Taking back the dishes: Fixing my kitchen angst

Guest post by WenSurprised

Bad ass mofo dish gloves not necessary, but useful.
Bad ass mofo dish gloves not necessary, but useful.
I know how I got to be this way: my mum is a rock star. Every night before going to bed my mum cleans her kitchen. The dishes go in the dishwasher, pots and pans that don’t fit are washed and put away, surfaces are wiped down. The kitchen thingami-whatsits all get put back where they belong. The room is left looking more or less magazine-spread ready for the next morning.

So I was not surprised that kitchens and their level of clean became a major source of angst in my post-childhood-home life, whenever I’ve shared a house. Every group of housemates since eternity has waged war over dishes and I knew I was never going to meet people like my mum on Craigslist; I knew I was going to have problems with communal kitchens.

And I certainly have, over the years. There was a girl in one flat who would, heaven help me, steal the dishes. She’d take her meals off to her room, and then, a week later, one of the other flatmates and I would have to sneak into her room when she was out and fish all of the plates and bowls and flatware out from under her bed to take back and clean. There was a dude from the Czech Republic who had more than just problems with the language and who continually tried to use furniture polish to scrub the pots and pans. Oy. And, there were plenty of people who just. didn’t. wash. them.

By comparison, the flat I’ve been in for the last couple of years has been pretty damn amazing. The three of us have similar levels of tolerance for mess in general, and the kitchen is usually pretty good. And yet, I still angst-ed.

Then I read The Happiness Project, and I started to apply Gretchen Rubin to the problem.

When I sat down and thought about it, I realized that my issue was made up of two pieces. One, I personally find washing dishes to be anxiety-ridden, and in particular I hate waking up to dishes left overnight. Part two was unconscious overclaiming. Whenever I did the dishes, even when they were mine, even when it’d been a while since I’d done them, I got this naggy, horrible voice in my ear whispering about how it wasn’t fair, how I always did the dishes, and how it was surely someone else’s turn to be washing up.

The universal truth is, the only person I can change is me. So I took back the dishes.

The truth is that my flatmates and I are pretty good about evenly sharing work. The truth is, when I did the dishes it was usually totally my turn. The truth is, when I was angsting about dishes, probably my flatmates were angsting about their own hot-button chore items, like mowing the lawn, or having a clear dining room table. And, universal truth is, the only person I can change is me. So I took back the dishes.

I decided that the dishes were always my job. Always. If the dishes weren’t done it was because I hadn’t done them yet. If someone else did the dishes, they were doing me an awesome favour for which I owed them thanks. I started doing the dishes every single evening before bed, just like my mum has always done. And I found my Dishes Zen.

Did you know, if you do the dishes every single evening, on average, it only takes 15 minutes? Just long enough, usually, for me to think through what I need to do before bed, or to plan the next day’s outfit, or to figure out something yummy to take for lunch the next day. All of my dishes-related angst evaporated.

Unfortunately, it made my flatmates feel really guilty… Eventually I had to explain to them about how I’d mentally made the dishes mine, and that I considered it payment for other stuff. I started mentioning how guilty I felt about not remembering to help with the lawns or to take my crap off the dining room table. That more or less fixed it.

Eventually, after owning the dishes for a few months, I talked to my mum about it. Turns out, my mum had this revelation years ago (why didn’t you tell me!?) and uses it all the time — for the dishes, for pet related chores, for making the bed.

It’s not that I condone letting other people get out of doing their bit, or that I believe it’s always going to work to make yourself solely responsible for any task. Sometimes you’ve got to make a schedule and share the evil thing out fair and square. But sometimes… Sometimes the problem is as simple as a shift in perspective, and doesn’t actually have to involve waging war for all eternity.

Comments on Taking back the dishes: Fixing my kitchen angst

  1. THIS! I am currently dealing with this issue hahaa… newly wed and all. My husband detests doing the dishes and I hate doing them after a long day at work YET I hate waking up to dirty dishes. I’m going to use this.. and perhaps plan my work wear while I’m standing there. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Love this approach! It frees mental space for more important things than “Whose dish is this? Whose turn is it?” etc.

    Chore trading is AWESOME. Husband does the dishes while I am walking the dog in the morning. Husband vacuums while I plan the meals for the week and do the grocery shopping.

    It’s extra awesome if you are doing chores at EXACTLY THE SAME TIME. For major cleaning days, we make a list of everything we want to accomplish. Pick something, go do it, go back to the list and pick something else. When you are both working, there’s no time for resentment. And when you are done, you can relax together!

  3. Brilliant. I live in a house with 5 other people, and kitchen cleanliness is my own main sticking point. We seem to have a huge range of busy-ness, mess tolerance, and general cooking/cleaning philosophies–which quickly results in a big mess and a lot of dishes that no one seems to be responsible for.

    I’ve gone through phases before where I try to keep things at a cleaner level than usual, including dishes, counters, floor, trash, recycling, putting everything away, and so on. I keep hoping it will encourage everyone to do the same–nope. Then I give up and don’t do much extra cleaning for a while. The most frustrating thing is to spend a bunch of time cleaning everything, only to have it deteriorate back to its usual state the next time someone cooks something.

    Maybe I’ll just focus on one thing, like clearing off the counters and wiping them down, and treat that like it’s my job as opposed to trying to sustain a whole bunch of tasks that drain too much energy. My roommates do contribute in other ways that I’m glad I don’t have to deal with, like doing the food shopping and organizing all our rent/utilites money.

    • I’m lucky there’s only 3 of us, and that we’ve got pretty similar tidying habits. I don’t know that my Zen would hold up to 5 people with a bigger range… Maybe someday I’ll get to have my own family and find out! My mum managed with 5, but then, she’s a rockstar. And she was our mum. Sometimes she recruited our help in a way that you can’t with flatmates.

      • Yeah, maybe it will take some (a lot) of practice on my end. It’s certainly different with people who aren’t related to you, and who are the same age. Not that any situation is easy, mind you. Just different when you really can boss the other people around!

        Yesterday while my dinner was cooking I cleaned up all the free dishes my bf and I used, wiped the counter, and swept the floor. Afterwards he cleaned the rest of our dishes, so we left the kitchen pretty clean other than the mystery dishes that I moved to the side sink. This morning I wake up and the counter is covered with stuff again, there are more dirty dishes, and random bits of food and trash scattered around on the counter and floor. Sigh.

        It’s discouraging, but maybe this time I’ll clean stuff up after everyone else has used the kitchen for the night. The worst for me is waking up to find that all my efforts have been erased, so if I can avoid that maybe I’ll feel better. Thanks for your article, btw–you’ve definitely got me thinking about how my mindset affects chores, and vice-versa!

  4. Wise words. I actually went through a similar perspective changing experience when I first moved in with my boyfriend, now fiance. Before then I had either lived with girls, who were very into keeping our communal space clean, or just myself. But when I moved in with this new guy the whole chore dynamic changed.

    It’s probably also worth noting that I am very much a neat freak (think Monica from the early seasons on Friends). So needless to say, I always seemed to get irritated because I constantly felt like I was the one washing the dishes, vacuuming, taking the trash out, etc, etc. Not to mention my feminist ideals were making me think 50/50 should apply to chores…rather than our relationship as a whole. Fortunately with time, love and a whole lotta inner perspective I too got away from that crippling inner voice that was always making me feel like a chore victim. And I started to see that while yes, my man doesn’t have the drive to scrub dishes are urgently as I do, he does so many other things for me and us that I never bother with. Like being my personal car mechanic, home repair technician, and (thank goodness) bathroom janitor.

    So I learned that even though they aren’t the chores I would’ve picked, you can always make the most of it and enjoy the quiet mental time!

    • I’ve come to proudly accept that I am Monica Gellar. I’m okay with that too. It makes me happy, and that’s all that matters, right?

    • The quiet mental time is totally the motivation that works for me! Even after I realised that I was so much happier thinking of the dishes as my job and doing them every night, I still struggled to make myself *do* them. Thinking of it as my meditation or my dream-time helped a lot.

  5. I do my dishes in the morning while my toast is toasting and my tea steeping. I’ve got nothing else to do but wait, and if I do them EVERY morning, then it usually takes me LESS then 15 min. I still HATE doing dishes – but it’s much easier for me to just do it, then wait for my husband to do his fair share while I live in the mess…

    Really really good article.

    • This is my approach too. My porridge is in the microwave for two minutes – you can get a surprisingly large amount of kitchen tidied in two minutes.

      Also – cleaning while waiting for stuff to cook at dinner time. If you clean all the prep stuff while it’s cooking, you normally only have one pan and two plates to deal with afterwards.

      Little and often, basically!

  6. Glad you have found zen! But dishes are my the front lines of my battleground with my husband. The distribution of domestic labor at home is still laughably unequal between men and women (regardless of who works more outside of the home) so I refuse to give in and take the dishes. He can take them! I offered a chore swap of being 100 percent responsible for laundry, our other hated chore, if dishes were his. I offered up any chore in return for not doing dishes, but not only will he refuse full responsibility of dishes, but of any of the worst chores. He refuses because he knows the mental burden of chores sucks. So the battle rages on.

    • I often tell my boyfriend about the unequal gender balance in regards to chores. He has no problem with me doing the dishes after I’ve cooked a meal, but he expects me to do the dishes if he cooked the meal. I’m fine with doing his dishes after he cooks, but I only want the same in return. He definitely has some gender roles ingrained in his head, so I remind him of that once in a while. It’s difficult to erase 27 years of society though. It is a constant struggle. I try and remind myself that he does other things that I can’t or don’t want to do. That helps to quell my inner feminist.

      This article helped me tremendously! Why spend the mental energy being bitter and angry? If I’m gonna do the dishes anyways, I should just change my attitude towards it. You have possibly just stopped many arguments that were in my future. You deserve a medal. I love you.

  7. Yup I agree. For me the mental argument goes “is it going to cause me more, or less, mental angst to just do this task versus confront the relevant person about it”. So I just do a lot of stuff, because for recurring issues (after mentioning it once or twice) it is not worth the angst to say anything again and again, and for one off’s then really who cares just do it.

    And the trick to it is living with reasonable people. I do more than my share of some things sure, but I like having those things done. Other things they happily do, and if they’re reasonable people they will realise that I’m covering them somewhere else, and account for this.

    Basically exactly what your article said anyway! Nice post A

  8. I absolutely get the Gretschen Ruben ideology of not sweating the small stuff, but it really worries me for the big picture. For hundreds – nay, thousands – of years, women have done this. Realistically, think about it, what has inequality been, if it hasn’t been exactly this. Women have always done what’s expected of them for a quiet life – how does this differ?

    I really do feel this is the thin end of the wedge. Do you imagine that men don’t realise that women will do this stuff if they simply don’t? Of course they do, they’ve been pulling the learned helplessness stunt for generations.

    I want to be happier and not worry about who does the washing up, but at the end of the day I want to have equal respect, AND responsibilities, and I just can’t see how me taking on more domestic duties because it makes for a quiet life is really helping anyone – least of all me, or the ideology of feminism.

    • Well, I think the first thing to remember is that she was living with other women, so it wasn’t really a gender thing, in her case. And in my opinion, if that was her case with other women, then it might as well be the case with a man, too. Because after all, that is what feminisim is about – NOT defining things by gender (imo). I do agree that you have to be careful that your spouse (or any roommate) is not just taking advantage of your willingness to do things like this. But that goes along with making sure you’re living with reasonable people, and nice people. I also personally think her story was in the case where she can’t really do anything about how the other people were behaving, so taking on this mentality helped her be happy and solved the problem. If the issue becomes about gender role expectations, then you can have that argument then.

      • Sorry, Donteatmentoo, I should maybe have made it clearer that I was commenting on the discussion in general, not just the OP’s original article. However, the OP doesn’t actually claim she is in an all-female house; unless I’ve missed something? In fact, she makes no reference to her current flatmates’ gender, only those of past flatmates, and one of those includes a male.

        In view of this, my opinion still stands. Furthermore, I do feel that even in the OP’s case you can’t dismiss this situation as NOT being about gender, just because you assume she may be in an all-female environment. After all, women are raised by women too, and those same women set standards for their daughters. Those standards can often include the message ‘Mother does all the housework’ and women are just as capable of taking advantage of that thinking, especially if someone takes on the role of (den) mother by, for example, always doing the washing up.

        I’ve lived in all-female environments and I saw just as much advantage-taking of some women’s ‘nurturing’ and maternal behaviours as I’ve seen among men & women. The only real difference is that women often know exactly what they are doing and grab the opportunity while they can – it becomes a pecking order form of sexism rather than an outright war of who has the best genitals. Sexism is always self-serving, regardless of which gender is practicing it, or how they go about it.

        • I’m not sure that it matters, in the general discussion, but I do, in fact, live with only other ladies at the moment. And, it needs to be said that all of my flatmates *would do* the dishes if I left them alone for a bit longer. If I’m out for a couple of nights – they get them done. I just like them done sooner, and have chosen to own that.

          Which is not to say that the general discussion of guys vs. girls and who does the chores isn’t a Huge topic for discussion and debate. I’m currently in negotiations with my Dude for the possibility of moving in sometime in the next year, and one of the things he is really nervous about is the fact that I tend to be a bit tidier, and he hates the thought of feeling like a slob in his own home, but also doesn’t really want to be doing the dishes every night… Still negotiating. Personally, given my hang up is dishes, I’m ok with taking them on in trade for, say, weeding the garden and keeping the house plants in order, which I suck at remembering to do. But – everyone has a different set of values for how awful different chores are, and everyone has different cultural attachments for them as well. I would totally understand if that trade didn’t sound fair to everyone.

    • I see what you’re saying here, but I would like to point out that learned helplessness isn’t always a “stunt” and that most men are not sneaking around actively trying to manipulate women into doing chores (from my perspective).

      My husband and I had some major chore issues when we moved in together – I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t doing his share. Then I actually watched him doing chores, and realized he literally did not know how to clean most things. It took him twice the time it took me to do things, and when he was done it still wasn’t what I would call clean.

      Its not that men are “bad” at chores, or that they’re lazy and don’t want to do them – it’s that -nobody- (regardless of gender) knows what goes into keeping a house clean or the best ways to do those chores until they’re taught. My mother taught me how to do chores while I was growing up – his mother simply did them for him when he was at school, so he didn’t even see them happening. He was happy to do the work once he realized what needed to be done and once I taught him the tricks I’d been taught as a kid for how to keep things clean.

      I agree with you that women shouldn’t be expected to do all the housework in order to keep the peace at home. But you can’t expect someone to automatically do things that they don’t even realize need to be done, and I don’t think it’s really fair to claim that men in general are manipulative and “pulling stunts” to get out of work.

      • Hi Cyndie, while I agree that some people (and I say people, not just men) have never been taught to do housework, it doesn’t alter the fact that a lot of men do, indeed, pull learned helplessness as a way of avoiding housework. I never made the assertion that all men did it; that would be as insane as asserting all men get loud and troublesome when they are drunk. But, just as many men get loud and troublesome while drunk, many men use learned helplessness to get out of chores. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

        I feel less confident about your assertion that “most men are not sneaking around actively trying to manipulate women into doing chores”. As you say, this is from your perspective, and forgive me if I point out your perspective comes from the fact that your life partner, the one man you arguably know most intimately in a domestic setting, DOESN’T. I’m afraid that’s not representative of “most men”, just your personal life experience based on one significant other, who you love and don’t want to see unfairly criticised. Do I think men sit up late doing Machiavellian plotting on how to get out of each day’s chores? Absolutely not. Just as men can rely on women to be the ones who offer visitors tea & coffee, and get up to make it, they can also rely on women to get vexed with their bumbling attempts to clean a toilet; they don’t need to “sneak around” or “manipulate”.

        It’s not evil, it’s the path of self-serving, culturally accepted least resistance, which is what makes this, ‘I’m going to assume sole responsibility for X chore to make my life run smoothly’ so dangerous – it doesn’t take awful evil or great forethought to monopolise on something women have been doing since time began. It’s the quiet banality of allowing the status quo to go on unmolested while you fondly imagine you are trying to find enlightenment through pursuing ‘happiness’ by doing all the dishes, every day. In exchange for which, the men service the car once a year and change two plugs. And possibly evict the odd spider.

        As a footnote, I enjoyed reading Rubin’s work, but I was constantly brought up short by how obnoxious her husband seemed, and how much she tolerated things I thought were unacceptable. On more than one occasion I felt like he needed a good cuff round the head, and I frequently wondered if she would have been quite so snappy and ill-tempered if both he and their children had been held more accountable for both their behaviour and what came out their mouths.

        In short, Gretchen might have not have needed her ‘project’ if they had ever worried about how happy they were making HER, instead of her, in typical female fashion, taking the entire burden of the family’s happiness on her own shoulders, and not descending into that most unfeminine of states, harbouring resentment and blame. At the end of the day I couldn’t find her definition of happiness very different from 1958’s Good Housekeeping definition of the ‘perfect wife’.

        • I do the dishes in my house because I will get irriated by there ‘not-done’ status quicker than my husband (and I get home from work 2 hours earlier).

          Kinda like how he does the vaccuuming because clean floors are more important to him than me.

          I have to say my gut reaction to your words was to become defensive- as in:

          How very dare you presume to know how gender politics play out in homes across the world (mine being one of them) and how dare you refer to any aspect of my life as QUIET BANALITY and how VERY dare you hijack this very helpful posting and in any case we are talking about a 15 minute job in a first world country so BACK OFF!’

          Which is not so say my reaction is rational or well-thought out- just a gut reaction, written here tongue in cheek.

          But as a woman (ie 50% of the target audience for feminism) I feel it might be helpful feeback for you to know that I did not relate to your comments (in reference to dishwashing) as this in my mind is a pretty small issue and I felt yours was big reaction.

          Aaaanddd… sorry if I offend anyone!

          • It is absolutely a small issue! But sometimes the Small Things are what make up the Big Things. The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and Chancery seems to see the social conditioning that brings about this particular single step about dishes as being part of a thousand mile journey to the lack of equality we have faced and still face even now. Because it’s easy to say, “It’s just the dishes, what’s the big deal?” “It’s just a [racist/sexist] joke, what’s the big deal?” “It’s just how I learned it, what’s the big deal?”

            I really struggle with chores and household responsibilities in my relationship. In my case, my male partner is perfectly able and willing to do everything while I sit on the couch and drink a beer. Dirty dishes set off my OCD, and touching them will have me scrubbing my hands raw–so he does the dishes. With my bad knees, I can’t climb on the bathroom floor to scrub the tub, so he cleans the bathrooms (I occasionally do mirrors and vanity tops). Vacuuming kills my shoulders and I haven’t done it in years, he’s perfectly willing. I’m the one who deals with car repairs–because number one, it’s my car; he doesn’t drive and doesn’t know anything about cars except they take him places; I’m the one who manages finances so I know what we can afford and what we can’t; and I just find minor repairs like changing spark plugs to be satisfying (but fuck crawling underneath and changing the oil, that doesn’t pass the Sushi test* and someone else can do it.)

            But then *I* get my hackles up every time I make an offhanded joke about trash being a “boy job” or (not joking) send him to mow the lawn. Seriously, with my scent/appetite issues, you think I can handle the smell of the trash let alone having to carry it somewhere? You think if I can’t vacuum that I can push a mower? Out of your mind. But it rankles me a bit that I’m in charge of the calendar and the to-do list (which to me seems like a “honey do” list) and the meal planning, because it’s so traditionally feminine. These are hangups that IN MY CASE are unfounded, because we have really and truly divided responsibilities according to desire, ability, and need regardless of their traditional gender assignments (which to me is supposed to be the idea of feminism). So I’m not sure why I still struggle with the things that happened to get assigned to their traditional gender here, especially since he’s the one who works AND does 80% of the active work for chores–and still helps with the other 20%! It’s not like I’m a traditional housewife, here! I do want to find a way to make peace with this before we start making babies here soon. Because I KNOW I will fall into more traditional gender roles with parenting, and though he will be more involved than the average 50’s dad, he will be headed off to work while I stay home and homeschool the kids. So I’m keenly aware of these gender-role hangups that keep popping up.

            * Sushi test: Is it worth paying three times as much as you would for the ingredients/parts to have your task/meal/sushi done by someone else, with probably with a better professional quality and selection? Sushi is always worth going out for, in our world, because I want the selection and I Hate Rolling Them Up. Thus, the sushi test was born.

        • Chauncery,
          wow, I did not even notice that about her husband, even though I’ve read the book two times (once fairly recently). Now I have to reread again with this in mind! But honestly, I thought her issues were really more about her attitude and reactions, than about him. I do often notice gender imbalances, as I was brought up with a very 50/50 household and live in one with my husband.
          Very interesting.

  9. Loved reading this, well said! I’m glad I’m not the only one with weird chore angst and rituals. Hopefully I’ll find my zen, too. And your mom is awesome, for so many reasons!!

  10. I’m going to be honest. I find this really hard. At the minute I’m trying to shift my routine around attempting to start a new art&design freelance life, whilst being housewife as well because – well I’m at home and I go crazy at mess whilst I’m working. It makes it harder because I cook the vast majority of evenings, and I get up in the morning to make my husband lunch, so all in all it feels like I’m working solidly from 7am to 7pm, and I thought we’d made an agreement that if I cooked he cleaned, and vice versa. Excep he doesn’t do them, and they sit, and they get in my way, and I go crazy. It doesn’t feel fair for me to do everything and that last job, and so although the change in perspective is a good way of clearing out your space mentally, I feel like I’m going to go to bed exhausted after yet another job. Where’s the line?
    I’m really not trying to pull down this article – I thought it was great – I just don’t know if I can keep doing this with everything..
    Sorry, rant over.

    • I’m a slob myself who forgets to do the dishes even when she’s promised she would. Usually I have to be reminded, so there’s that. I hate all house chores, and I got to find a way to make them enjoyable for me otherwise I won’t even finish. So I have to think of something really pleasant or put on some music to get the job done. Maybe your husband can work that angle to start liking doing those dishes. Perhaps it can also help ease all the work you already do?
      Hope I don’t sound like an ass, just a thought I wanted to share

  11. I think I am going to get those gloves. Actually I think I’m gonna sharpie the hell out of the gloves I have that are still in good condition. Gotta come up with something for my toilet scrubbing gloves

  12. Oh this. So much this. None of my 4 roommates have the same standard of dishes cleaning that I do, and with 4 people things pile up fast. It’s actually the putting away of dishes that is more an issue, though, and that can have ripple effect of dishes getting left dirty in the sink (no where to put them to dry once they’re clean).

    My solution has been a combination of owning the issue on my day off, and maintaining a mantra of “not my problem” when I am legitimately too busy. If I have 5 minutes to stack the dishwasher (and it’s not still full of clean dishes from two days ago) I’ll do that, and run it if it fills (which is usually). Otherwise I simply lower my standards and avoid the pantry. It’s not an ideal solution, but as the busiest person in my apartment it’s been the best solution for me, and hey my roommates can always clean and put away their own dishes if they get tired of the mess.

Join the Conversation