Spring Cleaning

When was the last time you pried open a can of old paint?

On Monday afternoon, I set a half-full can of "Silver Drop" on my kitchen counter. I reached into my silverware drawer, pulled out a knife from my casual flatware set, and dug around the tin lid, using the edge of the knife as a lever, until I could pull the lid away from the gummy rim. The smell of paint reminded me of my dad. I dipped my knife straight into the pail and stirred until the separated streams of thin solvent and thickened pigments disappeared into one satisfying uniform mixture. Then I tipped about a half-cup of paint into a clean, empty jar and grabbed a Purdy brush. After I lovingly cross-hatched the pale paint over a gnarly rust-colored scrape in the parlor room wall, I stood back, admired my work, and thought, "Damn. I should have spackled that first."

Time Off for Housework: The Recap

Now, I don't typically spend my Monday afternoons touching up paint.

I found myself with the opportunity to blissfully indulge myself in a moment with a paint can because earlier this week I took two full days off from my salaried job to do an alternative sort of work: housework.

I swept, vacuumed, and mopped. I vacuumed under sofa and chair cushions.

Cool thing I found under the sofa cushion
Found a Rich's order card from 1965 under a chair cushion. Pretty cool!

I dusted shutters and ceiling fans. I cleaned out closets, sorted clothes into piles for Goodwill and storage bins for next winter. I took my dog to the groomer's.

On Monday, when leaving for the groomer's, I realized that my car door suddenly wouldn't open from the outside. After bringing the dog home from the groomer's (which involved clumsily climbing in through the passenger door and volleying myself over the stick shift), I dropped my car off at the shop.

On Tuesday, I took a break from chores to walk to the elementary school in my neighborhood and judge a science fair.

science fair
This title. I love it so much.

Then, I ran and folded laundry until the hampers were empty. I scrubbed baseboards with soap and vinegar. I replaced lightbulbs.

Even after two days of tidying up, the list of chores to be done remains unconquered. This weekend there will be bathrooms to clean, and linens to wash, and more errands to run.

Unpacking the Joys and Anxiety of Making Time for Domestic Labor

I am glad.

I am glad that I can afford to pay my half of the mortgage for this old house that I love to live in.

I am glad that I share this house with a supportive partner who independently identifies and handles a wide range of household tasks without instruction or delegation. And, I especially love the uncanny way that he seems to aparate into the kitchen any time that I've finished unloading clean dishes, always insisting "I got this" before digging into the dirty lot.

And, I am glad that we both have wonderful jobs that provide generous work-from-home flexibility and ample PTO that we can use for vacations or staycations or spring cleaning.

But, as much as our companies are overwhelmingly supportive of this type of "balance," we both recognize that we still feel a lot of anxiety when we decide to take time off. And, I definitely feel an extra level of anxiety when the reason for my time off is something personal—like needing to get some chores done—compared to something with more explicit social obligation—like needing to be present for a wedding.

Having a salary makes the concept of work complex and fuzzy. There's a tendency to feel like you always need to be plugged in, and unplugging at all feels relatively high stakes.

And, having an unlimited or undefined PTO policy can make things even fuzzier. How much facetime do I need to get in? Am I taking too much time off? Not enough?

Any time that I take time off, I try really hard to rationalize that "it's okay." My brain is spinning with justifications:

  • Well, I haven't taken ANY sick days, so it's okay that I'm taking a few days to not work…
  • Most of my team is out of town this week, so it's likely I won't miss too much…
  • I worked a couple more late hours than usual last month, so maybe those hours kind of add up and make up for what I'll be missing…

This morning, I even found myself thinking…

I felt a lot more productive and creative at work this week after taking time off to do chores. Maybe there's some kind of magic zen thing where doing chores clears your mind and makes you better at your job.

And, there may be some truth to that idea!

But, no matter how hard I try to justify the organization of my time, I know that there's still going to be a tiny but persistent part of me that feels scared to be late to work after picking the car up for the shop or guilty to walk away from the computer to make lunch on a work-from-home day.

And, I'm not even sure that good, explicit policy can help reduce this anxiety. I've worked in offices with "work from anywhere, unlimited vacation" and I've worked in offices with clearly defined PTO. I've been in situations where my boss practically forced me to schedule out-of-office days, and it didn't make being away from work any easier.

So, what's the answer?

Here's One Thing That Helps

When cultural leaders within an organization—be they C-level execs, managers, or well-liked original gansters who have been with the company for awhile—visibly take time off, this gives employees and peers a sense of permission to do the same.

So, if you believe, like I do, that taking time off is work that needs to be done, lead by example.

Whether you're taking the time for chores, family, travel, or so that you can sit in your pajamas and binge watch all 10 episodes of Atlanta Season 1 on Hulu, don't be shy about sharing.

The important thing isn't what you do with your time, it's that you take it.