"Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day."
-- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
In the last few days, I have felt quite a lot like this Sisyphus, who toiled all day to push a boulder uphill only to have to watch it roll back down, for all eternity. Monday night I cleaned my entire downstairs in anticipation of my first time hosting Lyndon's playgroup the next morning. I swept and washed the kitchen floor, organized the entry, and dusted the living room. My couches were free of cat hair, my countertops were spotless, my kitchen table even had a runner on it (to hide the less-than-perfectly-sanded spots).
Then I hosted playgroup. And six little toddler boys trashed my living room. And kitchen. Then, as soon as I had recovered, it was time for dinner. Chicken parmesan, one of Adrian's favorites. Sauce from scratch, homemade cracker crumb coating; it was heavenly. Adrian is coming home late the next two nights, and he convinced me to clean up only the bare minimum after dinner before spending time with him.
So, I came downstairs this morning to a disaster zone: a saucepot that I thought had been soaking but somehow still accumulated crusty gunk, breading stuck under my burner covers, sauce splatters and Parmesan cheese crumbs on the table. It was my Sisyphus moment, to be sure. I did my duty and cleaned up my (our?) mess, all the while thinking how, if we ordered take-out like that family next door, this would all magically disappear. We could even eat it off of paper plates. Zero work for me.
And then another quote came to mind, one from a much more reliable book (no offense, Simone):
"Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox."
-- Proverbs 14:4
Oxen are messy, smelly creatures. When a team of oxen live in a barn, you know about it. They require a great deal of care, as any large farm animal does: feeding, cleaning, exercise, training. I imagine owning a team of oxen feels very Sisyphean, mucking out their stalls only to watch them fill up with the leavings of a several-ton animal. But oxen get. stuff. done. Wikipedia tells me that they can plow, haul wagons, thresh and grind grain, and "skid logs" (basically, haul freshly cut trees).
Raising a family is like owning a pair of oxen. If you have a commitment to making your home a loving, nurturing, productive place, then life will be messy. I could easily shuttle Lyndon to day care and let his teachers deal with the crumbs and the Play-doh and the muddy shoes, then come home and eat take-out off paper plates. Or I could stay home and just refuse to do the "messy" things. I could put plastic covers on my couches and ban all snacks from the living room.
Or I could accept, and even enjoy, the fact that this neverending cycle of clean and dirty says something beautiful and profound about our lives. Because I wasn't afraid to let him fingerpaint, my son can grow up adventurous and free; because I made chocolate chip muffins, we can all feel a little warmth at the end of a rainy day; because I wash his work pants (no matter where they end up), my husband knows that someone cares for him and wants him to succeed.
Yes, Sisyphus, I feel your pain. But I also know a joy you never had, the joy of doing this work for someone. With my husband and baby boy at the top of the hill, this boulder seems a little lighter.
Although, sometimes I still wish for paper plates . . .