for you to use. Being more organized can help you feel in control because it enables you to keep your home the way you always wanted it. This allows you to spend more time enjoying your family and less time worrying about housework. Whatever system you use (or even if you choose not to use any system at all), people before things is still the most important system.

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