Need to clean hard to resist

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin
Sunday night, I went to bed relishing two whole actual long weeks without the regulation of hourly work bells, writes Liz Breslin.

It’s not just the kids who look forward to the school holidays. I planned to sleep in. I planned to, well, not plan. And with only two jobs to juggle and a promise to Not Take Anything Else On, this was going to be one sweeeeet school holidays.

Monday morning, I woke up, early, with an unusual twinge. I felt the need. The need to clean. The shelves, the cupboards, the clothes, the back of the wardrobe. The winter, out of the house. Thinking about it, while I rejigged the ripped tunnel house plastic and drilled some new dripper holes for better watering, I’d been warming up to this cleaning crusade for a few days. Rebooting my computer, organising my files, chucking out all the well-past best bits in the pantry. And then it hit me, startling as a daffodil in the brown scrub. I’d woken up as a scouring, wringing, spring cleaning cliche.

The fridge, the laundry, the bins. The shower grout, the sewing box, the bottom drawer that everyone ignores. OK, so I’m a little behind trend, what with spring being sprung a month ago already, but then cleaning is so far outside my natural comfort zone that it’s clearly taken me some time to catch on. And plus, daylight savings. But the weird thing is I’m not drawn to the gloves and sprays out of obligation, but out of some deep desire to see spit-spot order in the corners of the house and the crannies of the garden. It’s disturbing how strong this feeling is. I’ve literally and figuratively and utterly and totally never wanted to clean this much, this properly, before. And what is that about? Am I finally growing up? Getting houseproud? Will I learn to wear aprons for cooking next? Will I find my happy place in the reflection of my self-worth in a buffed bathroom floor? The possibilities are disturbing.

There are enough cultural traditions across the planet to suggest that this spring cleaning malarkey is something almost universal. The Catholic Lenten Clean Monday, the Jewish ritual cleaning before Passover, "O-Higan" in Japan and the Iranian concept of "khaneh takani", which translates as "shaking the house out". Which suits my state of mind very well.  I want to clean freak every inch to the cranked-up sounds of chillhouse and the waft of a stick of burning white sage.

So what am I tuning into here? Did these traditions all come from an existing, innate desire for cleanliness and order? It’s a bit of a chicken and an egg question. Thinking of which makes me want to buy ickle chickens, raise them in an orderly, well-sanded, freshly nailed homemade-from-Pinterest pen, with fluffed up beds of clean straw. I could put the pen on the immaculate lawn, collect and colour code their eggs or line them up in neat boxes in date order. It would be ...  see!? What is happening to me? It’s not like I don’t have anything else to occupy my time and my mind.

According to psychologists, people enjoy cleaning when they are looking for a sense of order in their lives or when they want to feel (the illusion of being) in control.  They’re looking for a sense of accomplishment, a calm mind, a meditative state or a workout, for goodness sake. The urge to garden is way easier to understand. You can get dirty doing it. And you’re outside. And I’ve always believed that thing about being happier with your bare hands or feet touching the earth, in a way that I’ve never thought was possible with a pinny and a polishing cloth.


Psychologists are the sort of people who think giving up cleaning is delinquency at Lent. Do they ask cleaners why they clean? Do they ask Cleaners and Caretakers Union, or the Polish Resistance?

They do not. They ask no one.